Thoughts On Image Quality - Part I

I know I've harped on about the relentless pursuit of some sort of canonical image quality as if it were a sport. I'm about to do it again even if not in rant form. I guess my question is always – then what? Are we all done. Is that the end? We've done it, all photographs, in all circumstances, all now look as if they were shot on the perfect camera in perfect conditions… now we can take pictures. Maybe at that point we're just done with the whole taking pictures thing altogether. Hyperbole of course but that's a lot what most of the conversation surrounding photography sounds like to me for far too long now.

Trying to remember pre-digital. Was the same level of fervor regarding the quest for image quality. I guess in some ways there was but it actually was at the fringes of the art rather than the core. There's always been the gear thing but that seems to have worn off pretty quick for most people that actually pursued photography seriously for more than a bit. Now it seems to take hold of far too many for far too long. Even with photographers that know better. Is it just to get the eye-balls on their work? Who knows. I certainly rant about gear but usually as a counter balance and in the context of why I have to give up what I had a long time ago that was useful and pleasurable in the pursuit of things I don't care about. See, I have a vested interest in the market.

Am I one of the three people that is okay with the fact that cameras see the world and light differently than our brain-eyeball combo does? The population of maybe two that considers that part of the allure? For the most part I'm quite satisfied with the quality spewed out by my current kit. I have been for the last couple of years. Most of my complaints orbit around operational characteristics that I believe have regressed from some well developed cameras I used pre-digital. Prior to that was far more the aesthetic qualities of the digital medium in photographically adverse conditions. Real world conditions in the universe we live in.

Let's level set this conversation before I get into some thoughts to ponder regarding image quality or lack thereof. Wanna know the secret to what I am assuming is the ne plus ultra of image quality? What I am assuming the end-game to all this is? Get ready… shoot with lighting ratios that fit inside the medium you are using and make sure you keep it on what you want it on and off what you want it off. Done. Image quality achieved. Oh… wait, you don't know how to do that? Easy, manipulate your scene before you shoot using one of 800,000 well know methods to do so.

Your camera certainly is not going to circumvent that. Trust me even if it did capture it all with perfect ability and quality you are just pushing it down the road till later in post. What happens when you get there down that road? Ummm… light is where you don't want it or isn't when you want it. Oh well you can just change that… okay go be a painter and make shit up. Oooops that takes effort, thought, and consideration too. The fallacy of the pursuit of image quality in a nut shell is that is a placebo or some sort of shortcut to absolve you of any work, considerations, thought, etc. Why are you doing this photography thing again?

I just used light as the archetype here but I could do the same thing with lens sharpness, DOF, noise performance, etc. Do you really really want a lens that makes any set of circumstances look exactly the same? Example; I want my lenses to exhibit absolute perfect contrast reproduction even when I shoot them in horrible conditions against the light. Really? You want them to render the same? What if you don't? Will there be some sort of switch to turn that on and off? Hey wait a second, that would make two completely different images. That's a lot like what we have now if you just get off your fat ass and move somewhere else. Remember that movie Wall-e… remember the fat people that couldn't move being conveyed around in the hovering chairs. That's the photographic life you want? Really. So will you ever turn off the "perfect contrast" switch on the lens… or maybe that's actually a setting in the camera that makes it so for all your glass… Doubtful as that won't happen until the market is done buying and re-buying lenses that won't make any real difference or quite possibly make more boring images.

Almost 1,000 words in just to set the context of the conversation. This is a conversation as opposed to a prescription. The part I in the title implies there's more to come and there is. The one really great thing about doing these BTS images is that I photographed a heck of a lot of context that serves as notes to the setup. Illustrations to consider for you, notes to self for me. Either by mistake or as some sort of subconscious purpose I made some images without the context as well that might serve to illustrate some points I consider relevant to the conversation set forth.

Let's take the image at the top as case number one. A candid shot of Mika hurrying to ready herself for an early AM photo session last Saturday. Specs for conversation sake ISO 100 f/2 1/250s. Does anyone have IQ complaints with stuff shot at these kinds of numbers? I certainly don't. A generation or two ago I complained bitterly but not in the context that most would. I would have said that digital sucks in this very common situation and it did. Still does in extreme cases. That's in the context of color negative film in the same circumstances or more extreme circumstances. What are those conditions? We'll we have unmodified, gear free sunshine strikes coming through a window mixed with skylight coming from the same window and what could be considered average bounce-back from the room interior. I'm good with this now. I'm good with my lens, why wouldn't I be. In fact I would say between ISO 100 and ISO 400 I get pristine files and I pretty much live 80% of my photographic life between those two ISO values give or take.

Lens issues with contrast, flare, resolution, etc? Meh. I shot every shot this weekend at f/1.4 or f/2. No complaints at all. I do have to caveat that with one tiny little tid-bit as well as a photo for illustration. The example above I used of the hypothetical perfect contrast lens in any given situation no matter how it was used with a hypothetical improved version with a switch to turn that on/off wasn't random.

Take a look at the image above left. Look what happens when I shoot it wide open and point it into both light sources, the sun and the sky. Oh crap, the dreaded flare thing-a-ma-jig. We can't have that can we? Well, I like the flare here. I shot a bunch of them with various levels of flare on purpous. It's easy to provoke at f/1.4 with giant light sources like a window or the sky and even worse when you have really tiny bright stuff like the sun in the midst of those other light sources and both are way way past the edge. Take that image as the starting point for part II of this series. That particular setup, it's characteristics, IQ considerations that are all decisions rather than magic functions or mystical camera capabilities.


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