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Tuesday, 31 October 2017


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You have a fine talent for tying it all up into a neat package Mike! Well done.

Your example of the exhaustive 2003 comparison is spot on. Case in point: gear forums are all a flutter now about "pixel shifting" in the new Sony A7RIII. Apparently all images made before this wonderful technology are now garbage... Of course, a year from now the A7RIII will be dated junk because of the new sensor with hyper pixel shifting in the A7RIV.

This is exactly why people often get off the treadmill. If you move your focus from the gear to the images, and especially if you look back at the best work from previous decades, you often realize that the camera you have in your hand right now is probably all you'll ever need. I was out with my Fuji X-T2 and the humble XF 27/2.8 pancake lens on Sunday. It struck me that if I can't make the photographs I want to make with that camera and lens, then I can't do it with any camera and lens.

Here here! Spot on Mike!

I keep returning to Cartier-Bresson's great quote, "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." He said this when he was criticized for using a 35mm Leica. Some people thought 35mm film was too small and required too much enlargement, leading to prints that weren't as sharp as could be made from larger formats. What these people were missing was that Cartier-Bresson's style of street photography needed a small, unobtrusive camera that allowed him to frame and shoot quickly to nail "the decisive moment." A Speed Graphic wouldn't have worked. To focus on the technical limitations of 35mm and to consider them more important than the artistic possibilities the format provides is, as HCB said, bourgeois -- middle-class and materialistic. People like that focus on technical perfection because it's all they can understand. Sharpness fetishists are like people who admire musicians because of how fast they can play rather than what they can express through their playing.

One measure of "image quality" could be the price people are willing to pay for it.

Some love bokeh, while others do focus stacking to eliminate bokeh.

Thanks, Mike. Though I must say, it's the kind of thing one might hope would be in the category of a "blinding glimpse of the obvious." ;)

Photographs, as expressive media, are inherently, to a significant degree, subjective. Which makes proving oneself "right" and others "wrong," a more difficult proposition. And that's a lot of what passes for discourse on the web these days.

Much easier to focus on things that can somehow be measured, however irrelevant, in order to "prove" one artifact is superior to another in an ostensibly objective way.

I'm only commenting because I'm sad to admit that it was many years before I stopped worrying about how soft my corners were, how much dynamic range my camera could capture. It's the sad progression of some new photographers, like myself. Get a camera, learn how to take pictures fairly well. Get most of the basics down. Then go read forums to learn more and discover that your glass is crap, your DOF too deep, your sensor too small! Blown highlights! Blocked shadows! Agh! Must buy new gear!

Thousands of dollars later, one learns, hopefully. And, more than the money, one regrets the time spent and lost chasing some technical "quality" that had little or no relevance to the object of one's pursuit.


Thanks for this excellent post, Mike, surely one of the most straightforward and indeed salient things written on the subject in recent years.

I can't help but notice the parallels, not for the first time, with the world of audio and music capture and reproduction. Indeed, with any process through which tools are used to create something that is `perceived' and assigned `value' by a human.

I'm surprised by your comment about Piet van der Flooj. Were you aware that he was a close friend of P.D.Q. Bach? They combined their talents for several performance art exhibits throughout Europe and once had to leave London under cover of darkness. It had something to do with the doors of the Houses of Parliament and trying to tune Big Ben to C flat although the incident was hushed up reasonably well.

Well, I take your point, but I would argue that there are some timeless photographs that just scream ‟high image quality” independently of whatever criterion from whatever era you may choose to apply, such as the 1848 daguerreotype series of the Cincinnatti waterfront by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter ( http://1848.cincinnatilibrary.org/ ). Zoom in for a closer look and I defy you to say their images aren’t of exceptionally high quality.

There are those that chase technical perfection, and those that chase meaningful images. Same as it ever was, and that's not a problem. Photography has always been a place for those who find an end in the gear itself, and just love the technical aspects of making photos. And it's also a big enough tent to have people who could give a rats tukus about image quality and use the medium as an expression of their view of the world around them, or for some, concepts about art. No problem there either. Photography is a generous medium.

Bravo Mr. Johnston!

I think I recognize myself in there somewhere. I've followed the lemmings off the resolution/sharpness cliff, though for now at least I've reached the apparent point of sufficiency, where stitching and more megapixels don't gain me anything more in a large print.

