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Monday, 24 September 2007


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Mike, you have some very good points.

I think the grain in the Grimmy pictures is irrelevant, or may even be enhancing it, making it more "documentary" looking.

I think noise can be distracting in two of my favorite areas: nudes and landscapes. In the first one I like smooth tones, and in the latter, I want detail.

And then on the other hand, Bill Brandt made wonderful nudes and landscapes with spectacularly grainy film.

"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 for?

Mike, couldn't agree more.
Consider this, too: how does one "enter" a picture (photo)?
I am starting to suspect that, the less interesting (or provoking?) a picture is, the more viewers start entering it from the structure ( broad sense) point of view. Noise, so-called "realistic" color, sharpness and so on. Landscapes and macros come to mind...

I actually don't think it's too different from painting, really.

In many ways, photography is like golf. Yet another shopping opportunity.

"What for?"

So that you'll keep shopping and maybe buy a second printer. The whole point of marketing is to get you to spend more, isn't it?



Uuuuhhhhmmmmmmm. Wellllllllll, nice post!


Before digital many people were happy to shoot 400 ISO films in their 35mm cameras and appreciated the "35mm aesthetic", which meant relatively grainy pictures with less smooth gradation than larger format film. Not all people, as others shoot medium and large format film. A friend once shot the same scene, on a canal, in B&W with 35mm and medium format cameras: comparing the prints we both concluded that we liked the 35mm shot better — it had more "bite" and character, which was particularly attractive in the water of the canal.

These days, as Mike says, people want grainless or noiseless photographs. Of course most people shoot colour; but even in colour grain can look good: look at Harry Gruyaert's "Rivage" series on the Magnum website — glorious large-grain colour.

It's an aesthetic choice: as Mike says, one is not better than the other — it's up to the photographer to do what he prefers: and his choice and preference may be different for different types of pictures.

I'm currently doing a lot of street-type photography for which I feel the 35mm aesthetic is appropriate. But, then, I have also been influenced my Daido Moriyama, who doesn't like the "exquisite" look of grainless photographs.

To get the look I want I've been shooting with small-sensor cameras — first the Ricoh GR-D, then the Leica D-Lux 3 and now the Ricoh GX100 — which are characterized by a grainy look and great deptfh field. For my current preference cameras like the Canon 5D and the Leica M8 have a look more like scanned medium format film. You can of course rough the files of these cameras and put in artificial grain, but I prefer doing things more directly with small-sensor cameras, although I do extensive post-processing.

So I agree entirely that grainless or noiseless pictures are not necessarily better.


To play devil's advocate here, while noise is fussed over excessively in internet forums and can often add character to a picture rather than detract from it, an artist wants control over everything in the picture and having the ability to make noise-free pictures is an advantage.

Impressionist paintings don't look the way they do because "that's the painting equipment Van Gogh had on hand at the time," but because of the deliberate efforts of the artist.

Once I was reviewing my pictures from the day and complaining that some were blurry, and my girlfriend reminded me that all pictures don't have to be sharp.

I said, "True, but if a picture I took isn't sharp or is blurry, I want that to be on purpose!"

Here's another explanation for the madness: folks who are perpetually obsessed with technical measurements and equipment in general are deeply insecure about their ability to take worthwhile photographs. In many cases they may not actually be interested in photography at all, only cameras, but are unwilling to admit it, or even face it themselves.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a non-photographer camera fancier. The few people I've seen online who come from that position are among the happiest-sounding around.

So ... am i the only reader who think that Grimmy's salad is fantastic? Is that seasoning on top, or noise?

Mike touches on an aspect of camera performance that I've been thinking about myself lately, having picked up a DSLR about a year ago and now being faced with a new emerging crop offering "better" performance. I use quotes because I think that's a misleading, though widely accepted, way of looking at technological progress. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the latest cameras offer "broader" performance. Pushing usable ISOs to 6400 means that in certain low light situations, you will be able to make a picture where you couldn't before. However, at ISO 200, this massive noise improvement is negligible. I think digital imaging's progress is effectively pushing out the borders of what is captureable (that is, the conditions under which a photo can be made). But given a scene that last year's camera could capture effectively, the technical advantage of the latest camera is much less pronounced. I think photographers (meaning consumer photographers) tend to get fixated on that technologically-limited border between captureable and not, without even thinking much about how those "limitations" really restrict their photography. I suspect that in many cases, consumers over-value these broadened capabilities with, as Mike suggests, little thought about what photography is really about.

