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Disagreement at work about best photography practices!
February 28, 2013 9:18 AM   Subscribe

When shooting and preparing an image file for print, I've always tried to set things up so that the highlights are bright, the shadows are dark, and everything else is in the middle. At work, I've occasionally been told by my immediate superior that I'm overexposing my images, and that the highlight detail is, in their words, 'blown away'. Checking my files, the highlights in the images in question cut off around 245, sometimes as low as 240! Is there a reason why they'd want the highlights even greyer?

There is an extended back story to this, but I'll try and keep specific to my immediate quandary. I've been working as a photographer for a small company for a little over three years. Our head office is in another city, and that is where the senior photographer (who's been with the company for decades) is located.

To my eyes, the images we produce are adequate, but not stunning, and to put my best work in, only to have the outcome be mediocre is extremely disheartening. The perennial problem is lack of contrast, the images coming out flat and grey. It seems clear to me that we're not using the full tonal range of the images, and these muddy photos are the result. However, after trying to ask my superior why this is the way things are done and getting nowhere, I've alternately tried talking to the owner, sneaking in edits that bump the contrast, talking to my superior again, all to no avail.

I can probably figure out the office politics in the situation, but before I dig my heels in on this one, I thought I'd educate myself on metafilter, as my knowledge of CMYK processes is a little sketchy.

Can y'all think of any reasons why one would want to produce images that only run from 15-230 instead of 5-250?
posted by rhooke to Technology (12 answers total)
 
Poor quality CMYK conversion?

It might help if you could post an example image.
posted by scose at 9:23 AM on February 28, 2013


Hm. Well, it's been awhile since I've been in a darkroom (what's that?) but I feel like the whites-white and blacks-black is more a rule of thumb for black and white photography. It gives b/w prints that pop. However, there is generally an accepted tonal range for nice looking photos which is why people use a neutral "grey card" for light metering. A good photographer will meter for both the highlights and the shadow and then make a judgement call about how to shoot the photo and, of course, there's post-processing that will make finer adjustments to the product.

I think a lot of kids these days prefer a blown-out image -- it looks more current with what is popular. People are happy to see their own skin tone completely blown out so there's no wrinkles or pores or blemishes or anything. But, that's not accurate in any sense. And it really depends on the kind of photos your company is shooting and the image they are trying to portray. I think you'll focusing too much on the values and not (maybe) enough on the gestalt -- the sum of all the parts.

You might also be running into a generational thing. The senior photographer has a way of doing things that is rooted in the style of accuracy (or, at least the way they have always done things) and you are going for a certain mood -- utilizing heightened contrasts and saturated images. Also, maybe their monitor is set up funky (are these printed images or digital?). Neither of you is "right" but I think you can get to the bottom of this with a wider conversation about the goals of the photography and the mood and look that you are trying to convey. I don't think you'll win points by saying "But, 5-250!"

And, as always, if you want something to look a certain way for your own portfolio, it's worth saving the images and playing with the look on your own time so you're proud to show them.
posted by amanda at 9:38 AM on February 28, 2013


Can you show your superior the histogram of the image and indicate that you have full exposure coverage? Because if you're appropriately spreading your scene over the dynamic range of your digital medium, then in the analogy to analog film, you have detail in your highlights and shadows and everything else is printing.

Which you can adjust either with brightness or gamma in a photo editing tool.
posted by straw at 9:51 AM on February 28, 2013


Your printing process may not have as much dynamic range as your display.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:52 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


If the highlights are blown out during shooting, then no amount of post-processing will rescue the lost detail; whatever blows out to pure white will just be pure white, or if you reduce the tonal range in post it'll just be pure gray.

Try deliberately underexposing by a half-stop or more during shooting -- I know on my own camera (an oldish Canon EOS) the autoexposure settings are too high unless I set the exposure compensation down (I routinely leave mine a full stop down or even more; it's a lot harder to blow out the bottom end than the whites, and you can always increase the tonal range in post if you need to).

