Imaging Software: Where Do We Go From Here?

Those who have labored long and hard to create a many-layered workflow may find a certain sense of exasperation when confronting the latest software that’s come and is coming down the pike. If it’s ease of use you are after, and a certain push-button path to myriad results, much of the new crop is just for you. Yes, you have to know where you’re going, but more and more that path is strewn with seductive suggestions as to the “look” you can gain with ease.

© 2010, Grace Schaub, All Rights Reserved
I have been testing some of the latest effects software, and one offers over 500 presets, with slider options that allow you to make near infinite variations on each look. In other words, you start with a foundation that would ordinarily take quite a bit of time to create and then build on that to create a customized look, much like playing with the parameters of image characteristics in your digital camera. The manufacturer of the software has an “opinion” about, for example, what a “gravure” might look like, but you can tweak it to match your image, paper, or even reproduction requirements.

Comparing the results to other emulation workflows, such as “cyanotype,” selenium toned, and even cross-processing, things that in the past we’d be creating with multiple layers and filters, I have to admit that the “easy” way is quite impressive. Given that images are codes and those codes are incredibly malleable, it’s a wonder that there are any styles or visual metaphors that have yet to be explored, set up as actions and packaged as the new “in” way to manipulate your images.

I have to laugh when I think about some of the old filters sitting on the back shelves of my closet, like the eight-point star filter I bought as a kid because I thought it made Christmas lights look cool. Those special effects were fascinating at one point in my life, and perhaps yours, too, but now they seem almost primitive, like someone shooting Mylar reflections or working with a split prism filter.

Software today does more than ever before to allow us to enhance our images, to overcome classic challenges like high contrast and harsh sky, and to emulate old processes and blaze new trails of image techniques. And that software has reached back into our cameras as well, where more and more “art” filters and even push-button HDR multi-exposure features are to be found.

But there has to come a point where the software ends and the picture begins or, more properly, where the border between image capture and image processing (read manipulation) stands. Perhaps that supposed border is disappearing to the point where we can no longer distinguish between what we photograph and how we process the image, beyond the fact of making the image visible on a screen. Photographers today and tomorrow will have to rediscover where those boundaries might exist. Or, as some recent developments suggest, they will come to the conclusion that they have gone away forever from photographic practice and that new dimensions of imaging will have to be defined. What that means for the art and craft of photography, and how it is practiced, taught, and used as a source of income is something none of us can know for sure. But it sure will be fun finding out.