Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gadgets, Gizmos, and Sliders

Photographers have always included in their number many nerds. Chemistry nerds, especially in the early days, gadget nerds, film nerds, process nerds. Most of us, to be honest, enjoy some of the tweaky, fiddly aspects of photography.

In the film era, many of the choices one had were inherently limited. One selected a film from a finite number of films available, one perhaps selected a filter to shoot through, a developer, and so on. While the choice grew to be quite broad, it was never unmanageably wide and most of the choices available were pretty good. Mostly, one settled on a one or a few combinations of most of the choices, and confined the greater portion of variability to some few steps of the process from shutter release to print. One selected this film, that developer, these two brands of paper.

In this modern era of digital photography, we see an explosion of choice at every stage of the process. Choices we made once per image, the filter to shoot through, the developer for the film, we can now make over and over by retreating to the "raw" file. Choices which were once limited numerically, this developer or that, are now replaced with an array of sliders in some software tool, representing an infinity of choices, many of them bad or at least radical.

I sound, surely, as if I am railing against progress and technology. I am not. I still shoot film, as well as digital. I came to all this sufficiently set in my ways (I like to think "mature") to navigate the infinity of choices with relative ease. I simply leave almost all the sliders alone and click "Ok" a lot.

I rail against the bewilderment and lack of guidance the new photographer must surely experience. Once upon a time, a new photographer might ask around and be told "Tri-X souped in D-76 will be fine to get you started" and that took care of that for a good long time. The current equivalent is "black-and-white conversion", with an array of sliders for colors. On almost all settings the process will produce some unpleasant and outré result. The "advice" one gets is all too often something like "Your conversion is bad, let me show you how to do it" with an attached image that it much much worse than the original.

We've plenty of choices to make already, we needn't monkey around with sliders. Scientists adjust one variable at a time, and carefully inspect the results. Be a scientist.

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