When The Camera Out Resolves The Photographer

A term often used by those interested in the latest photography technology is “out resolve”, as in “this digital sensor will out resolve the lens”.

As I understand it, in layman’s terms it means the digital sensor is capable of capturing a higher level of resolution detail than the lens is able to project on to it.

Put another way, the lens is the weakest link in the system, when seeking optimum resolution and picture quality.

Whilst I care little about cutting edge cameras (and the technical details of lens resolution), this got me thinking about the similar relationship between us and the camera(s) we use.

Many of us do seek every more sophisticated and higher resolution cameras with sharper, faster lenses, hoping it will take our photography to the next level.

But what if exactly the opposite is happening?

What if our camera is out resolving us?

In other words, what if the weakest link in the chain is us, not the camera?

Furthermore, what if by using ever more advanced and complicated cameras we’re expanding this gap every further, and actually making it harder and harder for ourselves to make the best photographs we’re capable of, not easier?

Here are a few ways your camera might be out resolving you –

1. Your lens is sharper than you need.

I think sharpness is overrated, and in recent times have looked at ways to get away from the (in my view) overly clinical and sterile look of modern digital images.

This has included making my digital work more dumbed down and dirty, and using older, lower resolution CCD sensors.

So I don’t need a super expensive, razor sharp lens.

Older lenses often have more character and personality too (especially combined with the more film like older CCD sensors), which can go far further in helping you make distinctive and memorable images that the same digital lenses everyone else uses.

2. Your memory card is too big.

Coming from shooting film, where you get used to 24 or 36 shots per roll, having a memory card that allows even 100 shots feels a luxury. An SD card of 1 or 2MB is plenty for me, and some memory cards with older cameras I have are only 256 or 512MB, and I can’t recall filling them up on a single photowalk.

So why have a card that’s 8, 16, 32GB or more and allows many thousands of shots?

Having this capacity just encourages you to fill it, and make seventeen variations of the same scene, instead of one or two carefully considered ones.

The outcomes are lazy compositions and even more time uploading, editing and processing shots, where perhaps 95% or more get deleted and weren’t worth making in the first place.

Get a smaller memory card and it will encourage you to think more carefully about every image you save to it.

3. Your sensor is too high a resolution.

As I mentioned above, I’ve favoured lower resolution sensors in recent years, and have made photographs I’ve loved with 4MP digital compacts that have cost me less than £10.

The two Pentax DSLRs I’m hugely enjoying at the time of writing (K100D and K-m) use 6 and 10MP CCD sensors respectively, and give images with plenty enough resolution for my needs.

If you crop radically and make huge poster prints, maybe you do need a camera with a 20MP+ sensor.

But for most of us who compose and shoot with no intention of cropping (um, isn’t that what the viewfinder/screen is there for, to frame the image we want to capture?), make fairly small prints, if at all, and mostly share our photos online, 10MP, even 8MP or 6MP is absolutely fine.

Plus, the higher the resolution, the larger the files, the slower they transfer, the more storage they require, and so on. It’s all unnecessary.

Ask yourself how much resolution you really need, and if your camera’s 20MP+, even over 10MP, it’s probably out resolving you and your needs.

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4. Your camera has too many features.

If you’ve ever spent more than perhaps 20 seconds looking for a particular setting or feature on your camera – and you’ve had the camera more than a couple of weeks – it’s probably a sign your camera has too many features.

The basics I’ve come to appreciate on my digital favourites are aperture control, ISO, exposure compensation, exposure lock, and depth of field preview.

As long as these are simple and on hand to access, I don’t really need anything else.

The more bells and whistles you have, the less likely you are to remember where they are (or even what they do!) and this can only inhibit the fluidity and enjoyment of your camera.

Again, it’s a case of your camera’s unnecessary complexity out resolving your needs.

5. You have too many lenses.

A trap I fell into with SLRs was finding a favoured focal length (55mm), then trying every other one between 24 and 150mm, feeling that to be prepared for any photographic opportunity I needed a dozen lenses.

The reality is you only really start to learn and find your feet when you stick with one or two focal lengths and shoot with them extensively, really getting to know how the world looks through that lens’s “eyes”.

Too many lenses not only means it’s harder to find a consistent look and flow, but it also increases the available choices each time you shoot.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit there has been more than one occasion where I’ve taken so long deliberating over which lens to take, I’ve ran out of time to go out on the planned photowalk at all, and ended up with no new images.

Ask yourself, is the extent and depth of your lens collection out resolving you?

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These are five ways your camera gear might be getting in the way of your photography by being too much, too many, too complicated, too sophisticated. 

If any of the five above rings familiar bells to you, perhaps it’s time to look again at how you might simplify and get back to the kind of photography you love?

Is your photography kit out resolving you in any of these ways? Or did it used to, and you’ve now taken steps to simplify your approach as a result?

Please share your experiences with us in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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10 thoughts on “When The Camera Out Resolves The Photographer”

  1. I think you are onto something here Dan. My Great Uncle was a life long amateur photographer and was very active with his photography after his retirement. As an engineer he was fascinated by mechanical things and I can remember him examining the latest cameras in his local camera store, and he bought a few, but always went back to his German cameras and lenses from the 1950’s. He said only the old single – coated lenses gave him the “Look” he wanted.

    1. Marc, that is a very good point.

      How high res do images need to be, before they’re beyond what our eyes can even appreciate?

      We have a screensaver app on our TV (via Amazon FireStick) that’s essentially drone footage flying over beautiful landscapes, set to relaxing music. I quite like having it on, but some of the footage is so “HD” and the edges so sharp and defined, it looks more like CGI than real footage. Perhaps it is!

      I just prefer my photos (especially nature photos) to look, well, natural!

      1. My dentist’s office has the same sort of hi-res video to keep patients distracted and calm. Beautiful pictures, but they don’t look like the real world.
        To be fair, Ansel Adams worked over his photos to achieve a similar unreal effect and they are fantastic. But an honest evaluation says they don’t look ‘real’ either.
        Now I’m thinking about how to demonstrate resolution of eyesight and the three stages it would impose on photography; sub-par, par, and super-par. Hmm.

  2. Hi Dan, It seems to me that photographers whose primary interest is in the finished product, either on a screen or a physical print, are more inclined to favor the older technologies than those whose primary interest it in the cameras and lenses themselves. The CCD sensor images you post, Jon Campo’s great uncle’s pictures and my 35mm film pictures taken with my old Leicas are just three examples.

    Considering the rate at which many photographers using the latest and greatest photo hardware and software replace their gear, I wonder if they actually like the pictures they are taking.

    1. Or that they view the pictures from any kind of artistic perspective, rather than a purely analytical and critical viewpoint that obsessed with edge sharpness on 100% crops etc…

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