The comment from 'PhotoDes' is interesting. I've seen it said in several venues that painters don't obsess about brushes or pigments the way photographers do about lenses or sensors. But that's not true at all! You can easily provoke a spirited debate in any group of painters about the merits of particular brush filaments and brands over others, or linen versus cotton canvas, or various mediums. Skilled/experienced painters tend to float above the fray, because they know it's much more about composition and design than the tools.
In the mid to late 1800s, many highly skilled oil painters experimented with exotic varnishes, glazes and mediums to obtain specific pictorial effects. Quite a few were explicitly attempting to achieve 'tone', by which they meant the warm, mellow, translucent appearance of old master works. In some respects it was a response to the threat posed by photography to paintings' representational role. (Impressionism was another). Ironically, many of the experimental varnishes and mediums proved to be ruinous to the archival longevity of the paintings

Probably it (people talking about "image quality") got worse in the early digital era because there were a bunch of changes, not all of them clearly for the good, in what we got out of our cameras. And they kept changing from year to year as the technology progressed rapidly.

But it's not particularly new. Some people embraced grain, some fought it, some were so desperately anti-grain they even resorted to horrible things like Microdol-X. David Hamilton famously used the Minolta super-fast lenses for their flaws--and Minolta embraced that in advertisements (without putting it quite that bluntly). Then there were paper surface preferences (far beyond just glossy and matte, as you will remember -- that horrible "N" surface (but good for pencil retouching and it reproduced okay), the kind of nice silks, the weirdness of canvas, etc.).

Precisely as you say, they are all properties, and the use to which we put them is all on us.

Well Said.
Certainly once our efforts become pictures on a wall all the previous discussion of technical things should no longer matter. But it didn't stop '683 vs 291' and probably won't stop here.
Styles or 'Properties' will continue to come in and out of fashion.
There has always been debate about technical things in Photography because the end result depends on the technology.
The relative newness of Digital photography created a huge smile in technical discussion as we all came to terms with a new way of making images that was evolving before our eyes.
There is nothing wrong with those discussions, as long as we realize that the value we place on a particular property is subjective, and the technology IS fascinating, --even somewhat magical in it's capabilities.
For those of us who learned on film, it is going to be tough to completely give up that debate.
But take a look at the generation raised on Digital..... they simply embrace it for what it is and enjoy every new trend.
Corporations know this Apple killed Aperture in favor of the vastly simplified PHOTOs, Lightroom is now simplified and web based (how long the sadly named Lightroom Classic remains is anyone's guess.
These Applications cater to the new generation who do not care about RAW vs JPEG or iterative sharpening algorithms, they just take pictures and send copies to every one in the world.

"It's up to us to impart the quality."

Golf applause, Mike. Thanks for writing this. It's one thing to pursue technical properties in service of artistic needs but when the technical properties themselves become the goal then the photos become little more than test shots.

Similarly, I stepped off the audiophile path when I realized that I was listening to the audio equipment and not the music.

For the time being I’m perfectly happy with all the equipment in my pipeline, from camera to printer. It’s all so much better than I am. More often my failed photographs are owing to something I did, or failed to do. So the quality I’m after is in my own ability to recognize potential photographs in the world I see around me and to capture them competently. I still have a long way to go.

That said, I’m not immune to the occasional twitch of gear acquisition syndrome, but more often it is because I’m bored with my existing camera equipment and hunger to try something different. It wears off, but for a short time I’ll find myself out more frequently making photographs when I’ve acquired a new camera. Kinda dumb when sometimes just trying a new place, or different time of day, or season, can have the same effect.

If I were to put my Six Sigma Black Belt hat on, albeit briefly, I would say that "Quality" itself is not subjective, it's "on-target with minimal variation". This is the basis for quality initiatives like Six Sigma.

Rather than the term properties, I personally prefer the term "attributes", which is defined as ,"a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic or inherent part of someone or something", because one can measure statistically attributes with respect to quality (e.g. chromatic or spherical aberration, field curvature, lens centricity, etc., etc.)

And you can bet that camera and lens manufacturers test the quality of key attributes e.g. resolution, contrast, and a myriad of other technical attributes that are important to lens or camera functionality. They need to do so for manufacturing purposes, to ensure that key quality characteristics e.g. consistency and conformance are met (e.g. conformance to specification).

But the term attribute can also convey meaning in an artistic or photographic sense, in that one appreciate specific attributes, e.g. your nice example above of the photograph of the vintage Ford V8.

These specific attributes of the "look" of the 20 MP 4/3 sensor that you like can impact the viewer emotionally, intellectually and psychologically when looking at a painting or photograph.

Personally, I always loved the "attributes" that my photographs from my Fuji X-Pro1 had when converted to black and white. Something special.

I can make 30in prints from 35mm Tri-X scans, sure they're gonna be hella grainy (but no grainer than a conventional 11x14); but the tonal values will be there and they will still retain enough detail to make for a very pleasing print.

Now, I also have the option of getting grainless razor sharp 16in prints from a device slightly thicker than a cell phone- and I'm sure they can go even larger. It all depends on where one's subjective, individual preferences lie...

I think many who are preoccupied and obsessed with image quality would probably benefit from visiting the Magnum Pro website. Spend a while looking and downloading jpegs from some of the current hotshots who are currently shooting digital. To name a few just as an example I'd choose David Alan Harvey, Alex Webb, Paolo Pellegrin, or Alessandra Sanguinetti. Obviously the list can go on and on. Now use an Exif data reader and take a peek at their camera settings whilst shooting. One thing which is clearly noticeable once you've a lot of the studied the data is that their sole purpose is to get an image with content. To tell a story. If this means shooting at F16 with awful lens diffraction so be it. It could be wide open sacrificing resolution or a really high noisy iso setting. It doesn't matter, they will do it to get the image.
Maybe what we should all be obsessing about is content, creating a memorable photo, finding our visual authorship and creating a body of work which is clearly personal.
I think i can safely say for the last six or seven years all digital cameras are good enough.

The best tools are between the ears, and the properties required also aren't effectively characterized as IQ.

Hear, hear!

This post (and others like it) deserve to reach a wider audience.

I'm reminded of the difference of opinion about the Fuji 18mm f2. Whilst many seem to regard it as an embarrasment to the marque, others, myself included, extoll its lovely rendering, convenience, close focus etc. I notice that everyone handed the new Olympus pro lenses has been instructed to talk about their 'feathery' bokeh. I bet its no featherier than the bokeh I get with my 18 f2. :)

I once picked up a Carl Zeiss Jena 24mm 2.8 for £10. Having removed slight traces of fungus by the simple expedient of exposure to sunlight I found it capable of producing some lovely, but no doubt technically imperfect, pictures. Your post prompts me to give it another outing.

I knew you would come to this someday Mike, and now that day is here! Revealed fully on Halloween 2017. Its obvious- you believe it's the photographer that creates the image not the equipment.

I had no idea "conventions" exist in the digital chameleon era of photography.

Bravo, very, very well said. Haha, I'm glad I waited for this article. I did start a reply to yesterday's piece, but it desendended into a semi rant about different variables on each side of that 1" = MF film equation. As I'm not good with words I ended up writing myself into a corner, but I think I was on the same track as you.

Not in a million years would I have been able to express what I wanted to say the way you have here. Thank you.

iMo, there but a single measure of "image quality"...that is, when a PRINT (not an image on a screen) touches the viewer in a manner which moves the viewer beyond the obviousness of the "properties" of that which is depicted. And that "image quality" can be accomplished by any manner of picture making.

Everything else is just a sideshow.

What does it mean when a photographer does "quality work" then?

Fear, uncertainty and doubt about one's gear sells new stuff, and I believe that the marketing departments of the camera makers exploit certain gear-review sites, photoblogs and web fora as echo chambers. The added benefit for the companies is that it enforces a tendency in the customers to purchase upmarket products with higher profit margins.

Perfectly said! The reference to 2003 state-of-the-art image quality being irrelevant today really got me thinking. I'm guilty this obsession, afraid to stop down to f11, because diffraction might "ruin" my utterly mundane shot. Ja!

I have thought about this topic for a while, but never expressed it so well and clearly, and I think I never had read something comparable to this text anywhere.

Great article Mike

Mike so well said and so true. It is always about the content. My happiest moments in photography is exploring a new, at least to me, city with my little Fuji x100 series or my XT2 with a prime lens on it. I get some wonderful pictures. Many are really sharp and exposed correctly, but even the ones that are not, it is still fun to capture the life of a City, and tell it’s story through my 70 year old eyes. Keep grinding them out. Eric

Terrific post. Cuts straight to the core of the issue.

John Flores' "golf applause" may be too modest for such an evocative posting. Golf shares two features with photography; the need for introspection and GAS---Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Galen Rowell understood the inner game of photography and the great golf champion Robert Tyre Jones observed that golf was played on a 5 1/2 inch course---the distance between the ears.

A good example of quality images the way the photographer wants them is shown in Jack Spencer's latest book THIS LAND, An American Portrait.

Quality all the way around with technical excellence used to express what he intended. Not limited to what the camera gives him.

