It was 11 degrees below zero (fahrenheit) when I got up to go to work this morning. There were these cool ice crystals on the window at work and fortunately I had my camera with me.
I’m a perfectionist when it comes to image quality. Like most photographers, I love getting the sharpest, smoothest images with the highest resolution and dynamic range that I possibly can. Recently though, I’ve started wondering if the whole photography industry might be a little too caught up with digital image quality. As a little Christmas present to myself this year, I picked up a nice coffee table book of Galen Rowell’s photography. I am surprised at what I see in his images. There is graininess, motion blur and focus errors in a surprising number of his photos. It’s not isolated to Galen’s work either. The same flaws are present in a National Geographic retrospective book that I looked at with photos from dozens of different photographers. Here’s the question I have to ask myself. Do these technical image quality flaws subtract from the awesomeness of the work in those books? Absolutely not.
I’m guessing that the vast majority of people who enjoy Galen Rowell or National Geographic don’t even notice those technical errors, so long as they are not photographers themselves. I think they are more impressed with the subject matter, lighting and composition of a photograph. This is a huge relief for me. There are countless wonderful images that I have grievingly cast into digital purgatory because they have a slight technical flaw. I have been taught how to look for these flaws by the countless camera review websites and photography blogs out there. People on these sites routinely discuss the sharpness of their photo prints when viewed under a loupe. Really? A loupe? When you have a gallery show, do you hand out loupes to all the visitors? The camera manufacturers love this because the inevitable conclusion to all our problems is always to buy more expensive gear. Are the corners of your images a little soft? Well then you need a “pro” lens. Are you making prints of your photos? Certainly nothing less than the highest resolution digital camera available will suffice. What’s interesting is that the personal work of most of the camera reviewers out there is artistically mediocre at best. But darn it, their images are “tack sharp.”
There are extremes in every debate. The infamous Ken Rockwell would try to convince us that he’d give up his digital SLRs and just shoot with the camera on an iPhone, but he’s too cheap to actually buy one. Gimme a break. Of course your camera matters and you should do everything you can to avoid blur, focus on the right spot and expose correctly. But seeing what Galen Rowell and the folks at Nat Geo accepted as good enough gives me a new perspective on how to judge acceptable vs. unacceptable quality in my own images. I can only hope to be as adventurous and creatively brilliant as the photographers on my coffee table, but it’s nice to know that technical perfection takes a back seat to more important aesthetic considerations.