Idealog

11 May 2007

Dick Pountain reveals how Flickr is changing the way we take photos, and not always for the better.

It's almost a year since I confessed my addiction to Flickr, and I still haven't found a way to break the habit. I have a lot more pictures up there now, a Pro account with many more sets, far more contacts, and the same craving for views and favourites that keeps me going back for more. A year's nowhere near long enough to view all of Flickr's massive content and I still come across new groups I want to join weekly. What I've learned in a year, though, are three lessons: a) The technical standard of photography on Flickr is awe-inspiringly, intimidatingly high; b) However, it's high within a certain, rather narrow, aesthetic; c) I'm perhaps too old to be comfortable with that aesthetic.

It's hardly surprising that many photographs on Flickr look stunning, because modern digital cameras are so powerful they make it hard to take a badly exposed or out-of-focus shot, but I don't mean to detract from the marvellous eye for unusual subjects and angles that many Flickrers display. The thing is, there's a distinct Flickr "look", which I'd sum up as almost hyper-real due to enhanced sharpness and colour saturation. One reason for this is that pictures need to look stunning at the size of a Flickr thumbnail if they're to attract views, but I believe it's also a preference. It's a familiar look because it's also the look of glossy car adverts, fashion shots and many movies nowadays. (There are groups who indulge in blurred pictures, or in black-and-white, but it's their very minority status that provides their raison d'être.)

I learned to take pictures in the 1960s using black-and-white film in a Pentax Spotmatic. Our idols were Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and the new generation of David Bailey and Don McCullen. Our subjects were grittily realistic. The dominant aesthetic became very hard, pushing Tri-X film to ASA800 and printing on high-contrast papers. Sharpness wasn't valued - soft focus and motion blur added to the spontaneity of the pic. At some unconscious level we thought that such pictures reflected the dirty, turbulent world we lived in. That was, of course, nonsense, just as it would be nonsense to say that the razor-sharp, glowing colours of Flickr pictures reflect a clean, bright world we live in today. The camera is every bit as "subjective" as human perception, and the way your pictures look is a choice, not a reflection of reality. I could have printed my pictures on soft paper with lots of greyscale, but I didn't want to. Pictures represent far more what you're hoping for than what you actually saw.

This is even truer now that digital photography offers the potential to sever almost all connection to the original subject. By shooting in RAW mode, you can simply capture all the luminosity information in a scene and then in effect "reshoot" the picture later on your PC, any way you want.

And once the information is on your PC, you can spice it up in all kinds of ways. I recently came across Google's excellent Picasa photo-viewing software, which not only organises all the pictures on your hard disk very well, but lets you enhance them in a particularly simple and intuitive fashion - and guess what? If you use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, it often automatically produces the Flickr look.

For serious fiddlers, though, Picasa has nowhere near enough firepower: you need Photoshop, or in my case Paint Shop Pro, to which I've been faithful since version 1. One of the fastest-growing sports on Flickr is HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, which can produce images that go beyond the hyper-real and into the hallucinatory. A HDR picture combines several frames of the same subject with different exposures, so that every pixel is optimised to a perfection that neither the camera nor the human eye could ever achieve unaided. The results are occasionally amazing and transcendental, sometimes vulgar, but eventually just as predictable as any other pictures. Another popular technique is Ortonising (named after its inventor), which combines the same picture twice - one version Gaussian-blurred and overexposed - to create a strange glowing softness that can be very attractive on some scenes, but looks like early 1970s Californian porn if you're not careful.

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