Great post Mike. I travel out to Carmel, CA each year on assignment and always visit the various galleries in town - mostly representing that F64 group with lots of Adams, Cunningham and the Westons. It always strikes me that one of the primary features of their photography is their technical ability to render a scene with absolute sharpness and unnoticeable grain structure. For me, many of the images are ABOUT the image quality, or their ability to render a scene in such detail.

I would argue that reproducing the scenes and subjects of the Group-64 with a 1" sensor (or any other "compromised" format) and making large prints would show its inferiority relative to that group's goal. Those prints, in my opinion, are largely ABOUT the reproduction quality.

On the other hand, many of the great "street" photographs we know are immune to that dynamic because they are not ABOUT the rendering quality, but rather the moment or the gesture. A great Cartier-Bresson image would be great whether it was shot on an 8x10 view camera, 35mm or a 1" sensor.

The great photographers of each genre use the format that allows them to achieve their goals. Cartier-Bresson would have probably missed many decisive moments using a view camera. And Adams probably would have felt that 35mm film lacked the detail and gradation of tones he was after in his final prints?

Excellent post Mike. Truly the way I think but cannot say as well as you.

I don't care if details are resolved at 200 lines pairs per millimeter in the image when so many people output photos with garish colors, extreme HDR, maxed out clarity, and over-sharpening? Some of those are painful to look at. Why bother with all that extreme performance?

Yup, I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail in your very lengthy article, Mike. “Image quality” can only be measured against image objectives. Trying to find hidden missiles in North Korea with a 12mp camera? Probably a fail for image quality. Using the same camera for a more expressive effort? Probably fine.

There are over 22,000 photos in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection. I can’t think of any that fail due to a crappy camera or lens ... and plenty were produced with crappy equipment by today’s standards.

As my father says, All wine tastes like fermented grapes.

[I think I'm going to use that. Great expression. --Mike]

I've just sold my Olympus 12-40 and Panasonic 35-100 - both of which are touted as fantastic lenses. Why? I have realised that I value simplicity and versatility above ultimate bestness. I have replaced these with the Olympus 12-100mm and cover both focal ranges in one lens. Yes, it's bigger, but it's also smaller ;P and I don't have to change lenses while out hiking (bonus!). I have kept my 20mm 1.7 and my 45mm 1.8 for small/light/excellent. I should be happy for the next week/month/year!

My brand of washing powder washes whiter every time ...

I sell my pictures on a market stall. Nearly everyone who stops to look is not a "photographer". They never talk about image quality or technicalities. They only say "that's lovely" or similar (the ones who don't like them don't stop to talk, so I only get nice comments :-) Of course there are various factors that produce that end result, including sharpness and the like, but it's only the final, holistic, result that counts.
I also get a minority of people who are "photographers". They will very commonly say "they're really nicely printed", which is something the non-photographers never say.

This and the previous article are thought-provoking but in the spirit of dialectic I'd like to propose a contrary argument. I am not convinced that image quality and image properties are one and the same thing. Does anyone really believe that the engineers who make our camera equipment do not strive for increased image quality and that price and time aren't mitigating factors against its realization?

Much of the argument presented against image quality hinges on a relativism that context or taste determines image quality, but that's not really true. Isn’t the argument that a 1" sensor is "good enough" itself supportive of the notion that image quality is a distinct phenomenon given that we can see its improvement even in consumer cameras, which in the past suffered from seriously compromised image quality? Think of early digital, its low resolution, noise, banding. I think those are clearly objective standards for image quality, for starters, that have been greatly improved over time, even in our cheap consumer devices.

Image quality need not be the subject of semantics to prove that photographic expression is not equated with, and doesn't depend on, it. It's one of those paradoxes of photography. In the same way that you need darkness to capture light, quality makes a difference until you look at any given photograph where then it doesn't matter.

This topic is also a lot more extensive than it appears. Photography is a mechanical medium. Sure, we make an image in our mind's eye, but to show it to someone else we need a camera. Sensor/film/lens all make significant contributions to what that photograph means, more than we'd like to admit. It isn't just that the mechanisms of photography contain properties; they are also the substance of a photograph. This is the first cause of photographers' obsession with camera equipment.

Post-production also seriously impacts perceived quality and most crimes of Photoshop are committed with the intent of improving perceived quality - the dark/lightroom is, after all, the performance. That so many fail only demonstrates how elusive quality is and how it is distinct, yet related, to image properties. The iPhone's magic is not really the result of the sensor or lens, but all the engineering work put into the mechanics before and after the shot. A lot can be said here about this attention to image quality.

