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Monday, 29 October 2012


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What's that expression? I think I heard it from you originally... the world is full of sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts?

[That's Ansel Adams...I remember the quote as "There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept." But I can't give the citation off the top of my head. He might have published it, or something similar, in several places. --MJ]

Ya, but when I chose a camera it want it to be able to be sharp when I need it to be, I can always lose to much sharpness( filters, photoshop, or just refocus etc) in the same manner, I value a bit of a Swiss Army Knife type of camera that can be very good at many different types of photography. Right now the 5DII is that camera. Yes a Gandolfi has advantages at the Grand Canyon and small cameras ( with a viewfinder) have a place. But since I don't particularly value skimpy, lightweight tools 5D it is. Try driving a ten penny nail with a 4oz tack hammer and see what I mean. By the way the 5D is nearly always with me, the camera you have....

Take your argument further and there is no such thing as a good photograph either, only a photo that scores highly on the "Mike scale" a completely arbitrary and complex mix of properties that go to make what you call good.

Ultimately the only thing we can say for certain is that we like or don't like an image.

There is only one deadly sin for a photograph, and that is for it to be boring in the opinion of the viewer.

Some photos are like a Firefly ... the parts are [email protected], but you put 'em together ...

Thank you for answering my comment a while ago.

I think I understand and agree - in some circles "good" takes the form of absolutes when the quantity forms a spectrum, as you say. And I increasingly think of the camera around my neck as the "magic picture-box", precisely because of the potentially pictorial disconnect between real-world and image-space... realism itself is overrated.

I'd like to add a three-pronged stool to this, consisting of choice, intention and attainability. Any given equipment has maximum attainable degrees of each property (size, sharpness, noise levels, DR etc). Shooting what & anything one can and filtering afterwards based on "that worked" is a kind of magpie mentality, while having a specific style or requirements will impose constraints on the hardware suitable for the job. And, within the question of whether a photo is "good" or not I tend to look for the photographer's intention - for example, if I see a narrow-DoF effect in use then it should be obvious that the focal plane intersects the scene exactly where intended. And intent brings us full-circle onto parameter-choice and hardware suitability...

So what is good enough, interesting. I have a Sony NEX7 I was ready to "re-deploy" as someone else' tool.

I have a few lenses but had only used the kit lens, also feeling virtually any modern lens is often good enough.

Wake up call, tried my two Sigma primes and a Sony prime. Instead of a smeared mess I have great pics. A singular piece of junk. Likely I have the single worst copy.

New NEX love I'm feelin' just sayin.

Hi Mike-- Couldn’t agree more. Properties of a photographic image (contrast, sharpness, grain, color fidelity, saturation, etc.,) have something to do with the quality of the image but do not determine it. HCB’s photos are pretty grainy and occasionally out of focus in comparison with most of the digital work with modern lenses done today. However, with the ubiquitous nature of post-processing and the attendant ability to alter sharpness, graininess, color tint and temperature, saturation, etc., etc., one generally wants to start with the most accurate and unadulterated image possible. If I am a photographic artist then I want to be in control of as many of these variables as I can rather than have my equipment dictate what is possible. Therefore, seeking more and more large pixels makes a sort of sense as does spending thousands of dollars for a Summilux provided you sensor can handle the detail.

Whatever happened to the "share via email" option for our postings? I don't see it anywhere on your page...


Dear Mike,


You just saved me from writing a lengthy comment. Took the words, etc.etc.

pax / Ctein

The best novel is not necessarily the one with the best hyphenation or with the most orthodox spelling. Nobody will argue with that, except at an Internet forum. Why is sharpness seen as so important for photography? --Well, is it really if you listen outside the internet forums? I never heard from someone in front of me looking at at photography saying "great photo, because it's really sharp!". Internet discussion forums brings the least creative and least emotional sides out of people that sits in front of a screen and cares more about winning a discussion than saying something that's really important to themselves.

I'm probably wrong here but it seems to me that you are talking and conventional wisdom, fashion and fad as virtuous or not virtuous properties. Things change radically over time as you pointed out. There is nothing virtuous about any of this except in the context of the times we live in. We don't live outside the conventions of our times. A few hundred years ago fashion was such that people went around wearing clothing that made them look like cheese puffs with skinny legs. That was virtuous to them.

