(This article was written for and published at the photography website Serious Compacts and written in my capacity as a graphic designer and photographer.)

As a graphic designer, I often design for organizations and NGOs (or Nonprofits) working in the development sector and frequently receive images from clients for use in communication material as varied as brochures, websites, flyers, annual reports, newsletters, fact sheets and technical documents. Am fond of the imagery the development sector uses and often find it more interesting and natural than the slick, seemingly perfect and utopian imagery used by the marketing (FMCG) and now even information technology sectors.

In the past couple of years, for dozens of design assignments undertaken for development sector clients, I have rarely received ‘technically perfect’ images shot by professional photographers using hi-end equipment such as dSLRs. Most images I receive have been shot by clients / volunteers / students using compact cameras. And by compact cameras here I mean the most basic or budget compact cameras running on ‘auto’ mode. Noise, highlight clipping, channel clipping, colored fringing, blooming of highlights, poor dynamic range, excessive use of flash (and therefore harsh shadows) and color cast are just some of the technical issues I frequently encounter while shortlisting and processing supplied images for print and/or web publishing.

For a large design assignment, I typically receive an assortment of images (usually about two dozen or more) which are then categorized to match with text / chapters / sections. Unless the technical quality of a particular image is unacceptable, am forced to make do with what is given and each relevant image is then optimized for print. Thanks to powerful image processing softwares, each selected image usually goes through the following process:
– Resizing (usually downsizing), size of technically bad or blurred but important photos is usually reduced a lot, sometimes as small as 2×1 inches, to make them useable and hide some of the flaws. I prefer to convert images to 240 ppi resolution for print purposes.
– Chroma noise reduction (usually applied to full-size images which are later downsized).
– Shadow and highlight recovery (using shadow-highlight sliders in Photoshop), adjustment of levels. Sometimes HDR techniques are used to process different parts of the image separately.
– Correction of color cast.
– Correction of horizontal plane, also barrel distortion and perspective in some cases.
– Correction of skin tones (often flashed faces come out reddish and are not easy to correct).
– Conversion to CMYK (for 4 color printing) or to Greyscale for one or two color printing.
Usually cropping decisions are taken at the page markup stage where I can see the image-text relationship accurately and crop images accordingly.

Images are almost always received as a part of the brief and for most development sector design assignments (with tight budgets), buying stock images or getting a professional shoot done is not an option also because many of the situations or circumstances cannot be staged. I think most reasonable graphic designers learn to work under constraints and make do with what they are given.

Above: A report cover and a newsletter designed for Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, New Delhi, India. (Reproduced with permission from Chintan.)

As someone also doing serious and fine art photography with compacts for the past couple of years, this is where I fall into a dilemma.. While on one hand I strive to capture technically sound images and am always on the lookout for the next compact that would raise the bar on my images, on the other hand as a designer I make do with images that I would reject outright for their technical flaws if taken by me. Images that are still used in important publications which may be read and used by top national and international organizations, governmental agencies, funding agencies, think tanks and the like, taken with automatic point-and-shoot cameras I would not even look at! Thus I wonder if it is the image (the subject, the moment, the interrelationship of elements, the light, etc.) and the purpose for which it was taken that really matters and that the rest is essentially ‘technical’ and ’secondary’, the bit photographers tend to worry too much about these days! Also, as someone who worked extensively with film / transparency scans uptill 3-4 years back, it feels great to receive compact digital camera images because they are far easier to process than traditional (drum or flatbed) scans and thankfully file sizes are much lighter.

One change I have noticed over the past couple of years with regard to imagery supplied by clients (for use in communication design) is that the ‘number’ of images coming in has increased dramatically and organizations that could earlier not afford expensive imagery or visual documentation of their projects now have enough ‘workable’ photos in their database. For this, a lot of credit should probably go to the recent boom in affordable, pocketable and easy-to-use compact cameras, which, in my humble opinion, are making a big difference for organizations involved in development work and perhaps indirectly in the lives of people for whom they are working.

About the author: Mayank Bhatnagar is a Jaipur and New Delhi (India) based graphic designer, illustrator and photographer.