Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why you can't win

I was reading about Firefox's new 3.0 browser (due 6/17/08) with its embedded color management system for viewing images. And as expected the argument ensued about what that really means to photographers to prepare images for viewing images on the Web. And thinking about that along with the workflow producing images, either scanning film or using original digital images, and realized you can't win displaying your images on the Web.

I say this for a number of reasons. I'm not the technically smart or experienced person to know the specifics, I read for the ideas, concepts, and logic, and read for details when I need to know something more or do something. But then I read enough to do or know what I want and move on. So, if you have issues with the statements, I'm open to learning more.

My point here? Well, no matter what you do to produce the images you want, you can't win in producing images which are the same with all the viewers and technology. Except in print. You can go from original image to print producing what you want and what everyone else will see, their own color-blindness notwithstanding. Anything else is at iffy to a point. Why?

First, one advantage to film was that it was there in its original format. It is what it is, the transparency or negative as it was exposed at the time. All the adjustments had to be made in the camera, mistakes corrected to some degree in processing. You used a variety of films and sometimes light adjusting filters for the light condition, but you were limited to the film's response and latitdue.

Digital cameras, especially the mid-level and high-end ones, have a lot of features and capabilities which not only encompasses almost all films, except infrared film, but also white/color balance, color temperature (light source), etc. In other words you have an almost infinite range of adjustments to capture the image. In addition you have the raw format which is just the original image information.

After that you now get the image into the computer, the tiff from the scan or the raw/jpeg from the camera. This is the initial digital file. With that you have the full orchestra of photo editor tools to do anything including pushing the image into the realm of art. You have fewer capabilities with jpeg images because they more closely match film, but with raw, it's unlimited.

And with that into the processed file you have the additional tools of color management. And this is where things can go wrong or into unintended consequences. You can control the choice of color for the display on your computer system and with your printer. You can even send color profiles with images to printers. But it's the Web that changes everything.

Why? For one, you're limited by the monitors display capabilities. It doesn't pay to produce images of higher quality than the monitor can display. It might make you feel good to do it but no one will see it. In addition, many older PC's and all pre-Vista PC Windows operating systems don't have the monitor callibration tools.

In addition, Web browsers use the computer's color management and display and can't be adjusted. In effect the photographer is stuck not knowing what computer and color system the viewer uses to display the images. The best you can do is use standard color management, usually sRGB, for your Web images and know that those with the correct color management and display will see the images correctly, and that's only if their monitor is calibrated. All the rest could and probably will display differently.

In the end, use standard tools and color management, be consistent and then leave the rest to the viewer. If they don't like it, it's not your fault, it's their computer, or their taste.

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