Can you tell the difference?


Obfsucation.

Following on from an interesting suggestion made by knickerhawk in the comments section of an article a little while back on achieving visual consistency, here’s both a little test/ exercise for you and a little more expounding on the idea of sufficiency. Read on if you think you’re up for the challenge.

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Repost: Points of sufficiency: do you really know how much is enough?

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39-MP medium format overkill? For most things, most definitely. But if you’re making 40×50″ fine art prints for close range viewing, no.

I’m reposting this article from 2012 for the simple reason that I’m still getting far too many emails from people obsessing over equipment with bigger numbers or higher specs solving compositional and creative deficiencies. I think I’ll continue to do this on a regular basis so long as those communiques keep coming in…

The never-ending photographic arms race got me thinking recently about sufficiency: how many pixels, fps, AF points, ISO settings, etc. are enough? The troubling thing is that I thought I used to know the answer: I’m no longer sure it’s quite as clear cut. See, the thing is that if you’re viewing images online, in theory, anything close to your screen resolution (leaving space for UI elements, text, menus etc.) should be sufficient – 1000px wide is more than enough for most purposes. The images on this site are mostly 800px wide, for reference. In theory, that should mean an iPhone is overkill. Yes and no; just because resolution sufficient, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have enough dynamic range, or color depth (or accuracy).

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The proverbial desert island camera

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One question you tend to see publicly discussed ad nauseam on forums is the one that goes something along the lines of “If you could only bring one camera/lens to a desert island, what would that be, and why?” I’m sure it’s something even we more serious photographers give some consideration to from time to time; if only because one day we might find ourselves facing such an eventuality. In the greater interests of this site’s readership, I put myself in precisely that situation a couple of weeks ago.

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Choice, sufficiency and intangibles

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Nobody needs one of these to tell the time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want one.

The incredibly strong and polarizing responses to the Hasselblad Lunar post in the last few weeks have lead me to think a bit more about why exactly people are so riled up about it, even those who aren’t going to buy one. I’ve even had people who’ve never commented on any of my other posts before either leave comments on the site, Facebook or Flickr – or in the case of a couple of people, email me and openly question my sanity and whether I have a financial interest in Hasselblad (!)

Firstly, I have zero financial interest in any camera company. I was in private equity and M&A for many years before turning pro; I would never invest in a camera company because the business has such incredibly low margins and high risk that any potential returns are simply not worth the risk. There are other reasons, but it’s not necessary to go into them here. The only financial interest I have in any camera sales are referrals via Amazon, and that’s both constant across all camera brands, as well as completely irrelevant here simply because you cannot buy a Lunar from Amazon.

Now that I’ve cleared up my personal position, lets take a fresh look at things. Clear your mind and try to be as objective as possible for the next thousand or so words; put aside your personal biases and preconceptions for the moment. And ultimately, remember that you are always free to vote with your wallet.

Let us begin.

I’m going to start with a bit of an analogy: the auto industry. In the early days, everything was quirky and heavily manufacturer-dependent. You might not always find the accelerator and brake pedals in the same place from car to car, for instance. To drive one effectively – and end up at your destination without breaking your car or your passengers – you really had to know your machine. Today, with few exceptions, the accelerator is always on the right, the brake is always in the left, and the stick between the seats controls the direction and speed of travel.

Cars have reached a point of development where not only so they all operate the same, but they are increasingly looking the same, too. For getting from A to B, pretty much anything will do the job just fine – yes, a Bugatti Veyron can get you there faster than a VW, but to do so requires some skill to operate and seriously diminishing returns in cost terms and general usability. That said, under most driving conditions, the VW will be easier o operate and produce exactly the same outcome. (Hell, my wife’s VW Polo will happily do over twice the legal speed limit without breaking a sweat.) For most people, it’s not necessary. But that doesn’t stop you wanting one, no matter how impractical and expensive it may be. At a more achievable level, plenty of people buy BMWs or Mercedes over Hondas; they don’t fundamentally do the job any differently (ironically, I’m writing this post on my iPhone while waiting for my car to get a new battery*) but we still want one anyway.

*And here’s a good example of sufficiency – I would prefer to write this on a proper keyboard with my 27″ monitor, but I’m certain the content and message of the article wouldn’t have been any different. The same applies to using a pen and paper, etc. I can make do just fine with something less, but I would prefer to use something else – and do so, because I can.

Your car choice is as much a personality statement as it is a tool. You probably use it every day, so you want it to be comfortable, familiar, and perhaps have some of the conveniences that might matter to you – it could be a third row of seats or wheel-mounted shift paddles. A mom of three is going to have very different requirements from a professional race driver. Even within our budget and specification requirements, there are often myriad similar confusing choices; I hate car shopping because you never get to try one for long enough to decide if it works for you or not in the long run.