For what it's worth, my feeling is the noise isn't an issue the the Grimmy shot but distracts (for me) in the Dan shot.

2 types of noise are being mixed here. I'm quite happy with luminance noise and if I want to remove it then softwrae does a good job without detroying too much detail. I'm finding, though, with some photos that the colour noise gets in the way. I'm losing detail I want in shadows and only lower noise from the sensor helps.

Proof is in the printing - I think I would need to run my own coparisons to see how much of an issue it really is.

The salad was actually made by Grimmy's son, my old friend Jim, and it's a specialty of his. It seems to have dozens of ingredients, and you're right, it's fantastic!


Regarding the issue of printers (and all things technological), I'm afraid we're at the mercy of the "experts" with their evaluations and opinions. There are a lot of them out there. The best we can do is compile as much information as possible from the sources we deem reliable and make the best decision we can.

On grain, I'm firmly in the no-grain camp, at least as far as MY images are concerned. But, as I depend on recording minute detail, that's my aesthetic preference. When it comes to the images of others, I have no preference. Whatever the artist feels is appropriate for their work is what's paramount.

I will say this, though. While the newer cameras are less prone to noise, there's nothing stopping a photographer from adding it post-process. Instant, controllable noise. That's the great thing about new technologies, it gives us more choices.

Clap, clap, clap (that's the sound of my reaction to your text!)

I can't help reading comparative tests and pieces about tools that I know I'll never use. It's a reminiscence of my childhood days, I guess, of looking trough the glass of a shop window, when some objects seemed to have magical qualities. But in the end they are meaningless.

There's something religious in those long arguments over resolution, noise, whatever. As such, a complete loss of time. But people always loved to belong to one church or another and to shout "anathema" as often as possible.

Some of the most moving pictures (photographs, but also moving pictures, movies) I have contemplated were taken with primitive wooden boxes. I undertsand the lust for good tools, but only when it's fueled by the results (what they can produce). Otherwise we are into the "fetishism of the merchandise" (old Marxist concept I am not sure it's translated like that).
I think I'll remember your "If we really want to talk about pictures we'd almost need the language of poetry." paragraph for a long time. It's probably the best explanation of the whole issue I have ever read, straight to the point and brilliantly formulated.

Hah! I also noticed the salad first, before anything else about the picture.

If there's any technical element that is distracting to me, it's probably a shade too yellow for my taste, but that's easily fixed, or it could just be a monitor issue--I'm uncalibrated.

I wouldn't have thought about the noise, if it hadn't been the topic of discussion, but I suspect that it wasn't beyond the photographer's control. I know Mike doesn't like tripods, and after all, my own thought would be--if I've got to use a tripod, I might as well use a bigger camera--but seeing as the salad wasn't going anywhere and Grimmy probably wasn't storming around the kitchen like the Tasmanian Devil, this could have been done on a lower ISO setting using a tripod, and I suspect the exposure wouldn't have gotten so long as to cause more noise than the effect of the higher ISO setting (from the arm motion, I'm guessing this was 1/15 sec.).

But the tripod would have changed the social situation, and having Grimmy relaxed is more important to the atmosphere here than the amount of noise in the image, so I'd say it was a fair tradeoff.

well ok its interesting but do i have to choose the 99$ or the 199$ printer ?


I ran a B&W photo lab year ago and was doing a lot of yearbook photos that the kids where shooting. "the prints were out of focus nothing is sharp where the complaints"
Thinking a bit, knowing it wasn't on my end I decided to use the worst developer I could find on their film, making things as grainy as possible. Problem solved, every thing now looked sharp. I always add a little grain to soft looking photos.
For what ever reason it makes digital stuff look like film.

