TIME Lightbox Has a Compression Problem

TIME Lightbox Has a Compression Problem

I’ve had this on my mind for some time. I’m a big fan of the TIME Lightbox, one of the top photography blogs on the internet, except that the images often look like crap. Reason: Really heavy JPG compression. If the goal of a photography blog is to showcase great photography, then one of the main pillars should be to ensure that the pictures look as good as the photographer intended.

Media and content delivery companies (e.g. Netflix) rely on data compression to quickly deliver content to their customers and reduce everyone’s data consumption bills. Today’s internet wouldn’t function without compression, but there is a threshold of acceptability that each organization needs to abide by.

Most photographers are familiar with the concept of JPG compressions – a form of lossy compression that can save a lot of bits of storage with a trade-off of image degradation. Heavy JPG compression is characterized by banding and squarish-looking artifacts that are very noticeable in solid colors like the sky.

The entry entitled “Noor Photo Agency Adds Two Photographers” opens with an image from Tanya Habjouqa of a child on the beach. Here is the image from TIME (I would suggest viewing the image on TIME as our blog image size is on the smaller side which masks a lot of the issues I’m discussing).

A young girl plays on the beach in the party dress she wore the night before at a wedding, at the Deir al-balah Refugee camp in Gaza.

A young girl plays on the beach in the party dress she wore the night before at a wedding, at the Deir al-balah Refugee camp in Gaza. Photo by Tanya Habjouqa.

The same image from the Emaho Magazine website is much clearer.

Here’s a cropped version side-by-side. TIME’s version is on the left.

habjouqanoor-arrow

The TIME image has pixelation in the sky. The edge detail has lots of compression artifacts. The detail on the child and the cloth roof is significantly degraded. The TIME version looks very muddy, with an image quality that reminds me of an old smartphone.

If you’re casually viewing the images, you might not notice. But I think that the lack of clarity has a subtle effect on even the viewer. Photographers invest thousands of dollars for gear and spend hours, if not years, of their lives to create photos. When the images are displayed with low fidelity, the viewer will inevitably come away thinking of the photo as an inferior product.

An image used in the context of a news piece where it plays a secondary role won’t come under such scrutiny. But when photos are being positioned as the main show, TIME should try harder to make the images look good.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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