Philippe and I are reviewing a new camera that stands out from the crowd in many interesting ways, one of them being a perceived colour accuracy that seems to put most current manufacturers to shame. Perceived accuracy is a topic that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention.
So let me once again plunge into HiFi analogies to tackle it. John Darko (audio reviewer extraordinaire) has written a post and recorded a podcast episode on the topic of accuracy and neutrality. During the recording he stops and rushes out to his Berlin balcony to capture a stunning sunset, and uses the photograph as a visual illustration of his sonic arguments.
It’s interesting to see the numerous parallels between audio and photography described from the other side of the river. The more (intelligent) bridges we create, the more both hobbies benefit from rich analogies and metaphors.
In essence, John Darko, a lover of very high end gear driven by solid pragmatism over pseudo science, has this to say to audiophiles who (claim they) desire utmost accuracy from their setup : “accuracy with respect to what?”
John’s unassailable argument is that none of us end users have any idea what the recording engineer heard in the studio. Even during a classical concert, the sound you perceive will be completely different whether you sit front row central, back row central, front row left, mid field right …
There is no such thing as a single, authentic, sound in a live concert.
And there is no such thing as a recorded album that’s true to the instruments. While some studios have the good grace not to EQ madly or compress like most others do to satisfy the needs of phones, iPods and raves (henceforth collectively referred to as shitty audio 😉 ), the amount of work even they do to recordings often implies a real distance from the true sound of the set.
You could then argue that a HiFi system should aim for fidelity to the recording. After all, isn’t that what the Fi in HiFi means? Isn’t that why some spend the price of a small car on speaker cables? Isn’t that why we tear up our interior design to house vile-looking audiophile vibration-free furniture (and wave our better halves goodbye)? Not. So. Fast.
Cue ATC loudspeakers, my audio crush of the week. With a solid history in making both electronics and loudspeakers for professional studios, ATC have entered the amateur audio scene with both passive and active loudspeakers. Those are praised by audiophiles in search of the greatest accuracy and yet the designers have deliberately dialed in warmth and sweetness to the home audio line compared to the studio line, in order to make poor recordings (ie a majority of current recordings) listenable.
In fact, in another article, John argues that audiophiles who claim they want neutrality only want what they subjectively perceive to be neutral and really, really, don’t want “true” neutrality, which is often unbearable with real-world recordings. And we can all agree that black and white photography fails the accuracy test completely.
Instead, should we strive more for naturalness? A natural sounding system, a natural looking photograph? I’ve never seen a completely monochromatic landscape but the following photograph does convey the eerie light of that day very naturally.
Fuji colours aren’t neutral. By design, they’re bold and beautiful instead. Not everyone likes them but fans find them bold enough to be pleasing and natural enough to be believable and not tiresome. Colours from other manufacturers aren’t neutral either. And, often, I wonder whether that is by desing or lack of mastery (or interest). And what made me sell my Sony A7r wasn’t that it wasn’t neutral (my goodness, if anything ever strayed further away from colour accuracy, it deserves a special place in a museum) but because how it was inaccurate also made it very unnatural.
Hasselblad claim to painstakingly calibrate the colour science of their cameras but, as a user, I can’t attest to their accuracy. All I can say is how pleasingly natural they look (before I unleash savage post processing on them, that is).
Why should anyone care about naturalness and, in particular photographers with strong visual signatures or hefty post processing?
I can think of many valid reasons.
For one thing, there is no possible measure for accuracy outside a lab. And even if you’re satisfied that your camera deals well with primary colours under 5500° lighting, there’s no telling what your lens is doing to that or how you camera reacts to very warm or very cool lights. Or what happens when the camera heats up or when it gets really cold. Or when the light is very strong. Or in the proverbial dark alley that has necessitated that immense surge in high ISO capability we have paid for so dearly.
No, tell yourself whatever you want, believe whatever charts the manufacturer’s marketing department has cooked up in ideal conditions, your gear ain’t accurate (bokeh, anyone?)
Whether we should strive for accuracy is a completely different topic, but let’s just say that, in real conditions, true-to-life photographs are impossible to create. And usually extraordinarily boring (because our minds are selective storytelling engines that don’t remember anything as true to life).
But natural? That we can do! Those of us with an ability to see/hear normally all share an in-built biological ability to determine what’s natural and what isn’t. We don’t need charts to know what feels natural and what doesn’t. We don’t have to be told or force-fed meaningless tech verbiage. We know. Instinctively.
And that acts as a natural guide that sets boundaries to our post processing, to the gear we chose to buy and use, to the artists we admire or not … Tasteful, that ugly word, doesn’t even enter the conversation. Natural is all we need.
