The Cure For Pixel Peeping

If you happened to be tuned into my twitter feed at exactly the right time late last week you might be privy to the intel that I finally purchased a new laptop. I’ve been in desperate need want of one for a couple of years now. Way back during late 2010 I purchased the original core 2 duo 11” MacBook Air. It’s served me well but was hard pressed even then with my current camera’s RAW files. Fast forward to 2014, 24 megapixel files, on-going software bloat, etc, — it’s become unbearable. It’s always been useless for color correction but I could live with that given it’s portability and reasonable battery life.

Truth is it’s still a viable machine for everything normal and the battery has a lifetime, even now, about the same as when it was new. It’s pristine in terms of condition and I’m sure I’ll find a good home for it. For my current portable computing needs it has proven unworkable. I knew that last year. I’ve just been dragging my feet for a few practical reasons. For the curious here’s what they happened to be.

  • Ever since I saw the first 15” retina I knew I wanted a screen like that.
  • There’s no freaking way I’m going to pay $3000 for a laptop again. No need in the world. I decided that more than 5 years ago. It just makes no sense for my needs. My requirements no longer tax the current state of the art.
  • I really didn’t want something as big as a 15”. I hate lugging big stuff around.
  • The first 13in MBPr models were not exactly the combo of stuff and price that hit a sweet spot for me.
  • Ummm, been kinda busy since the Haswell generation of MBPr laptops have been release late last year. I did have it on the agenda to checkout if this generation really gave me what I wanted at a price point I was willing to meet. Just took me until June to get around to it.

I don’t really do review-y kinds of posts so I’ll just bottom line it for the curious. I love it. Just about perfect for my needs. After many, many back of the napkin calculations I decided on the middle-of-the-road spec 13” with the RAM maxed out to 16 Gig. Perfect. Reasonable cost. Great battery life, performance that doesn’t drive me nuts, what else could you want?

That brings us to the title of the post. Anybody that’s looked at photographs on a reasonable sized retina screen knows how gorgeous they look. Much like a print. Pixel level nonsense is invisible and more importantly magnification running in native retina mode is back to a reasonable level of scrutiny. In working with the new toy I realized this is the cure for pixel peeping. More specifically, evaluation of photographs at idiotic magnification. When you hit the Z key or CMD-1 or your preferred shortcut you get around 14X magnification from a 16 megapixel file or 17X for a 24 megapixel file assuming a full-frame sensor. That’s still a boatload of magnification but under what I personally consider silly microscopic magnification. When I speak of magnification I’m talking about the size of the image captured on some medium as compared to the size it’s viewed.

That magnification factor has a hell of a lot to do with the way it looks. I could go on for volumes about my observations on the topic but won’t. It suffices to say that every single flaw from optical to technique to subject to medium is magnified too. No matter how good the capture medium is or what the theoretical resolution is if you magnify it more it looks worse. So do all the things that happen in real world picture taking circumstances. If you forget pixel resolution for a moment in the terms you may normally think about it and think of it more as digital sample size and frequency you can get pretty easily to the thought process that all more samples gives you is the ability to look at something under a stronger microscope. What you thought was good at 10x looks like shit at 20x and even worse at 30x or 40x. I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that shooting live subjects at close distances that are moving at all will show motion blur above 20x even when shot with a wide angle (lets say a 28mm or 24mm) even at 1/125s.

What’s even better given the way digital re-size works is all that sample size (pixel) related stuff is physically smaller bordering on invisible at 227 PPI retina resolution. So as long as your noise is anywhere around 1 pixel big you can’t even see it at 227 PPI. Every hear anyone say you won’t notice most noise in a print? That’s why. It has to be severe to notice it. We all worry about that bullshit now because the vast majority of people are looking at downsampled images on screens with 100 PPI or less. Too bad downsampling chucks out the stuff that’s the same and keeps stuff that’s different/high contrast. Hopefully we’ll all be back to where we’re looking at images that have “print” quality so we can get back to evaluating pictures again instead of visible flaws in the capture and display medium.

Okay enough of that rant. Bottom line, the 13” Haswell MBPr is a great machine with the added benefit of not only making your photographs look great but goes a long way to curing that wide-spread decease of evaluating the merits of a particular image at far far too high a magnification and not seeing the forest for the trees. We are all guilty of it mostly because of how sorry the resolution of screens has been for so long combined with that that beckoning 100% key does.


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