We basically are in full agreement, but what I want in an image isn't necessarily the same as what I want in a camera. I want my camera to make it possible to create the image I want. So if I want high resolution, great sharpness, etc. I want my camera to give it to me. If I want more grain, or a softer focus or less sharpness, I have tools such as Photoshop which can "degrade" an image to my specs.But if the camera can't give me the sharpness, or freedom from grain, or whatever, that is much more limited in correctability in post-processing. Its the combination that gives me the results I want. The camera is to give me the most control and fewest limitations in, or requirements for, after exposure manipulation. Back in film and wet lab days, it was much more difficult to apply post-processing. In today's digital world there is much greater control over the 'raw' image. But its still all about the RESULTS.

Excellent observations about image properties vs image qualities.

To me, the photo community feels pretty insulated and quite removed from the potential viewing public. We've developed our own language when talking about photography and image making. It feels as if some people hide behind their cameras hoping the equipment will fill their work with "quality" and make their images meaningful.

At some point it might be helpful to hear what non-photographers have to say about images and what matters in them. Such a listening might provide an interesting education.

Photographs have attributes, people who view photographs have opinions. The two may or may not coincide. When they do in a significant way, great photographs emerge.

Not everyone is a sharpness fetishist. HCB wasn't (Sharpness is a Bourgeois Concept). Tiffen, B+W, Hoya, etc make a lot of Low Con, Fog, Double Fog, Soft Focus, etc filters because people are buying them. I see more than enough PhotoShop Plastic Skin ...

Perfect color, not when cross processing is in style (it comes and goes). And for digital photographers they have an App for that.

The arts are interesting because there is a small number of Pros and a lot of amatuers. The amatuers follow the rules (and discuss them ad infinitum) while the best Pros do-thier-own-thing and get well compensted.

Pick up a copy of William Mortensen's "Pictorial Lighting" and, if you can afford it, "Pictorial Photography", and you will read nowhere in the entire text anything that extolls "unsharpness" over "sharpness". Quite the contrary. Indeed, the High Priest of Pictorial image making (Mr. Mortensen)stresses the importance of presenting a clear image with a clear vision and a clear result.

Petzval formula lenses (followed by a great many "portrait" lenses) have been in wide use, but even these optical tools provide a sharp image at the point of focus. How the out of focus areas are rendered is part of the optical designs of these kinds of lenses.

The only tools that seem to approach out of focus image making that I'm familiar with are achieved through the use of pinhole "lenses" and zone plates. Yet, it can be argued, even these are not truly "unsharp".

To me, pictorial image making has more to do with exploring an idea and creating an image that represents that idea, as compared to finding a scene/subject and snapping an image of it.

[Mike ~ "Consider that during the time of the pictorialist movement—and among the amateurs that kept its values alive in its aftermath—the same assumption held sway, except in the reverse. Image unsharpness was the virtue, the accepted convention."]

While some can't get past the fact
of how he makes his photographs, one of the most revolutionary aspects of Doug Rickard's A New American Picture is that it demonstrates that you only need .005 megapixels to make even gallery sized enlargements. No, they certainly don't have the more "tactile" feel and pleasure of photographs with higher resolution- but if you enjoy the dream like qualities that Holgas produce, well then, meet their digital, more painterly equivalents.

Thank you, Mike! This is a fantastic post.

My theory is that photographers tend to be nerds, and they like measurable quantifiable things. This means they will tend to value things they can measure, and devalue things they cannot -- not completely, but the weighting will lean in that direction. There's a tendency to favor repeatable processes and measurable properties over serendipity and ideas. That's too bad.

We're both on-script here, my mantra is "it's all subjective".

I just can't understand how some people's taste can be so weird that they like some of the things they apparently like :-).

More seriously -- I think there are "problems of the moment" that people get over-sensitized to due to current fads, and that it makes it harder at that moment to get people to notice the value in a photograph going against the current fad. And people will tend to rant against these things to extremes, saying thing stronger than can really be supported as a serious claim.

And I've seen a lot of good to great photos which lacked critical sharpness where that was a problem. The photo was so good it surmounted the problem, but I can't take those photos as evidence that sharpness isn't beneficial; they'd be even better if sharp. (There are some photos I like that depend on the unsharpness in various ways, even of the main subject, so I can't actually claim sharpness is required even to appeal to me.)

I also see a huge number of unsharp photos today, despite your remarks about lens and camera tech. AF errors, inadequate shutter speeds, and poor camera support are still with us!

"No property automatically makes a photograph better. No property automatically disqualifies a photograph from being good."
Mike, This Sunday was Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran church. I'm beginning to wonder if you really don't have strong Lutheran tendencies? This is the heart of Martin Luthers theses, just exchange photographs for people's relationship to God. Combine this with us Lutherans fondness for coffee, and yours- and who knows? By the way what is your stance on beer? BTW, again, I also like your writing as it applies to photography:)

At this point, digital sensor technology is so good that arguing about IQ is a bit outdated, for the most part. Just go buy your digital camera "film" and shoot. Sure, some sensors may have preferable color, noise, DR, etc., but Kodachrome was never the most technically capable film, either, and it was very popular and useful.