Natural is a guide.
In my PP, however extreme it may sometimes look, I rarely use clarity (and then, mainly to lower it) because excessive amounts very quickly make a photograph look unnatural (see Walk on the wild side, above).
The same goes for the ghastly HDR wave we had to endure a few years ago. While there’s nothing wrong with well executed HDR, per se, the awful tone mapping foiled upon us by some software editors and youtube tutorials was the visual equivalent of adding a shoddy car subwoofer to a Focal Utopia standmount speaker. It doesn’t sound natural, and it most certainly doesn’t look natural.
The venerable MTF chart, that multifaceted technical tool turned into a one trick marketing pony, can tell you whether a lens is going to look natural or not. We’ve all been told to want everything bunched up at the top for suppa duppa detail, like one particularly harsh mini-otus lens that was distinctly more mini than otus … whereas what we really want is a natural decay of contrast as lp/mm rise, organic-looking curves that don’t swerve too badly, and very similar (and closely grouped) tangential and sagittal lines. The end.
To me, big pixels look much more natural than small ones. CCD looks more natural than CMOS. It’s only recently that (quite expensive) digital systems (DACs and digital preamps, eg) have sounded as organic and pleasant as a good vinyl setup. The fact it’s taken decades to get to that point (and then, mainly for a happy few) is probably largely due to the fact that manufacturers have been chasing the wrong metrics all along.
Intuitively, we know when something is natural or not. If it is, it will sound and look good, rather than gouge your ears/eyes out and induce fatigue. Maybe because it’s intuitive (though not totally subjective), we haven’t looked for ways to quantify that naturalness, and lack metrics for it?
It’s interesting, though, that no amount of software massaging of an unnatural RAW image will make it good. But one that starts life as a natural one will withstand quite a bit of abuse. Likewise, a poor recording can be made tolerable enough to listen to the music and forget about the recording, but no audio gear in the world will make it good.
I’ll go as far – but it’s a personal non verified hunch – as to suggest that what draws us to the spectacular photographs found on some websites and forgotten in seconds, is how unnatural they look! Some of us have been discussing speakers that produce a detailed, laid back sound that can feel quite boring if you’re not actively listening to the music with intent. These are never fatiguing and never superimpose their own personality (on the music, usually small-scale classical, they were designed to reproduce). On the other hand, some very dynamic speakers display a strong signature – that some love and others cannot stand – but can be quite an earful over extended periods of listening.
Here, the parallels between audio and photography meet a fork in the road. In audio, there are 3 artists : the musicians, the recording artists, and the people building/assembling the playback system. As lovers of recorded music we are just consuming the work of the previous three (though we can be all four).
In photography, the artists are the photographer and the printer (or, today post-processor operator). Cameras and lenses, like recording studio gear plays a slightly secondary role, enabling the recording artist/photographer to record something well enough that it can later be used. I feel the photographer is the musician and the recording artist corresponds to the printing/post-processing specialist in this flimsy analogy. Your (calibrated or not) screen or inkjet printer is akin to the stereo in your lounge (though you can argue that the carbon or platinum printer who spends 4 days on your photograph is equally equatable to a playback system and recording pro).
However what the middle men in both camps (post processing / recording) do is largely a matter of personal taste, although directing an orchestra, choosing an instrument (Telecaster vs Strat, Zeiss vs Leitz, eg) and personal technique also are. And that can go really far out into deeply personal land. But others will still relate to the work if we manage to keep alive that common human thread that is naturalness!
It’s seriously ironic that most of us audio nuts are spending time and fortune trying to reproduce as faithfully as possible the sounds that people such as Jimi Hendrix have distorted in the most extreme and non-reproducible ways 😉 (does Naim sound more like a burning Strat than Hegel, I wonder?) Between the sound of Hendrix in a small London club, the sound of Hendrix at Woodstock and the sound of Hendrix remastered and remixed on DVD, there is little resemblance. What really ties these together is the performance, what makes Hendrix Hendrix. And what we want in our kit and mixing/post processing, is to preserve that essence, as that of a flaming sunset over a Berlin balcony 🙂
There’s an unavoidable layering of filters (technological or human) in all this that mathematically degrades the signal from the original scene to what our end user eyes or ears are perceiving.
At each level, we are losing some information, there is no way around that. And we can go deep into technicality to quantify that loss (MTF curves, slew rates …) but we can also, as end consumers and as amateur artists, trust our eyes and ears to preserve naturalness in all we do and purchase. That’s something that needs no fancy money, no special education, only the ability to trust our tastes over the accuracy-FOMO marketing of manufacturers …
What say you?
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