The moral of the story is about sufficiency. Once we have achieved sufficiency, we then have choice. Once mass penetration has been achieved, proliferation is the only way that such consumer markets can sustain themselves, especially when most buyers are only going to make one such large purchase every few years. The investment required to develop a complex consumer product is enormous; I have no doubt that a new sensor easily runs into the millions, if not tens of millions.

As much as I like quirky products as much as the next guy, there has to be some commonality or economies of scale to make these products sustainable in the long term. I don’t want say Brand X to produce the perfect camera for me only to find that they go bankrupt three years later, leaving me with no upgrade path or after sales support. I want them to be able to survive and continue evolving the design. If that means the sensor has to be one bought and shared with other brands – take the 1/1.7″ prosumer compacts for instance – then so be it. I’d rather be able to buy a Ricoh GRD IV with the same sensor as the G15, S110, XZ-2 and LX7 than be stuck with the GRD I because the company went under making its own sensor.

Such competition is not a bad thing. It forces manufacturers to improve their product and make a compelling argument for the consumer to choose it over similar alternatives. This is a buyer’s market; if there were only one or two products in this category, we would be forced to buy them if we needed the functionality – regardless of whether we liked it or not, or if the rest of the camera was an ergonomic disaster. I, for one, don’t like the the feeling of being at the mercy of the manufacturer. Why should I hand over my hard-earned money if you don’t deserve it – don’t earn it yourself – by making something that I want to buy?

Photography has always been about making pictures. It still is, but a lot of people have now confused it with equipment collecting. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that so long as you know you’re a collector and and don’t pretend to be a serious and competent photographer just because you own some exotic lenses and cameras.) We have now past the point of sufficiency for the vast majority of uses – getting from A to B in the automobile analogy – but the difference is most consumers don’t know that. If you lose control of a 300km/h car, you’re probably going to lose your life. If you lose control of a 50MP camera, at worst you get an enormous blurred file. This lack of consequence I suppose is the root cause of a different psychology in most consumers; you want more if you can afford it.

But like with cars, we all want choices, individuality – look how strongly people identify with their camera brands. They are an extension of your personality, your choice of camera seems to have become a semi-religious thing that must be openly defended and fought over on Internet forums. I’ve seen people who are normally sensible, rational individuals in their real world dealings become infantile zealots. It’s almost a wonder that there aren’t riots and lynchings a Photokina – you’d never see a trade show of all the world’s major and minor religions without things descending into primal chaos.

Yet this is what photography seems to have become for most people. Just as there are religious extremists who give things a bad reputation, there are also sensible moderates who are decent individuals who just get on with their lives and contribute meaningfully to society. Cars, religion, cameras. We now have a choice, and lots of them at that. You don’t have to buy one particular car because it has a lower chance of exploding than another brand; nor do you have to switch religions because one now offers you slightly faster resurrection than another.

The ability to make a free choice according to one’s personal preferences is a first world problem. Pick whatever camera that suits you – both in technical requirements and personal aesthetics/ ergonomics – and just use it. If you don’t like it anymore, get another one, but don’t think that more of something will improve your personal skill level; at best it might make you want to shoot more, which is what will up your game – not more fps or megapixels. If you like to shoot with a large DSLR, then do so, and don’t attack others who prefer compacts. One won’t give you improve composition over the other, that’s down to the driver. There will be people who don’t understand why anything more than a compact is required; others who don’t go smaller than medium format (I know both) and still others who swear that Leicas give them a certain feel. But all of them have one thing in common: they will shoot more with a camera they enjoy using. This means if somebody wants to cover their camera in gold and vajazzle it because they think it suits their personality, why not? It may not be to our personal tastes, but I’m almost certain that they’ll probably produce better images with it than an ordinary camera simply because they want to use it in the first place.

The only reason this is becoming such a hot issue in the photography world is because the proliferation of choice is now reaching a point where it’s noticeable. Not every camera has to be black – you’d probably be mortified if you suddenly found that Honda now only made cars in one color – just as you also don’t have to buy it. But there will be somebody who does, and those people will put some small contribution back into the industry which will eventually let the manufacturers produce something that might well be perfect for you. Without these products, we face a period of stagnation and lack of choice – and I think we can all agree this is something nobody wants.