I finally broke down and bought an M9, but it isn't because of some magical sensor. In fact, it is rather outdated compared to even my Sony aps-c cameras of late. I purchased the M9 because it is a specific way of using a camera that isn't really offered in digital from other manufacturers. If Zeiss made a much less expensive, digital FF Ikon, I'd have no problem trading the Leica in for it, I'd imagine.

Heck, to make matters worse, I often ADD grain to my images, even with the M9. Go figure.

Depth of focus! Or should I say shallownes of focus? All the unnecessary clutter blurred into smooth oblivion. Extreme subject separation. Atom thin slice of reality presented for examination on paper or screen. That's the quality I'll judge any photograph on. My shackles bonds and fetters, and I firmly refuse to shake them off. No siree!

"Indeed, the High Priest of Pictorial image making (Mr. Mortensen)"

Oh, dear. Not even close.


"My theory is that photographers tend to be nerds"

I don't agree with that.


Yeah, it's the noun quality vs. the adjective quality that's skewing the discussion.

Low quality(adjective) image loaded with quality(noun) taken with a high quality(adjective) camera (Hasselblad 500C).

Image with a lot of quality(noun) taken with a low quality(adjective) camera (filed* out Arcus C3).

*The punning opportunities offered by an image from a filed out camera vs an image file out of a camera shall be forgone on account of degrading the TOP quality of discourse hereabouts.

Well, I thing the main reason "image quality" is sought after is that it's the only thing in photography you can buy and measure*. Now, when you measure something, you can compare it. If you compare, you can make arguments, value it, then finally you become a member of a small society**. And this is one of the most powerful instincts - to be in a group, and to have enemies, because enemies define you group even stronger, then similarities inside it.
So Mike, there is nothing to worry about, that's just how humans "work" :-) Each hobby is a kind of small religion and you can do nothing about it.

*No offence, but really gifted people are in a minority. There's nothing bad in enjoying gear, especially if you can afford it.
** "Our gear is better then yours, our GOD is better then yours, our economy is better then yours (and besides, our women are prettier too)"

Reminds me of my recent flirtation with large format (4x5) photography. I was seduced by the siren of "image quality" to the exclusion of, well good photographs. It took about a year of chasing ultra sharp, everything in focus no grain images to finally realize that what I was producing was technically excellent crap.

Some people liked it, some images even got published, but it left me cold. They had no voice. It just wasn't "me". Now I can use my large format camera to produce the images that excite me without worrying about the f64 crowds definition of "image quality" as being the ultimate arbiter of success.

The crap I create now pleases me and frankly that's all that really matters, to me at least. Now my accountant might have another opinion .....


And on HCB's "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept", my favourite HCB photograph at present seems to be his one of the church in Taos taken in 1947. I saw a print of it in an exhibition of his work last year which was darker and seemed less sharp than the version shown here:


And as a nod to Ctein may I add that this seems to me to be a wonderful example of what you can achieve when you expose to the left :-)

The Omaha beach photograph by Robert Capa (http://bit.ly/VzFocU) comes to my mind as an example of a technical mess without many of those "qualities": grainy, motion blurred, poor focus and yet... Oh my god, it is so powerful!! and in its own imperfections (thanks to them?) an extraordinary and marvelous photograph.

...this discussion reminds me of a conversation I had with my buddy Gary last week. He was revisiting the photography he did of his Central and South American driving trip about 8 years ago. Back when it happened, for convenience sake, he did a lot of work on and with the digital images he took, and not so much investigating the 120 color film he shot with that Fuji 645 camera with the zoom on it.

He subsequently has become so tired of the over "juiced" and over sharpened photographs that the general public, and alleged professionals, take; that he was amazed at the quality and "feel" of the film work he had done on the trip. He especially mentioned the subtle tonal ranges and color shifts, and just the overall look of the stuff. He's currently rescanning and cleaning up a lot of that for a possible show.

Good example of "image quality" re-examined.

@Mike Plews... from a professional photographers perspective it is unfortunate the photos that matter don't actually get you paid, and that photos which do get you paid don't matter.

There are two wars still active (four if you count the nebulous wars on terror and drugs), Syria is engaged in genocide, Israel is engaged in what many would call a kind of apartheid, and the US is about to get nailed by a pretty serious storm.