Does anyone here own Telex: Iran by Gilles Peress? 35mm B&W photographs, clearly shot à la sauvette, printed large.

It's living proof that a good eye and an interesting subject are more important than image quality.

People who use film a lot for artistic purposes often lament the loss of grain.

Grain, mind you, is a technical limitation of the worst kind. Having a lot of grain essentially means having a lot of lost or confused information.

The next 5 years are going to see the production of sensors we can't even dream of at this point, with levels of detail, resolution numbers and sensitivities far beyond today's current generation, which is just now surpassing film.

And we'll be the guys lamenting the loss of color noise. Oh that beautiful, beautiful color noise! The delicately blown highlights! The artfully blocky compression artifacts!

Your comments are sound, logical and -I dare say- authorative! These have always been what my other half was whispering to my ears: "You don't need that lens, you already have a fine one", "you should not buy a new camera -you already have more than you need- just take more pictures"... I am slightly ashamed to tell you that I have listened to my consumer half more...
Perhaps one should answer a question like this: What makes you happier, taking pictures with your present equipment or buying new equipment? No cheating allowed, however, and you cannot say "taking pictures with the new equipment!". Cheating? What cheating?

Here's a tangent to Robert Roaldi's final paragraph about how difficult it is to choose among so many, hard to evaluate, product features. In this talk (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/93), psychologist Barry Schwartz examines how excess choice is making us miserable and why it would be better if we in the wealthy, free world could give up some of our freedom of choice in favor of those in poorer, less free parts of the world where there's not enough choice.

I'd just like to put another argument to feed the bipolar disorder of noise-maniacs : I never didn't see any noise with (should I say within?) my eyes - whereas lack of sharpness is very natural for these mildly myopic eyes, eg.
Well, I don't like pointillism, neither ;o)... But aren't we allowed to have a rationale covering our likings - preferingly not one forged by someone else?

By the way, that book ('What to eat') frightened me : haven't you anything else to buy food but supermarkets in America? Gosh, I think we'll need to make a crusade soon to bring you the true light of tuiles aux amandes (if you drive through Corps, Isere, France, just stop at the Hotel de la Poste and get a few - that was my last food buy this afternoon, and they're always divine).

"By the way, that book ('What to eat') frightened me : haven't you anything else to buy food but supermarkets in America?"

In America, only people who live in New York City eat well. For the rest of us, it's supermarkets.

There's a growing organic and farmer's-market subculture, but I'd be surprised if it serves more than .1% of the population.


the most absolutely inane and incomprehensible comment I ever heard about my pictures (on an online nature photography forum) was that because I was shooting with a 'prosumer digicam' - a Canon G5, I would never be able to make a 'state of the art' picture.

Does anyone have a clue what a "state of the art' photograph is?

I do think that camera shopping is just about the opposite of becoming a better photographer. I will add that learning new software for manipulating and organizing images is often no more than a distraction from improving photographically. Once the software has been learned and the camera is in the hands then the process of getting better at photography begins.

Many good reasons have been advanced for people being obsessed with the latest or forthcoming equipment. I want to add a couple more:

1) Habit. There was a time when the next feature in PageMaker or Microsoft Word was needed by many people. I'm talking about back in version 1.0 or 2.0. Now that time has passed. Most people using word processing and page layout software do not care about the new features of the latest version Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign.

There was a time when each round of improvements in digital cameras made a big difference to many camera users. That time has passed, but people are still paying attention to the new camera improvements as if they matter as much as they did 4 years ago.

2) Lack of collective experience. There isn't anybody around who has been using digital for 20 or 30 years. The mentoring and folk wisdom for digital photography does not exist yet. I think people try to learn more about the current and future models to compensate for a lack of a pool of common wisdom about digital cameras in general.

Sites like this help create and spread the new common wisdom and put the new improvements in perspective. Thank you for doing that.

