I’ve just paid a visit to the stunning Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy, where the artefacts that most captured my attention were a small ceramic bowl with a delightful smiling fish design and a silver-framed diptych from 14th-century Constantinople, consisting of two book-sized panels bearing 12 small pictures like a strip cartoon.
These pictures depict various church celebrations, and they have an indefinable quality of sharpness with muted yet vivid colours, quite unlike a painting. On closer inspection it turned out they were micro mosaics, made by assembling tiny beads – no larger than grains of coarse sand – of coloured stone, glass, copper, gold and eggshell.
These beads were assembled in a more or less linear grid, so what I was looking at was one of the earliest true digital images, with a resolution not far below that of a computer screen. The rendering engine was a human brain, a pair of sorely overtaxed human eyes and ten almost unbelievably dextrous human fingers, equipped with the finest of tweezers rather than a graphics processing chip.
Why would anyone choose such a difficult medium in preference to paintbrush and paper? One reason would have been permanence: those inorganic materials resist fading and wear and look just as good in 2009 as they did back in 13-something. Another reason would be that the very tedium and strain was viewed as spiritual exercise, a proof of devotion. But I’d like to think that elusive sharpness of the final product was a pure aesthetic reason in itself. That’s certainly the reason I find myself more and more drawn to digitally processing the photographs I take.
I’ve documented my enthusiasm for Flickr in this column before, and won’t labour it further except to say that I’m still hooked. I seem to have drifted into a subculture that believes in using all digital means available to achieve the image that most pleases us – as opposed to those who seek authenticity, who frown on even cropping a picture let alone Photoshopping it (the most extreme insist on black-and-white over colour). I bear them no ill will and might one day join their ranks, but right now I’m in love with HDR.
I’ve assembled a toolkit of software that works for me at very little cost: Photomatix Pro (the most expensive item) for creating HDR images; Neat Image for sharpening and noise filtering; Paint Shop Pro 6, which I’ve used for years in preference to Photoshop (too slow) or even subsequent versions of itself; and Picasa 3 for retouching, because I prefer its Tuning controls to anything else I’ve tried. I no longer only apply processing to rescue images that aren’t good enough: even a good photo may yield a better one with judicious cropping and subtly applied HDR.
Pictures I like but are poorly exposed can be made more arresting by turning them into “fake paintings”, using a panoply of techniques including posterisation and solarisation, over-filtering, unsharp-masking and combining different versions using layer blend modes. I’ve perfected a semi-hypnotic cycle of operations in which I combine two layers by, say, Luminance, then merge them, copy to the Clipboard, revert the file, paste as new layer, and so on, until I see something that I like. My favourite so far is a self-portrait in the style of a 1960s Mao poster, which you can see at www.pcpro.co.uk/links/175idea.
HDR works by combining different exposures of the same scene and using software on a PC to capture all detail from the darkest and lightest areas: it increases dynamic range so that the result can’t be reproduced on paper or screen, and must be tone-mapped back down to viewability. It’s very CPU intensive and combining five or more hi-res shots may take several minutes even on a dual-core PC. Ideally, HDR requires a digital camera with automatic bracketing to get a sequence of evenly spaced exposures.