The best photo coming out of any of those events will net you 1/100,000 the price you would get for the naked duchess of york, or justin timberpuss schtupping jessica biel outdoors on their honeymoon.

(Back to the OP) Even if it were the most blurry, pixelated photo you had ever seen.

I agree with the principle of your quotation, but since I try to make a living from photography, I must ignore it. :)

"The Omaha beach photograph by Robert Capa comes to my mind as an example of a technical mess without many of those "qualities": grainy, motion blurred, poor focus and yet... Oh my god, it is so powerful!! and in its own imperfections (thanks to them?) an extraordinary and marvelous photograph."

Thanks for the great example, Eugenio...I added on of these as an illustration to the post.


That Robert Capa photo is one of the best, and worst, examples. To me, at least, it's valuable because it's the best we have of a major event. But, to me, it's significantly compromised by the technical issues; it would be better without those issues. So it's an example of good qualities overcoming bad qualities, not an example of technical "flaws" being actively good, to my eye.

We disagree, then.


The whole concept of quality is one reason I re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, around 40 years after first reading it.

This article reminded me of that; it is one of the most Buddhist/Zen blog posts I have seen on TOP, at least IMO.

Letting go of thought conceptions of the properties while making the photo is, for me, of central importance. Not to say that thought is "wrong", but the more I think about the photo outside of thinking through the actual mechanics that achieve the qualities I either see or feel, the worse the result.

@ Eric Rose -- I have recently resumed 4x5 precisely to work with breaking the "rules" of "straight" LF work. Primarily I want to am drawn to more pictorial results, use the shallow DOF, of the longer focal lengths, etc.

"Being bigoted just closes us off to a greater range of possibility in our own work". Thanks for this comment in your final paragragh. I have just promised to myself to be less 'bigoted' in the future and feel excited by the photographic possibilities. Great post. And the Capa photo is absolutely superb the way it is.

Mike, it's hard to be really sure without having both versions to compare, which of course we never do in the real world.

But that in and of itself supports my position, I think -- the actual "major" photographs that touch millions of people and get remembered are never, ever deliberately technically compromised after the fact. There never is a "better" version to compare with the famous version, because if there were, it would be the famous version.

"Being bigoted just closes us off to a greater range of possibility in our own work, and to a greater and more subtle range of possibility in the accomplishments of others."

But dang it Mike, it requires so much less effort!

Seriously though, best post you ever wrote on TOP.

I'd think the only true virtue would be "intention." An unsharp photo that was made carefully and deliberately unsharp is far more likely to be good than one that is unsharp because the photographer doesn't know how to get autofocus to lock in the right spot. A photo where someone has carefully messed with the colors (like last week's red ceiling) is much more likely to be good than one where the photographer just doesn't know how to correct white balance properly. It's like abstract painting; there's obviously a difference between Pollock's paint splatters and those of a five-year-old playing with a brush (even though I dislike both).

Yes, there are happy accidents, like the Capa photo, where (I agree with you, Mike) the technical flaws that were the unavoidable consequence of circumstance actually help convey the urgency and terror of the landing... As I think about it, perhaps "putting yourself in the right place" is part of the virtue of control.

"actual 'major' photographs that touch millions of people and get remembered are never, ever deliberately technically compromised after the fact. There never is a 'better' version to compare with the famous version, because if there were, it would be the famous version."

It's certainly okay if we disagree or if we want to conceive of things differently, but to my point of view you're missing the point completely. There is no such thing as "technically compromised" and "better" in this respect. Not only is your statement above wrong on its face, it's not even meaningful. You're assuming that there exists such a thing as "image quality." I'm saying that there isn't. There are only properties. Some properties accord with your conception of "better," but that's entirely a value judgement—like saying that literature in English is better than literature in French because you don't speak French. The image is what it is, and it works or doesn't work according to the maker and its viewers. To say that any famous photograph is less preferable than a postulated photograph that is similar but has different properties is ultimately meaningless. It might accord with a majority opinion when the properties are ones that are widely understood and generally agreed upon, and people might have strong opinions about how a certain photograph might have different properties, but visual properties are deeper than that, and more subtle and infinitely more various.

Consider Paul Caponigro's "Running White Deer." (You can Google it.) Would it be "better"--absolutely, automatically preferable--if there were no motion blur? Look at Bill Brandt's "A Street in Edinburgh 1942." Would it be "better"--preferable--if it had more shadow detail? Ctein will consider on Wednesday whether certain images in B&W would be better if they were in color. Look at Steichen's "The Flatiron, 1904." Would it be better if it had more detail? Whatever property you can come up with as defining technically good or preferable or desirable, I can come up with example pictures (a subset of a much larger set) where those same properties are undesirable.

