Here’s an interesting thought: sensor resolution is way past the point of far more than most people need – look at that recent Nokia 808 PureView and it’s 41MP sensor as an example. For most compact camera users, that’s just asking for trouble – file sizes, viewing, shooting technique…the list goes on.
What if we took a say 50MP compact 2/3″ sensor (not unfeasible) and just output no more than 5 MP from the sensor? You can zoom to your heart’s content before capture – either by taking a 1:1 crop or downsizing various portions of the frame; have a low light mode which uses pixel binning to reduce noise and/or improve dynamic range; and finally, make the whole thing speedy and lag-free by using a bright, fixed-focus wide angle lens. Or I suppose if you must have macro modes, make it AF. Finally, add some form of image stabilization to the mix, because that kind of pixel density is going to make most tripods look as though they have palsy. We’ve dropped the size, weight and cost of the zoom assembly; this makes for more compact, robust cameras. It also means that more engineering effort and perhaps even more money (though I wouldn’t put it past consumer electronics companies to want to hang on to every single extra penny and avoid R&D spending where possible) can be put into the lens, which should in theory improve optics.
The results probably wouldn’t be pretty at the pixel level, but the target audience is unlikely to care. And 5 good MP is more than enough for a clean 6×4″, or social media post, or email. Hell, it’d probably be enough for a decent A3 print if you use one of the pixel binning modes in good light. Think of it as digital zoom, but instead of getting degradation off the base pixel-level image quality, you get an improvement as you use more and more pixels.
However, I digress. As interesting as that idea is for the future of compacts – I wasn’t initially intending to suggest a new type of camera. What I wanted to explore are the building blocks of composition. Assuming everything is in focus, a scene – especially one shot from a wide angle perspective – can easily be decomposed into multiple elements, some of which contain the subject, some of which contain context, and some of which may turn context into a subject in its own right. All images are made up of these building blocks, and each can be treated as an image in itself. (Don’t try to compose this way in the real world, or you’re either going to go crazy or turn into a product photographer.) Examples may be – a face, a texture, a landmark.
Sometimes you don’t need more than a couple to create an arresting image – a portrait, for instance – sometimes you need as many as you can get to convey the chaos of the scene (crisis photojournalism comes to mind). What I notice in good photographers’ images is that all critical frames contain the elements required to tell the story, and usually in aesthetically pleasing relative placement, too. This is a learned skill; one can identify the critical elements required to tell a story, and then go out and look for a frame that contains them. I suppose the more control you have over the placement of the individual elements, and the more individual elements you can even identify in the first place, the stronger your image will be. Elements may break down into sub-elements – a wide shot may contain a portrait which can contain a face closeup; all of these things are building blocks.
This brings us full circle to the original starting point – how many images are there in an image? Let’s take the first image as an example:
This decomposes into what I think are five clear elements; the building and its relationship with the organic are the subjects.
What I find interesting is that each of these elements – or crops – could be an image on its own. And you can of course further subdivide these images down into their own building blocks. How many does one need to make up a strong overall image? One? Two? More? It’s hard to say; I think the answer is actually infinite. If you had infinite resolution, you could keep subdividing and cropping infinitely.
I know this is a fairly nebulous post, but stay with me here and you’ll start to see the genesis of an idea.
Let’s do the same, but in reverse. The frame below arguably works on its own as an image:
But then, if we include more context, so does this:
We can keep pulling out…
…until we reach the initial (final?) frame.
Each of these compositions on its own would have worked as a frame. Similarly, continuously pulling out adds more and more context, until you pass a threshold beyond which the context dominates the subject. I framed the final shot that way because that was the farthest I thought I could pull out to maximize context, but at the same time isolate the subjects in the frame. Anything more and the subjects would have been too small to identify cleanly. You’ve also got to consider the final viewing size: smaller would mean physically smaller subjects, which would encourage tighter framing. Similarly, images that appear flat and cluttered at smaller sizes frequently work well when enlarged due to the greater amount of detail we can physically appreciate.
I started this article postulating on whether increases in resolution would lead to a new generation of pixel-binning super-sensored compacts; the more I think about it, the more I think it might even apply to photography as a whole. We have long past the point of resolution sufficiency for most purposes; shrinking pixel pitches mean that lens maximum apertures and diffraction-impacted apertures are converging. Eventually you’re going to have to buy excellently designed and well-corrected fast lenses and shoot them wide open to absolutely maximize resolution from the sensor.
Perhaps this will give birth to a new style or form of photography – we capture everything first, and then decide what’s important to the frame afterwards. A little bit like Lytro, but for composition rather than focus. Of course, we can do the same today with the super high resolution DSLRs, but there are limits to how much we can crop, and the lack of suitable lenses to serve as a reproduction optic. Such a camera – let’s call it post-capture framing – would be responsive due to lack of focusing needs; hyper focal would probably suffice; offer decent low light performance due to the large maximum apertures required; and be reasonably compact – rangefinder sized, perhaps – due to an optical system designed and matched to the sensor. It’d probably be closer in proportions to a cube, actually – once the lens is taken into account.
The skill of the photographer at the moment of capture would then be reduced to timing and exposure; the latter would probably be mostly automated, leaving only timing; however, this doesn’t make things any easier. The bulk of the work would now be done in post-processing – not just the digital ‘development’ portion, but also the editing, framing and cropping. I’ve always thought of editing as one of the critical skills for a pro – one’s reputation is based as much on the photos you show against the ones you don’t; being able to see the frame ‘in the wild’ and capture the moment in time is not an easy thing to do. Post-capture framing would give you all the time in the world to do that, which would make things easier somewhat – but also offer more opportunities and flexibility for other compositions.
This would of course raise some interesting IP issues: if another ‘editor’ cropped the original photo to a much smaller, unrecognizable frame, whose photo is it? The person who pressed the button, and just aimed the camera in the right general direction, or the one who actually saw the composition in the master frame?
It’s a brave new world, and an exciting time to be a photographer. Personally, though, I’m one of those very anal people who seeks to maximize all of the image quality they can get out of the camera; which means I don’t crop unless it’s to a non-native aspect ratio. Understanding the use of ‘building blocks’ to create a final composition, plus knowing when you’ve got enough context (or too much context, overpowering the subject) is a very important skill to refine, regardless of the technology involved. MT
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