Let's face it. Most people are interested in photography as a means of turning what they see in the world around them into a competent photograph rather than as a vehicle of personal expression, conveying ideas etc. For the former, what's perceived as perfection (or professional looking) is paramount. The industry feeds this obsession with new models and must-have features. And with automation you can get the results you're after without knowing anything about photography (optics, exposure etc). Photography these days is more about choosing the right camera ... but maybe it was always thus.

Yes, people obsess overmuch on technical issues. But it's rather inane to say it doesn't matter at all; that only artistic vision and talent matters. Chuck and Eric above are perfectly right - if you want noise or other artefacts it's easy to create when you know you want it. It's not easy at all to get rid of when you don't.

Technical quality and ability on one hand, and vision and talent on the other are not opposites. They are orthogonal, and especially the deeply talented people among us certainly thrive with better tools rather than worse ones. If anything, not wanting better tools seems to mean that the speaker dos not have the vision or knowledge to know how to use them and prefers their tools to make the choice for them.

I am absolutely, positively sure that van Gogh could do far, far, far better with a tube of HotPink glitter lipstick on a piece of photocopier paper in about five minutes than I could do with a lifetime of using expensive oil paints on canvas. But I am also sure that given the choice he'd dump the lipstick tube for the oil paints in no time flat.

Thousands of gifted artizans painted through the centuries...a few of them produced art. Art is vision, feeling, message, not the absolutely "perfect" translation of reality. It is reality...as the artist sees. That's why photography is so difficult, as any other form of art. Millions will take photographs...A handful will produce art. Certainly the guy who criticized your photos based on your equipment is part of these millions right in the lower layer... Now, you can be an artisan or an artist...Tools don't create art. Artists do.
I'm not worried about being an artist, myself...I'm happy trying to do my best... Using the tools I have. Good luck on your quest.

Rio, Brazil

You've just earned my subscription fee - again.
This puts me in mind of the great many hours we waste reading this forum and that which obsess over noise and resolution and angstrom-fine distinctions between this lens and that. It's usually genial and pleasantly narcotic, but it has almost nothing to do with what we profess to love - photography.
It's been a long road, but in the end, I prefer to take, and when that's not possible, to look at, and talk about (when they're interesting) pictures.

While waiting for an Apple 'genius' to see me about an iPhone replacement this weekend, I hit up the art section of the nearest bookstore.

In it I ran across one of those '90 Years O' Leica' books, and they reprinted Marc Riboud's famous flower photo larger than I'd ever seen it before (8x12, maybe bigger). Out of focus, grain the size of boulders, crappy 'bokeh' - and I challenge anyone to tell me that the image is less powerful for them.

the editor: "This puts me in mind of the great many hours we waste reading this forum and that which obsess over noise and resolution and angstrom-fine distinctions between this lens and that. It's usually genial and pleasantly narcotic, but it has almost nothing to do with what we profess to love - photography.
It's been a long road, but in the end, I prefer to take, and when that's not possible, to look at, and talk about (when they're interesting) pictures."

Yup, "the editor" captured the essence of my thoughts on this subject, too.

Mike: "...an indifferent snapshot with zero noise is still an indifferent snapshot."

Yup, even more to the core of the matter.

Mike, Dear Mike, a lovely post, full of caring and heart. It brings to mind Robert Persig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I shall not buy that lens, I shall not. I shall take more and more photographs.

Okay — here's my take on this subject:

"Noise" is something we hear. Are we talking about "grain" here or "pointilism" or some other phenomenon? As for me, grain is what makes vision possible, so I have no problem with it when it's about at the level which occurs naturally in my vision. When I look at a blank object (the proverbial neutral-colored wall) I notice many tiny colored points, which seem to comprise my vision, the input which my brain synthesises to form a scene. My eyes' rods and cones each capture a bit of light intensity and a hint of color and, combined, these "points" become what I see. Grain is inherent to my sight. It is always there. Without it — no vision.

Should/could you produce a grain free print you will still need your own built in grain to see it.