You've just decided on a certain list of properties as defining "better" for you, that's all. And perhaps properties on your list are desirable when it comes to certain defined uses of photography, or the aims of manufacturers, or popular concensus. But any such list is--must be--wholly arbitrary when it comes to art.


Now you're misunderstanding me, partly because I was sloppy with the distinction we're making ("property" vs. "quality"). I was trying to use "technically compromised" to refer to that property in the conventional way, but apparently that didn't work.

To be clear, I fully acknowledge the "property" theory, that each and every one of these things is artistically arbitrary, and there exist photos where moving any one of them any direction will make the photo "better" in my eyes (not just in the eyes of somebody, but actually in mine).

Contrariwise and counterpoint, I'm not going to believe there wasn't immense swearing and gnashing of teeth when people discovered what had become of Capa's film from D-Day. I'm totally certain it was seen as a major disaster. If the film hadn't been ruined in the darkroom, we'd never have seen any photo similar to the one in the heading. That's not the artistic choice of anybody, except in after-the-fact analysis (which is not an artistic choice, it's criticism); it's just the best they could do with the disaster they had on their hands.

"Running White Deer" is a much better example, at least in that it clearly IS that way by artistic choice. (Selective blur is also the most-widely accepted use of a property in unconventional ways, too.) Although I have to say I'm not absolutely sure I wouldn't prefer them sharp. But I'm not sure I would, either.

Steichen's 1904 Flatiron is the much mistier one? There's also a 1905 that is perhaps better known (at least I've seen it more often) that's very different, but it sounds like you do mean the 1904 one. The range of color tints that shows up in is startling, especially from the thumbnails where I see them side by side. I'm actually a bit bothered by the large blob of blocked shadows in the center of the composition. I'm only looking at small web jpegs though, so who knows what the original looks like? And, not having access to one where the shadows are more open, it's a bit hypothetical. I think I might prefer it, maybe, though. But then I don't see this as lacking "detail" overall; it's full of fine detail, mostly.

The Brandt I'm pretty sure I like as is, anyway. It's certainly vital that the roofline of the right-hand building be separated from the sky.

But despite disagreeing (or not being sure) on a lot of your examples, I DO agree on the principle; I just didn't manage to make that clear initially.

As if this topic needs another post...

"Being bigoted just closes us off to a greater range of possibility in our own work, and to a greater and more subtle range of possibility in the accomplishments of others."

Absolutely, Mike. Of course this assertion extends far beyond photography into the art world. Making the leap beyond the self-soothing addiction to clarity, symmetry and prettiness, and into the ideas that compelled an artist to produce a work is a truly liberating exercise.

But go easy on photographers. Since day-one photography has been a gadget-driven undertaking. And those gadgets don't promise more expressive images, do they? No, they promise ever-greater ability for better fidelity (whatever the hell that might be). Sharper, faster, bigger, better color...

That photo enthusiasts are hooked on the qualities that their gadgets promise to deliver, and generally reject images that seem to eschew those qualities, is not going to be abolished by a blog.

But I will say that I believe that the average amateur photograher's perspectives have actually widened considerably during the past 50 years. As I've noted recently, I have been studying old issues of photo mags. The work regarded as admirable in them is generally howlingly narrow and contrived compared to that which tends to be celebrated today. Unfortunately thanks are partly due to something else that photographers can buy over the counter, photo editing software, rather than broader consideration of other ideas. Still, other ideas besides bathing beauties and babies really have managed to seep into amateur photography a bit.

The flip-side of the old saying "The more you shoot the luckier you get" is "The more you look at the better your eye."

A picture is worth a thousand words. Thanks, Eugenio (and Mike). The Capa photo is the perfect example for this post. The photos properties give me a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to run for your life through the surf in 1944. They convey a frenzied emotion that changes what might otherwise be a frozen moment in time. The history of the moment makes it important but the emotion makes it memorable. Great post.


Your rebuttal to David's statement is both eloquent and razor sharp (excuse the pun) in conveying your position.

Obviously we don't have the 'better' or different version of Capa's photo of Americans Landing, but the blur and out-of-focus properties have a powerful part in speaking to me.

Capa (in my mind) was taking the photo while running through the surf along side the American soldiers, and that speaks to his being an active participant in the invasion while risking his own life.

To be a part of that military campaign only armed with his camera (at least at that moment), the blurred, jarring image speaks more powerfully to me of war and its effects on the participants.

