Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Perceptions

I was watching the news a few weeks back and had a minor revelation. The news show was reporting on an extreme local weather event, a tornado, that went through the local neighborhood of Forest Hills. In what has become an increasingly common occurrence in the modern electronic age, the regular news report was augmented by a a series of images taken with a cell phone camera.

This is nothing new or even unusual anymore, as cell phones are now ubiquitous - even Grandma has one - and they all seem to have cameras these days. I usually lament the abysmal quality of the images taken with these little 'chip based' cameras, and rightfully so. The images suffer from heavy jpeg compression, and terrible lenses. I've played with the 5 megapixel version in my Samsung Omnia and had some success as long as my expectations weren't too high and I remained fully aware of the limitations of the little thing. On the other hand, as I always have the cell phone with me, I always have a camera too, so there are some advantages.

This opinion just went through a fundamental change.

As I watched the news report and the terrible quality cell phone images flashed by, I noticed something. The images were of terrible quality. The details were badly blurred by the jpeg compression algorithms and suffered mightily. One image in particular jumped out at me, however. It was no better than the rest from the technical standpoint, but some quality in the light and detail made something else evident - it was beautifully impressionistic. The scene didn't matter in this case, but the quality of the detail that was retained reminded me very strongly of the paintings of the early Impressionist painters. Wonder of wonders!

The photo in question was on the screen for about 10 or 15 seconds, tops, but that was enough for me to get the idea that the little crappy camera may offer some potential I had not considered before. The creative urge had been ignited!

The normal trend in processing is to go for the highest possible levels of detail and sharpness. Painters, of course, know better. The next time you have the opportunity to see a realistic painting up close, get your nose right up in it and see what the artist has done. What you will see is that the carefully applied pigments and strokes cease to resemble anything at all as you get in close. It isn't until you back away that your brain starts to assemble those strokes and colors into an image. The talented artist knows just how to fool your eye. Photography does the opposite, using the light reflected off the actual image to record the actual detail as seen, within the constraints of the current technology, of course.

In the early years of photography, there were limits to the level of resolution obtainable and the result is that those images incorporate a kind of impressionistic quality, although it probably was't intentional, just a by-product of the early technology. It is this latter characteristic that has fascinated me for a long time. I have a great deal of time invested in trying to capture something of this quality in certain of my images. A good example of a successful photograph in this regard is 'Harbor House'. It is a bit ironic in that the original Image is captured with high resolution equipment and I then work to remove much of the inherent detail with the goal of conveying a certain idea or 'sense of place' rather than the overly detailed specifics of the scene.

I am in the early stages of sorting the possibilities here, but I have made some progress with the technique. Here are two examples, one dug up from a trial shot for a future project idea and another just a quick snap of a scene that caught my eye one morning last spring. First is a test shot of the newly renovated and expanded Jamaica Station in Jamaica, NY. I really like the combination of strong diagonals combined with the old and new elements of the scene, but a straight shot would not convey the sense of the place I am looking for. The bad quality cell phone image provided a surprise in that I saw the seed of what I really wanted in it. A black and white conversion and some subtle applications of Photoshop filters get me really close to what I wanted.

(click on image to enlarge)

This is not the final image, but it is a good precursor of what the final image will look like. Next, is the little snapshot of some orchids in a flower vendor's stand on 37th Street in Manhattan. The color in the original jpeg was too garish and aside from a Facebook post, I figured it was't worth much. Just the same, it had a quality that held my interest enough that I saved it in my archives for future reference. I thought it would be an ideal subject for this new process and it seems to have been a good choice.

(Click on image to enlarge)

I am still experimenting and refining the filter processing to achieve just the right combination of retained detail and that subtle impressionistic quality. It will be interesting to see where else this concept takes me.