Depending on the print process, there may well also be a good reason to leave a little extra tonal headroom before printing -- a "white" area with no ink at all will be a lot more noticeable and blown-out looking than a "white" area of very faint ink. But unless they're really overdoing that (or are doing it really badly) that shouldn't result in muddy- or flat-looking images.

If the shots on your blog are representative of the work you're describing, I think the problem may be that you genuinely are overexposing your whites during shooting. (The white areas on the house in the first image and the truck in the third are completely blown for example.)
posted by ook at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


My personal work is nothing like my professional work. Professionally, it's all very meticulous, in-studio, accurate-as-possible copy photography. Metered off a grey step chart w/ color control patches & controlled lighting. We are taking pictures of objects (sorry for the vagueness, trying to maintain some anonymity here) and the pictures should be as accurate a representation of the object as possible. The murky quality of the prints does NOT precisely represent the quality of the objects in question and that's why I see it as a problem.
posted by rhooke at 10:15 AM on February 28, 2013


Your printing process may not have as much dynamic range as your display.

Right. I would generalize this, though, along the lines of "Your company's printing/processing/other displaying facilities may not have as much dynamic range as whatever you personally use in your own setup." My initial response to "15-230 vs 5-250" is that the difference isn't worth a damn if your output isn't showing any perceptible changes from 230 to 250, you know?

Can you confirm that you ARE ultimately generating images for printing (i.e., reflective media) rather than active illuminated display? I assume so since you are converting to CMYK. If so this would be the place to inspect for any conversion problems since it is very common for reflective prints to appear blown out on the white end.

Anyway, improving the contrast shouldn't result in blown out whites; you should be able to adjust contrast within any dynamic range constraints (obviously this has limits; the more "buckets" you give yourself the better your contrast can be, conceptually, but still). If you're using new-ish Creative Suite with the 2012 process, you should be able to set the contrast and then walk the high end back a bit with the "highlights" slider.

On preview: If the highlights are blown out during shooting, then no amount of post-processing will rescue the lost detail; whatever blows out to pure white will just be pure white, or if you reduce the tonal range in post it'll just be pure gray.

This is technically true but may be of little practical significance. If you're capturing in raw format, there is a LOT of detail in the white tones that you can get back if you continue to process in raw. If your camera converts to JPG, then yeah.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:18 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Has your supervisor shown you an actual, physical printed example of what he thinks looks good for these projects?
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:19 AM on February 28, 2013


OP, are both you and your supervisor using calibrated monitors?

This is technically true but may be of little practical significance. If you're capturing in raw format, there is a LOT of detail in the white tones that you can get back if you continue to process in raw. If your camera converts to JPG, then yeah.

Sure, but there are limits even in RAW, even at base ISO, even when using cameras with very wide DR. That which is truly blown out will still be truly blown out.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:29 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, the images are being generated for printing. I realize that what looks good on a monitor and what looks good on (in this case) glossy paper are not the same image.

We regularly produce printed material that contains the images in question. Since my supervisor has final say in how the images are adjusted before print, I assume that he thinks that what is currently being produced looks good. (though I suppose it's possible that he doesn't care)

None of my work images have any losses in the highlights (unless you count the odd object with specular highlights), always shooting (raw) with highlight & shadow warnings on, keeping things well within safe limits.

Yes, monitors are calibrated, but I'm looking at the numbers here, not just how it looks on-screen. The threshold adjustment in photoshop seems to suggest that none of the pertinent images have clipped highlights.
posted by rhooke at 11:36 AM on February 28, 2013


So many possibilities...
How are they being printed? Offset? "Digital"? Are the images being converted to a custom ICC profile for the specific printer? I assume your images are being composited into a publication of some sort. Are they using InDesign? Are your image files converted to the same color profile being used in InDesign?

What you're describing sounds a lot like a color management mis-match.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:41 PM on February 28, 2013


It sounds like a colour management problem as well as an expectations management problem, but it also sounds to me like you'll need to hire professional help to come on-site and help explain things not only to you but to the imagery stakeholders.

Talking about histogram numbers is about as far from useful as I can imagine this discussion being right now, TBH. "The print doesn't look like the original" is a holistic issue.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:23 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


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