Thanks again for opening a wonderfully thoughtful discussion.

Mike - I guess you know the story about the Capa Omaha beach photographs. He shot a few rolls and "all but eleven were ruined when the negatives were placed in an overheated film drying cabinet in a London lab. The images that survived appear grainy and blurry, partly due to this error, and partly due to Capa's nerves." (quote from Getty Museum site). You can read about it and much more in Capa's own book "Slightly Out Of Focus". A highly recommended read!


In the six months that I've been reading TOP on an almost daily basis, this to
me is your best post yet. For what it says, and what the essay says about you.

Your essential liberalism (inclusiveness, nonjudgementalness, generosity
of spirit) and uncompromising integrity shines through. Of the latter, I have
noticed two things: 1) you never pander or talk down to your readers; 2) you'd
rather not suffer fools gladly, but you do, by publishing our my comments as is without comment. (I should know. You've approved some of my comments which I've regretted submitting almost as soon as I clicked the post button. I now preview them first. As for the two or maybe three, of my comments which you didn't approve, man, was I glad you didn't publish them!)

The essay itself appeals to me on several levels.

At the practical level, you've emancipated me from blind adherence to "image quality." I can now "settle" without qualms for a small-sensor fixed-lens second camera. A GRD IV, RX100, or LX-7, rather than a DP2-M and other APS-C's. I'll have to reverse my vote in the previous poll accordingly, by voting twice on the second option "other [things] matter" (but the poll widget is broken: "Resource not found").

At the existential level, your essay has bolstered my notions about what kind
of photographer I want to be and what kind of photos I want to take. In
Mike's House of Photography, there are many rooms...

Stylistically, "Image Virtues" would fit in gracefully in an English 11 (Composition, in my time) compendium of writing exemplars. Illustrative of proper diction, syntax, paragraph organization—style, in short. But style without content is frippery. Much as I wish I can write like you do, there isn't any subject of which I'm as knowledgeable as you are about photography.

Before reading this essay, I didn't think that one can be "bigoted" about things that shouldn't really matter. Now, I feel like a free quark (with apologies to Ctein)!

I should stop here. But if I may post an in-line photo as an example of, well, my "existential" struggle as an amateur photographer...

This is a cropped portrait of my father. My second session with him because he rejected the "result" of the first.

I used a portrait lens during the first sitting during which he was more relaxed,
smiling, and looked younger because it was slightly out of focus. He rejected
it because of the flarey reflection on both lenses of his eyeglasses, which was
obvious even in the passport-sized prints I had made at a local Internet cafe.

This time, I used a wide angle lens, a Distagon 4/18 (27 mm-e), for which I had
a circular polarizer (58mm ∅) which doesn't fit my portrait (and only other) lens. The large DOF and the radical crop which degraded the resolution, combined for a less than flattering result. He looks his age (79) in this picture. I also couldn't get him to relax and to smile. He was probably skeptical whether I'll get it right this time. (We were also both in a hurry, he to hear mass and me to catch my plane.)

The polarizer got rid of the reflection on the left lens of his glasses but not on the right. He didn't get to see the result of the second sitting which I had to email to the layout artist (of the souvenir program for which the picture was taken). I told my email correspondent to tell my father that the remaining reflection is OK because it's of me.

This will probably be my father's first photo online. He's still practicing as a small town notary public pounding legal deeds on an old Remington.

Emotional quality counts.

Isn't this topic self-evident? Not trying to be snarky or anything, but . . . .


I don't want to derail the current thread, nor do I wish to take up too much of your time, but you said something that has caught my attention.

Could you point me to a link or title that illustrates what you mean by pictorialist photography?

I thought I'd figured out pictorialist's place in the scheme of things after reading Weston and Adams on the topic, and after working for some time as a B&W print tech in Hollywood, Ca (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). Alas, perhaps not, eh?


- Christopher Mark Perez
PS: My email address is part "Your Information" and I realize you have someone (perhaps yourself?) moderating posts.

Funny that before the picture appeared, I immediately thought of Robert Capa. His most famous pictures are interesting in this context because they have little bit too many technical faults, but OTOH it adds to the immediacy and feeling of being there with danger in the air.

Aesthetic considerations are complicated and many photographers aren't so well trained to analyze and understand aesthetics. Technical merits, in contrast, are relatively straightforward ton understand and they are uncontested. Sharpness can be reduced to numbers, measured with precision instruments.

