Since the beginning of the medium – supposedly the view from Niepce’s window in 1826 or thereabouts – we have been chasing more. More is supposedly better. More of what? More of everything: resolution, clarity, size, maximum aperture, focal length, width…anything that can be quantised. It is arguable that the sufficiency was achieved for the capable photographer quite some time ago; what’s more interesting is that sufficiency has also been met and far exceeded within the reach of the typical consumer, too. And I think finally, several years afterwards, people are beginning to realise it, too. So: where does photography go from here?
This article won’t be along the same lines as my earlier article on technology, art and pushing the boundaries. Rather, I’d like to approach this from a different perspective, and one I always try to keep in mind: the end image.
I blame the incessant drive for numbers on the marketing people: without a short, catchy, demonstrably better – after all, 20 is better than 16, right? – tagline, it actually requires some thought to sell a product in the ever-increasing quantities that headquarters demands. In fact, the camera companies have done such a good job of conditioning consumers that higher numbers are better that they’ve now shot themselves in the foot: on one hand, buyers are expecting bigger numbers at lower prices, which is challenging from a business standpoint; on the other hand, they’re not seeing the improvements they’ve become used to over the frantic pace of technological change over the last few years, which means a different approach is required, and probably a contradictory one. Finally, pick a remaining foot: more is simply not practical for most people, either due to cost, physical size, or file handling. There is no point in making something people can’t afford or use, and there’s even less point trying to break the rules of physics.
Let’s look at this practically:
More megapixels means you need better lenses, more accurate focusing, more storage space, more powerful computers, and much better shot discipline to obtain crisp-looking results. Better lenses means more glass, more complex optical designs and both more physical weight and higher risk of production sample variation affecting results. Those are not good things. More storage/ computing power means more cost; facebook doesn’t increase in resolution, and desktop screens are still mostly HD – that’s 2MP. Even assuming that photosite technology continues to improve, since the underlying circuitry is equal, bigger pixels will always have better color accuracy, acuity and dynamic range than smaller ones. Lower density is also less likely to show camera shake.
Faster apertures might be nice for bokeh (if you’re into that kind of thing) and low light work, but you’ll also need to have much more accurate autofocus, and very large glass to maintain quality even when used wide open. Just look at the difference in the glass size between a Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 and the 2/50 Makro-Planar – the 2/50’s front element is about 27mm across; the 1.4/55 is a whopping 70mm. And we haven’t talked about cost yet, either. And if you’re not going to use it wide open, what’s the point?
Wider/ longer lenses (more extreme perspectives) Beyond the obvious physical size requirements due to the rules of optics – and associated cost – how many people really know how to use an 8mm ultrawide or 800mm supertele effectively from a compositional point of view?
I did just say Bigger sensors are better, all other things being equal. But they also mean you need bigger bodies and bigger glass. There is an optimum ergonomic size that balances weight, handling, portability, cost, etc – I think that’s perhaps the size of an E-M1 with 12-40/2.8 or thereabouts; assuming that effectively all sensors in consideration are going to hit sufficiency from an image quality standpoint, then this is about the size we should be aiming for. The sensor should therefore be the largest it can be whilst balancing out the requisite size of properly matched optics. Look at the Sony A7R: the body is the same size as the E-M1, but the sensor is enormous. Paired with primes, it makes sense; paired with zooms, the handling is terribly imbalanced. There’s also no room within the body for a stabilizer, so all of the lenses must have it built in there, instead – once again making them larger.. The E-M1, on the other hand, is always balanced, though perhaps it might well be possible to fit APS-C within the same footprint. Look at the Ricoh GR…
Smaller sensors go in the opposite direction: assuming pixel-level technology improves, doesn’t this mean we can get away with even smaller sensors, and thus smaller cameras? Yes, if you just want to skim the edge of sufficiency: this doesn’t leave you a lot of margin for contingent situations. An iPhone will give great results in bright light, but average indoors lighting at night is already pretty ropy. Since there’s no point in making cameras that are too small to handle, I’d rather have a bit more and forgo the token camera shoved into every single device you can think of – even those which really don’t need them.