Over 20 years ago I bought a used 4x5 camera, a tripod, and a cast off 4x5 enlarger figuring that these tools are the proof of whether or not I could make a photo that would please me. 35mm enlargements are sweet up to a point (say 8x10"), but weren't what I was looking for. I got the best I could afford back then and knew if I made less than I hoped for it would be my fault and not that of the equipment. I have had the bellows changed on the camera twice and some minor tweaking done at the factory. I have not felt the need to go and get more "stuff" unless it was to expand the kit I already had. The last necessary bit I purchased must be over 15 years ago — replacements for equipment stolen from my parked car. I am still satisfied with what I can capture using the old equipment — the camera was built in the 1970s, the enlarger also. Both still work just fine — there is no reason to "upgrade".

Now — if only I could afford (and lift!) a 20x24 inch camera and film holders! That is the epitome of "grain free"!


Simplicity vs Flexibility, the eternal debate, differentiating what we want from what we need, perhaps a person's worst challege if only because we face it at almost every point throughout our lives.

I usually err on the side of simplicity, specially in photography I think one produces better results when you know your tools' capabilities well, than when one is constantly improving their tools since one learns how to 'look' as their tools will. But that's just me.

Personally, I'm happy with my fuji S5600 digicam, it produces nice colors, fairly pleasing "grain" up to ISO400, and it feels nice on my hands which is all I need from a camera. Yes, it's not perfectly clean even at ISO64 and the lens isn't the sharpest, but in my mind, if the viewer is looking at the technical details I must've done something wrong.

Or as the great Ansel Adams once said, "there's nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept", so if worst comes to worst, I'll have a fuzzy image of a fuzzy concept, which is supposedly better :D


A superb, instructive post, at TOP's usual level.

"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."

Surely the language of poetry is allusion, elision, anapaests and dactyls? Increasingly, it's getting fashionable to consider, not just the words themselves, but the size, weight and binding of the book it's in too.

Eric says: "Impressionist paintings don't look the way they do because "that's the painting equipment Van Gogh had on hand at the time," but because of the deliberate efforts of the artist.""

Actually, there's an argument to be made that that's exactly why they looked the way they did. There's a lot of impressionist art painted of outdoor scenes because artists, using metal tubes, could put transport their paints outside for the first time.

Spot on the money for me Mike.

All too often us photographers are just a Marketing Man's wet dream! Perfection is just that next camera body / lens away.

Noise, fringing, vignetting etc, some shots are enhanced and others suffer for them, but if we don't go out and take pictures then it is irrelevant.

I'm as guilty as the rest.

David Vestal once wrote that you should change your equipment when your needs change or something wears out but not when better stuff becomes available. This is an approach I now try to follow.
Apropos consumerism, I often wondered why many fine-art photographers avoided talking about equipment in interviews. I sometimes felt that interviewer and photographer were trying their best to talk about anything but equipment. Your remarks on consumerism though have helped clarify this for me.

Well, I think that if you wants zero noise, you always could go back to film.

I don't know, I'm a big fan of achieving a certain look, sharpness, grain, texture, but I bought an old Kodak Retina I (the first 35mm cartridge camera) in Berlin, shot a color neg roll with it and scanned it and I can get pretty much out of it as with any other camera. It's just a lot harder!!
I don't think quality requires buying new tools, it just takes a ton of effort.
Probably there's a big gap here, because some people are talking about what comes out of cameras, and some others are talking about what would that look like when hanged on your wall. At least, that's how I see it. And it has a lot to do with sensibility in post processing, not with gear.
Shooting the picture is a self-contained activity for me, and looking at the outcome and taking it to it's most perfect expression according to my own interpretation, another one. Having an opinion and working on texture, grain, sharpness, etc in the second part of the process is mandatory to me. Changing it or leaving it as it is, depending on your own satisfaction. Anything else would mean you could have gone closer and you didn't (which, again, is only relevant if you care for that).
And when it's printed, all those things make sense to me. But I'm sure not everybody is nuts in the same way. I love to see the tiny ripples made by the wind on a pond. And some others find landscape photography extremely boring.
Probably, I would love to work with other people's files if just to try and understand what they were seeing and feeling, and make an attempt at getting the closest possible interpretation on paper. But hey, is that photography?