If I understand the history of those Capa D-Day photos with the film having been ruined by a lab technician back in the England (who knows for certain what happened?) the question to ask is would these shots be picked for news publication over those of a second photographer's perfectly processed shots if that second photog had landed with Capa. Most likely not. Capa's D-Day images are wonderful because they are the only still photography images we reportedly have of that beach landing, they convey a true sense of motion and chaos, and maybe to a little extent because they were shot by Capa. We could very easily use stills from the motion picture film shot by the Army during the landing to represent that event.

If I have this wrong someone please correct me but I've read that Capa used a Contax for the D-Day landing. He might not have been concerned with the ultimate technical qualities of his shots. As my father-in-law has said he learned in the Army your priorities tend to be different when someone is shooting at you.

Sharp images of fuzzy concepts - useless in every situation. Fuzzy images of sharp concepts - can work perfectly with the right concept.

What I like in art is the ability to see an image on multiple levels - as an abstract composition of colours, light and shade, as a subject of fascination, as an emotional trigger, or as a narrative. Capa's photo has all of those (apart from the colour) which makes it exceptional.

Another photographer who exemplifies this is Rene Burri. The first photo, men on a roof in Sao Paulo, has always been one of my favourites.


You pinned it Mr Hughes. Thank you.

Having thought this through a bit more, I think there's a little more depth to be had here. It comes down to when the photograph is "made" to a degree, whether it is in-camera of in post.

(I will repeat here some points that have already been made, but with reason, I think:)

To be sure, I agree that there is no such thing as "image quality" as an objective thing. There *are* properties which can be altered easily in post, but in one direction only. Sharpness can be removed, but not added. Shadow detail can be removed, but not added. There are other properties which can be, at least to a degree, moved either way in post - saturation, contrast. Finally, there are properties which really cannot be changed at all in post - relationship of forms within the frame, say.

It makes sense to think of these things separately, of course.

What comes under the aegis of "image quality" is mostly (entirely?) the things which can be removed but not added in post, the first family of properties I mentioned. There is, as has been noted, value in maximizing these properties in-camera.

Now, that's only one family of at least three important families of properties a photograph can have, and there's simply no doubt that we pay far too much attention to it. I am a big advocate of "point your camera well" rather than fussing with sharpness excessively -- I think the third family of properties is the one that "matters", thereby exposing my own bigotry.

The modern era of digital has not really altered our abilities in post, but certainly seems to have changed the way we *think* about post. There seems to me to be a trend toward thinking more about making the photo in post, and less about getting it right in camera. This, in turn, does tend to support the idea of maximizing the first type of property. It is a logical progression from Ansel Adams' ideas about getting maximum information onto the negative, and proceeding from there but, I think, amplified by our love affair with digital editing tools.

Recently I mentioned my shot of girls with umbrellas in Malaysia, and how I've always been reluctant to put it forward due to it being a bit blurred. Well, in view of the above,

It's a mix of camera movement and lack of focus due to my inability to hold the heavy lens (Sigma 50-200 APO) and focus with Kodachrome 25. I only got the one shot.

But I like it.

I'm trying SmartDeblur at the moment. Boy, it takes a while to process each change on a 56MB TIFF, even on a Core i7. I'll have to work on a small copy.

But maybe I won't bother. I like it as it is.

"There *are* properties which can be altered easily in post, but in one direction only. Sharpness can be removed, but not added."

That's just not true. Doesn't everybody and his uncle use Unsharp Mask to death? And there are all sorts of deblurring plugins, such as Topaz InFocus etc.

I think some people think I'm arguing in FAVOR of low-fi pictures here, like they're better or something. I'm not dictating to anyone WHICH properties they should like. I'm saying they're just properties and they should be detached from blanket value judgements. Whatever you like, go for it.


Image quality.

One of my favorite photos, at least of the ones I have taken, was a morning snapshot on a Chicago L platform. I was working at that time downtown in a camera store and had borrowed a little Agfa 110 pocket camera just to see what it could do. The machine processed 3.5 X 5 inch color print would not pass muster by any pixel peeper today but the feeling, the memory of the 'golden moment' the picture evokes.....

I find it hard to get behind a completely subjective philosophy of what a "good picture" is just because I like to think that the best photographs have some sort of universal "quality" to them that everyone can acknowledge.

It's also certainly the case that in some contexts, everything else being equal, you'll choose image A over image B because of purely technical image "quality" concerns.

On the other hand, it's equally obvious that technique isn't everything. You need look no further that the Internet for a nearly infinite number of technically great pictures that don't deserve even a first look.

