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Tuesday, 27 January 2009


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It's handy to separate the two tasks, sharpening and levelling. When shopping or reading reviews, things you do when either preparing to buy or just scouting out what's available, you migrate to the sharpening side, automatically I'd say. When you're out taking pictures or even just looking at some, I find it more enjoyable to leave the sharpener behind.

In my experience photo lovers are levelers and photo equipement lovers are sharpeners. Just like music lovers are levelers and music equipment lovers are sharpeners. One thing of course does not rule out the other in the same person! Which would explain my own (and your?) back and forth tendency. In general though, I'm becoming more and more of a leveler as I get a little older. Does anybody recognize that shift?
Thanks for this interesting post Mike!

Sharpened or Leveled? You need to use both. Sometimes you need a sharp image, sometimes you need a leveled image. It's your choice what you need to do to make your image look the best, to communicate completely your thoughts about the subject.

Marketing and advertising will always be a Sharpening force, as are websites that make their living through digital pixel reviews. It's worth considering just how much the culture of our hobby is influenced by the people who want us to buy things.

I agree with Nick's comment about photo/music lovers versus equipment lovers. However, I would also suggest another dividing line: traditional vs digital. It seems that the traditional camp happily uses older gear and talks about nuances, while the numbers crowd leans toward newer is better.

We have seen this happen before, when solid state replaced tube technology. And, looking into my crystal ball, I predict a similar outcome. One technology will come to rule the mass marketplace, but the best examples of either technology will provide satisfying (but different) results for the lovers of the medium (photos or music).

Just my $.02

Matthew Robertson said:
"It's worth considering just how much the culture of our hobby is influenced by the people who want us to buy things."

Marketing driven desire? Never!
It's always best to make images with a hammer and chisel on slate tablets. They last forever when mounted under glass. Or maybe just pop that sensor right out and etch the image onto the hot filter. M8 excepted of course.

I can absolutely conform to that. Image quality has surpassed film in terms of ISO speed and "clarity". Cameras like the D700 make so much possible that, from there, the goal should be to downsize the body (or at least lessen its weight, please please please). Fair enough to all effort to still improve image quality, but the real progress is making available what's technically possible today in smaller, lighter packages. Imagine having a little fullframe rangefinder that pumps out 12MP pics of the D700's capabilities. What a dream! So here is one goal of levelling. That this is unlikely to find support in the world of camera producers is another issue for the moment.

The other levelling: I find myself more and more to despise of tech-talk, even though, i'm still heavily immersed in it myself. But more and more it seems necessary to slightly knock on people's heads (metaphorically speaking), so as to get them to think about the pic again and not to worry if to choose a D300 or a 50D (just an example!). The differences couldn't be smaller in terms of IQ, yet people worry endlessly for the sole reason that some differences are there, because they are described somewhere in the internet and they have access to such (for most people meaningless) information. I say that as absolute amateur myself (the one who loves it for doing it), no commercial photography here. A big success in levelling would therefore be, to get people to realise, that buying a D90 instead and spending the difference for a photography workshop would go a much longer way. This leads nicely to the next point:

The sharpening aspect of things, is, in my view, the task of enhancing personal skills. Scrutinising little details will only be important when a certain level of skill has been reached. Only then will details like amount of noise (in today's cameras) make a real difference. But, everybody who has a (real!) need for improving details, for professional or artistic reasons, most likely also has the proficiency of knowing what suits him best and is therefore independent to large degree of online reviews (or printed ones for that matter). In contrast, anybody who does not really have a reason to do anything like that, please, go out and shoot with what you have or buy the first camera you find and then kick off. The improtant thing to realise is that you are at an earlier stage of sharpening, a stage where anything else but practise is a waste of time, in my opinion, and yes, I'm also blaming myself here.

To sum my opinion up:
Level the broad scale, sharpen the individual, as simple as that.

Get rid of too detailed equipment reviews and get people to be more educated about what really matters.


Photography has been mercifully free of the kind of "audiophile" snake oil Stereophile uncritically touts like $500 power cords (got to keep the advertisers happy, after all).

Maybe it's because the mostly Japanese (and the occasional German) engineers who design photo gear have integrity.

Let's keep it that way, please. I don't want to see $500 UV filters blessed with pixie dust or $2000 CompactFlash cards with the corners rounded off for "improved acutance as any golden eye can see".

Having just made a $5k camera/lens purchase I appreciate the need for sharpening on the hardware side of things, and am quite thankful that there are those who delight in detailed analysis of these new systems, provided their work is accurate and unbiased. Once I get this new system (5d2) under my belt I can go back to a sharpened view of image making. In other words, I think the same distinctions apply to technical pursuits as well as to... well, I don't know, emotional involvement? Not sure what exactly to call it.