I don’t have to like every product, let alone buy it – and neither do you. But I think for the industry to survive and grow, products like the Lunar are necessary – and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of them in future from other brands. I say let the manufacturers go wild, and let the market make it’s choices; I’m almost certain that they know what’s going on in the general market sentiment (or at least they should if they’re worth their salt) – but at the same time, I double Bugatti are going to make a budget hatchback for those who complain the Veyron is too expensive, and if you can’t afford a Lexus, there’s always Toyota. In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate the good problem, pick up a camera that feels good to me and get on with the business of making images. It’s the main reason why I hate making camera recommendations – I’m sure a 5DIII is capable of as good or better images than a D600, but I know I won’t be able to make them because the way the camera feels and operates is simply counterintuitive to me. I’d still be stuck trying to think about which button to press, and as a result miss a shot that a seasoned Canon shooter would have nailed. Personal preferences matter.

Ultimately, if your photo is good enough, nobody is going to care what you shot it with – but if you hadn’t brought the camera with you in the first place, or didn’t feel like shooting with it, then the image would never have happened. And that definitely does make a difference. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Points of sufficiency: do you really know how much is enough?

The never-ending photographic arms race got me thinking recently about sufficiency: how many pixels, fps, AF points, ISO settings, etc. are enough? The troubling thing is that I thought I used to know the answer: I’m no longer sure it’s quite as clear cut. See, the thing is that if you’re viewing images online, in theory, anything close to your screen resolution (leaving space for UI elements, text, menus etc.) should be sufficient – 1000px wide is more than enough for most purposes. The images on this site are mostly 800px wide, for reference. In theory, that should mean an iPhone is overkill. Yes and no; just because resolution sufficient, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to have enough dynamic range, or color depth (or accuracy).

This raises a hypothetical question: suppose we could have say a ‘perfect’ 3MP – in a compact camera, with a reasonably good zoom lens; if we put those 3MP into a 2/3″ or 1/1.7″ sized sensor, we could probably get a fast-sh 24-120mm f2-4 equivalent into something that would be reasonably pocketable. The relatively low pixel density would mean several things – good acuity, low noise, good color accuracy, and much higher forgiveness of the lens quality. With today’s technology, I don’t see why you couldn’t get a clean ISO 6400 and useable ISO 12800. Even with a lens of moderate speed, that’s a more than sufficient shooting envelope for most photographic purposes. Add a good optical stabilizer, fast AF, 14 bit RAW, responsive buffering and controls, and most people would be set. And with raw files that small, you could probably get 10,000 of them onto a 32GB card.

But, nobody would buy it and it would be a commercial failure. Only 3MP? Really?

That’s the kicker. If you’ve ever had a really high quality, but small-ish file, then you’ll know that you can actually do quite a lot with it; I remember seeing some images from the 2005 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition – prints, at 40×60″ or so – which were shot with a Nikon D1H: that’s right, all of 2.7MP. Did they sing? You bet. Did they look grainy, or pixellated? Not especially so, but I’m sure you’d see the difference if you shot the exact same scene with a D800E. The shot that won would no doubt still be a great capture even twenty years from now. A hundred years from now. Does the equipment matter? Insofar as it didn’t get in the way of the capture, no.

In a more realistic scenario, a proper 300dpi print (actual pixels, not printer ink dots) looks extremely sharp. 200dpi is still acceptable; do you know what most computer screens are? Closer to 110. Sharp images still look sharp, don’t they? And the reason things appear pixellated is because the pixel mask of the screen gives each pixel a hard edge. If the edges of each dot were just a tiny bit fuzzy and overlapped the next dot, like in a print, then things would look just fine. The reality is that short of sticking yourself a few inches away from the display, you’re not really going to see the individual pixels. I have to be honest; the Macbook Pro’s 220dpi ‘retina’ display doesn’t look all that different to my 15″ non-retina from healthy viewing distances. But it requires four times the amount of graphics power to run, because guess what: every graphical element requires four times the pixels.

Most people print no larger than 6×4″, or perhaps out to 8×12″ for special images; survey a group of enthusiasts on the largest print they’ve made, and you’ll probably find 13×19″ a good end point. There are two reasons why: cost, and lack of display space. Enormous prints are great, but you’d also better have enormous walls to hold them.

So what does a 1500×2000 pixel, 3MP file get you? At 110dpi, 13.6×18.2″ – lo and behold, that’s pretty darn close to 13×19″! The one problem with this scenario is that it assumes that all photographers using the ‘sufficient’ camera have the shot discipline to get things perfect at the pixel level, and that they’re really getting the full resolution of the sensor. Sigma/ Foveon shooters will know what I mean by this – the files may be small, but the real resolving power is pretty darned high. Higher than the sensor’s pixel count would lead you to believe (but not as high as Sigma’s marketing department would like you to believe).

Even for use on a next generation ‘retina’ display, you could still get a 7×9″ image out – comfortably fitting the display size. You could probably interpolate it a little too, and not see too much degradation in quality.