Many of us photographers are just sitting ducks for product marketers. We are just tools for them making their money.

Flip it around and see what you get. I did, and what I saw as plain as day was something that's incredibly simple. Photographic equipment is just a collection of tools. Period.

The ONLY thing that matters is the image. Tools will not cover for image making incompetence. Yet tools appear to be the only thing we think many of us can talk about.


A great photograph transcends technical considerations; on the other hand, a poorly executed photograph only has technical considerations.

I think there is a significant difference between purchasing new or higher-end technology in the digital photo age than there was during the film era. Back in the '80 and '90's, advances in film cameras were primarily focused on the user (auto-focus, TTL, program mode), and had little to do, directly, with image quality. Therefore, image quality between an Pentax K1000 and a Nikon F5 was, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

By contrast, the digital photo age, still in it's infancy, sees regular technology advances that DIRECTLY related to image quality. Therefore, buying bigger and better, unlike with film cameras, has a direct correlation to quality. That's the primary reason why, I think, so many shooters are looking for the next generation camera....better quality.

In no way am I making the connection between better cameras and more compelling imagery, but I will make a connection between new cameras and technical image quality. For many people, that's enough.

I think people obsess about noise, not because they *truly* think it's important and therefore needs to be obsessed over, but rather, because I think it's easy and convenient to obsess over and they need to obsess over something. In other words, if you could convince everyone that cameras are "good enough" and getting better and stop the debate over noise, it would shift (back) to dynamic range or megapixels or Bayer interpolation versus RGB capture, etc.

Most of the debate is by people more interested in obsessing over technology than taking pictures. That, and by people who are spending their coffee breaks (and them some) online when they can't be taking pictures anyway. Personally, I find it fun to know which camera does what; who's technology is capable of this, that or the other thing, which lenses can outresolve others wide open, stopped down, which have better bokeh, etc. But in the end, I know my 6MP DSLR is fine for my use; I sold high end lenses and bought a few midrange lenses that fit my use better. And I don't worry to much about the fact that all of my pictures could have been taken with a 12MP noiseless full frame body and a vibration reducing silent wave professional zoom lens that's razor sharp at f/2.8 ... just as I don't worry when I snap Yellowstone Falls or the barns at Mormon Row that these same scenes have been shot thousands of times with 4x5, 5x7 & 8x10 view cameras. My pictures aren't taken with the best gear and they're *certainly* not taken by the best photographer.

But that D3 is nice, isn't it ?

Oh, Mike, Mike, Mike. Always trying to make photography about the *photographs*. :-)

To me, the most important element of a camera is its *availability*, which I define as the chance that, if I see an opportunity for a shot, I am able to use the camera to take a photograph that captures the moment for me. Any factor that reduces the probability of that capture reduces the availability of the camera, and vice versa.

So if I press the shutter button on a camera, and it takes a full second before the picture is taken, there's an increased chance that I will miss the shot that I intended to take. Likewise, if a camera has high-ISO capabilities, I'm able to take pictures in more situations than a low-ISO camera. A camera with a higher megapixel rating will let me take pictures from more vantage points, while still giving me the opportunity to crop after the fact. Better dynamic range gives me the chance to capture more of a scene, without having to worry about getting the precisely weighted exposure.

High noise, low megapixels, and poor dynamic range are all factors that reduce the availability of a camera. And no, noise doesn't always ruin a picture, as do neither blown highlights nor small print size. But they do reduce the probability that I will be able to use the picture, or rather, that I will be able to interpret the captured moment in the way that I want to. Likewise, weight and complexity reduce the availability, although at least in my case, it seems that I'm perfectly willing to trade off weight for factors like picture noise and dynamic range.

You've talked about availability in the past, when discussing your "Decisive Moment Device". I've got a whole pile of little P&S boxes (including that F707) that represents my efforts to find a small, light camera that both doesn't get in my way when I try and take a picture, and that delivers an image quality that represents something close to the picture that I meant to take. And sure, I've taken some good pictures with some of them, but I'm rarely as happy, either with the shooting experience or with the final results, as I am with my SLR.