I keep coming back to the point of sufficiency because it’s one of the most misunderstood concepts by consumers, photographers and camera companies alike. Here’s what sufficiency means, in real terms. The megapixel number assumes you a) are sharp at the actual-pixels level, i.e. have good technique; and b) are using a Bayer sensor; c) noise is a non-issue or barely noticeable up to 1600 or average night conditions. Here’s what you need:
- Hipstagram – 0.3MP, quality doesn’t really matter anyway
- Social media/ facebook/ twitter/ etc – 800x800px: 0.64MP
- Dedicated photo sites/ flickr etc – 2000x1500px: 3MP
- 6×4″ minilab print, 144dpi – 864x576px: 0.5MP
- Single page newsprint ~20×15″, 72dpi – 1440x1080px: 1.5MP
- HDTV playback – 1920x1080px: 2.1MP
- 18×12″ print, 240dpi (upper limit for most hobbyists and a lot of pros) – 4320x2880px: 12.4MP
- Double page A4 magazine spread 16.5×11.7″, 240dpi – 3960x2808px: 11.1MP
- 8×12″ Ultraprint, minimum 500dpi, ideal 720dpi – 4000x6000px to 5760x8640px: 24-50MP
- Very big billboard 40x20m, 5dpi – 7874x3937px: 31MP
- Large fine art print, 36×24″, 240dpi – 8640x5760px: 50MP
- 10×15″ Ultraprint, 500-720dpi – 5000x7500px to 7200x10800px: 38-78MP
- 16×20″ Ultraprint, 500-720dpi – 8000x10000px to 11520x14400px: 80-166MP (!)
I’m willing to bet that most people don’t know 12MP or less is more than enough for just about every conceivable use. (And 5dpi for a billboard of that size is extremely high resolution; your viewing distance is going to be 50m. You could get away with 1dpi.) A clean 12MP is no great challenge even for today’s compacts – the Sony RX100II will do ISO 3200 at 20MP with impunity. Downsizing to 12MP will look even better. I print regularly at 36×24″ and larger – my last exhibition had prints from 32×32″ as the smallest size, and 60×90″ as the largest – but let’s be honest, how many others do? Our output media is the limiting factor, not the capture device. Even though pixel quality matters, under optimal conditions, an iPhone 5/5s would meet most of these requirements.
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about the Ultraprints. Simply: most people do not have the means or inclination to make one. The level of commitment required at every stage of the process is very, very high; I do it partially because I’m masochistic, and partially because I’ve always wanted to push the limits. Yet if this wasn’t the case, I’d be settling back into my comfortable 16MP (and still do, for a lot of applications). My personal conflict comes when I might just happen to encounter something that would make a good Ultraprint but I didn’t bring enough resolution to make it happen, especially knowing that the tech and shot discipline is very much is within my reach and the compromise was due to personal laziness.
I haven’t spoken about colour, dynamic range and tonal response. In short: we’re not there yet. I do see colour reproduction improving with every subsequent generation, though we’re fast hitting the limits of the output media – without calibrated displays and universal standards, colour is academic. No matter how accurate the reproduction and how precisely I tweak it, there’s no way I know you’re looking at what I’m looking at. Ironically, we actually have Apple to thank here: colour standards are remarkably consistent across the i-devices, and the Retina iPads have pretty impressive dynamic range, gamut and neutrality – even for monochrome images. Pixel density on the Retina iPad mini is so fine that viewing images on that display is really like looking at a large format transparency on a light table – a very pleasant viewing experience.
