How To Avoid The Perils Of Pixel Peeping

Many photographers like us can easily get caught up in the photography spec wars, chasing ever higher numbers, be it MegaPixels, zoom range, maximum aperture, continuous shot rate and a host of other features.

But I think we need to remember how much of this is purely the manufacturers constantly trying to convince us that we need to buy their latest and “greatest” products, and if we don’t we’ll be terminally uncool and all of our friends and family will disown us.

If they didn’t promote their new wares of course, they’d be out of business, so we can’t blame them.

But we can be aware of the incessant advertising juggernaut – and ignore it.

At the same time, we can be realistic and sensible about our actual needs, which are inevitably vastly less than what we’re being lured by.

Before we get into the juice of this post, a couple of caveats.  

If you’re someone who has money to burn and enjoys always having all the latest gear and gadgets, then go ahead. This post isn’t likely to mean much to you.

If you’re a professional photographer with specific needs that can only be met by high end kit with specific functionality, then this post isn’t for you either.

But if, like the rest of us, you’re more interested in having cameras and lenses that you love using, and that give you the results you need, whilst keeping photography an affordable pastime, then read on.

“Pixel peeping” is a widely known photography term that refers to blowing up images on screen to look at them right down to the level of individual pixels, seeking out any possible inconsistencies and aberrations that might show a flaw in the equipment being used.

Certain forums are littered with test shots of newspapers taped up on the other side of the room, and that ever exciting stalwart, the brick wall. Usually followed by an avalanche of technical data and graphs about the sharpness of the lens that no-one lacking an Engineering masters degree can decipher.

The problem with pixel peeping for photographers like us though, is that we don’t need to make prints that are 8 x 6 feet in size, where these kind of differences might start to show.

Many of us don’t even make physical prints 8 x 6 inches, so again the minuscule differences between images made by different cameras under a powerful digital magnifying eye become irrelevant.

So here are a few questions to ask yourself – and honestly answer – before you’re next tempted to get up close and obsessive about those pixels.

Q1. Do I intend to make physical prints of these photographs?

If yes, then ask what size?

If you only want 8 x 6 inch prints, you don’t need a 42MP DSLR shooting at maximum image quality and spitting out massive 80MB RAW files. I have found that even a humble 4MP digital compact a decade old can produce perfectly pleasing prints at this size. With a JPEG file size of perhaps 2 or 3MB.

If you do need very large prints, then yes you might want to look at a higher spec’d camera and lens, with a more capable sensor (for digital) or more professional and finer grained film (for film).

If you don’t intend to make prints at all, move on to the next question.

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Q2. How will these photographs be viewed digitally?

Even if you’re shooting film, it’s pretty likely that at some point you’ll have the negatives scanned (or do it yourself) to create digital images. If you shoot digital, you can of course upload these to your computer/tablet/phone more directly.

If then you’re only going to share them on sites with relatively small image limits, like Instagram, again there is little point in making hugely high resolution images, or scans.

However, if you like viewing your images on your 35 inch desktop monitor, or displaying them in slide shows on a 50 inch TV in your front room, then you might find you want to make higher resolution photos.

Q3. Do you want perfect images?

When I used to shoot predominantly 35mm film, I rarely bought a fresh roll of film and shot it conventionally.

I loved experimenting with expired film, deliberately under- and over-exposing, making my own redscale film, cross processing, and making multiple exposure images, to name a few techniques.

These experiments were from the outset about pushing the envelope, and none of them resulted in the perfect images you might get with a pro camera and a pro film like Kodak Portra.

For me though, that was precisely the point, to exploit and enjoy the unpredictable aspects of shooting film, and see what came out.

With digital, I actively look for how the out of focus areas appear, the digital noise/grain each camera creates. I like shooting b/w on most digital compacts at ISO400 or 800, as it increases the grain/noise. I like increasing contrast to give more impact, and take another step in the opposite direction to perfection.

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Made with a Lumix DMC-LZ1, processed with Snapseed. I really like the quality of the out of focus background this humble 4MP Lumix produced here

If you want flawless, clinical images, then you might want to choose high end gear, and follow through with a processing workflow that maintains and enhances that look.

But if you’re like most of us and enjoy the individual quirks and character that certain combinations of camera, lens and set up provide, then you’re far better off seeking out lower end kit, and forgetting about any kind of pixel peeping.

With all of these questions, once you’ve decided on your needs, experiment with the kit you have and see how the images look with different combinations and settings.

You might find you can “downgrade” and still get images you’re happy with.

(If you’re using digital, you can experiment greatly with the camera you have. Try a lower MP setting, like 10 or 8 or 5MP and seeing if you can notice any difference in the images for the purposed you need them for, compared with using the camera at its maximum MP rating.)

