Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Camera Clipping

A recent Economist article called "Cameras get cleverer" reports on digital cameras that take multiple images at different exposures and then assembles the optimal pieces into a complete picture, assuring consistent light and detail throughout the final image.  This solves the photographic problem called "clipping".  If you have a digital camera you will occasionally take a photo where sections of your picture will look like they were cut out, or will flash on and off, indicating that the light is too strong or too weak for the sensors to record any detail.  Film cameras have the same problem, but simply give you an image where there is no detail, in spite of what you saw through the viewfinder.  This is why early photography of buildings was always done during an overcast day where sunlit surfaces were not too bright and shadows were not too dark.
The Economist called the resulting computer adjusted image (above) "preternaturally well lit".  I would call it creepy myself.  It saves the details, but loses the reality.
Artists have always wrestled with the same problem, but the adjustment was filtered through the eyes, mind and experience of the artist.  Areas in shadow were subtly detailed, while well lit but non-essential elements were abstracted or ignored.  The choice of emphasis made it Art (The Captives by N.C. Wyeth).
Architectural illustration tends toward the over-lit "preternatural" in too many cases.  Some things need emphasis and detailing, but much can and should be left to the imagination.
The above rendering of an astronaut's memorial gives considerable detailing to the semi-silhouetted memorial, but leaves most everything else an abstract suggestion.
The photo-montage of Broadway near Times Square shows the limits of even a good photograph.  The building details are limited and the lighting is glaring.
This rendering of the north end of Times Square gives the same atmosphere as the photo-montage, but eases the contrast and allows detail at the focus of the view.  The central building is handled in such a way that color and space are understandable without having to blacken the context.
The elimination of clipping comes naturally to anyone sketching.  The shadowed areas under the arch were nearly black in a photograph I took, but the concentric "dentils" were plane to see when sitting across the street. 
Of course the artist's job is not illuminating the shadows.  Sometimes you need to obfuscate to get your point across.  My older brother is brilliant and driven, but we don't always see "eye to eye".  My watercolor of him seems to sum it all nicely.

In art, as in any highly unusual, complex question, be eccentric, be indirect, and always more across the grain looking for the underlying pattern.

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