Dynamic range and tonal response are a bit trickier: extending dynamic range is one thing; outputting it in a way that looks ‘right’ is completely different. I can understand why you’d want to have a very linear tonal response for ease of later processing – this is what most raw files look like today – but at the same time, that linearity and resulting contrastiness are not good for fast workflow or good native output (JPEG). We’re going to need several things here: more dynamic range to extend the raw data to work with; a way of allocating that in a nonlinear manner to make highlight rolloffs smoother and more natural-looking – akin to what we see with our own eyes. One of the reasons I still use film for a lot of my monochrome work is because of this inbuilt nonlinearity, which both preserves enormous dynamic range and manages to store it in a format that’s easily digitised and still retains that look. Finally again, there’s the need for better display standards – not just for output, but also file handling. Surely there must be a better compression mechanism than JPEG available by now, and one that supports more than eight bits?
The polar bear in the room is of course the sack of meat behind the camera: we can of course argue that the composition takes precedence over the theoretical image quality, and a strong idea with slightly weak technicals will always make a better image than a sharp but boring one. The obvious question then becomes: how do we improve the weak link? More importantly, how do the camera companies help people to improve themselves and stay in business? The paradox being that if you are happy with what you’ve got, then you won’t buy any more gear and that’s bad for sales…
Yes and no. If I ran a camera company, I’d be on a three-step plan: firstly, get people to take more photographs by making the process fun and simple. Then, educate them; they’ll realize they need more, and that’s when you have the products ready. Finally, there has to be a culture of innovation in the company itself. Not Sony-style product ADD, but genuine common sense: know your customer. If your product is targeted at families on holiday, actually find out what they want and make it work flawlessly. Test it. Cut out all of the unnecessary stuff and the stuff that’s there ‘because it always has been’. Be consistent. Do it at all product levels. Even if you fail at the other parts, people will buy it because it’s different. They’ll only stay in your system because it’s better or more logical. And be serious about the education part: it isn’t a short term game and it won’t have directly measurable ROI, but you can be sure that there will be much better customer loyalty to a company who cares. The more educated and savvy your consumer, the easier it is to sell them niche and specialized (read: high margin) equipment. It is much easier to convince me to buy an Otus than a 100D, and much easier to convince a studio pro to buy an IQ180 than a Coolpix. Knowing industry margins: you’d have to convince a thousand people to buy Coolpixes to make up for one IQ180.
The tricky part is making the whole process fun and unintimidating to bring in new photographers. At the moment, the only card being played is the retro one; that makes no sense for reasons I detailed in the Df test. Simply put: a different machine needs different control logic, even if the output is the same. I shoot frequently with my Hasselblad V series cameras, which have three buttons and a few knobs – one to release the lens, one to take the picture, one to lock up the mirror; rings to wind and set focus and exposure. That’s it. I also shoot frequently with the D800E, which has a mind-boggling thirty six external buttons, switches, toggles and levers – excluding those on the vertical grip. Yet all of them are necessary and make sense. Even a ‘simple’ digital that offers full control, like the Ricoh GR, which I consider to be the absolute minimum, has fifteen buttons/ toggles/ whatnots. And then the iPhone came along with two, in its simplest form: one tap to focus/ expose, one tap to capture. Yet it works well, because the target audience doesn’t care about the details; those who know how to use it work around or use an app. And that is brilliant in its simplicity.
As an object, the feeling in-hand matters: you have to want to use your camera, and in doing so, you’ll take more pictures. If you take more pictures, you’ll eventually want to learn how to make the pictures look like what you imagined; that’s where education comes in. Though some manufacturers get the haptics and tactility part right (even if ergonomics often leaves something to be desired), none of them do education properly or consistently. Cameras should include not just manuals, but some photography education – video, books, whatever – aimed at bringing the intended buyer of the camera to a slightly higher level than before they owned it. That too is a simple sell: why wouldn’t you choose to buy a camera that actually helped you improve over one that presents you with a phone-book sized list of custom functions instead? Hint: custom functions are useless if you don’t know how they relate to practical photography. And to any manufacturers reading this, I’d certainly be very interested in collaborating on such an educational venture if you’re interested; consider the challenge issued. In the meantime, I’ll just continue to wait for the people who go through the entire gear buying cycle to realize it isn’t the equipment that’s holding them back.
And there’s my list: improved output/ presentation, fun, common sense/ intelligent design and education. Not quite what you expected, was it? MT
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