The wedding pic experiment – a trek into uncanny valley

If there is one piece of advice I would pass along to young couples* it would be this: Pay the money to get your wedding professionally photographed. It will save you much regret later.

When my wife and I got married, fourteen years ago, we were both poor as hell. We rented the local American Legion hall for the service, which cost around $150. She did all the decorating herself, with supplies mostly purchased at Michael’s. I burned cd’s for all of the music using Napster (when that was still a thing), set up a stereo under one of the tables, and controlled it using a remote (which was in my pocket throughout the service). The entire ceremony cost us only a few hundred dollars. At the time, that was all we wanted or needed.

On that budget, we obviously couldn’t afford to have it professionally photographed. At the time, we couldn’t even afford to have it amateurly photographed. So we went with the old -disposable-cameras-on-the-tables trick as the primary photography solution. Let’s just say that didn’t work out. We ended up with hundred of grainy pictures of floors, walls, ceilings, people’s thumbs, etc. The few photos that were taken of the correct people, at the correct time, were in such shitty light, and in such poor resolution, that nearly none of the wedding photos are of any use. An example photo here:


Note that this is the best picture we have of us with her family. It is very dark and grainy as hell, even on the 4×6 or 5×7. That would also be on the negative since it was taken with those shitty, disposable cameras, so even if we still had those (and I’m not sure that we do) it wouldn’t improve if we got larger prints made from it.

The same was true for photos of the bride and groom. There are exactly two pictures of us that are even remotely passable. One of them was taken by my boss at the time. That one is a profile shot of us exchanging vows, and we have an 11×17 of it hanging in the house, it was framed and given to us as a wedding gift. The other passable picture is of us dancing. It is also grainy as hell, but we are both smiling so big and obviously so happy that it is the perfect photo -disregarding the graininess of it.

So for our anniversary this year, I decided to see if I could get a better image of us from our wedding day. Obviously, lacking the availability of a time machine, I was limited to images that already existed. I took the best image I could find that showed us from the front and sent it to someone to have some photoshop work done on it. The person I sent it to was able to do quite a good job, actually. They were able to remove most of the shadows and get the tones set to more reasonable shades. They were able to remove a bit of the graininess, but it still just didn’t look very good. Definitely not good enough to try to have it embiggened.

Without a lot of options remaining, I decided to see if I could find someone to paint a portrait from the image. I found out that it was ridiculously expensive to commission a painting of that type, and I couldn’t be guaranteed of the results. So, on a whim, I contacted someone to see if they would draw the portrait digitally. Working from the photoshopped image, he drew our likenesses on an arbitrary background. He followed the original portrait as nearly as he could.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I’ve never really seen a portrait drawn digitally. The resulting image was amazing … But wrong:


(the image size is greatly reduced in the embedded image above) Viewing it on a computer screen or handheld device, one could almost believe that it was an actual photo. Probably airbrushed quite a bit to soften it and remove blemishes, but you can almost believe it is a photo. Again, the guy really did an amazing job, but it just looks … off.

Uncanny Valley is a term that was coined for exactly this reason. The features are too realistic to be purely computer generated, but too perfect to be a photo. At least that’s what I think. Here’s a shot of just the faces from the photoshopped photo above the digital portrait (you can click through this one to enlarge it):


As I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I had this portrait created. The result is certainly amazing, but I can’t figure out if I like it or not. I keep bouncing back and forth between thinking it looks amazing and thinking it looks downright creepy. If I had it done with paint instead of digital, I don’t think that would be the case. If it was with paint, it would be obvious that it was a painted portrait, which would likely strip away the eerie feeling that keeps creeping into my mind when I look at it.

However, an image on the computer won’t look the same in real life. A 2700×3300 image on the computer will only print out at 9″x11″ with 300dpi, which could make a huge impact on how the image looks. Of course the images he produced for me were in a ridiculously large format (capable of producing 24″x30″ prints). I decided to take a shot at having them printed to see if I liked them any better on paper. I chose to print them on canvas instead of paper though, because I thought that if the image was too smooth, the creepiness would set in again. I further had only the black and white version printed at full size (24″x30″), thinking that it would look less creepy if it wasn’t in color (so it wouldn’t look so much like it was trying to be an actual photo). I had a much smaller (10″x12″) printed of the full color portrait. Having them now in my possession, I am still undecided. From a distance of even a few feet, they look like they are photos … Or supposed to be photos, but they are just a bit off. But if you take a step towards them, it gets downright creepy again. Here are both of them leaning on my couch (and I assure you that the graininess here is from my shitty camera and not the actual prints):


So I remain torn on whether these images represent an amazing anniversary gift that will last a lifetime, or just some creepy experiment. I guess only time will tell.

*If I were passing along two pieces of advice, the other piece of advice would be this: take nude photos of yourself often -videos too, if you have the ability. You won’t want to look at them right away, and certainly won’t show anyone, but twenty years from now, you will be showing anyone who will look. You’re never going to look any better than you do in your late teens or early twenties. Preserve that shit and show it off when everything starts sagging.

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