I hope asking these questions give you some useful food for thought in choosing and using the gear that meets your needs, rather than buying and using very high end gear, then obsessing over every pixel.

Aside from being able to use more affordable equipment, shooting and using smaller, lower resolution images also means they’re quicker to handle, process, upload and download, and take up less storage space. Making your whole photography experience simpler and more fluid too.

Where do you stand on pixel peeping? What are your answers to the three questions above? 

Please share them with us below, we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what I’m into right now.

10 thoughts on “How To Avoid The Perils Of Pixel Peeping”

  1. The question I essentially ask every camera I try is “are you suitable for my purposes?” Those purposes have, so far, never involved printing larger than 8″x10″.

    I took my K10D up to Purdue the weekend before last when I visited my son there. I got this delightful portrait of him over dinner:

    Damion

    I happened to see the shot at max res. The K10D on auto ISO had chosen 1600, and holy cow what a mottled mess the image was up close.

    At first, I was a little disappointed. But then I remembered: even at 8×10, nobody could see it. The K10D has all the resolution I can use.

    1. Jim, that’s a lovely portrait!

      I know people generally recommend not to go over ISO400 with the K10D, and I know it absolutely sings at its native ISO100. But as you’ve found, even far over that you still got a perfectly usable image. If you were going to make a billboard sign, you might use ISO100, but for 8×10 it’s great!

  2. Q1. Yes, I intend to make physical prints of my photographs.
    Q2. A very few of my photographs are viewed digitally, but then only incidentally. I normally share photographs by printing them and mailing them.
    Q3. Do I want perfect images? An interesting question. Many of my pictures are taken with ISO400 film and pre-WWII lenses. The image of the subject in a darkroom wet print from these negatives is understandably soft, but the grain in those same prints is razor sharp (think pointillism). I develop my film with Rodinal, which contains none of the solvents that soften the edges of the film grain in other developers. A Rodinal negative has very sharply defined grain. It’s that effect I try my best to duplicate in my inkjet prints and pixels count, particularly in the representation of specular highlights. I scan with digital cameras and I really can see the difference between a 16MB scan and a 24MB scan on close examination of an 8×12 print. Most of my prints are viewed at less than an arm’s length as visitors go through them in my picture boxes.

      1. Because I don’t know what the recipients of my photographs will do with them I want to make them the best I can do with the equipment available to me, and that means 24MB scans. When I make prints for myself from older negatives I often use just the 120KB scans from the Canon 8800F scanner I was using at the time. (That’s a big advantage of film. As scanning hardware and software evolves the same negatives can produce better and better prints.)

      2. Yes I didn’t really think about with negatives. I know many people these days use a DSLR and macro lens to scan. I still have all of my negatives from my film era (two larger shoeboxes worth) but it’s unlikely I’ll revisit them to scan in the near future.

  3. Q1… Yes sir. As always it’s my aim to make a print or 2. Whether it’s a silver gelatine under the enlarger, or a contact print (salt or cyanotype) But for me, a print is the logical conclusion to my involvement in the process.

    Interestingly this view has recently evolved into fully blown reluctance to post anything online. When I am creating a physical object, a photography, I have virtually total control over how the viewer will perceive the photograph. When an image is posted online or in a digital format, I’ve virtually NO control of how the image is perceived. There are so many variables. Even something like a monitor being angled in some way, or too bright or dark, can affect the viewing of the image, without my control. Seldom do people interact with their digital viewing device as they do with a printed object (moving it to experience it better or differently)

    When using a grain focuser, to focus the print under the enlarger to create a wet print… so, I guess I am pixel (or grain) peeping 🙂

    Q2… see above, and my thoughts regarding interaction with digital images.

    Q3… getting a perfect photograph? I guess on a technical level that’s possible. But there are so many ways to judge perfection. All one needs do is consider the case of Ansel Adams and his epic ‘Moonrise, Hernandez’. In my view, next to ‘Earthrise’ one of the greatest and most important moments in humankind’s history. But… which moment? The actual negative was made late in the afternoon on November the 1st 1941. Ansel himself made over 1300 prints of the scene… and each one of the those prints tweaked in a different direction. So, no the perfect photograph does (in my opinion) not exist. I have no way of achieving that… and that’s a good thing I feel.

    1. Interesting points about viewing digital online. I remember years ago when I designed a website on my Mac, the basic colour scheme being a cream background with subtle pastel green logos etc. I tweaked the html code to get just the colours I wanted and I was very happy with it… Then I viewed it on my partner’s PC and the green was garish, vivid and ugly! I figured that because at that point most people would be viewing on a PC and the colours would likely be equally awful, I’d better change it!

      I had no idea Ansel made so many prints of that negative, wow! I just cannot handle that kind of endless variation, I just want to see the image made as best as I can, then move on!

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