The High Definition Hypnosis

A recent conversation about film grain and digital noise surprised me in how many of us don’t seem to want to tolerate any kind of digital noise or imperfection.

This got me thinking more about where this expectation comes from, and how today we are saturated in “high definition” audio visual experiences almost constantly.

Personally I’m not a fan of any kind of perfection.

In fact I often find imperfection irresistibly beautiful, whether it’s an ancient tractor being reclaimed by brambles, a glimpse of the brass bones of a vintage camera worn in from decades of devoted use, or those enigmatic semi translucent trails on a woman’s hips, nature’s endearing tattooed testament to her carrying her child for the first nine months of its existence.

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On the music front, I recall as a child hearing Invisible Touch by Genesis, and asking a friend if he could copy his sister’s LP of the whole album on to tape for me to play in my Walkman.

When I got it back, during the title track, Phil Collins was in full flow before hitting the chorus with a stuttering “she reaches in ah/ she reaches in ah/ she reaches in ah/ she reaches in and grabs right hold of your heart”.

My pal’s older sister obviously didn’t take such good care of her records and a scratch was making Phil skip back over a two second loop, before my friend gave it a nudge to resume the rest of the chorus.

I still played the imperfect tape version to death, and when years later I heard the original on CD, was taken aback when Mr Collins sung clean through the chorus without the glitches I’d come to embrace as integral to the song.

Later on in my musical explorations I discovered artists like Oval with their 94 Diskont record which was a revelation with its layered celebrations of woozy digital glitches, and Autechre with their fiercely awkward yet beautiful off kilter rhythms and melodies.

And one of the artists I’ve listened to most in the last few years, William Basinski, has based a career on ageing and disintegrating tape loops.

But it seems I’m in the minority in my love of the flawed. 

It often feels like the majority are those who need to upgrade their car every year with an increasingly tenuous reason (some car ads over here promote features like iPhone compatibility as their main selling point. Yeh, let’s spend £35k on a car just so I can wirelessly use my new iPhone for music, what a fantastically sound economic decision that would be).

Or those who can’t seem to bear to not have the latest new camera with 40+ MP, WiFi and a built in ice dispenser (I jest, but only slightly, as bizarrely, refrigerators with wifi ARE on the market).

Or those who lust after a 55, 77 even 82 inch TV with 8k HD resolution and intelligent upscaling (because 1 through to 7k with dumb upscaling was just not passing muster).

Why do so many seem to crave ever higher definition in their technology?

Is it because just the advertisers have hypnotised them so effectively into believing their lives are embarrassingly incomplete and happiness is utterly unobtainable unless they succumb to the hype, discard yesterday’s useless tech and upgrade, upgrade, upgrade!?

Surely we’re more intelligent than this? Surely we’re stronger willed? Surely we know the best things in life are free?

I find it all terribly depressing, but feel thankful at least at the joy I feel hunting for rusting machinery and decaying gravestones with a 15 year old digital camera, or in the past with fifty or more year old film cameras…

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How about you? Are you under the spell of the High Definition Hypnosis? 

Please reassure me I’m not alone in the comments below.

Thanks for looking.

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32 thoughts on “The High Definition Hypnosis”

  1. Honestly I can’t see any difference between a good 1080 monitor and a fancy 5k display… blame it in old eyes or not.

    Anyways perfection is always some steps ahead and we’ll never really get there. So I’m perfectly OK with imperfection ! Be it film or digital.

    Thanks for the link !

    1. Yes, that will always be the point with new technology, it’s only new very briefly, then something else comes along and it’s old news.

      If you get stuck in the upgrade cycle you’re forever doomed, there’s no end point, and no end to how much money it will suck from you!

  2. As a former Holga devotee, with a phone as my current main camera and user of a fairly outdated dSLR, I consider myself rather lo-fi. But in the post you refer to, you spoke specifically about digital noise. And for me (sorry) there is a distinction between “imperfect” and just “ugly” – in 90% of the photos, digital noise is simply unpleasant to look at. Only a few cameras can get away with a “filmlike” noise in black-and-white (my old LG phone did for example, and probably a few of the Ricoh GR models or the classic Fuji X100).

