On The Pursuit of Ultimate Image Quality

Last night, after reading a few technical camera reviews, I started pondering on all the pixel-peeping that is now the bread and butter of most equipment reviewers and even the focus of marketing departments at most photo gear manufacturers. This has resulted in phenomenons like “The Megapixel Wars”, “The ISO Wars” and last but not least “The Full-Frame Sensor Myth”. Photographers all around the world, reviewers, pros and amateurs alike, are spending a lot of time and money in an effort to find the “best image quality” possible. But they do so by “pixel peeping”, a term which refers to the action of blowing-up images to 100% on your screen (where one pixel in the image file corresponds to one pixel on your screen) so you can inspect the quality of those pixels and how much noise does the image file contain.

Pixel peeping” is a derogatory term used to describe people who examine photographic output at the pixel (100%) level. There are times when minute examination is useful and times when it is pointless. Sensible people only do it when it’s worthwhile. -DPReview

The problem with pixel-peepers is that they obsess over the quality of minute details that will not be visible in most normal uses. If you are publishing photos on the web or even making prints up to 16″ x 20″ or more, pixel peeping is absolutely useless. So people obsess over pixels and having the latest, baddest and biggest camera possible to maximize their pixel-peeping satisfaction and they forget that photography is first and foremost an art and it doesn’t matter how good your camera is if your technique and artistic skills are not good. We all tend to feel inadequate at times (I certainly do!) and we think that if only we had a better camera or a sharper lens, we would finally be great photographers. This is what is often called Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) and it is a costly disease. Whenever you suffer from GAS, you should remind yourself that a great photographer will turn-out more interesting images with a $100 camera than a mediocre photographer with a $10,000 camera.

GAS is a hard problem to move away from, as I found out myself in my early film days when I bought a Contax camera with a Zeiss normal lens. My photography didn’t get any better, in fact it suffered because I couldn’t afford to buy any more lenses or accessories to go with that camera (plus it had a very limited eco-system in the first place). It happened to me again when I upgraded to a Nikon D700 full-frame pro camera with then market-leading high-ISO performance and three expensive f/2.8 pro zooms; I thought: finally, I have the holy-grail of digital photography. $10,000 later, my photography still wasn’t any better. Sure, I got a few fantastically sharp shots (note that it was only a 12 Mpixel sensor) and I even got a few shots I might not have got because of the awesome speed of that camera and lenses. But I lost many other shots because more often than not I would leave that camera kit at home because of its impressive bulk and weight.

Pixel Peeping

People focus on pixel-peeping and forget about all the other factors that will actually have more impact on your photography. Things like portability, affordability, convenience, useful advanced features, fun to use, etc, etc. Assuming a limited budget, you can buy more or better lenses for a M4/3 camera than you could for a Nikon, Canon or Sony full-frame camera for example, and you are far more likely to carry around 2 pounds of kit than 10 pounds. Given limited storage space and processing power, you can store and process a lot more 20 Megapixel files than you can 42 Megapixel files. Some of the more advanced mirrorless cameras can do things that DSLRs can’t, like show you in real-time how a long-exposure or multi-exposure shot is building up and allowing you to stop it when it’s just perfect. These kinds of things can have a huge impact on your creativity.

The “Megapixel Wars” is getting ridiculous with 42 Mpixel full-frame sensors and 16 Mpixel smartphone cameras with tiny sensors. The reality is that if you only post photos on Instagram or Facebook or make prints up to 5″ x 7″ (I think that accounts for probably upwards of 95% of photographers nowadays), then you really only need about 5 or 6 Mpixels, let’s call it 10 Mpixels to allow for some cropping latitude. You want to do 8″ x 10″ or even 16″ x 20″ prints? 20 Mpixels is more than enough. Don’t believe me? Look at my other post here. After all, Nikon’s hunking $7000 flagship D5 pro-DLSR is only 20 Mpixels. That incredibly sharp 4K video you saw on a $10,000 70″ TV in the store? That’s only 8 megapixels! A 20 Mpixel sensor can produce larger prints than you could with 35mm film. Fact is that smartphones and other compact point & shoot cameras would benefit from lesser but larger pixels. They would thus have better colour, better dynamic range and less noise. But most people think that more megapixels automatically equates to better image quality, so marketing obliges.

