Why Is Image Quality Important?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

Dear friend,

It seems that we as photographers have this overly-obsessive fascination and obsession with “image quality” — through how sharp our images are, how well “bokeh” renders, the depth-of-field or “3d-ness” of images, how much the colors “pop”, or things such as “micro-contrast” (not even sure what this is, but I hear it mentioned a lot).

But my main question is this: why is image quality important— and is it important at all?

Believe me— I’m a sucker for “image quality” — or how the image looks to me.

To me aesthetics of an image are important.

For example, I despise looking at black-and-white photos that have too low of a contrast. I don’t know why, but many black-and-white photos are greatly improved by increasing the contrast in the image.

Similarly I have an almost allergic-reaction to seeing digital noise in color photographs. There is almost something disgusting to look at a digital photograph with too much color noise; it almost feels like nails-against-a-chalkboard (except in visual form).

However the strange thing is that I don’t mind digital noise in black-and-white photographs; better yet— I actually prefer having grainy black-and-white image (rather than black-and-white images that are too clean). This is why when I shoot film, I prefer to push my Kodak Tri-X 400 film to 1600— it gives me more grain, more contrast, and this more “edgy” look which I prefer.

Why do aesthetics matter?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

Why are aesthetics important in a photograph?

For me, it doesn’t matter how a photograph looks; it matters how a photo makes you feel.

I believe that aesthetics and emotion are tied together.

Since ancient times, artists would use different materials when creating their art to provoke different emotional responses from their viewers.

For example, sculptors would use different materials to make statues. Painters would use different types of paints and colors.

Pablo Picasso went through different phases in his art: during his “Blue Period” (Periodo Azul) he painted melodramatic images from 1901-1904 in only shades of blue and blue-green; which perhaps reflected his inner-turmoil and depression in his mind. His subject-matter consisted mostly of poverty, loneliness, and despair.

However in 1904-1906, he switched to his “Rose period” in which his images became much more warm and pleasant— painting clowns, carnivals, with lively and vivid hues of red, orange, and pink.

I like this idea that an artist decides to use a certain palette or aesthetic medium to reflect his/her own inner-emotions and feelings. After all, isn’t that what photography and art is all about— self-expression?

How do you feel?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

I say fuck image quality.

Who really cares how many megapixels your camera has, if it doesn’t show your inner-emotions and your soul?

Who cares how sharp your images are, if your artistic vision is unclear and cloudy?

Who cares what kind of camera you use, if you feel insecure about your own images?

Ultimately photography should show how you feel; as a unique human being. Nobody gives a shit about your edge-to-edge corner sharpness of your lens, and what does taking photos of brick walls show about your inner-soul?

Use the tool which reflects who you are

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

I know sometimes I go off on tirades and rant about our overly-obsessed camera-gear and gadget society. But friend, I am the worst offender of them all— I literally returned 5 different MacBooks before settling on the 13’’ Macbook Pro retina (I’m still not satisfied; part of me wishes I got the 12’’ Macbook Retina).

I’ve gone through so many cameras in my career— I am currently quite content with my Ricoh GR II, but often at times I still wonder whether another camera will help me unlock more of my “artistic potential.”

Although I don’t currently own a car— I still daydream and obsess over cars— like Mini’s, Fiat’s, Porsches, BMW’s, and the like.

I think for me, I’ve been so overly-obsessed with image quality and cameras because I felt that somehow if my cameras had better “image quality” — I would be better able to express how I felt about the world, and that somehow the world would take me more “seriously” as a photographer and artist.

For example, I was quite content with my first DSLR (Canon EOS 350D, or Rebel XT). However spending too much time on camera forums (the Fred Miranda forum) told me that I “needed” to get a Canon 5D (full-frame) if I wanted to be taken as a “serious” photographer. After taking out a $5,000 student loan which I thought I needed to pay my dormitory (I ended up not needing it); I dropped $1,500 of that on a used 5D). But once I finally entered “full-frame” land; people told me that my Canon 35mm f/2 wasn’t “good” enough for the camera, because “real” photographers with full-frame cameras “needed” Canon L-lenses.