    1. Robert, I love the word lo-fi, and the whole concept, whether it’s music, imagery or anything else.

      I do agree (no need to apologise!) about the distinction. The noise post was a starting point in my thinking about a wider topic of the high definition we’re saturated in these days, and I was speculating about how this saturation influences how we see the world, including photographs.

      And how many are caught up in the advertising hypnosis that newer, bigger, faster, more is better.

  3. Well, it’s a very fine shading here; there’s a difference in character and quality between ‘imperfection’ and ‘pollution.’

    The enhancement of an object lent it by the patina and wear of long use, a visible repair in something returned to service, the subtle wear lent by long human handling – these things imbue objects with the grasp of their owners, and freight them with the coinage of an accumulated history of use. They give them emotional depth.

    Similarly, the character of a medium’s limitations are held to be higher or lower whether they are innate to their technology or imposed by technical failure. The susurrus of light scratches heard on a 78 rpm lacquer recording are authentic. The aural muddiness of impedance or the bleedover of a truck dispatcher’s CB into a broadcast concert are as unrinsed soap in a coffee pot. One is a charm of the experience, the other poisons it.

    Analogously, we *can* say that grain is to film as noise is to sensor, but only analogously: film grain is a physical thing while digital noise is an electronic chimera, a bodiless corruption made by a failure of processing. It is not like other non-physical phenomena, like love – love and emotion are expressions and fulfillments. Noise is all about failure.

    Then there is our familiarity. We have been viewing, associating, cohabiting with grain since 1840-something, and have watched its evolution and development into often beloved varieties; the grain of this emulsion or that, when used with one developer or another, following protocol A or protocol B in order to shift the results.

    Digital noise is widely viewed as the unwanted side effect of an otherwise miraculous medication, a wholly ‘downside’ part of an otherwise stunning technical capability, and it is far too new and far too akin to a misbehaving computer to be loved.

    Or so it seems to me.

    1. William, thank you as always for your poetic input.

      “…an accumulated history of use. They give them emotional depth.” – yes absolutely agree. I don’t like brand new shiny cameras much, I’d rather buy a used camera, where someone else has broken it in, then give it my own further wear and tear on top of that. It helps to connect and bond more with what is ultimately an inanimate object.

      I slightly disagree about “Noise is all about failure”. A German musician called Stefan Betke comes to mind, who in his guise as “Pole” makes music with a damaged piece of equipment. According to Wikipedia – “Pole took his name from a Waldorf 4-Pole filter,[1] which he accidentally dropped and broke in 1996. Though the filter was perhaps no longer appropriate for DJ work in its damaged state, Betke found the strange hissing and popping noises the filter now made interesting sounds. He then began using the broken filter to create music…”

      I love how some people take “noise” whether that’s audio or visual noise, and make something beautiful from it, celebrating the noise and imperfections rather than seeing them as something unpleasant that needs to be eliminated or fixed.

      1. Would you say that Betke appreciators are likely a, uh, minority hooked on an acquired taste?

        As when people describe a musician as being a “musician’s musician”, I always figure the work is gonna be, oh, slightly atonal, discordant, non-linear, Philip Glassish, not-for-everybody; of a rarified subtlety that to my plebeian self is not music at all. You can’t dance to it. Yet anything will inevitably have some fans

        Thus for me is digital noise. A few may enjoy it.

        1. Well, you could suggest the opposite. That the mainstream of, say, boy or girl bands or hip hop or, in my view, the unbelievably dreary Ed Sheeran, are the “acquired taste”, those foisted upon with such regularity that many just succumb and accept that this is what music sounds like and there is no alternative.

          Whilst I love a cracking pop tune (Abba, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, even Little Mix), and used to dance the night away for hours (originally to club sounds like Prodigy and Underworld, evolving into cuban salsa rhythms), I’ve always enjoyed music that’s offbeat, awkward, challenging, but that somehow feels so much more mine than the mainstream popular stuff.

          And I love that the offbeat minority music will always be that, because it’s too odd for the masses to embrace. Makes it feel more special, and again, more mine.

  4. today grain is a matter of aesthetics – some people love grainy photos and so they produce them, even adding grain in post processing to achieve a certain feel…

    and some people dont like it

    its simple

  5. I think that the quest for perfection in gear touches on fears we all have about our abilities. When we shoot enough and get good enough to make pleasing results with a simple or out-of-date camera, then we start to see that maybe we don’t need the finest and best.