The “ISO Wars” are also getting out of hand. Just 10 years ago cameras that could shoot clean images at 1600 ISO were considered top-notch. When the Nikon D700 came out with the capacity to shoot at 25,600 ISO and produce relatively clean files at 6400 ISO it was a breakthrough camera. Today even compact cameras offer ISO 25,600 and many full-frame cameras go up to 102,400 ISO or more. But again, not that many people need to shoot in the dark. Also there are other factors that contribute to low-noise images. For example, the new 20 Mpixel Olympus PEN-F M4/3 camera produces clean images at 6400 ISO (usable in small prints up to 12,800 ISO), but it has the best in-body image stabilisation on the market, bettering most of the competition by 1 to 2 stops. This means that the competition needs to provide similarly low noise levels at ISO 12,800 or 25,600 to produce similar images. You can also buy professional M4/3 zoom lenses that open to f/2.8 for the price of an f/4 from Nikon, Canon or Sony, thereby gaining another full stop, potentially requiring the competition to go up to 51,200 ISO. Then you have the Fuji X-Trans sensors which create files with cleaner luminance noise that are easy to process, allowing those cameras to produce cleaner images than one would assume from the sensor size. The comparison I showed here demonstrates that there is only about 1 stop difference between the Fuji and a Nikon full-frame. None of this is that simple, but I’m trying to show that there are other factors beyond High-ISO performance that will affect the amount of noise in your images. One has to ask oneself if the extra cost, weight and bulk of a full-frame sensor is really worth it for a stop or two better High-ISO performance. Surely, for some pros it is worth it, for 99% of us it isn’t.

As for the “Full-Frame Sensor Myth”, that’s a long subject in itself and this post is already quite long so I will leave it for a future post. Of course, all of this is my opinion and your mileage may vary depending on your own set of priorities.

The rest of this post is a personal anecdote about another kind of Gear Acquisition Syndrome I suffered from for years, but it is a good analogy for the pixel-peepers.

Back in 1978, a friend of mine took me to a high-end audio shop, the kind of place that sells stereo equipment that ranges from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. I had never even heard of high-end audio before. To me Japanese brands like Pioneer and Yamaha were the summum. We entered a room where a $50,000 setup with planar speakers was playing a high-quality recording and it was throwing out a 3D soundstage with stunning realism that sent chills up my spine. That was it, I was hooked. I had to get myself something close to this kind of performance right now, except that I was a poor university student.

I spent the next three decades researching, listening, reading, buying, modifying, and upgrading in the pursuit of this transcendental audio experience and I never quite achieved it. I would buy $300 cables and convince myself that they actually made a difference. I would buy $5000 amplifiers and $10,000 speakers and $3000 turntables and $30 Direct-to-Disk recordings of dubious musical value, all to no avail. I was never quite satisfied. Then I became friends with some musicians and I realised that they really didn’t care about the quality of the gear as long as the sound was pleasant. The only thing that really mattered was the music itself.

This caused me to completely reassess my position, something that wasn’t easy as I had to admit to myself that I had squandered tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on a futile pursuit. This made me realize that I was no longer listening to the music, I was just listening to the gear. After this eye-opening (well, ear-opening I guess) experience, I started to listen to the music again and actually enjoyed it tremendously. I sold most of my gear and kept a really good quality but reasonably priced and wife-friendly setup and I proceeded to enjoy the music more than ever, without ever suffering from audiophile GAS again.

I feel that the same thing happens to many serious amateur photographers, where we must always have the latest and greatest gear and always upgrade to the latest high resolution and/or high ISO sensor and we justify it with pixel peeping. But the reality is that it has little impact on our photography. In fact, this pixel-peeping obsession can often have a negative impact as we spend more time and money on it than we do photographing and traveling and working on our skills.


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    Why Micro Four-Thirds? | Sylvain's Photography Blog

    […] Some of my friends are a little puzzled by my decision to drop my Nikon Full-Frame (FF) system for a Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) system. Many professional and amateur photographers view the MFT system as inferior because of its smaller sensor (1/4th the surface area of a “full-frame” sensor). But the quality difference is relative and mostly relevant for pixel-peepers and some pros as I’ve already discussed here: On The Pursuit of Ultimate Image Quality. […]

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