LEICA

Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

Computational versus chemical photography


Slowly and without remorse (‘we have to look/move forward’, said Mr. Kaufmann, discussing the possible demise of the X-Vario) the current technology of image/signal processing enters the era of the dominant algorithm and the numeric computation. The act of photography becomes almost trivial and subconscious, because the computational power will produce in almost every case and situation a decent, and often even a perfect image. This is the good point. The bad point is the inevitable convergence to one standard style and quality of imagery. And of course the loss of control, because the algorithms determine the result. Photographers may state that the post-processing tools in Photoshop and its companions will reclaim the loss of control. For some it may be the case. And using high-end cameras with RAW files there is indeed a modicum of control. Technology however has its own will and will more or less gently push the photographer in one direction to the area where the technology does rule. When one looks at the zillions of (amateur) images on the social media and the thousands of (professional) images in the magazines and the books about digital photography, only one conclusion is possible. People do produce images within their own comfort zone as defined by the technology they use. This is possibly one of the major reasons why there is such pressure to acquire ever more sophisticated instruments: they promise a more diversified portfolio of images: the demand for ever higher numbers of pixels per square area and ever more exposure latitude and higher speeds is not based on real needs, but on the possibility to distinguish one self from the crowd.
There is no more progress in chemical emulsion technology: you have to do with what is being offered on the market since decades. The Kodak Tri-X and Tmax 400 and the Ilford 100D are almost stone age emulsions and the range of developers is also quite stable although some small manufacturers amaze the user with newer and interesting developers. Some new tools for the darkroom are being designed and manufactured. The good point is that the stability of the products allows one to optimize the workflow and to experiment with the available chemicals. There is no hurry and one does not need to be afraid that a new disruptive product will wipe out the established base. What is good now will be good forever.
Film choices are a most decisive factor for the quality and style of the photographs that can be taken. A conscious choice must be made when one puts a roll of film in the camera: the grain/speed character defines the level of detail and the exposure latitude and even the style of the pictures taken. The choice of developer may alter the relationship a bit, but only within strictly defined limits. The worst advice that some emulsion theorists can give to users is the idea that the darkroom processes have to be kept within tight limits to be useful. The whole idea that the development process depends on a fraction of time or temperature is not a good advice. Developing a film for 10 minutes or 10.2 minutes will not change the quality of the negative. It is indeed the case that grain will grow and sharpness will be reduced in cases of overexposure and overdevelopment, but the ‘over’ has to be measured in double digit percentages and not in single digit percentages.
Today I developed a range of films (from APX100 to Tri-X) in FX39, the classical acutance developer. The compensating effect of the developer gives enough latitude to get good pictures from under/over-exposed negatives. The next stage is the printing stage. Modern photographers are hardly accustomed to produce, see and handle prints (chemical or inkjet), as the standard medium is the computer, laptop or smartphone screen. Assessing the final quality of an image from the i-pad screen is a bit dangerous, because of the hidden algorithms that produce the image on the screen. I prefer the comparison between prints, because the print is an honest arbiter and the artifact for the artist and technical analyst.