The Score – and The Performance

A famous Ansel Adams quote is –

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.

Change the word negative to  in-camera capture and the quote applies to digital as well as film. What was Ansel Adams saying? Simply that there are many ways to interpret, process and print what the camera captured – just as there are many ways to interpret & play a Beethoven sonata.

Each image maker or printer has her own vision; each musician has his own interpretation and style. Even the same person may not interpret a work in the same manner twice in a row.  I can compare an image that I post-processed and printed this year with the same print done two years ago and they will be different – often in subtle ways, but different nevertheless.

Some changes to prints made over a period of time may be due to obvious reasons such as software created this year has greater shadow and highlight recovery capability than was available just a short time ago. This is another good reason to shoot RAW (negatives) and hang on to your old images – they can only get better as technology improves.

An aside – One of my favorite records was Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing which was recorded live in a night club (background chatter, clinking glasses and all) in the 50’s. Years later, when my LP was worn and scratchy, I managed to find a CD with his recordings of the same songs – but recorded some years later. Totally WRONG – my mind was tuned to certain phrasing and style (the original) but he’d moved on. The changes, when they occurred, were subtle – but not to me, who cut his jazz teeth on the original three decades earlier.

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There are several schools of thought when it comes to image post processing.

  1. Anything goes – including changing much of the image’s resemblance to what was captured originally – or its resemblance to photography for that matter
  2. No changes of any sort, including even dodging or burning, are allowed PERIOD
  3. Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships. Ansel Adams 😉
  4. Reasonable corrections to color, tone, contrast and sharpness – to match the photographer’s vision of the captured scene – are appropriate

Of course there are lots of permutations and combinations of the above, but these three capture the basic camps. The campers (not all) tend to fall into the following categories –

  1. More interested in Digital Art than digital photography, or are poor photographers who use Photoshop to mask their deficiencies (hey, this is how I started until my wife pointed out that what I was doing was no longer photography; from the mouths of babes)
  2. Purists for purity’s sake. The camera is the end all, whatever its quirks or deficiencies, and the photographer’s role ends once the shutter is released. A major group of proponents of this philosophy are 35mm slide shooters who seem to feel that what’s on the slide is what God intended. Apparently there’s a Velvia-God, a Kodachrome-God and a heavenly host of others each of whom has a different view of the world. Which is the dedicated slide shooter to bow down before? But, I digress….
  3. Photographers – in particular those who want to display a photograph (not digital art) that looks as good as possible while matching what the photographer saw at the time of capture. (And, yes,  there are times when some judgment and “artistic license” is needed in interpreting what this means – Black & White being an example since who really saw that B&W image through the viewfinder?). Folks in this category recognize that the perfect camera has yet to be made.

I’m not claiming that one is right and the others wrong – be true to yourself; no one else’s opinion should matter if you know your own vision. However, it’s obvious from the tone of my comments which camp my tent is in.

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For the next few posts I’m going to show some example performances of the same score. I’ve been doing prints for a local camera club’s members who have had images selected for display. They send me a full resolution jpeg, in theory what they would provide to the local Costco or whomever. I “tweak” their image (just color, tone, contrast and sharpness) and show them the alternative. Sometimes we may iterate back and forth several times before arriving at the artist’s vision. Thus far, the original performer has chosen a later performance for the final print. But – beauty is in the eye of the beholder….

PS – starting with a jpeg, if a RAW is available, isn’t optimum. After the jpeg is created, several unalterable changes have been frozen in concrete so to speak. But – there are improvements that still can be made. I find that color contrast & tonal contrast are the biggest problems/deficiencies. I’ll illustrate that in the next post, but for now here’s the original (left) and two other performances. The photographer chose the one at far right to print.

Click to enlarge to almost full screen size.