As a longtime audiophile AND music lover, I do understand the need to get the equipment out of the way so you can savor the music. And savoring can be done from a sharpening perspective or from a leveling perspective. But I think to really feel the music, to be moved by the gestalt of the music, you have to be in an emotionally sharpened state. Same for image making, or even image viewing.

Having read Michael Reichmann and his blog for some years and never subscribing find his way of doing photography shows what one can do with unlimited funds. (Reichmann is from one of Canada's financially wealthy families).

And I complained to him once for taking a view of railway tracks in Toronto and calling it an art photo. Only fools do what he did, and he used track which are quite busy. Anything in the name of art, or so it would seem.

Then too, getting super duper fine focused shots and being so out of touch on off the level that any image that doesn't qualify takes all the fun out of photography.

Was seriously thinking of purchasing a full 135mm frame Nikon D700 as it would nicely use my collection of Nikkor full frame lenses.

However the price here in Canada is way too
much for more limited funds, and of course the sales tax too is 13 percent. Nope no unlimited funds here. And as I photograph in JPEG only, it could be seen as stupidity by all too many.

However digital does things for me cause it's
quick, and easy (like me) and the camera with a chip can be obtained for C$125.00.

When the camera dies pitch it and get another point and shoot.

I'm both. I find too much sharpening earies me and I quickly stop caring and just go shot some. I suppose that's levelling because once I'm out I don't really worry about what I'm carrying.


Speaking of sharpening, leveling and the Luminous Landscape, LL has on its "Digital Cameras, Backs and Shooting Techniques" forum a threat entitled"Lloyd Chambers compares D3x-5DKII shadow noise" which demonstrates Nick's point to a nearly insane degree. The thread would be hilarious if it weren't so tedious.

I'm not so sure about the traditional vs. digital divide, though. I knew a high school photography teacher who was as deeply immersed in the tech of traditional photography as any digitalist is in the new tech.

In most ways, the older tech was much more complicated at the user level, allowing vast dimensions of geekiness, including some - the chemistry -- that could be positively dangerous. With digital, your sensor and your printer is what you got. Maybe software is the modern equivalent of chemistry?


I think of the technical sharpening tendency as related to trying to make more out of a little. For example, using digital sharpening (the technique and not the psychological phenomenon) to heighten the effect of an image made with a low megapixel camera. On the other hand, I think of leveling as what I experience when I look at images made from high resolution sources, e.g., high density scans of large or medium format film. I'm not sure if or what the analogous digital technique (if any) used in this case might be.

Even on the web, I fancy I can see a difference between images, particularly portraits, that have been made with 'standard' DSLRs versus those made with medium or large format film cameras. I'm more equivocal about images made with so called medium format digital equipment. Nonetheless to me, the differences seem real. And I can't explain them in rational terms because I know that what I'm looking at, whether DSLR, MF or LF image, has been 'leveled' (perhaps a different sense of the word) to a 72 dpi JPEG image with a highly equivocal colour space.

It seems logical to me that the image of any given face occupying x percent of the fame area will contain more information, the more pixels of data there are. However, a face occupying x percent of a JPEG image will tend to contain the same amount of data no matter how it was sourced. Does a high data image require less sharpening? Does a high data image compress to JPEG in a more graceful or 'level' fashion?

I think there are reasons for seriously considering large megapixel equipment that go beyond just print size. I've tried to express a vague notion of why in the preceding paragraphs.

I'm sure my ignorance is showing here so I'd be grateful if someone could try to clarify these issues for me.

Thanks. ...edN

As a professional I think you need to do some sharpening in terms of making sure you have the right gear with the capabilities to produce for your client. Aside from that it is a little tedious and being that photography is an art it can be somewhat unphotographer like to nit pick about minute details in quality between different cameras and lenses. You never know as an artist you my come up with a project that you do with an old beat up point and shoot you dropped in a puddle and now all the photos come out funny but you now have something original.

Lloyd Chambers may be an extreme example of what I call an IT Refugee. Information technology type who has branched out into or career changed into photography and has a toolkit that leans on objectively identifiable criteria for evaluating performance. I used to follow his blog regularly, but it has gotten tech heavy AND subscription oriented (which I can't afford). I find myself more of a leveler these days, I'm much more interested in aesthetics. I will admit that I too am an IT refugee, but I did go to art school before I went into hard science and not I back. You do need some sharpening to make decisions about equipment, but once you decide you have to move and make images!

I am definitely in the midst of a huge identity crisis. I am rebuilding my dark room so I can make alt process prints from digital negatives. I am paying for it by shooting sharp photos for people that don't appreciate soft or level. Sheeesh! I just read an article about the new RED camera technology and on and on it goes. Dennis is right. At some point you just have to make photographs.

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