Of course, the most expensive cameras are not always the most available, and the definition of availability varies depending on your shooting style. You wouldn't have gotten that Grimmy picture with a 39-MP Hasselblad. I've certainly missed shots while waffling over, "Do I pull the camera out of the bag?" Availability is always about trade-offs. But by advancing the technology with high ISO, high MP cameras, manufacturers are generally increasing the availability of their cameras.

In general, the more I think about it, the more I feel like availability summarizes the decisions I've made about camera purchases.

My own comment is thus: to me noise is
something audible. Not a method to describe
what many of us would call "grain" in an image.
Neither of the images are objectionable.
And we've had no real indication of how large
the image may be enlarged (or blown up, another

The kitchen scene though is to me a warm view
of an older lady perhaps doing a task she has performed countless times before. The "age"
factor in the image to me though is given way to modernism by looking at the spigot on
the sink in the left background.

Ideally the digital people and the film people should really be using the same terms to describe their product.

I think the noise and printer choice issues are actually related. The problem we all face is "how do you choose"? "Noise" has been picked on by reviewers as a key comparison criteria, as has megapixel count, sensor size etc. etc.

Not because they are necessarily critical to producing a "good picture" (whatever that may be) but because these can be measured, tabulated and compared fairly objectively.

I'm not condoning this - it can lead to bad things ... silly pixel counts on tiny sensors, unusable high ISO settings etc. - but I can understand why it happens.

Any reviewer who says I like camera X better than camera Y will be immediately challenged to prove why camera X is better. This is hard to do, so the reviewer resorts to measurable qualities.

Sadly, this has an effect on people viewing pictures. Whereas in the past people were accustomed to (and indeed liked) the look of a classic grainy Tri-X shot, we are being trained to see noise as undesirable, and this may (possibly subconsciously) impact on how we appreciate the image.

"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."

That was very well put. But-sadly- we do know the cant of consumerism far better than we do the language of poetry.

Thank you for your wise essay.

Now that the noise storm has passed, I'd like to relate an idea that might help the Robert Roaldis of the world with the consumer choice problem:

I've found that the equipment you select usually has more to do with how well you know yourself, (and the marketing departments know you,) rather than determining the actual characteristics of the product. In the case of Canon inkjet printers, I know I can usually make a fairly satisfactory print with their 5-color models--in fact, my mother owns one and I've used it. At the time she bought it, she was the target consumer for that printer, being someone that usually printed documents, but occasionally photos.

However, getting a merely decent print after one, two, or three tries won't satisfy me for my own equipment; I want at least the potential to make a really nice print, up to the limits of current technology. So I'd buy the six-color (or eight-color) printer, even if most of the time the results were indistinguishable. I'm buying it for the other times, because my self-conception as a photographer is someone who learns to recognize small distinctions, and improves, and the marketers know that and cater to it. Am I wasting my money? Not really: it's worth $100 to me to know when it's possible to squeeze a little more color accuracy, or shadow detail, or whatever, out of a print, even if most of the time I can't. I'm not the marketers' patsy: because I'm the target market of the 6-color, there will be compatible ICC profiles available in the aftermarket for more papers, so I can experiment and refine my technique. In the same vein, I once traded in a Minolta Maxxum 5000i for a 7xi. The 5000i made perfectly good pictures (I was using the same lens after all), but the awkwardness of the manual controls were hindering my improvement as a photographer.

The funny thing is, my mom is improving rapidly as a photographer, and I expect a phone call any day asking about a printer upgrade. Not because she'll run out of uses for the 5-color, but because her ability to discriminate the qualities of prints will change her relationship to printing, and there will be a printer for sale that fits that new relationship.

So whether the $99 printer is good enough comes down to no intrinsic property of the printer, but whether you're the kind of person who wants to make equipment do things it wasn't really designed for (whether for the challenge, for reasons of thrift, or independence or whatever) or the kind who will allow yourself to be put in a market niche (and probably pay more) in order to have your needs anticipated and catered to.
I think that's the only real choice in our consumerist age.

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