10BPHOTOGRAPHY

Ethics

10b Photography is a digital imaging laboratory specifically geared towards the needs of professional photographers. Amongst the service we provide is the Digital Darkroom, which represents the latest technological progression in photographic development since the chemical era. At the time of analogue photography, the negative was usually the starting point of a creative process aimed at attaining an aesthetic interpretation of reality.

The recent introduction of the RAW shooting format enabled digital photography to share a very similar workflow to films. Just like a negative, a RAW file cannot be printed the in its original form and needs to be “developed” first. Contrast, saturation, hue, etc. have to be set during the editing process. This stage takes the name of raw conversion and, with the exception of the chemicals used, it resembles the developing process of a film. Likewise, RAW files are not manipulable and all the original data is secured in the format in which RAW files are saved by the digital camera and – even after using a raw-conversion software – the data remains embedded as a document. Printing is a different matter. We can extend the concept of a print to certain types of image files too, and not just restricting it to paper prints. A JPEG or a TIFF file – to mention the most common formats – can be considered by the same standards as prints.


Below are two well-known pictures by Sebastião Salgado and Joseph Koudelka. Both were printed as an interpretation of what had been recorded on the negative by the famous printers Fevre and Jean-Yves Bregrand.

©Sebastiao Salgado, Brasil, 1980. Printed by Jean-Yves Bregand. Left: Analogic "direct" print 1 - right: dodge and burn print

 

©Josef Koudelka/Magnum, Jarabina, 1963. Printed by George Fevre. Top and middle: Analogic "direct" print 1 & 2 - bottom: dodge and burn print

Limits on the innovation of digital techniques have yet to be met. Cameras and their sensors are ensuring a wider exposure latitude and better shadow detail with every newly released model. It is possible to state that new models can take photography much closer to the reality of what we see than films. Colours can be calibrated much more precisely, an impossible achievement for films in the past.

Below are some examples of early colour pictures shot on the first colour film ever, the Kodachrome, introduced in 1935:

©Harry Gruyaert/Magnum, 1982

The evaluation of the reliability of different technologies in the chromatic representation of reality has deeply changed along the years. Every new technology came to impose its own chromatic parameters – and its hidden limits – as the ultimate optical truth. The following images represent the traditional stages from a negative to a print. How close are they to the human perception?


Below a negative:

©Massimo Siragusa/Contrasto, Fondo Fucile, 2009. Digital imaging by 10b photography. Top: analogic negative - middle: digital scan - bottom: digital print

 

The transition to digital technologies is still controversial, even amongs professionals. What happened to Klavs Bo Christensen, disqualified in 2009 by the panel of judges of the prestigious POY contest for an alleged abuse in colour and tonal enhancement of the original RAW files of his pictures, is just a clear example. We believe that the jury’s request to produce the original RAW files in order to verify that no pixel had been manipulated in the final print was legitimate, but we strongly disagree with their final decision. Manipulation and digital enhancing are actually two completely different concepts. The "over-photoshopping" techniques can be aesthetically judged, but they correspond to a photographer’s interpretation of reality and should not be mistaken with an attempt to temper with the visual content of an image (the so called referent of photography).

We are following the ethical debate on the use of Photoshop in photojournalism with much attention, trying to record and understand the doubts stirred by the use of modern softwares. These have in fact made manipulation of the photographic referent extremely easy, thus questioning the documentary value of digital photography. We believe that talking of “manipulation" is correct only when actual pixels are “moved”, therefore when the minimum unit of a digital image is at least either replaced or cloned. In these cases we can talk of a mystification of reality, whose results not only represent something different from the original subject but have also broken the main rule of photojournalism ethics. Looking back at Christensen's photo, it's easy to see that nothing has been added nor deleted from the original image – the RAW file. That is the place where the frontier between manipulation and the digital enhancing process lies: on the one side there’s a mystification of reality, on the other a tonal and aesthetic interpretation of it.

It may be useful to look at the differences between a few of the tools that can be used to set the colours of an image in Photoshop. The "colour balance" tool allows the photographer to equalize the general tones of an image without compromising the tonal ratio between colours as they appeared in the scene. On the contrary, the "hue/saturation" tool, on the contrary, allows work to be done on single colours, thus defining totally new and artificial relationships between them. Between the two tools, only the latter can be considered a manipulation tool in the hands of photographers.

This debate can't be solved by comparing RAW files to their corresponding final images. In fact, printed photographs have never been judged by their negatives. RAW files and the file formats in which they are finally saved into are just the first and last step of a process in which developing techniques, contrast, saturation, density and so on have to be set. The print – be it either on paper or as an image file – is the only media that has to be taken into consideration.

Some photographers underexpose their shots and others overexpose them. Some prefer a flat developing process, whilst others want contrast. But in the end, no matter if you use an enlarger and chemicals rather than a mouse and a screen, what you get is a printed image that is probably closer than the negative or RAW to the author’s idea. It is difficult to understand why millions of black and white photos have been accepted and praised, whereas too much saturation or deep blue skies are condemned in modern photography. Is a black and white sky closer to reality than a deep blue one?

Below are some pictures post-produced by 10b Photography laboratory a few years ago. They were intentionally shot underexposed in order to keep maximum detail in the highlights. The post-producer developed the pictures in a very flat style, with soft neutral colours, then printed them on a file format that is intended to be an aesthetic interpretation of the scene.
 

© Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR. Digital imaging by 10b Photography

© Stefano De Luigi / VII Network. Digital imaging by 10b Photography

© David Furst / AFP. Digital imaging by 10b Photography
© David Furst / AFP. Digital imaging by 10b Photography

© Francesco Zizola / Noor. Digital imaging by 10b Photography