Let’s put this all into context. The recently-released Sony RX100 (reviewed here) has 20MP effective – that’s a whopping 5500×3600 or so pixels, or enough for a 50×33″ print – I don’t have enough space in my house to hang more than one or two of those, and at that size, I’d struggle to think what image I wouldn’t mind looking at for hours on end. Yet there are still people crying ‘not enough resolution!’. At that sensor size, pixel density is so high that critical focusing and shooting discipline become very important; I notice that the stabilizer seems a lot less effective than lower-pixel count cameras, but I’m now starting to suspect it’s because it’s got to work quite a lot harder to maintain perfection at the pixel level.

Take the argument a notch further: okay, so there are still reasons to have something with interchangeable lenses. And those things always come with bigger sensors (okay, so not the Nikon 1 cameras, but they haven’t exactly been a commercial success – expensive, small sensor, low pixel count; even if the pixel quality is reasonably high and the cameras are extremely responsive). Bigger sensors mean more expected resolution. I’m going to bypass M4/3 and APS-C for the time being, because they all top out at reasonably similar resolutions; there isn’t that much difference between 16 and 24MP – remember, area scales with the square of length. Let’s go to full frame DSLRs – one of the most common questions I’ve received via email in the last few months is ‘I have a D700. Should I upgrade to the D800/ D800E?’ The fact that that question is even being asked signals that the marketing department has done a good job. They’ve sold you on the lure of the enormous number of pixels; you haven’t bothered to do a bit more reading to find out that a) you’re going to need much better lenses; b) shot discipline once again becomes critical; c) stability is a hot topic; d) your AF system might not be quite as accurate as you thought – especially if you’re using auto-area and letting the camera do the thinking for you.

The answer to this question is simple: how big do you print, and do you need video? If the answer to the latter is yes, go ahead and buy it; video isn’t something the D700 can do. The former is a bit more subtle: if you can’t get a good 45×30″ or so print out of the D700, then your shooting technique needs work. I’ve had images shot under ideal conditions printed to 40×60″ for exhibitions – they still looked great. Granted, the subjects weren’t crammed with fine detail like leaves and grass, but they weren’t high-bokeh content portraits, either. So, if you’re not making say 20×30″ landscapes on a regular basis – do you really need the heartache that comes from having to revaluate all of your lenses, and shunt around 50MB RAW files? Probably not. But, the bragging rights are a different matter altogether.

One of the reasons why the photographic industry is still growing despite passing saturation point some time ago is because of the photographers themselves: they don’t know when to stop. Canon will happily sell you a 50/1.2 for three or four times the price of the 50/1.4, which itself is three times the price of the 50/1.8 – simply because there are people who will pay for that extra half a stop. (And it may be an extra half a stop of aperture, but it’s almost certainly less than half a stop of transmission.) Let’s be realistic: the camera’s metering doesn’t gauge scenes that accurately; I routinely make adjustments of +/- 1 stop, and that’s with Nikon’s super-accurate matrix meter in the D700 or Olympus OM-D (I consider both to be more reliable than the D800, which has a tendency to put too much weight to the active focus area). The Sony RX100 is out by so much that I have to constantly use exposure compensation or risk an unsalvageable image. With the degree of adjustment latitude our modern sensors give us, whole stops changes are what you have to be making before you see any appreciable differences in image quality.

Here’s another curious thing: equipment with more conservative specifications often performs better than more extreme gear, even though the extreme gear frequently costs several times more. This is because we’re dealing with known technology, with greater tolerance for error: this is why there are many superb 50/2s or 50/2.8s that perform excellently wide open, but few 50/1.4s and faster that do. It’s also why lenses with higher resolving power – take the macros for instance – have modest apertures. It’s easier to correct for smaller apertures. Same thing with sensors – it’s easier to get good dynamic range and a high signal-to-noise ratio out of a sensor with a larger pixel pitch; the supporting electronics for each photosite has to be of a certain size, and if there isn’t much area to go around in the first place, that circuitry starts to make a significant and noticeable difference to the light-collecting ability of the sensor.

The bottom line is very Socratic: Know thyself. Specifically, think carefully about which pictorial limitations are due to the photographer, and which are because of the camera. Low light performance? It’s probably your gear. Poor composition? More pixels isn’t going to help you. Blurry images? More pixels definitely aren’t going to help you; examine your technique first.

The recent series on inspirations from older cameras was posted specifically to illustrate this point: just because a camera is old, it doesn’t mean that it’s no longer capable of producing good images. If somebody could use it to get the shot when they had no other choice, it means that you can still do that. The important thing to remember is that most of the time, the limitation is in the user, not the equipment. So next time, before buying more gear, think about spending money on improving your skill level first. I guarantee that you’ll see a much bigger improvement in your images. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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