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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Superstition Ain't the Way

by Paul Butzi
I’m one of those eccentric individuals—a fundamentally mystic personality with a serious scientific/engineering disposition. It’s always frustrated me that when it comes the mechanical aspects of photography (e.g. film, developers, lenses) much of the conventional wisdom is nothing more than rank superstition repeated so many times that it takes on the patina of Divine Truth.

My favorite example of this is the effect of cyan filtration with VC papers. Several notable authorities (including one who was once an assistant to Ansel Adams, and another who is the author of one of the most famous books on darkroom formulations) have claimed that cyan filtration when printing on VC paper is the same as neutral density. Others have claimed that it adds magical midtone glow, or adds sparkle to highlights. But the fact is that adding cyan filtration subtracts red light, and VC paper is insensitive to red light, and so cyan filtration has no effect at all.

The digital world is not immune to this sort of superstition. Often there was once a reason for the myth—it was once true, back when we were working with 8-bit per channel files, or when software was more primitive. But the nature of superstition is that once it enters the conventional wisdom, it’s never tested and never questioned.

The good news is that although the barrier to testing things was high for traditional silver-based photography, it’s incredibly low in the digital world. Want to know if this method produces better results than that method? The feedback cycle for a digital workflow is so short, it’s a snap to try it both ways and compare.

This sort of simple testing has deflated more than a few digital superstitions here in my workroom—superstitions about whether it’s better to up-rez images in steps, for instance, rather than in one shot, or send 16-bit per channel files to the printer rather than 8-bit per channel, or whether it makes any difference if I send a 720 ppi file to the printer versus a 360 ppi file.

And that raises the next question—what are the new, digital superstitions? Have you tested them? What were your results?

Posted by: PAUL BUTZI


Anonymous jm said...

The latest superstition I had to give up was that noise = bad picture.

I felt kind of like I did when I first realized that although I had learned to groom my hair perfectly, the chicks I was interested in actually preferred it a little messy.

So I've recently been experimenting with noise more and more, and the results are, for me, pleasing. I've also learned that the old notions I have about noise from my chrome days is dated. Suddenly ISO 800 is pretty clean, 1600 can be decent and 3200 is even feasible for a lot of situations. I used to always crank down my ISO to the lowest it would go (100 - 200 in my case), but now I feel totally comfortable shooting at 800 even in good light.

As a side benefit from this experimentation, I've noted, with no small amount of embarassment, that my percentage of soft shots has gone down dramatically, which probably means that I used to way overestimate my hand-holding capabilities.

As you point out, this kind of experimentation is really easy with digital - it is certainly making me a better (or at least a more experimental) photographer.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point, Mike. Photography has had freshness-dated best practices for as long as I can remember (into the early 70's). Unfortunately as the practices are passed along the freshness dates are not.

Oish. There is so much mythology floating about the digital photography ether these days. It would take too long to recite even half of the malarkey I've discarded. Indeed, digital imaging makes experimentation quick and painless for those inquisitive enough to make thee effort.

Waves of newcomers to photography create self-discovered "rules" daily. The best practice I've adopted lately is to largely stay clear of the photo boards, the hotbeds where such runes are passed around the world as facts in a matter of hours. I check in occasionally but I've found my time better spent DOING photography projects and STUDYING the work of others than paying much attention to the current opinions on the sharpest lens or best papers. Phooey.

-Ken Tanaka-

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Joe Decker said...

This isn't precisely photographic but I run into it a lot dealing with all sorts of folks who need images of my work for the web--the "dpi myth".

E.g., "Could you give me a copy of your Burr Trail image at 72 dpi?" There's an assumption in the use of that "abracadabra" of a phrase that really means "give me something about right for the web", but has nothing to do with monitor resolution; the "inches" in "dpi" have nothing to do with the size of the print (or really, the monitor the web version of the image would be viewed on.)

I've ranted on this before, I'm afraid.

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Janne said...

Not a superstition as such, but a common misconception carried over from the film days is the idea that pictures have an actual, physical size before you print them.

This is unfortunately perpetuated by software like Photoshop that for some reason display the "size" in inches based on your current printer setup and image resolution. And worse, there is no shortage of otherwise very good books and other texts on photo processing that suffer from the same misconception.