    1. Or you could see it the other way around Jim. Once we have “perfect” equipment, there’s no hiding or excuses or blaming the camera for failing. With old, flawed gear we can always say “it was the camera’s fault” and sidestep our own inadequacies…

  6. You might be in the minority Dan, but I’m right there with you. I love the imperfect, the flawed, the distressed. One of the reasons I avoided digital for so long was all the over-sharpened too perfect images I saw posted on Flickr. I never knew there was an alternative until I read about it here on your blog. Long live the imperfect!

    1. I agree there are a great number of what I would call overly digital HDR type photos on Flickr, and everywhere else, that don’t look real. That’s fine for those who like that, I’m just not one of them.

      It’s the fraying edges that attract me…

  7. It’s good that your eyes are so perfect that you don’t need the clarity that 8K video would provide. Hurray to you. My eyes look forward to 16K and 48K digital displays.

    1. Khurt isn’t this the other way around? If your eyes are not great, then it doesn’t matter how good the display is, if the “resolution” of the display is higher than the “resolution” your eyes are capable of seeing?

      It’s like using a scratched up low quality lens, with a high resolution high spec digital sensor. The lens is limiting the overall resolution the system combined is capable of “seeing” and would give similar results whether you’re using a 10 year old 10MP camera or the latest highest spec available.

      1. Dan,

        You have made a personal decision regarding the technology that YOU will use to make YOUR images. The posts here were more useful when you write about how and when the technology helped/hindered the creation of YOUR images.

        But it seems to me that you have now extended your writing to judgement on the personal choices others make regarding their own technology choices.

        I think that is what bothered me about this post.

        1. Hi Khurt, I wasn’t making any judgement, I was just trying to understand what you were explaining. If one’s eyes are not great then that’s what limits how well you can see anything, not the resolution of the screen you’re looking at. Or put another way, I can’t understand how getting a higher resolution TV will improve your eyesight. The limitation is within your eyes, not what you’re looking at. I can’t speak for Frank, but I think that’s what he and I were trying to understand.

          1. Hi Khurt, yes and this is one of the reasons I enjoy blogs and conversations online, we get to hear what other people are doing, and sometimes it gives us ideas to adjust our own approach to benefit us more. Sometimes it steels us in the approach we already have. I’ve learned a huge amount about photography online in the last few years. Thanks for your comment and input.

      2. Borrowred from Quora:https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-optimum-screen-resolution-for-the-human-eye

        The spatial acuity of human vision, at its best, peaks at around 10–15 cycles (line pairs) per visual degree, and drops rapidly above this. The absolute upper limit is generally assumed to be about 60 cycles per degree. The screen or image resolution at which this limit is met obviously depends on the viewing distance; at a typical monitor viewing distance, it’s about 300 pixels per inch. Note that image resolution is properly given in PPI or similar units; the pixel format or addressability at which this resolution is achieved depends on the screen size. For a 24″ diagonal screen, which at a 16:9 aspect ratio means screen dimensions of about 20.9″ x 11.8″, 300 PPI means approx. 6270 x 3256 pixels. But for a 5.5″ smartphone screen of the same aspect ratio and viewed at the same distance, 300 PPI is just 1438 x 809 pixels. And let’s think about a 55″ TV screen viewed from a typical distance of 8 feet (96 inches). Our 60 cycles/degree limit is in this case met by a resolution of about 115 PPI; a 16:9 screen this size provides that at a pixel format of 5512 x 3100 pixels.

        Note that these figures aren’t really “optimum” values; they just represent the upper limit in resolution for each case, the point beyond which adding more pixels for the same screen size and viewing distance couldn’t possibly make a visible difference. In practice, viewers would very likely be completely satisfied with somewhat fewer pixels. Which says, for instance, that a “4K” 55″ TV is about as good as it’s ever going to get. On a smaller screen, say a 40″, viewed from the same distance, the difference between a “4K” image and the standard 1920 x 1080 would be very subtle. And obviously a 4K smartphone screen would just be an absurd waste of money.

