Image Quality

Posted: August 23, 2011 in Photography, Writing
Tags: , , ,

While looking through the regurgitation of my memory card this morning, I found myself rehashing old demons and wondering about the quality of some of the images. Since shooting and uploading digital pictures, I have been disappointed many times by the work I have produced and based on many posts I have read on forums, others share my complaints. The thoughts I have had and the posts I have read follow a few common themes, whether self-criticisms or complaints about rejections.

1) When I shot with film, my images were perfect, and now they are not.
2) I have a really expensive camera, so my images should be perfect, and finally
3) There must be something wrong with my camera.

Forgetting noise and other anomalies specific to digital imaging, I have been disappointed over and over because my images weren’t perfectly sharp when I thought they should have been. On more than one occasion, I was convinced that there was something wrong with the camera.

Based on that, I spent some time thinking about what I used to shoot with my old AE1 and what I shoot now, and what, besides the quality, is different. Here are my thoughts – hopefully some of the old-timers will jump in here and correct any misconceptions on my part.

First, I need to debunk my memories of those old ‘perfect’ shots I captured on film. Back in those days, I didn’t shoot anywhere near the volume of the pros, but I did go through several rolls a week for quite a while. In the first place, my memory of these great shots, were of the ones I actually kept. I remember sitting in the mall outside the photo processing lab, flipping through the 4x6s, thinking – good, good, crap, crap, crap, good, etc. The crap went into the nearest trash can. Secondly, I very rarely had anything printed larger than 4×6. If I looked at everything today at 4×6 instead of 32×48, many more of them would look just fine. Conversely, if I had all those old film shots printed three feet wide, they would probably all be crap.

Second, I need to rethink what is perfect. I remember a class I took back in my film days, and the teacher showed us an image he shot for an ad on Fuji 25. He was trying to drum into us the value of using slide film and told us that he could blow that image up to billboard size and it would still be perfect. Would any image today meet that test? No. And here’s the reason why. On film, especially at that speed, the camera captured an almost perfect copy of what the eye saw. In today’s world, no matter how good the camera is, it captures its interpretation of the world, based on a programmer’s logic, in pixels. Most of you think of pixels as dots of color, and that’s almost correct, except they are really squares of color. The world (and especially the light reflected from it) isn’t made up of squares. You take one of a pro’s old film shots and blow it up as large as you want and it will still be perfect. Do the same with their best work today and around 300% or so, it is going to start looking like crap, because all those little jagged edges of squares become more apparent. They are not shooting perfect images. What they are doing that I am not, is doing the best possible work with the best possible equipment. Now I can’t afford the best possible equipment, but there is no excuse for not doing the best work I am capable of.

And finally, something is wrong with my equipment. (No, not that equipment – my camera!) One night, a few weeks ago, I got fed up with that excuse and decided to find out. There are test kits and processes out there for you to Google, but this is what I did. First, I put my camera on my tripod and attached the cable release. Don’t have both of those? Go away and come back when you do. Next, I put some good light aimed at a table. Doesn’t have to be pro lights, just strong enough to allow proper focus. I laid a piece of paper on the table with nice, crisp printing, and then I laid a ruler on the paper bisecting it horizontally.

I focused on about the 5 or 6 inch mark and pressed the shutter release. I took several images, using manual and auto-focus and different apertures. Finally, I loaded these into my computer and viewed them at 100%. Guess what? They were exactly perfect. The focus was where it was supposed to be, and the DOF was just fine. There was nothing wrong with the camera or lens. That only leaves user error, which is a fancy way of saying, I was screwing up.

Since then, I have only shot perfect, brilliant images which have met with 100% acceptance and are selling like hot cakes. Well, not really. But, when they are not as good as they can be, I can only blame myself and go back and try and get it right.

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