What "size" a picture will ultimately have is of course not fixed in any way. It depends on the resolution of your printer, on the resolution that you're willing (as opposed to able) to print at - and this changes by subject, of course. And if you never print the image (perhaps you use it online) the idea of a physical size becomes utterly meaningless.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When ISO 800 is pretty clean and 1600 is decent I will begin experimenting with my local optometrist. These beneficial and acceptable noise levels jm is citing must be specific to his expensive and modern gear (ISO 3200 ?) I think of ISO settings as a fraction of the highest setting for a specific camera.

5:36 AM  
Anonymous 01af said...

A few more common superstitions:

1. Depth-of-field extends one third before and two thirds behind the plane of focus.

2. To stitch several frames together perfectly for a panorama, the pivot point of the panning must be the lens' front nodal point.

3. Moving the white balance of a digital camera too far away from 'middle daylight' will reduce dynamic range and increase noise.

While the first and second definitely are wrong, I still have contradicting information about the third. I tend to consider it true ... it sure is theoretically but is it significant in real life? Unfortunately, it's not so easy to reliably determine small differences in dynamic ranges and noise levels at home ... to me at least.

-- Olaf

9:17 AM  
Anonymous LostBryan said...

It's not just which things are superstition. It's which things are *actually true* NOW but won't be in the forseeable future.

Example - current epson printers are 360dpi devices, period, full stop. So lots of people will get in the habit of always sending files to the printer set for 360 dpi by whatever size. A good practice for epson printers now.

But in the future, some other brand with some other sweet spot dpi setting may become the norm. Or epson might change it's technology.

So we should expect that in 10 years new inkjet printers will come with a Big Red Sign that says "500 DPI! 500 DPI!" but people will still print at 360, thinking that's a magic number.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous jm said...

Hey anonymous - my camera gear is not all that expensive, or unusual.

Remember the ruffled hair example. I'm not saying that 1600 will give you images that can be enlarged to poster size, nor am I saying it will serve every purpose. It's a matter of taste. There's no absolutes.

What I'm finding is that the qualities of my high-ISO shots are pleasing to me in ways that my high ISO shots on slide film were not. Maybe this is due to the greater ease that digital offers in terms of practical everyday manipulation. Maybe my tastes are changing. But in any event the happy accident of having my camera returned set to a high ISO made me question my prior assumptions.

But don't sit there and listen to me ramble on about my ruffled hair. As others have mentioned, it's easy to test these things now. Try shooting a few frames at 800. Do it in good light, not just because you are reaching your shutter speed limits. See what you think.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always heard that you should never point your digicam at the sun and snap. It would surely ruin my sensor and maybe even start a wild fire. OMG I needed to test this right away if not sooner but preferably with someone elses camera. But my impatience won out and I selected the TOSHIBA 2mp 10X optical M500 from my personal arsenal. I wanted a bright sun with strength and heat. White balance: daylight. ISO: auto. Quality: 2mp, 3 star. SPORTS - continuous. Being no where near as dumb as I look I used the LCD not the optical view finder, zoomed 5X, focused in and shot madly. The TOSHIBA became red hot after about 4 shots into the sequence and I dropped it about 5 feet onto concrete. After I dipped it in a ready bucket to cool it off and it had quit steaming I fired off a few more test shots of some hotties strolling by that had seen every thing and were mocking me hysterically. I got the SOTA cam back home and unloaded the images to find that all was well and certainly TOSHIBA at least would go on to produce many fine digital cameras well into the future based on the high durability of this one. Yet another superstition down the drain.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

In regards to the above about magic dpi: I think dpi is a myth, a hangover from the days of dot matrix printers...

1:23 AM  
Blogger john said...

As regards superstitions, how many still ahere to "THE RULE OF THIRDS"?

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Dean Johnston said...


lostbryan said:

" Example - current epson printers are 360dpi devices, period, full stop."

It is probably foolish of me to offer a technical comment as I'm bound to get it wrong, but as far as I know, only the large format Epson printers are 360dpi. The desktop models are 720. If you use a programme like Qimage, which tells you the output of your connected printer, you will see this. Doesn't matter though, as 360 is still a multiple of 720. Besides, if you use something like Qimage, you can just drag the corners of the image to whatever size you want and the programme does the rest.

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest DPI myth is that there is a relationship between the DPI of the image that youare going to print and the DPI of an inkjet printer. They are two completely different and unrelated things.

For maximum quality, just go for the most DPI you can get in the image you want to print and the best quality of the printer (or perhaps second best as often the best just eats ink for little immage improvement). It is more complicated than that but not much!

3:29 AM  

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