Similarly there is a bias and a sense of elitism in street photography. I know a lot of photographers with digital Leica’s who look down on photographers with Fujifilm cameras. Why? Because I think it is a sense of insecurity— a lot of photographers end up buying expensive cameras because they are insecure about their art (kind of how guys with small members buy big trucks to…ahem…compensate).

Funny enough, the “hating” can go the opposite way— I sometimes see photographers talk smack about photographers who own digital Leica’s, saying that they don’t “deserve it” and that they aren’t “good photographers.” I know a lot of photographers who don’t have a lot of money, but are really passionate about their photography, so instead of buying a new car or a house, they will drop $10,000 on a digital Leica and a lens. Who are we to make moral judgements on how other people spend their money? I often think that photographers talk smack about the gear other photographers own because they are simply envious.

But really at the end of a day, a camera is a camera. It is just a metal brick with a lens and a button on top. A camera doesn’t make a photographer a better photographer, nor does a camera make a photographer a worse photographer. Nor does a camera make a photographer a good person, or a bad person. A camera is an inert piece of metal which just does the bidding of its master.

How does the camera complement your lifestyle?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

I think the most important thing about a camera isn’t how good the image quality is, but how it complements your lifestyle.

For example, if you are a parent and you take photos of your kids’ soccer games, you probably do not want to shoot that on a digital Leica and a 35mm lens. A micro 4/3rds camera with a 100-400mm lens might be better for you.

If you commute into the city and take public transit wherever you go, perhaps a big DSLR isn’t the best camera for you to shoot candid street photographs.

If you only take photos once a week or so, perhaps you shouldn’t spend 3-months worth of rent money on a camera.

If you don’t have a lot of free time, perhaps you shouldn’t shoot film (unless you are willing to have a third-party develop and scan it for you).

There is no perfect camera, and there will always be trade-offs.

I honestly feel that for 90% of people out there, an iPhone will suffice for street photographers and just “normal” photographers. A modern iPhone has superb image quality and makes it easy to share on social media, and with close friends through text-messaging or chatting applications. Furthermore, with apps like VSCO, you can actually get a very lovely aesthetic with the film-simulation presets.

For me when I am back in Berkeley, I don’t roam the streets trying to shoot “street photography.” I spend most of my time taking cold showers in the morning, making Cindy breakfast, waiting at the bus stop with her, taking the bus with her to campus, drinking coffee at the cafe and writing, and taking a few snapshots here and there of Cindy (us at cafe’s, us walking, or at the house), and every once in a while of a stranger with an interesting face I see. Therefore for me, the smallest, least obtrusive, least cumbersome camera is ideal (Ricoh GR II compact camera fits the bill).

I honestly do believe the ideal camera for you is the one which is the most affordable (doesn’t break the bank), a camera that is easy to always carry around with you, and the least cumbersome camera to your personal lifestyle.

And it is hard; you need to be honest with yourself. If you only travel once a year, perhaps you don’t need that Canon 5D and telephoto lens to shoot desert safaris. If you really don’t make photos that often and hate your job; is buying a camera for you a way to feel better about your life, or is it really going to be a tool you plan on using a lot?

Invest money in what you use a lot

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

My friend Walter Lau in Seattle loves coffee and loves photography. He had two Fujifilm cameras, and ended up selling one (he didn’t use it very much), and bought a new espresso machine and grinder.

I thought that was the most fantastic investment ever— after all he told me that he used his coffee machine everyday (usually twice a day), whereas his camera only once a week.

I’ve read that you should spend a lot of money on what you use a lot (your chair, your laptop, your smartphone, your bed, and your shoes).

Be honest with yourself— how often do you use your camera? If you use and abuse your camera everyday, by all means, invest a lot of money into it for your creative self-expression. If you use it only once a week, or only once a month— know that by spending more money on a camera you won’t be “inspired” to shoot more.

What is more important than image quality in a camera?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

Sorry friend I got a bit detracted from my original thought— about image quality.

I really feel that image quality is the least important attribute in a camera (regardless of what camera companies and marketing companies try to tell you). Honestly at this point, all new digital cameras have fantastic image quality. Even an iPhone has superb image quality for 99% of our uses (uploading photos to Instagram on a 4.7’’ screen).