This issue doesn't seem all that complicated to me. The game is, as always, to get away with what you can get away with. :)

Oh, as a P.S. ... yes unsharp masking can take a picture that is in decent focus but has soft edges (because, say, of antialiasing) and give it a bit more snap. But it can't take a picture that is truly soft and out of focus and make it sharp. So, in that sense you really can't add "real" sharpness. Believe me I've tried.

Another thought.

Why does David Burnett pick a Holga or a old 4X5 Graphic for some work?

They must have the 'image property' he is looking for.

I should have said something like "fine detail" not "sharpness" per se, I guess!

Regardless, technology evolves. If we see a generation of tools that is truly good at re-creating fine detail, will we see "sharpness" drop off the list of things lumped in with "image quality"?

Terry Letton: [I] want it to be able to be sharp when I need it to be, I can always lose to much sharpness( filters, photoshop, or just refocus etc).

Yes, but the interesting question is: do you actually postprocess to "lose" image properties such as sharpness, or does the cost of having invested in some hardware prevent you?

Mike, I am afraid you are incorrect about adding sharpness. Some little bit of sharpness can be added in post, but nothing that restores the original information in the photo. A blurry photo has less information than a sharp one, in the actual, technical, theorem-level meaning of the word. I am not saying that sharpness is artistically superior to blur, but I am absolutely and without a doubt saying that a sharp picture contains information that cannot be recovered by even the most sophisticated Photoshop plug in. If your photo is perfectly sharp and in focus, you can blur it (destroying information) as you like; if it is out of focus, you can enjoy it the way it is (or blur it further), but you cannot restore the sharpness that would have been there had it been focused correctly.

Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building spoke of patterns which described things that evoked what he called the "quality without a name".

“This oneness, or the lack of it, is the fundamental quality for anything. Whether it is in a poem, or a man, or a building full of people, or in a forest, or a city, everything that matters stems from it. It embodies everything. Yet still this quality cannot be named.”

If that sounds a bit too "woo woo" how about this definition of "quality without a name": "the quality that living things have but manufactured things usually don't. The best things we make seem to be alive, and "quality without a name" describes what they have that most other things we make do not have."

Is that what we're groping towards here? The quality without a name that resides in "photographs that give results"?

For the curious in The Timeless Way of Building Chapter 2 "The Quality Without a Name" is on Google Books for those that wish to read more about this idea.

(I'd include a link but I think the first comment got eaten by the spam filter because of the shorted URL)

"I agree with the principle of your quotation, but since I try to make a living from photography, I must ignore it. :)"

You must not be ignoring it very well because I looked at your stuff and it's pure magic.

I also pay the bills with a camera and I understand how you feel. You just have to pay the bills as best you can and do the other stuff for the joy of it and hope it all evens out in the end.

I do actually post-process to reduce sharpness in several cases: I've increased blur of backgrounds to reduce the clutter and distraction, and I've used various approaches to "glamor skin treatment" which generally involve overlaying a blurred copy of the skin on itself (normal, overlay, or soft light type blending most often).

I don't recall ever post-processing to reduce sharpness in every part of the photo; for me so far it's always been selective.

The Capa image is an inspired illustration of the point of your post. Brilliant!

While i basically agree about the subjectiveness of the usual value attached to "quality", i think it is a bit disingenuous to object to the term image quality as it is usually used these days. We say that a file which has properties that are difficult or impossible to add after the fact has better image quality. No big deal terminologically.

And no, usm filters are no substitute, nor is deconvolution in my experience (mainly topaz). Never mind trying to get back detail in blown highlights, or pull out detail from below the shadow floor.

Obviously having more resolution or wider exposure range doesnt make every photo better. Obviously.

Have said it myself many times but not nearly as well. A point well taken and a fine piece of writing.

It occurs to me that an analogy may be in order: would you be sanguine about replacing the term 'reproduction quality' with non-judgemental enumeration or reproduction properties? Here on TOP, we often enjoy hearing about the quality of various photo books, such as the weston offered recently--an offer i availed myself of in large part because of the testamonials about its exceptional quality.

Do you really think that is a different case?

We have myriad options available for transforming an image during and post capture, but the actual photographic moment is also an instance or reproduction...

The quote from Ralph Steiner stuck in my mind also, and I was looking it up when I saw that Jim Hughes had beaten me to it. The old Camera Arts magazine (from the early Eighties), which Mr. Hughes edited, was one of the best photo magazines ever.

"The old Camera Arts magazine (from the early Eighties), which Mr. Hughes edited, was one of the best photo magazines ever."

I concur.


I have said for years that photographers get a much better payoff by thinking about QI (quality image) rather than all the obsession with IQ (image quality).

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