The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Excess Is No Fun Any More

The quick coincidence of two things—first, a commenter named Stephen put up his blog, which featured a picture (Wednesday's) that was successfully (I think so, anyway) way oversaturated—a great rarity in digital. And second, I printed out the picture above for a friend, and, as soon as I printed it, I realized I'd gone overboard on the dang sharpening again. Sharpening is one of the toughest things to get right about digital printing, if you ask me.

But where these two things led my thoughts was to the same place, which is: excess is no fun any more.

Photographers used to argue ad nauseam about sharpness and color saturation. This lens is sharper, that film is more colorful. At least a whole generation underexposed all its slide film in the pursuit of "more saturated" colors, and remember when Fuji threw a cruise missile at Kodak with its candy-coated Velveeta film?(Sorry, Vulva. No, VELVIA. Worst film name ever? Must be close.)

Photoshop takes all the fun away. In Photoshop, of course, you can dramatically oversharpen in at least a dozen different ways. You can diddle the color to death with a tweak of a couple of sliders. Photographers used to try for excess: sharpest. Most colorful. Now what we've got to deal with is restraint. Balance. Getting it right, not just getting the mostest. Where's the fun in that?

It's especially tough to take it easy on the sharpening. I have at least half a dozen sharpening processes, and which one I pick for any particular image depends on whether I've had my coffee, random crystal vibrations, and the position of Venus at the time. I really do need to take a class.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, the ease of excess with Photoshop is my main complaint about the digital approach. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Luddite; I use digital tools. Still, I'm old enough to understand that the darkroom way of doing things imposed restraints, and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In the photography I admire, there's always a strong connection between the subject and its photographic representation. I value that connection much more than I value photographs as handsome 2-dimensional objects. Too often--at least for me--heavy-handedness with Photoshop undoes that connection, that sense of credibilty I value. (Pet peeve: out-of-focus areas that are sharpened. Why? Why? Why?) I still make darkroom prints because it helps me keep it real when working on the computer.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

I struggle with this as well, especially with scanned negs. shot at high ISOs. I'd love to see the digital equivalent of a wet darkroom grain focuser in Photoshop. Is the grain in focus? Yes? OK, you're done. Now put a piece of tape over the sharpness knob and don't touch it (unless you change the file dimensions). Still so hard to know where to stop once you start... I'd love a class or workshop on this as well. Maybe post a link if anyone knows of a good one.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

I gotta say I know exactly what you're talking about as regards the need for restraint. This is why (in some respects) I try to post everything on my blog pretty much unaltered. Although I do occasionally run a USM over the pics first. And I second Geoff's comment on that...! I could do with some classes!

10:08 AM  
Anonymous stephen said...

Phew! I'm glad you said "successfully". As for manipulation of photographs, having watched Ansel Adams dance all over his darkroom, manipulating the hell out of one of his negatives, I guess my sentiment falls on the side of doing whatever's necessary to get the picture (no way "image"!) you want.

Oh, and lest I create a false image, I watched Adams dancing in a documentary about him.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I guess my sentiment falls on the side of doing whatever's necessary to get the picture." Would this be the non-restrained approach?

Why is it whenever someone raises any concerns about digital manipulation, we immediately hear about Ansel Adams? Yeah, Adams worked very hard to manipulate his photographs. (And countless others took a gentler approach.) The salient point here is that it's so darn easy to overdo things with Photoshop. That's why Mike raised the issue of balance and restraint.

1:35 PM  
Blogger JeffH said...

Taking a class may just confuse you even more... For every 5 'experts' you ask what's the best way to sharpen a photo, you get at least 6 answers, all of them viable solutions. Now that I've thought about it a little, I agree that sharpening, or more accurately, edge contrast enhancement, it quite difficult to master and nebulous at best. Things like printer and display calibration and profiling, & understanding color space, which are all difficult concepts for beginners as wall as advanced photogs, can at least be quantified in physical terms that most of us can understand. While I have read the mathematical explanation for what is happening when I use USM, I have not been able to come up with an easy to explain definition, in layman’s terms, of what each of the three USM sliders does. On top of that, sharpening requirements differ for a given image depending on the output mode. Sharpening requirements for screen viewing differ greatly from those needed for an 8x10 inkjet print from those needed for a 20x30 inkjet print.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous pohanginapete said...

Tony Bridge has recently put up several very good posts about these issues; in particular, about sharpening and colour [Part 2]. Well worth a read.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous auspiciousdragon said...

Take a class? Do you really think that this would be helpful. Surely the problem with sharpening is that it is subjective. Taking a class might help with 'how' but not with 'how much'. There is no right answer - hence the 6 answers from 5 experts as another commenter has said. I have, for example, stopped using the much recommended Photokit Sharpener in the last couple of months (and written about it, natch). The results were too smeary for my taste. The last three words are vital.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

All of this is compounded by the fact that sharpening for web display or for printing (and the print size) require diffeent approaches. For printing, in my experience, often what looks too sharp on the monitor looks great in print. One article, by Bruce Fraser of Real World Photoshop fame, I found really improved my sharpening technique. Like most things however, to get good requires lots of practice and trial and error to see what works best for what you desire in your output. That Bruce Fraser article can be found here:

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, most of the comments simply confirm the old adage that Art Is Knowing Where To Stop.

2:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watchind a B&W print evolve via photoshop is being free of chemicals and scared of the dark

5:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home