In my previous posts on the subject, I’ve introduced my “textures” project and talked about some of what it means to me. In this latest installment (below) I admit to being strongly influenced by the prints of Ansel Adams. I know that claiming Ansel as an influence is incredibly cliché. He has influenced hundreds of thousands (millions?) of landscape photographers. In my case it is not his landscapes that have influenced me. Rather, it is his prints of landscapes. Not what they are of, but the dynamic range of the prints themselves. Bare with me as I try to explain.
Without getting too technical, I can sum up the problem. Your computer is terrible at displaying images. If you could view an Ansel Adams physical print in person, compared to a computerized version of that same print, you would instantly see what I am talking about. The whites are “whiter” and the blacks “blacker” in the physical print. This is because the “dynamic range” (or values between whitest white and blackest black) are not the same on the computer as they are in a high-quality print. The maximum black and white points are scrunched closer together. Without even realizing it our brains can pick up on difference. The extra dynamic range in the physical print produces a more pleasing affect on our eyes. The effect, which Ansel Adams was a master of, is like looking out a window. The computer can’t come close to matching it.
When a high-quality print with a big dynamic range is scanned in to a computer with a smaller dynamic range, information has to be thrown away. Most of the tossed information is in the “middle” range of the image (in the grays). Digital SLRs have this problem too, which is why many photographers continue to shoot with film. This tossing of information is called “Dynamic Range Compression (DRC). Don’t be confused by HDR (high dynamic range) photography. HDR photography is actually an extreme example of DRC. Have you ever seen HDR photography that looks really strange? The reason why it looks so strange is because tons of information has to get tossed for that picture to be displayable on your computer screen. The end result is something that can look very fake.
I think a visual example will help anyone understand the issue. Let’s pretend this first image shows the total range in an Ansel Adams print. Notice the very smooth transition of gray values from black to white. The black is also very black, and the white very white.
If we were to move that to a computer, the computer has to figure out how to scrunch all that information in to something it can display. Which “grays” in the top image get “mapped” to the lower image is called a “tone map.” The computer software picks an average gray value for a certain region of incoming dynamic range, and then changes all the values in that range to the average value. For the technologically challenged, this means the computer has to toss some of the values that were in the first image to get to the second image. We might end up getting something like this:
I have exaggerated this effect for illustrative purposes. However, I hope it helps in understanding why this is a problem for photographers in the digital age. The good news is that several computer companies are working on computer displays that match, or in some cases exceed, the total dynamic range of an Ansel Adam’s print. The bad news is that it will be many years before the average person can afford one of these new computer screens.
What I have done with this latest round of textures is to push the range of the average computer display to its absolute maximum. If your computer monitor is of decent quality, and you have it adjusted properly, you will see what I have tried to achieve. If you, like most people, have never properly adjusted your monitor… these images may look a little odd to you. Either they will be too bright or too dark. The balance is tenuous.
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