alan little’s weblog

digital photojournalism

21st April 2004 permanent link

Steve Fine, photo editor of Sports Illustrated on digital versus film for sports photojournalism:

For years [with film], we’ve been fighting a battle between sharpness and grain, especially in low-light shots. You try to sharpen and you just end up building more graininess. I’m amazed at the quality we’re getting in low-light shots off our digital files. We’re running [low-light pictures] up to two-page size that we could never have done before. Sometimes [digital] looks like it’s underwater, a little bit too smooth. A strobed basketball game on a Hasselblad has a sharp line and a punch that digital doesn’t have. But we don’t have grain anymore. In really poorly lit situations, the ability to make a clean picture far outweighs the downside.

(People still use Hasselblads for shooting sports? Wow)

I’m also intrigued by these comments by the magazine’s head of pre-press, Geoff Michaud:

There’s a different quality expectation with digital vs. film. With film, grain was accepted and tolerated. It was a by-product of sharpness. When we moved to digital we found that the expectation changed. I’m not 100% sure why. Now a softer feel image [is considered good], and when noise becomes apparent it’s a negative thing, where it wasn’t with film. I’m concerned with my operators now that because noise or grain has become a negative thing, sometimes they’re holding off on sharpening. [Sometimes] I look at images, and I feel they’re not quite sharp enough.

People expect smooth, grainless images from digital but the price of that is slightly less sharpness. This makes sense and would explain why people often say digital images look a bit flat, a a bit lacking in "pop" - I think it might be extreme edge contrast that can make really good film images (especially film images shot with classic Leica and Zeiss lenses) look almost three-dimensional.

Link courtesy of Tim Bray. As Tim says, the whole article on how Sports Illustrated’s workflow operates is a must-read for anybody with any serious interest in digital photography.

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