Robert Roaldi, whose comments inspired Ctein to write "The Bar Also Rises," left the following comment yesterday morning in that thread:
What partly prompted me to write about equipment standards in the previous comments was something that I have seen here, in Luminous Landscape ,and other places. Someone writes comments about pixel level noise in a camera model or other, then adds that that noise would not be seen in any final print so it's not worth worrying about. Then forum contributors consume megabytes of disk space doing precisely that: worrying about it. In the end, do I know any more than I did before? I don't know.
I fully understand the need to pursue excellence. Pushing manufacturers to do better for less money is perfectly fine, so far as it goes. I guess I am just a little sick of trying to decide what is meaningful and what isn't. I can't buy one of each model and test for myself.
Although we supposedly have great consumer choice, in my experience it is mostly a shelf space illusion. I recently decided to replace my 6-year old inkjet. There are dozens of models avalable, with relatively small differences in features that distinguish them. Would I be able to tell the difference between Canon's 5-colour model for $99CDN vs one of their 6-colour models for $199CDN. Who knows. I know that no store near me would let me bring both home for a week for me to test. So I bought the 6-colour one because of a test site that is linked from TOP (or was anyway). There are hundreds of equipment tests on the web and my final choice was made almost by flipping a coin. Would I have been equally served by the 5-colour $99CDN model? Maybe, but I will never know.
It seems to me that there are two main issues here, separate but both interesting. Regarding the issue of noise, I've always tried—with limited success, I'm afraid—to get people to look a little ways past technical properties and see them as qualities. This goes for pretty much any technical property you can name—resolution, noise, whatever it is. The first question to ask in order to vector in on the point would be, assuming you could get a camera that was completely noise-free, what then? Would this improve your pictures? The answer, I suppose, is that it might. More likely, it would work with some pictures and not be important for others. but it doesn't help at all to answer any of the main questions, which are, what are you going to take pictures of? Why? Once you've shot the pictures, how do you tell which ones are better and which not so good? Unfortunately, the technical goal of complete freedom from noise doesn't help you at all with any of these questions. Once you found the Holy Grail of a noise-free camera, maybe you could think of some things to do with it that would be enabled by this quality. But the problem is that it doesn't really help, in most cases—an indifferent snapshot with zero noise is still an indifferent snapshot.
I used to try to make this argument with regard to lens resolution on the Leica User Group, again with very limited success. Endless discussions would flow ever onward, never ceasing, about this and that lens and which one had ever so slightly more resolution than the next, at which aperture, and under which conditions. But the bigger question—why is resolution good and what do you need resolution for?—was seldom addressed. Some people, being argumentative and skilled in forensics, could invent plausible scenarios in which resolution would be desirable, and a few people actually had legitimate requirements for it—for instance, an aerial photographer who needed his pictures to show objects on the ground, or a surveillance photographer who needed to be able to read car license plate numbers from great distances. I'm not claiming it's unimportant absolutely, therefore. But unfortunately we do tend to get sidetracked into great disputations about technical properties that might ultimately be irrelevant, or very close to it.
The corollary to the question is, does noise ruin photographs that would otherwise be good ones? A couple of weeks ago I dug out some old digisnaps that I made with my long-gone Sony F-707. Take another look at two of the pictures along with a couple of details of the noise:
As I think you'll agree, this is flagrant, excessive, flamboyant noise. But does it really matter to the pictures? Painting should have taught us by now that the structure that makes up the image doesn't really matter to the image itself and how it communicates as art.
...Or rather, the structure of the image does matter, but there is no intrinsic value or ranking system as to what is better and what is worse. More detail, less detail? Grain, no grain? Accurate color, expressive color? Regarding the noise in the two photographs, any given person might be able to articulate why it is bad. And of course it can be damned most effectively by resorting to taste: you can say you don't like it. But the truth is that the noise doesn't ruin either picture. Maybe it enhances them. More logically it is just neutral; it is just there. But it doesn't affect either picture's ability to communicate. So, really, when we talk about noise we are just distracting ourselves, distancing ourselves from the real questions; "noise" as a topic may be about photography, but it is not about photographs.
If we really want to talk about pictures we'd almost need the language of poetry. We'd talk about time, ghosts, loss, relationships, strangeness and familiarity, aging, aspiration and longing, places to be, subjective response, meaning, experience, love, all sorts of things. It's a language we don't really know. But the fact remains, it is just as possible to take a wholly successful, excellent, outstanding picture with a sensor that has tons of noise, as it is to take such a picture with a sensor that has no noise; it is just as possible to take a great picture that has almost no resolution as it is to take one with very high resolution; it is just as possible to take a great picture with a lens that distorts badly as it is to take one with a lens that does not distort at all; and the list goes on to all the other technical properties that we concern ourselves with so happily. We should not lose sight of that.
A book about food
As for Robert's other topic—choosing a printer—I sometimes think that the best book I've seen about this and similar topics—like choosing a camera, for instance—is a book about food by Marion Nestle called What to Eat. That might well sound strange (and maybe it is!), but the confusion and capitulation that Robert describes are wholly intentional. You're not supposed to be able to make an easy choice, or a logical one, either. You're supposed to be left with the feeling that you haven't adequately investigated all of the shopping options and opportunities, even after you've purchased your printer and taken it home. What to Eat talks intelligently about marketing issues that each one of us supposes we are above, and yet that each one of us can also acknowledge to be effective to the point of malevolence in its influence on the public at large. The choices of what to eat (the omnivore's dilemma) are effectively infinite, and the need to shop for (or at least to acquire) more food is ongoing and ever-immediate, so how you're influenced to make your own choices—and what entity your choice benefits—is like a broad-brush picture of the fine-line issues involved in finding a printer, or scanner, or digicam.
This does relate to the noise discussion to an extent, because when we get lost in discussions about sensor noise and what's best and what's less good, we're really functioning as consumers, and possibly allowing our roles as consumers to overwhelm our roles as photographers, creators of art, reporters, documentarians—that is, however we use photography and whatever we use it for. Does anybody who cares about photographs really want to be closed off from all the pictures he or she will ever see that have low resolution, or sensor noise, or that in some other way violate the accepted precepts of good shopping? That would be sad, not to mention aesthetically bankrupt. Indeed, a large number of successful artists tend to share a certain attitude toward consumerism—namely, that they set it aside or apart, they set themselves outside of it, and they don't talk about it. It's a way of refusing to be limited by it, refusing to accept its dictates, refusing to accept its hegemony over their own creative activity. It's an attitude most of us would be wise to acknowledge more often.