Too much information

The digital world is all about information.  Everywhere you turn it’s being talked about – too much, not enough, right, wrong, incomplete.  Granted, most of the time pundits are only talking about data instead of information but the buzz is ongoing and probably won’t stop until everything is available at all times.  By then we’ll have browsers imbedded in our brains and voices in our heads will not be a sign of mental illness.  For all that data and information we probably will think we’re smarter but really we’ll just be more informed about tidbits of lesser and lesser significance to our daily lives.

Digital photography is the same.  Each little bit of visual data brings something to the desired outcome and demands to be controlled, manipulated or processed, usually many times over.  These little digital puzzle pieces and their seemingly infinite forms of assembly are what makes photography fun, intriguing, mysterious and available to just about everyone.  How else would the world find itself the stage for millions of tweeted, facebooked, vimeo-ed and youtubed images ranging from mundane to original art?

Even using film these days gets one embroiled in the digital world because sharing the results (and isn’t that what photography is all about these days?)  means converting from the continuous analog world of silver halide crystals and dye clouds to the finite, discrete digital piecework now known as social photography.  Previously you’d need to visit a gallery or a photographer’s studio to gaze on an image, and then take that memory with you to be imperfectly explained to any interested person you encounter.  Now, having the global population gaze on our work is merely a few clicks away from implementing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully supportive of the new technologies as evidenced by the numerous images found on this site.  As much as the next person I appreciate the ease of showing off the product of my efforts and gleaning comments that encourage me to continue.  Those efforts, however, are starting to run up against the huge amount of data generated by trying to connect with the digital world.

I’m talking about film.

It started for me with scanning 35mm slides, usually only to a size that would merit a 4×6 print.  Venturing much beyond that size was a journey I was opposed to given the quality I felt the images represented.  It was this search for clearer, cleaner, sharper images that moved me to medium format and large format film.  All well and good – the images started looking better – until pixels started piling up.

On a recent trip out west I hauled along my large format camera, stock with 5×7″ and 4×5″ color slide film.  It was the bigger size I was aching to work with – so much more real estate over the “puny” 4×5″ sheets I’d been learning to use.  Although my exposure calculations continue to be pretty close, I still awaited the processed slides with trepidation.  Did I waste my time and materials just to get bigger images?

Doesn’t seem that way at first.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, Fuji Velvia 100, 120mm, 1/15 sec., f/45

Lake Tahoe from Highway 431 overlook, Fuji Velvia 100, 120mm, 1/15 sec., f/45

Nonetheless, right off the bat I can tell you these two images, shown on whatever expensive monitor you’re using, do not present the full experience of seeing the slides on a light table.  On my laptop the colors are muted, there is banding in the sky, and the sharpness is less than what you can see on the slides with the naked eye.  I’m still learning how to scan these large images and preserve as much of the original impact as possible.  Experts write this can only be done through high resolution drum scanning (I’m using an Epson V700 flatbed, scanning at 300 ppi for the size I want, which for these is about 14×20″) and perhaps one day I will have an image that justifies that exercise.  For now my greatest challenge is managing the digital information, of which there seems to be almost more than I can handle.

I fully expect to improve my scanning technique.  Call it ego but some of these images are just too pretty to keep to myself.

Each of these image files is about 150 Mb in size, which seems reasonable (Photoshop on a Mac can open a 2 Gb file) until you start processing the images.  That’s quite a few pixels to manipulate for anything you want to do.  There’s lots of noise in these images because I didn’t run the noise reduction program – would take too long for such quick scans.  They aren’t as sharp as they could be – again, would take too long.  I could scan at a higher resolution (my scanner goes to 4800 ppi optically) but I’ve found little increase in sharpness or color rendering, just humongous file sizes.  There literally is just about too much data (or information as digital engineers would say) to handle.  Yeah, a faster computer with more memory could deal with it but one isn’t sitting on my desk right now so I got what I got.

Amazingly, this was never a problem in the darkroom.  A direct contact print of these slides, where the physical film is placed on a piece of photography paper, exposed and developed, would preserve the vast majority of detail and, with proper filters and developing, maintain the colors just as the original slide portrayed them.  No darkroom expert would dream of worrying about “too much information” because the analog tools being used were at least in a 1:1 relationship – the final image would contain exactly all the information found in the original image.

No, you can’t post a contact print on Facebook without going through the digital conversion.  But it makes you start wondering just why are we making all these images in the first place?  Are we reveling in our documentarian side that insists on sharing our world with everyone?  Are we using them as examples in some lessons about life we feel required to share?  Are we simply showing off – I was here, I did this, ain’t I great?

Don’t have a good answer; I struggle with the question for myself quite a bit, oddly more as I get better at the whole photography thing.  I do enjoy the technical challenge of trying to convert an analog object into a digital signal while preserving the original as best possible.  But beyond that, I’m not sure what the objective might be right now.  Business?  Perhaps.  Simple pleasure of doing it?  There’s quite a bit of that here for me.  Wrestling with the digital demon to declare triumph of man over machine?  I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

In the meantime I still hold the two technologies in different baskets.  Digitally I get instant gratification but I’m linked to some secondary means of seeing the results, some tool that contributes I don’t know what bias to the image.  On film, I look at the original and gaze without other influences on the magic of chemistry and art melded together for the purpose of…..

One day I’ll know.



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