Is the digital aspect of our photography distracting us from the underlying imagery that digital cameras provide us?
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Your opinions on digital photography appreciation revealed
Ever since my first plastic 120 roll-film camera that I owned aged ten back in the early 70s, I have been rather obsessive about photographic image quality. That first camera was rather soft in the corners and colour (yes, we had colour film in those days!) was not what I'd describe as 'accurate'. Later, at school, there was the obsessive search for black and white film developers and slow speed film to eliminate grain and later, the best slide film. It went on and on.
Today, as someone who now makes a living out evaluating the image quality of digital photographic equipment, it struck me recently that we're now in an age that has changed more than just the medium from analogue to digital. I wonder if the fundamentals of the appreciation of so-called 'photo' quality have shifted too?
At the end of this article
I'd like to ask how you, personally, appreciate and enjoy the images that your digital camera produces, by completing a short survey. We'll follow this article up in the near future with analysis of the survey results.
Just what is photo quality today?
So what is this paradigm shift I'm concerned with? I've been rather fascinated by feedback I have received resulting from our recent posting of sample images from a pre-production sample of Panasonic's latest Lumix DMC-FZ50 camera
. It's a very ambitious design, combining the highest resolution in its class, just over ten megapixels, a 12x superzoom Leica-branded lens incorporating optical image stabilisation, all in a relatively compact package. On paper, the FZ50 might sound like a miracle come true, but a vocal group are united by the opinion that this camera is yet another example of megapixels gone mad. They say: "You just have to look at the image detail on the screen; it's all gone, replaced by what looks like a water painting."
It's the sensor, stupid
To be honest, when I looked at the FZ50 images on my PC screen, I was rather surprised, too. The images did look soft and blurred where I was expecting sharp detail. The technical side of my brain then kicked-in: ten megapixels and a very small (1/1.8 inch) sensor, hmmm. I immediately decided that it was hardly reasonable to expect this camera to perform like a Canon EOS-1Ds DSLR. That Canon camera wowed the industry four years ago when it was introduced, featuring eleven megapixels. However, it spread its pixels across an area 22 times, yes – 22x, greater than the FZ50's sensor. To cut a long story short, the larger sensor of the 1Ds does not compromise the image being transmitted to it as much as the smaller and more densely packed sensor in the FZ50.
But, I reasoned, what will the FZ50 images look like once printed? I know that Panasonic Lumix technical staff in Japan rely a lot on printed images to evaluate image quality, so I printed a set at A4 size and lo and behold, they didn't look too bad at all. Most of the nasty blur of pixels you see on-screen gives way to quite respectable details and tones – when viewed at what I'd call a reasonable print viewing distance of, say, 18 inches.
I'll bet anything that the printed images taken using the similar resolution Canon EOS-1Ds would look better than the FZ50's but, surely that's entirely reasonable and obvious considering the price difference and target markets? Maybe not, according to some of the vociferous detractors of the FZ50.
So what is digital photography for nowadays?
Undoubtedly, on-screen viewing of our shots is a vital part of the enjoyment of our photography today. But we down-size the image to fit the confines of the screen, so lots of megapixels becomes irrelevant. A typical 1280x1024 PC monitor sports just 1.3 megapixels, for example. The contrast ratios of LCD screens are also quite low, so some of the core quality of an image will be lost, too.
We are no longer forced to print all our photos as part of the film developing and printing routine of old, but I still feel that a good print gives me a much better feel for the photo than viewing it on a screen.
Oddly enough, the industry reports that the number of prints being made by us at home and through commercial services is higher than ever, but individually we only print a small fraction of the photos we now take. This is because we are taking photos at a massively higher rate than ever, thanks to digital.
So if we are relying on screens to enjoy our photos, do megapixels and the analysis of image quality of high resolution cameras at the pixel level really matter?
If the benchmark for image quality is a print, which I believe, I also question the value of 'pixel-peeping' on-screen. If you can get a good looking print, the image will look fine on-screen at a normal view size.
However, I can't deny that the pressure on manufacturers to deliver ever more megapixel numbers is great and that we will all still be drawn to squinting at pixels on a PC screen. Funny, isn't it?
So what do you think? Here is our little survey (no personal details will be passed on to any third party) - click the button that best relates to you: