After yesterday's post, Ed Grossman wrote:
I wonder what the DxO scores for the cameras that shot the evenly illuminated, richly detailed vintage images at shorpy.com would be? [...] Makes me wonder how valuable those scores are in a majority of imaging scenarios. I'm thinking, 'not really that much.'
There are a couple of things to understand about this, I think. To begin with, it's important to understand that, roughly speaking, the entire history of photographic techniques, with a couple of important sidesteps, has been a steady march toward greater convenience, not greater quality. (The one really big sidestep was the advent of practical color, which was indeed a qualitative evolution. But we'll leave that aside for now.) Cameras got smaller, chemicals got less toxic, glass plates were done away with, processing got automated, lenses got faster, films got faster and less grainy, and so on. As this progression went on, new kinds of photographs were enabled by each new increment of technology: from the head-clamps of the 1840s to the stop-motion of Lartigue; Capa hiding a Leica under his coat to take a surreptitious picture of Leon Trotsky lecturing, obviously not something that would be possible with a stand camera; Erich Salomon taking candids of politicians in "smoke-filled rooms" with his Ermanox; ordinary civilians sending their Kodaks back to the factory to have the negatives processed and the film reloaded, and so forth. In that sense the march to greater convenience also made a qualitative difference in pictures. But from a purely technical standpoint, the main or primary (note: not the only) driving force of progress has always been convenience, not quality.
The next thing to understand is that the culture of digital has been quite different than that of film before it. Three aspects of this strike me as important. One, digital imaging was driven early on mainly by non-photographers, or at least people who needed little inculcation and training in the guild secrets of an old craft. The drivers of digital were computer people, in the main, not even primarily photographers in the traditional sense—most photographers went along in self-defense, starting with staff news photographers who had to learn to use pool digital cameras. Certainly, far more people are "digital imagers" now than the number of people who would have considered themselves "photographers" when I got into photography in 1980. Two, early digital was insufficient. In at least one of two ways. Either the technology was accessible and the image quality was insufficient (the first digital camera I used, an Agfa, in 1997, had 780,000 pixels, and the technology to make prints at home wasn't really there), or the image quality was sufficient but breathtakingly expensive (the 6.2 megapixel Kodak DCS460 of March 1995 had a list price of $35,600). So the early years of digital were consumed with an anxious search for adequate, affordable quality—resulting in habits of mind which have definitely continued to now: some photographers virtually center their hobby around exhaustive comparisons and evaluations of image quality, even now that it's no longer necessary to do so. Many of you remember how much we were consumed in the first five years of the present millennium with the question of whether digital could, or had, matched the quality of film—not a question anybody cares about any more. Three, the swift shift away from printmaking and toward online viewing of pictures has been accompanied by what Michael Reichmann famously dubbed "pixel-peeping"—it's as if even the most casual hobbyist has suddenly been visited with the ability to do the digital equivalent of looking at negatives under a microscope. Really, only dedicated photo-tech researchers (amateur and professional, few in number in any case) were doing in 1980 what anyone can do now on their computer screen with the click of a button.
This has resulted in a whole generation of photographers who have been constantly reinforced in the notion that "image quality" is an essential building-block of a successful photograph. Actually, it isn't. Actually, it isn't at all. One can find examples of anything, and I'm sure you can find examples of photographs that "work" primarily because of resolution or color accuracy, but most simply don't. You could also find examples of just as many photographs, if not more, that work primarily because of poor image quality or lower resolution or color inaccuracy.
You just don't get any "points" for using the camera with the best sensor at a given point of technological development. Nor do you have any points taken away for not having the absolute latest and greatest and best, assuming what you have is adequate for what you're trying to do. As an example...imagine you could identify the single photographer who was using the absolutely optimal available consumer digital technique for, say (picking a date out of a hat), October 2003. Is that enough by itself to commend his pictures to our attention now?
But that by itself doesn't mean that keeping apprised the current state of sensor technology isn't interesting, or that people "shouldn't" be interested in it.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Nicholas Condon: "I spent a couple of hours at the Corcoran Gallery today, much of it looking at the work of graduating students. There were several photographers whose work did little for me, a couple that I liked very well, and one (whose name has already escaped me, dammit) whose half-dozen prints were absolutely amazing. I don't know how the photos were taken, processed, or printed; it wasn't marked. If I think back on them, I could say that whatever was used produced images with excellent detail, minimal grain or noise, and plenty of dynamic range. More 'image quality' would not have made them any better, but less resolution or dynamic range would have started to hurt them at some point. The photographer had obtained sufficient equipment and sufficient technical expertise for the job at the hand; she need not spend any more time worrying about such matters.
"Could I have made these photos with my (not so expensive or cutting edge) cameras and lenses? Well, I'm sure my equipment could manage the job, but the photographer needs some significant upgrades...."
Mike replies: Cool. My alma mater. I was in that show myself once....
Every time I write about this, a few people make the mistake of thinking I'm saying that technique doesn't matter. That is not what I'm saying at all. (In fact, I've never said that.) I'm saying "image quality" by itself is not enough to make a photograph work. Which is, I think, indisputable. I'm also saying that some photographs work better with what's generally considered "poor" technique than they would work with what's generally considered "good" technique—and I think that's indisputable as well. Neither of those statements is the same thing at all as saying that technique or image quality doesn't matter. The technical properties of an image and its appropriateness to what's being shown or expressed or reported or recorded are often an important part of the picture and its message.