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Where Are The Aesthetic Choices in a Digital Age?

I remember having strong feelings about the Olympus “Art Filters” when they were first introduced to their DSLRs. They seemed like a cheap gimmick, a non-reversible and overdone effects filter producing ugly jpegs –  a very unserious form of photography. I now believe Olympus should have been applauded for at least attempting to address a problem of the digital age – the negation of the need to make an aesthetic choice before the shutter is pressed.

Shooting raw is all well and good, but aiming for the most neutral and post-processable rendition possible has a negative effect on seeking and finding creative shots. If we constantly aim for a norm, how can we expect to create the extraordinary?

We, as digital photographers, are endlessly told to expose to the right but to protect the highlights at all costs. But deep blacks and pure whites can be used both for the creation of strong graphical shapes and the hiding of superfluous or distracting pictorial details. We are encouraged to get our white balance spot on and to seek realistic colour renditions. But warm or cool colour casts can dramatically alter a photograph’s mood, and the over-saturated primary colours often produced by slide films were eye-catching and somehow made colour photographs more ‘about colour’. We are gifted with a wide range of noiseless ISO settings and image stabilisation systems to keep our photos as sharp and clean as possible. But sometimes motion blur, and even camera shake, can add a dynamism to an image, and a degree of noise/grain can give a feeling of rough texture that works better in certain situations than clean sharp edges and smooth surfaces.

Two counter arguments to my complaint would commonly be:

  • “Shoot in jpeg mode, and apply effects as you wish”. Maybe, but having at your disposal a raw mode is too tempting, and then the mind will be liable to think: “I have a backup option here. Maybe this won’t work in the aesthetic mode I’m shooting, maybe I’m underexposing…raw will save me.”
  • “I have infinite options in post-processing, I can create an aesthetic then”. Maybe, but an infinite choice can be paralysing, and by deciding on an aesthetic post shooting, you won’t be making the most of visualising that aesthetic when shooting.

I found myself thinking about this following an email from my uncle detailing his preferred method of shooting with this new Fuji X10:

I think my favourite setup is with the camera at ISO 2500 in Velvia mode at low resolution and extra noise reduction. Then you soften the rather over-contrasty colour pallette and get some nice looking splodgy ‘grain’. It’s just a shame that in JPEG this artificial ‘grain’ follows edges. If it could be coaxed into a truly random splattering then this setup could be said to be almost Fuji Pro800 in rendition. I have a 40.5mm filter which I hope to get on my metal lathe to re-cut the thread pitch and give me a way of then stacking standard filters on top, then I might get a strong ND filter to keep the ISO high (oh- I can’t believe I am trying to add noise for my satisfaction).

How wonderful is that? ISO 2500/Velvia/low-res/splodge by choice? In the good ol film days, photographers felt free to be creative with their particular aesthetic resulting from their choice of materials and tools. In the digital world, some single high-end camera is praised as the ideal (high resolution, low noise) and all others are expected to strive to match that same neutral and soulless look. And for everything else – to borrow a phrase – there’s Photoshop.

With film, the aesthetic choice need be made once every 36 shots (or roughly 12 for medium format, or one for sheet film), and the cost of changing aesthetics was very small. Once the choice is made, the mind and eye can kick in to that mode, and the photographer can narrow his all too wide search for a photograph that works. In the digital realm, anything is possible, but it requires a whole heap of self discipline to apply unnecessary constraints to match that specific aesthetic mindset that film can afford.

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