Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is the world becoming more colourful?

click photo to enlarge
The world was sepia in the nineteenth century, black and white up to about 1950, coloured (in a contrasty sort of way) for the next fifty years, and since about 2000 and the more general take-up of digital cameras, colourful in a more saturated way. At least that's what visitors from another planet could be forgiven for concluding if they were to view Earth solely through the medium of photography.

It's never been true to say that "the camera never lies". In fact, it's more accurate to say that it ALWAYS lies. As far as colour fidelity in photography goes the interesting question is whether the departure from the truth as our eyes see it is as a result of technological deficiencies or deliberate manipulation. It's generally correct to say that the periods of sepia and black and white photography were a consequence of, initially, the absence of a colour process, and thereafter, the cost of it for the average photographer: only when it had become affordable did colour become widespread. The colours produced by prints and slides of the second half of the twentieth century varied enormously. The make of film, the type of processing, the condition of the chemicals used in processing, and several other factors affected the final output. A lot of the prints were contrasty, with sometimes lurid colours, whilst others were (by the design of the film as well as the desire of the photographer) nearer to reality. But then (as now), the tonal range captured by the cameras and produced by the printing methods available, was not as wide as that seen by the average eye.

Today it is common to see "serious" photographers lamenting the over-saturated colours in photographs produced by amateurs and many enthusiasts and professionals. I've done it myself. However, this phenomenon pre-dates the digital revolution. A photograph that has brighter, deeper colours than nature provides catches our eye, has more impact. And yes, I've sometimes tweaked colours for that reason. Consequently magazines, television, film and web images have used this fact to attract readers and viewers. Today we seem to have reached the point where some people question, or are disappointed by, an image that shows anything approahing the true colours of grass, trees, sky, etc. Camera manufacturers have seized on this by offering "saturated" colour mode alongside "natural". Some go a step further and sell their models with the colour of the "natural" setting already boosted in order to make it appeal to the buyer, and have the "saturated" setting should that not prove sufficuently intense. Many cameras also have a "sunset" mode that increases the reds and oranges when you take your shot as the sun slips over the horizon!

But there is another important reason why colours are often "wrong", and that is the difficulty in matching the the hues and saturation of the elements that produce today's photographs - the camera sensor, camera LCD, computer screen and printed image. It is just about possible to achieve a match, but is extremely difficult. Sometimes what looks like a deliberate over-saturated print is simply the result of someone finally calling an end to their labours and saying, "That's as close as I can get it!"

Today's reflection was prompted by my Evening photography blog piece of the other day, and the subdued colours of the horse chestnut tree and Cambridge colleges in the photograph above. The colours of the tree and buildings are as close to reality as I can make them. However, I know that if I printed the shot the colours would be slightly different, and probably more saturated than I'm seeing on screen. Of course, what YOU are seeing on your screen will be slightly different again. But that's a subject for a different (and slightly shorter!) post.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On