An idle pixel is the devil’s playground

Ogged was complaining about the overabundance of “twee, oversaturated photoshopped” photos. Coincidentally, I had just installed the newest version of iPhoto and wanted to try out its enhanced tweeification techniques.

I found this photo from one of this summer’s weddings: the groom making a toast to the bride on a dock in Lake Tahoe. You may recognize a few people. (Click for a bigger version.)


What popped out at me when I opened this photo fullscreen on my computer was how oversaturated it is already. I can’t remember whether I adjusted this image when I was first organizing these wedding pictures, and switching to the new iPhoto version wiped out any digital record of changes. I might have upped the saturation — it’s what I tend to do to photos, since a more-saturated photo next to a less-saturated version “pops” more to an untrained eye like mine. Or maybe the intense colors here are just the result of my camera’s (a Canon SD-300) electronics combined with the brilliant, high-altitude sunlight. Anyway, the colors are too much for me.

So what happens when you turn down the saturation dramatically and adjust the tint just a bit? Something like this:


Notice I also added a bit of blurring around the edges for extra twee. This version is at least a relief from the migraine-inducing colors of the original. But it looks like it comes from the title sequence of Six Feet Under. I’ve never seen a photo look like this without digital manipulation, and it’s become an indicator of ersatz artfulness (should we say “artiness,” on the “truthfulness”/”truthiness” model?). Also, the blue looks cold, but the sun is shining and the scene calls for warmth.

This is what I came up with next:

faded warm

Lowered the saturation not as much, raised the “temperature” (I think that’s the amount of orange), nudged the contrast down a bit, and moved a slider that claims to increase the amount of detail in shadows. I like the balance of colors — still a lot of blue, but also a lot of brown, even in the black suits on the groom and the best man. Also, adjusting the shadow detail thingie made it clear that the shadow on the groom’s right shoulder is a champagne flute half-full of bubbly.

It was at this point that I started to really like this picture as a composition. I normally take terrible pictures, having almost no sense of formal visual composition. This one at first seems all wrong. The horizon is not quite horizontal. The groom’s right arm, which should be the focus of the action as he makes a toast, is cut off, as are his feet. The bride is looking down in the bright sunlight, which also washes out her white gown. On the right side of the picture, another digital camera pokes in; a couple of heads are cut in half.

As I looked at it, though, I started noticing what worked. Like I said, the shadow of the champagne flute is cool; likewise, the way the shadow of the cut-off portion of the groom’s arm follows the rest of his arm back to his body. The overexposed white of the dress becomes an unavoidable focal point. The tilted horizon marks the photo as a snapshot and works in tandem with the off-guard looks on some faces to underscore the casualness of the moment despite the formal clothes.

The thing about digital cameras, iPhoto, Flickr, and such is that they put a lot of creative power into the hands of people like me who have basically no idea what we’re doing. Since a saturated photo usually looks good compared to an unsaturated one, we turn up the saturation. We play with built-in effects and decide they’re way cool. I tried the “Antique” efect in iPhoto to see if all I had done in the previous version was recreate a cliché:


Meh, not so exciting. Browner than my version, very obviously manipulated. Dodged that bullet.

I also wondered about making black and white photos from color. First I tried the built-in effect that does this:

black and white

Then I tried simply reducing color saturation to zero:


Then zeroing-out the saturation, plus some other adjustments, like increasing the “exposure” setting (hilarious to be able to adjust the exposure after you’ve taken the picture) and playing with the color temperature, which seems to work like using mildly colored filters with black and white film:

desaturated plus

I think I like the last version best of the black-and-white ones; the slight overexposure is interesting without being too weird. Then again, maybe this is just the black-and-white version of the oversaturation fallacy, and I’ve in fact learned nothing.

10 responses to “An idle pixel is the devil’s playground”

  1. Scotty says:

    Funny, I was reading “The Work or Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” last night, and this passage leaped out at me: “It is inherent in the technology of film, as of sports (and I think you can include internet photography), that everyone who witnesses these [mediums] does so as a quasi-expert.”

    I say, go with your gut on this one, and publish the pictures that look best to Dave B.

  2. bacon says:

    It’s not your camara. Every other picture from that event is the same. That’s how the world looks lakeside at 7,000 feet.

    (..and sorry about the migraines)

  3. Bryan says:

    that’s exactly how i remember the color: wheeeww!

    a side-effect of this post, dave, is that it brought back great memories of the summer wedding season.

    one thing i noticed about your picture: people seem either to be watching the bride or the groom. you were obviously taking a picture of the bride, though the groom was doing the talking.

    and i think the other camera in the frame is charming.

  4. AW says:

    I enjoyed this post, Dave, with the comparison and discussion of the different qualities of the photos. But educate me: what is “twee”?

  5. AW: Sounds like a shorter version of “tweek” (sic) to me. But his action took less effort or less time or were less significant than actual tweaking, So he has to take off that K.

    Or it’s just that I like K’s. It begins my last name, too.

  6. Jeremy Zitter says:

    twee: overly precious.

    i like the overly precious version of the photo.

  7. Dave says:

    Yeah, the colors really were that vibrant, I guess. It’s funny that sometimes a photo looks pretty much like the event but still looks wrong.

    And Scott, that point about photography and quasi-expertise sounds just about right. I should rename all my TGW posts “Areas of my quasi-expertise.”

  8. Beth W says:

    I was amused to see this topic this morning because I created a design yesterday based on super saturated photos. I wanted to capture the bright colors of Hawaii. Anyway, I spend a fair bit of time in PhotoShop, which I much prefer over iPhoto.

    I had a job where I was required to raise the saturation on everything. It bothered me because some objects are not actually saturated. However, when exporting images for the web (in PhotoShop), increasing the saturation actually retains some of the original brightness of the photo. So, I usually do increase saturation and adjust the levels when preparing photos for the web. I’ve also done my share of photo retouching but that’s another story.

  9. Trixie Honeycups says:

    we keep getting emails from pictage to order photo greeting cards from this wedding.
    i thought it would be kinda funny if farrell and i sent out christmas cards with pictures of B&A’s wedding on them.
    i don’t imagine i will follow through, but i sort of like the idea.

  10. AW says:

    Thanks, Jeremy.