March 28, 2004

IN RESPONSE TO MY COLUMN ON DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY from last week, reader Jim Herd sends this interesting piece on how the switch to digital photography has affected the aesthetic at Sports Illustrated. Excerpt:

The pictures themselves, Fine says, have changed the look of the magazine. “For years [with film], we’ve been fighting a battle between sharpness and grain, especially in low-light shots. You try to sharpen and you just end up building more graininess. I’m amazed at the quality we’re getting in low-light shots off our digital files. We’re running [low-light pictures] up to two-page size that we could never have done before. Sometimes [digital] looks like it’s underwater, a little bit too smooth. A strobed basketball game on a Hasselblad has a sharp line and a punch that digital doesn’t have. But we don’t have grain anymore. In really poorly lit situations, the ability to make a clean picture far outweighs the downside.” . . .

Digital photography has changed not only the magazine’s workflow but also its visual aesthetic, says Geoff Michaud. “There’s a different quality expectation with digital vs. film. With film, grain was accepted and tolerated. It was a by-product of sharpness. When we moved to digital we found that the expectation changed. I’m not 100% sure why. Now a softer feel image [is considered good], and when noise becomes apparent it’s a negative thing, where it wasn’t with film. I’m concerned with my operators now that because noise or grain has become a negative thing, sometimes they’re holding off on sharpening. [Sometimes] I look at images, and I feel they’re not quite sharp enough.” That said, Michaud adds, “I think [the magazine] looks better now, but maybe that’s because my expectations about what looks good have changed.”

To invoke another one of my hobbies, this reminds me of sound. With audio, people like analog distortion, within limits. Nobody likes digital distortion. I think there’s something similar going on with digital imagery.