Reality and the Photographic Print

“Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.”
–R.M. Pirsig, Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The Senior Portrait: Prints used to be the lingua franca of photography. No more, they are rarely made and rarely viewed. Perhaps the fine prints in museum galleries and art shows will lose their extrinsic value as observers lose the appreciation of what it takes to render the tones and colors of a scene onto the limited color and dynamic ranges of the printed medium. This loss has only been accentuated by recent advances in the resolution (better than perception), color gamut (exceeding that of most natural stimuli), and dynamic range (exceeding human capability) on displays found everywhere from 4K HDR televisions, to notebook computers, to tablets, to smartphones.

The story of a senior portrait illustrates the loss. The father, an accomplished professional, creates a senior portrait of his 18 year old daughter. The photograph was carefully posed, lit, captured, and edited on a well-calibrated and characterized display. The prime customer, mom, was pleased and approved a few poses for the production of prints for display and gifts. The carefully calibrated process is followed to obtain and excellent set of prints.

Dad proudly presents the prints to mom and is told that they are too dull (low in contrast) and not colorful enough. Explanations that they accurately render the scene fall hopelessly to the ground. The images are viewed on a laptop and mom inevitably says that the prints don’t look like that; they are not as bright and colorful. Of course not. Dad cleverly reduces the brightness of the display to match the illumination on the print and the the print and display essentially match. Mom is not impressed; she doesn’t want a dull display, she wants a bright, contrasty print.

Dad returned to Photoshop™ to increase “contrast”, increase “brightness”, and increase “vibrance”. All are well understood appearance effects; perceived contrast, brightness, and colorfulness all decrease with the lower light levels of the print. The new prints are horribly inaccurate, but mom is pleased. The photographer’s eyes are assaulted, but the new aesthetic of bright, high-dynamic-range, and wide-color-gamut displays has ruled the day.

Appearance Reproduction:  The original print was accurate.  However display devices are self-luminous, and thus brighter, more colorful, and more contrasty than possible with illuminated objects in the same environment.  A natural print is no longer aesthetically understood.  Therefore, a boosted print is required to please. This concept of preferred color reproduction has been well understood in consumer photography and cinema for decades. However, that was normally practiced to bridge the light level differences between daylight scenes and prints; the displays were similarly limited. Current displays are beginning to approach the light levels (at least perceptually) of daylight scenes and thus the adjustments needed have become extreme. Prints will never win this battle, unless their hands are unbound and they are viewed with bright, spotlit illumination.

You Gotta Put Down the Ducky: The devices are awesome and allow reproduction of scenes never possible before, but they should be put down once in a while to look at the real, reflective, light-interacting world that surrounds us. Meditate on it. Live in it. Perceived it. And embrace it.  It just might be real.

Next up; Paul Bunyan