Size IS Important

May 15, 2017

Maybe it is a clickbait title. But I have been reflecting recently on aspects of photography – and modeling – where size does impact the results that are delivered.

Let’s start, in this post, where the concept really hit me. In editing images, of all places.

A post has to have images. But as I thought of those to illustrate my points, I thought about how they would be viewed.. at different sizes. So this image is just one to catch the eye, not to highlight my observations. Model : Kenny Villa – a beautiful psychologist practicing in Cabo San Lucas

Through the looking glass – photo editing

Like many others, I am sure, I used to think that the larger the screen and therefore the view of the image, the better for editing.  And aligned with that, to always work at 100% view when doing localized edits, to be sure you have it right.  Like most simple ideas rooted in commonsense, I still think it is true – in part.  But, just as with all simplifications, the deeper you delve, the more you find that simplistic ideas rarely entirely match reality.  Indeed, as I got deeper into such work, I have found “larger is better” is an over-simplification, and frankly unhelpful for some elements of image development.  Where did this unsettling realization begin?  As I produced some landscape images to put on Facebook, I noticed that the thumbnails looked quite different from what I had envisaged when I was editing.  In fact the vignetting I had applied looked dreadfully overstated.  I flipped back to the larger image.  It looked ok.. until you looked carefully.  Only then I could see the over-vignetting.  The seed had been planted in my mind.

I started looking at smaller versions of image after I had edited them.  Other things came to light.  What looked ok when scanning a large image close up in terms of compositional balance and absence of distracting elements  sometimes was revealed to have major problems when viewed as a small image or even thumbnail.  Large areas of distracting brightness or intrusions into the frame might pop out in the smaller size.  It wasn’t that they were only there in the small size, just that they are more easily caught.

So maybe I was onto something new, a different perspective on how I should edit.  Once that thought started percolating, I became more aware and open to the differences a change of image size could make to seeing flaws, and to improving my images.  The next revelation came when editing tonal variations on portraits – smoothing uneven skin tones, or adding contouring and highlights.  While it was easier in some ways to work at 100%, when pulled back to see the whole face, areas that appeared good in a detail view suddenly showed blotchiness.  Contoured and highlight areas that looked excellent in a detail view could seem uneven and out of balance when viewing the whole face, or even more so a head and shoulders crop.

Now other thoughts related to past advice I had received about the art of editing came to mind.  In particular, I recalled being told that having a physical print was a necessary tool to see what truly worked in an image and what didn’t and needed fixing.  Certainly, some of this is due to the difference that reflected light (in a print) makes vs transmitted light (via a screen), and to different interpretations of colour (colour spaces).  However, I suspect that again part of the revelatory nature of printing an image for review comes from the difference in size and hence the grasp that you mind has of the whole, rather than seeing piecemeal or beyond the central area of sight.  A different perspective can reveal different problems.  For those of you who are old enough to have worked a lot with physical documents as well as screens, perhaps you will recall the difference in proofreading on a screen vs on physical paper.  Errors that escape detection repeatedly on the screen can almost leap from the page when seen in paper form.  For important documents, I still do my final proofreading in hardcopy, for this very reason.  I suspect that this phenomenon is associated with my observations on image editing perspectives.

At the end of this exploration of editing and image size, what are my conclusions about the best way to work on images?

  1. For detail healing and cloning, work at 100% view, but pull back at times to check how it looks as a whole, and if more work is needed.
  2. For skin toning and contouring, it’s better to work at a size where you can see most fo the face or head and shoulders, and to check at a lower level of magnification from time to time
  3. For broad changes, such as vignetting or gradient-based lightening / darkening, even if you work at a view that fits the image to the screen, check what it looks like in thumbnail form to ensure there are no obvious over-heavy effects
  4. If the deskspace allows (and look out for situations where you need to swivel your head to view, and the price you pay, ergonomically, is not worth the additional information gained), then a separate screen to show a sized version of the image as you work on it, without distractions, can be helpful in assessing the overall look of the image and catching errors missed  when, metaphorically, you are viewing the trees, rather than the forest
  5. Incorporating draft printing of important images in the editing process may help reveal more direction to what needs to be edited and in what way.

Don’t just take (or ignore) my word for it.  Try looking at some of your images in different sizes and different ways and see if my ideas resonate with you.


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