Robert Deutsch, writing in "As We See It" in the February 2009 issue of Stereophile (p. 3), says:
It seems fair to say that—like those who have a strong interest in wine, food, photography, etc.—audiophiles are devoted to exploring subtle differences; generally, we tend to be towards the Sharpening end of the continuum. But even among audiophiles, some will describe as "night and day" a sonic difference that to others sounds fairly minor: these are Sharpeners, whereas the wire-is-wire, bits-are-bits, all-amplifiers-sound-the-same folks are Levelers.
As you might expect, given that Stereophile is an audio magazine, Robert Deutsch goes on to explore the implications of this dichotomy for stereo enthusiasts in greater detail.
It's appropriate that he mentioned photography, I thought. Online (and it's important to remember that not all photographers or photography enthusiasts participate in the online world), we seem to have fallen into a habit of intense Sharpening: in the early days of digital, when pixels were few and noise ruled the day, the relative quality of digital "capture" was naturally a subject of great scrutiny. The internet has done nothing but intensify that tendency, sometimes to fanatical levels.
Lately, however, I've begun to feel a Leveling influence spreading over us like an oncoming change in the weather; more and more, all digital is not only looking really good, it's also starting to look really similar.
Michael Reichmann, who made his popular website's bones with very early and very timely comparisons between film and digital, recently published a brief article comparing the results from a digital pocket camera made under optimal conditions to those from a medium-format digital back, concluding that it was tough to tell them apart. I actually wrote a column in Black & White Photography magazine a few years ago saying much the same thing, although my points of comparison (an Olympus p/s compared to a 6-MP DSLR) were not quite so widely spaced. (I'd tell you what issue it was in, but I, uh, don't know. If you happen to remember or have the issue handy, let me know and I'll post the info.)
Discussing the "Sharpener vs. Leveler" idea privately, a friend said, "sometimes I'm a ferocious sharpener, sometimes I'm an indiscriminate leveler." Like him, I find myself going back and forth. I hope I do it appropriately, but of course that's a judgment call anyway. In the lens review a few posts ago, I definitely had my Sharpener hat on; at other times, I encourage people to relax about the technical minutiae and just look at the pictures—a Leveler tendency.
Interesting idea, I thought, and one that is certainly pertinent to many of our discussions in a number of different ways.
Featured Comment by Gabriele Harhoff: "Mike, I believe you are referring to your article "The Light Choice" in Black & White Photography February 2005, where you compared the Olympus C-8080 to a Canon DLSR."
Mike replies: Thanks Gabriele!
Featured Comment by Al Benas: "I find that I turn into a leveler immediately after I make my sharpener-based camera purchase, and have no more financial resourses to change anything. :)"