July 2012 Archives

Special Effects




As digitization makes pictures more and more about applying graphics and relatively less about catching light, the effects that go into photographs span an ever-increasing range of stylized themes and memes instantly available to almost anyone with a newer camera or smartphone.

Perhaps accidentally, this throws a long generation of "inherent" effects from previous equipment into a new light. Photographers have always found reasons to take "limitations" of their equipment and convert them into meaningful intentions. Blurring, caused by motion, becomes the "motion effect" to apply, representing energy or excitement. Soft focus, often from the combination of being distant and hurried, becomes symbolic of ephemera, which in turn being less concrete, represents fantasy or the imaginary. Highlights, from overexposure,represent extra attention or exclamation. And any horizon drawn over or under 90 degrees, due to the available point of view, represents the tension of the microslice of time inevitably and quickly followed by a "corrective" change of position,

Even more than still photographers, filmmakers tended to exploit these effects in a highly premeditated way, picking the frames and moments when these would be the silent narrator of the story, not needing a background soundtrack. Meanwhile, photographers would select "vintage" or "crude" equipment specifically to play their effects like instruments. Further, the "snapshot aesthetic" even became a serious pursuit by advanced artists. But now, almost any new cameraphone will run an application that simulates any effects of the older or cruder tools.

In this unfiltered still shot above, from an aging cameraphone, the first thing we notice is how much alike it is to what must be hundreds of millions of similar captures by families and friends everywhere. Just hearing the phrase "blowing out the candles" almost completely generates, mentally, any of the millions of such shots, because the sufficient formula is quite simple. But the additional thing we can see, in the shot above, occurs to us almost like an afterthought triggered by the feeling of the picture. If we ask, on any level of explicit awareness, "why does this picture feel this way?" then the effects become evident, dramatically. What I love about the shot is having them all there at the same time, knowing their jobs, doing what they're supposed to be doing, to correctly, not just generically, describe the moment. It's the reason why only this shot, not the seven similar others that came right before and after it, is the one that was not discarded. And for those same reasons, it will also outlast very many other dissimilar pictures in my files as well.