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.
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.
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.
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.
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