I completely agree that the focus on image quality and the resulting endless upgrade cycle is a problem - a pesky weed that has grown out of control and threatens to kill the harvest. But the underlying issue present in this widespread obsession--sharpness across the frame, noise-free, sparkly micro-contrast, high resolution, etc--is the need for security (which says a lot about our age, I believe). It's a photography-by-numbers approach that removes the uncertainty of the artistic enterprise, in both creation and consumption. It provides certainty on how to take a photo and what to look for in one. Of course, this is all an illusion and the cause of a lot of really bad, empty, soulless images. But that's not the fault of image quality, which thankfully will still be the goal of the engineers who make the wonderful devices we abuse in order to make them speak with our voice.

Good images create a positive reaction and connection with the viewer.
For that it must create an emotional response, like music, in the viewer.

It is beneficial to have a broad set of techiques and gear on hand to play this game, .....so it is ok to buy another lens 😉 and many hidden ways lead to the desired end result.

Technique reliance alone, like HDR tricks and discovering that PS sliders do go all the way to the right, wo a proper pop up warning...... have given us more sharp stick in the eye type images per unbound enthusiasts, then great masterworks.

A quality image is tied, made accessible, and placed within the greater and historical context of the newly coined visual arts language developed over the last century and a half, ever evolving and changing, as is our ability to see images.

This made my day:

"Apparently they like their pictures extremely sharp and extremely soft."

"There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept". Ansel Adams

Bravo, Mike. This is one of the finest essays on the subject of photography that I've read over the past few years.

I just finished watching a demo of the PhaseOne IQ monochrome (achromatic) back: 15-stops of dynamic range, 100 MPs, noise-free files at ISO 12,000, and other whistles and bells. My takeaway is that it's a fine back for archiving true black and white flat art.

I too have run out of gas, I'm sticking with my Pen F and Sony A7rII. I plan to use those bodies for many many years.

I use an old 24mm Tamron lens. It's manual focus, so it goes on the manual focus Pentax with the split image screen, the Pentax that's nine years old now. The lens isn't very, very sharp on digital, but it's sharp enough!

The Pentax's sensor is as outclassed now as the rest of the camera is in almost every way except handling. The two together gave me some excellent photos last weekend. Again.

I just wish my easels were as good as my tripods.

Reading all of this just after paging through Nancy Rexroth's Iowa again. Can't help but wonder how these would have looked if she had used a D850 instead of a Diana. Not nearly as good I suspect.
Thanks for the tip on Iowa. I liked it so much I sent a copy to my son and he loves it too.

On "quality", read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". ISBN 978-0099786405.

With the dawn of the digital era and for a long time after, the big question was, when will digital become comparable to film, in terms of dynamic range, resolution of detail, tonal characteristics, color rendition, and so on. This was usually expressed with the shorthand term "image quality".

Most people nowadays would not dispute that among most of those quantifiable properties people had in mind when they said "image quality", digital now far exceeds film. But the discussion of image quality took on a life of its own, to the extent that people forgot why we started talking about it in the first place.

Of course it was always a concern, but film technology was pretty mature, so that with enough technique (or enough money) you could get pretty much any look you valued. And thus most people in the latter part of the film era were more concerned with image properties, and talk of image quality was secondary -- completely the reverse of today.

Fine post, Mike. I have been reviewing the large set of images that I will show in an exhibition that opens here in Ann Arbor at the public library's downtown branch on Dec. 1st, my first one-man show by the way - "The Nichols Arboretum in Black and White" (more details on the library website at www.aadl.org and its exhibits page) - and I'm rather pleased that they are markedly different than most of the photos I see around nowadays. I work in digital black and white, using classic film-era lenses on a modern Pentax digital camera, and the combination suits me to a T.

Following the hints in an earlier post of yours, I've been working on the separation of mid-tones in processing my pics - a very important detail in producing quality images in black and white these days, and nicely doable in Adobe Lightroom, with its sliders in the Hue section that hold on to the color information in the original digital file even after the image has been converted to black and white. Results are impressive.

Anyway, in these questions, the proof is in the eye, as it reviews subject and treatment and what those things show about the skill and heart of the photographer - not the gear that took the photo! That's ultimately where image quality is appreciated or rejected. Do subject and treatment add up to a memorable photo? Did the gear help that happen? My gear channels me in a certain direction - and happily, it works for me and the subjects and concepts I pursue. That's all that matters.

By the way, if you happen to find yourself passing through Ann Arbor through the holiday season, stop by and take a look at my pics - they'll be up until Jan. 10th. Would be fun to get your thoughts on them!

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