Being a man of the last millennium, most of my experiences with photographs involve paper. We used to take photos, have the film (or fillum, as some liked to call it) developed, pick up the prints and pass them around at afternoon tea, or whenever friends or relatives came over. If they were particularly good photos, we’d get an enlargement made and frame it or give it pride of place in a photo album.
Sometimes a print might be a disappointment because it turned out darker or lighter than expected, in my case, usually because of my lack of understanding of how to use a camera. If that happened we might throw the bad prints away and just keep the good ones.
The same applied to professional photographers. We (ok, I mean ‘they’) laboured over the prints in the darkroom until they got one to look exactly as they wanted it to look, and then maybe made a few more prints for sale or exhibition, each of which looked exactly the same as the last. If they varied the look of the prints they kept, it was usually for a good reason.
We knew that everyone who saw the good photos saw the same thing we did, and anyone who saw the bad ones, would also see the exact same image we saw. We knew that as we passed the photos around the circles of friends or relatives, or hung them in a gallery, that everyone was looking at the same detail, the same exposure, white balance, saturation, hue, contrast and film noise. In fact, today photographers are still closely involved in the publishing of their own photos in books, just to make sure that the image appears in print exactly as they expect people to see it.
And this is where we now have a problem.
Professionals and artists still make prints and hang them in galleries, and photographic books are still being printed, but, for rank amateurs like me, the dominant photographic output is a computer screen. Mostly we don’t get prints done anymore (although recently a friend pulled out a stack of photos from the once-ubiquitous photo envelope and started passing them around; it took a few seconds to realise that we weren’t actually looking at these on a tablet or smartphone – this was the old-fashioned pass-around). But, I digress.
These days, if we want someone, or a group of people, to see our photographs, we either send them by email, post them to Facebook or some other social networking site (I’m just assuming there must be at least one other), upload them with our blog posts, or just plain stick our phones or tablets into someone’s face. In all of these case, we are relying on the output device and its screen to render the image exactly as we expect it to be rendered. And in my experience, that’s not what’s been happening.
I have 7 or 8 ‘computer’ screens in my house. Some are Apple devices with built-in screens, some are phones, some are screens attached to Windows PCs or Macs, and at least one is a HD TV.
All of the Apple devices (and I edit my photos on a MacBook Pro) show the images in exactly the same way. In fact, there is little opportunity that I can see to radically change the way the MacBook screen looks (it may be doable, but it’s not obvious to me). All of the standalone screens have a number of controls that allow me to modify the way images are displayed on the screen. In fact, they allow for radical change. I can make the screen darker, lighter, more or less contrasty or sharp, modify the saturation and hue, or, if I so choose, I can make it almost unusable.
I started looking at some photos that I had uploaded to Flickr and videos that I had uploaded to Vimeo and YouTube on the different screens/devices, and the images on the various screens was markedly different. Some showed detail in the shadows where others showed a silhouette. Some images appeared over-saturated on one screen and under-saturated on another. The contrast on one screen would display blemishes not viewable on another screen.
on one of my screens I can see the details of the cars on the highway and the people on the jetty, while on others they are just silhouettes in the shadows
There seemed to be nothing that I could do to ensure that everyone who looked at my images saw them in the same way. In short, that I had no control over the output of my images.
I’ve been worrying about this for a few weeks now. It’s been bothering me that people will see detail instead of shadow or aqua where I intended blue. I can modify my own screens to make them all match, more or less, but I can’t to that for every screen of every person who looks at my photos. I wondered how Ansell Adams, Frank Hurley or Henry Cartier-Bresson would feel about this situation. I’m pretty sure it would bother them if a bad print had been distributed or published, and that’s really what’s happening here, isn’t it?
The only way that I can see to solve this problem is to no longer publish any of my photos on the internet. Pfft, like that’s going to happen, because, let’s be honest, that is the only way I can get anyone to look at them.
All seemed lost (yes, I can sometimes have a dramatically pessimistic view of things), and then I remembered a moment from a few years ago when I took my latest recording of some new songs to a friend’s house to play them to him. He stuck the CD into his DVD player, which was attached to his TV’s surround sound system, and hit play. Well, it sounded like crap; echoing, booming, lack of detail, vocals in the background and so on. I suggested that he use his stereo instead, and his reply was… he didn’t have one. He listened to all of his music this way!
Up to that point I used to worry that if someone listening to my CD was on a noisy road, or on a train, that they might not hear the jangle of that mandolin in the background, or that the subtle sound of the counterpoint from the string section might not be distinguishable. But after my surround sound experience, I realised that people were going to hear my music they way they heard all of their music, and they would measure it by the same standards they measured everything they heard. And, most importantly, there was nothing I could do about it, and worrying wouldn’t change anything. So, quite simply, I stopped worrying. Ok, I still worry a bit, but it doesn’t keep me awake at night anymore.
So that’s what I’m going to do with my photos and videos. I’ll process my images to look as good as possible on the Mac’s ‘retina’ screen and stop worrying about how everyone else might see them. I’ll do that because it’s the only thing I can do apart from publishing only to print. And I won’t lose any sleep over it, either.
Backups, that’s what I’ll lose sleep over – but that’s a whole other post.