    1. Do I?

      https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-optimum-screen-resolution-for-the-human-eye

      The spatial acuity of human vision, at its best, peaks at around 10–15 cycles (line pairs) per visual degree, and drops rapidly above this. The absolute upper limit is generally assumed to be about 60 cycles per degree. The screen or image resolution at which this limit is met obviously depends on the viewing distance; at a typical monitor viewing distance, it’s about 300 pixels per inch. Note that image resolution is properly given in PPI or similar units; the pixel format or addressability at which this resolution is achieved depends on the screen size. For a 24″ diagonal screen, which at a 16:9 aspect ratio means screen dimensions of about 20.9″ x 11.8″, 300 PPI means approx. 6270 x 3256 pixels. But for a 5.5″ smartphone screen of the same aspect ratio and viewed at the same distance, 300 PPI is just 1438 x 809 pixels. And let’s think about a 55″ TV screen viewed from a typical distance of 8 feet (96 inches). Our 60 cycles/degree limit is in this case met by a resolution of about 115 PPI; a 16:9 screen this size provides that at a pixel format of 5512 x 3100 pixels.

      Note that these figures aren’t really “optimum” values; they just represent the upper limit in resolution for each case, the point beyond which adding more pixels for the same screen size and viewing distance couldn’t possibly make a visible difference. In practice, viewers would very likely be completely satisfied with somewhat fewer pixels. Which says, for instance, that a “4K” 55″ TV is about as good as it’s ever going to get. On a smaller screen, say a 40″, viewed from the same distance, the difference between a “4K” image and the standard 1920 x 1080 would be very subtle. And obviously a 4K smartphone screen would just be an absurd waste of money.

      1. Khurt I think we’re saying the same thing. Once you get to a certain screen resolution that’s at the limit of what the human eye can see, continuing to increase the resolution of the screen won’t have any perceptible difference. As the article you quote says –

        “the point beyond which adding more pixels for the same screen size and viewing distance couldn’t possibly make a visible difference. In practice, viewers would very likely be completely satisfied with somewhat fewer pixels. ”

        This blog post is my opinion, my viewpoint, as they always are. I was thinking out loud as to why many people chase new technology, what the reasons may be, and inviting others to comment and share their views.

        More than one person has replied to similar posts in the past that they also find more satisfaction in older more “lo-fi” gear, rather than constantly upgrading at the whim of the manufacturers. So I think it’s very in keeping with a theme posts on 35hunter have always had, finding ways to enjoy photography in a simple way, and a limited budget.

  8. Dan, as always, coming to your blog is a real treat. Being relatively new to photography, I’ve struggled to learn how to put the theoretical into the practical. Having worked in Tech for 20+ years, the technical side of photography came fairly easy to me – but how to apply that to the artistic?

    I’ve been fortunate to come across lots of expired film rolls when purchasing my cameras at thrift stores and have really come to love the effects I get from it. The perfect to me becomes boring – like you said, the frayed edges are more interesting and say more than the glossy coldness of ruthless precision. I think bokeh is the perfect example of this – using imperfect background focus to create a painted backdrop of sorts for your subject. Why else would some of us covet Jupiters, Helioses and Petzvals?

    While reading your comments referencing noise (bonus points for the Autechre reference!) I was reminded of a live performance by Robert Glasper Experiment here in Seattle. Check out at the 53 second mark where Derek Hodge gets hit with some feedback, then uses it tonally as accompaniment. Brilliant.

    Imperfection can be as William so poetically put it, charm vs. poison. Keeping in mind that anything is poisonous given the proper dose, and that dose differs greatly from person to person.

    1. Rob, thank you for your kind words, glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      I was a big fan of expired film, and rarely shot anything new! I wrote a couple of posts in the past about the appeal, if you’re interested –

      https://35hunter.blog/tag/expired-film/

      Yes I completely agree about bokeh too, I love getting an artistic look from a lens that isn’t possible to see with the naked eye.

      I’ll check out the Robert Glasper Experiment, thank you. How you describe it reminds me of seeing Dave Pajo years ago doing a solo gig where he just had a guitar and a couple of effects pedals, one of which record then looped what he played. Watching and listening to him build up a symphony of layers one by one was amazing.

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