What has happened to commercial photography?

lobsterI don’t see much of this kind of food photography these days: razor sharp across the whole image, a key light located perfectly overhead, and the food looks delicious. I shot this on sheet film, using swings and tilts on a view camera.

There is always a danger in longing for the “good old days” of this thing or that, and the world of commercial photography is no exception. Nothing is more tedious than hearing some old wag complaining about the new way of doing things, usually accompanied by no small amount of self-importance, and moral superiority about how things have gone downhill.

So at the risk of falling into precisely this same gripe, I have to ask: what has happened to the technical and artistic standards of commercial photography?

I think the answer has to be that standards have gone down, often to a dreadful degree. It is not uncommon these days to see photographs of products in which significant surfaces are out of focus. It is not uncommon to see photographs in which the critical plane of interest–the front surface of a slice of cake, to take just one example–is not lit well at all, your eye forced into looking at the wrong part of the picture. More generally speaking, it seems that many images of products don’t make the products look very good. Indeed, I have seen some food photography in which the food itself looks downright disgusting.

In my many years of shooting products, the above-mentioned flaws would have not only been considered unacceptable, they would have never even shown up in the first place in any studio of modest reputation. The question comes to mind: Why the change in standards? And then the next question: Is there anything we should do about it?

I think the answers to these questions resides in the transition from analog (film) photography to digital photography, from the years 1995 to the present. For the commercial shooter, this a tale of the switch from 4×5 sheet film used in a view camera, to dslr’s with small (in comparison) image sensors. I don’t think we realized all the unintended consequences of this transition, and the results have often been not so pretty.

Those of us who spent decades laboring under the dark cloths of a view camera, mastering the fine art of swings and tilts, never realized how much technical and creative excellence we were bringing to the apparently trivial job of photographing a simple object on a piece of white paper or other surface. Typically, you would spend minutes, sometimes hours, moving the lens and film standards of the camera, stopping down the lens and testing for image sharpness with a loupe on the ground glass, then taking Polaroid tests for light balance and overall composition.

With a ground glass image measuring 4×5 inches, it was simple enough to examine every square inch of the image, 20 square inches in all, and through a 5X loupe, no image detail would escape your eye. Focus on image surfaces could be controlled at will; using swings and tilts, critical surfaces could be brought tack sharp, and other surfaces deliberately left soft, thereby directing the viewer’s eye. Then with the aid of Polaroid proofing film we could establish lighting quality and ratios, again, to any degree of precision and subtlety. In all these efforts, the large ground glass image, seen upside down, made composition a breeze, and it was common to place overlays on the glass itself to cordon off parts of the image that would receive type. All in all, the resulting image was a study in exactitude and precision; nothing was accidental about it.

Now let’s spin off into the world of dslr product shooting, and see how much of this precision has been lost. For starters, there can be no comparison between the aerial projected image of the dslr and the ground glass of a view camera. The viewfinder of the dslr is such a chore, such a strain on the eyes. You’ve got to get your eye right up against it, and make sure the diopter of the optical system matches your own eyes. The image field is tiny compared to the view camera; details are difficult or impossible to see.

But perhaps the biggest impediment to quality with the dslr is the lack of swings and tilts. In writing this, I am putting aside for the time being the use of digital backs on view cameras, as this combination is a different beast altogether; nor am I writing about tilt/shift lenses. These are at best partial solutions.

Lacking swings and tilts, the images off dslr’s can only rely on depth of field to control focus. I will not get into a technical treatise about attempting to control focus this way, but the simple optics of the matter is that stopping down is a crude solution compared to the use of swings and tilts. The only real thing you can do is adjust the focus from front to back. As a result, it’s impossible to direct the viewer’s eye in a deliberate fashion, causing confusion to the viewer. You can see this over and over again in product photography, wherein only the thinest sliver of an image is actually tack sharp, often of focus planes that are not central to the product itself.

For instance, if you are shooting a bowl of soup from an angle, the critical focus plane is the surface of the soup itself; it should be tack sharp from the front of the bowl to the back. With a view camera and a simple tilt, this is achieved easily, even at wide f/stops. With the dslr, the job is impossible, even stopped down as far as the lens will go. And so we are now seeing many images of soup bowls with sharpness in the front, and then falling off to the back, or worse, the other way around. The viewer’s eye tries in vain to bring it all in focus. The luminescence of a liquid surface, the smooth gradation of light from an overhead softbox, the sheer tactile sense of the food itself, are all lost; the food just does not look as appetizing.

I’ve even seen focus and lighting working at cross purposes. The brightest part of an image will be out of focus, with the sharpest part getting too little light. Again, the eye strains to know where to look.

Using a medium format sensor on a view camera, or a tilt/shift lens on a dslr are partial solutions, but only partial solutions. Both lack that ultimate viewing experience of the large format ground glass.

And so, with this new technology, with all the advantages of speed and low cost that it provides, we have seen diminished image quality. I am skeptical that the precision of large format photography will ever return because print media are no longer central to marketing. The images on websites just don’t have to be that fine, just good enough. As the years pass, and outlets for ultimate image quality become less and less, no one will care about it any more and the whole visual memory will fade away. Those ultimate view camera still life images will become quaint antiquities, like fine calligraphy. A visual loss, I would say.

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