The most important part of a camera is how easy it is to carry with you everywhere you go, to never be without a camera, to always be ready to capture the “decisive moment” — this is why I am such a fan of compact cameras or small cameras (Ricoh GR II, Fujifilm X70, Fujifilm X100-series, Olympus Micro 4-3rds, Sony A7-series, or a Leica if you can afford it).

Does better image quality lead to more creativity?

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

I think the funny thing about photography is this— we think that better image quality will equal more creativity and artistry.

I think if we take a trip to the past— a lot of photographers were shooting with very primitive equipment, with very slow ISO speed film (ISO 10-200). I look at Alex Webb and Steve McCurry who shot on Kodachrome at ISO’s which are sub-100. And they were still able to make brilliant photos.

Now we have modern digital cameras that shoot at ISO 12,800+. But I don’t see anybody really making that much more creative or emotionally-impactful photos as in the past.

I’ve found that personally being limited with your ISO can help you be more creative.

For example, when I started to shoot color film (Kodak Potra 400), I was limited by the ISO of 400. Therefore to increase my shutter-speeds in dark or dimly-lit situations, I started to use a flash (to also keep my aperture at f8). And the benefit of this was that I was able to make more interesting photos (the flash added a nice color pop to the images, and a more impactful aesthetic). I would have never achieved this “look” if I simply used a full-frame digital camera and shooting at ISO 6400+ all the time.

I would actually argue that you see more creative images coming out of iPhones nowadays, where people are limited by the sensor size and the image quality. For example, smartphone sensors look horrible when shot in poor light. Therefore a lot of iPhone street photographers only shoot when the light is good (sunrise/sunset) and don’t rely on fancy post-processing to make interesting images.

Aesthetics are human

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

As much as I like to convince myself otherwise— aesthetics are what make art emotional.

I think this is because humans have a natural love of nature, and whatever materials we use in our art that looks more “natural”— it provokes more of an emotional response from us.

For example, we love the calming effect of green trees blowing in the wind, and crystal-blue lakes. When we look at paintings with a lovely green-blue palette; it helps us calm down.

If we look at a sunrise or sunset with brilliant red and orange-yellow hues, we feel passionate, excited, and full of life and hope. Similarly when we look at paintings or photographs with a similar color palette; we feel similar emotional responses.

I think the reason why a lot of overly-sharp digital photos (or HDR photos) are aesthetically repulsive is that it doesn’t look like nature. It looks very “un-natural.”

The lovely thing about film grain (not digital grain) is that it is analog— the grain is dispersed randomly in the frame, instead of the overly-regular noise of a digital sensor. Nowadays a lot of new digital sensors are trying to mimic film— by not putting image-arrays in neat and orderly rows, but trying to mix around the pixels to make a more random and “natural” look. Even film simulation programs like Silver Efex Pro 2 do this well— they will add simulated grain in your photographs by randomly dispersing the noise (which once again, looks more film-like).

I think one of the reason we gain a immense pleasure from reading paper books is that the texture of paper is naturally pleasing to us— it feels like nature. Whereas when we read books through a digital device, it feels a bit more separated and alienating.

Express yourself

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

To conclude, I think that image quality is only important to the degree that you want to self-express yourself in a certain way. You want to present a certain aesthetic (whether color or black and white, whether film or digital) to convey some sort of emotion to the viewer.

Perhaps if you shoot digital and RAW; it means post-processing your photos in a way that evokes a certain emotion out of your viewer. If you want dark and melodramatic photos, you probably want to process your photos in colder tones, or rely on black-and-white. If you want brighter and more uplifting images, you want to use warmer tones or perhaps a less-aggressive form of black-and-white processing.

Above all, emotions are what counts in images. And not only that, but your own personality and your own personal world-view.

Don’t be afraid, make yourself naked through your photos. What do you want your photos to expose about your world-view, your soul, and your life?

Make your photos as personal as possible; and use the camera which personally fits your lifestyle.


Thursday, Feb 18, 2016 @ 8:03am in my apartment in Berkeley (finally starting to get over jet-lag from Dubai, lovely feeling like a ‘normal human being’ again! Oh yeah and as a pro-tip; if you want to mitigate the effects of jet-lag while traveling, fast for 24-hours and not eat anything before arriving at your target destination’s breakfast. Which means, don’t eat on the plane, sleep, drink lots of water, and when you arrive home, have a big ass breakfast when the time is appropriate).

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