What is “Image Quality”?

A thought while shooting on a phone today:

What is “Image Quality” when we talk about it in photography? Are there objective measures 9r “image quality”? And when we say “image quality”, what do we *really* mean to say?

Image quality as subjective

Samsung Galaxy S7 Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

I think most people think of image quality as a combination of:

  1. Sharpness
  2. Clarity of image
  3. Depth of field effects (“bokeh”)
  4. Saturation and vibrancy of colors in the photo
  5. Dynamic range: Ability to discern between the dark and bright parts in a photo (for example no “blown white highlights”. For example a digital medium format camera can capture more information when photographing a landscape sunset picture at the beach (detail in sand, water, and sky) when compared to a smartphone camera photo.

Why does image quality matter?

But ultimately, why does image quality matter? We will all define image quality differently, but I think what we will all agree on is this:

Different cameras, films, and sensors evoke different emotional and aesthetic responses from an image.

So perhaps instead of asking ourselves,

Which camera has the best image quality?

We should be asking ourselves,

What kind of emotional or aesthetic response do I want from my images?

What I want from my photos

Personally speaking I want these things from my photos:

  1. To shock and surprise myself: To be amazed how interesting and visually impactful my photos are.
  2. To look at my photos which spark lovely memories from the past.
  3. Visual stimulus from my photos in terms of colors, tones, and aesthetic qualities.

What device or screen are you using to experience your images?

Another practical question:

When you’re viewing or experiencing your photos, what device are you using to view your images? And how big are you experiencing your images?

For example if you’re just uploading your photos to social media, your photos will look tiny, and thus the image quality isn’t as apparent.

For myself, I derive maximum enjoyment of my photos when viewing my images on my iPad Pro 10.5 inch; enjoying them for my full pleasure.

Or another more recent development: sharing my photos on this blog in a “full width” mode (new WordPress feature). 1000x better viewing experience than looking at photos in crappy limited Instagram constraints.

Aesthetic qualities

This is what I learned:

Perhaps we shouldn’t be calling it “image quality”, but rather “aesthetic quality”.

For example I love film, because there is a different aesthetic quality to the images (grain, grit, different colors, and different “look”).

For example Kodak Portra 400 film:

Or Kodak Trix 400 monochrome film pushed to 1600 with yellow filter:

I love the film look of my photos, but I’m hesitant to say that they look “better” than my digital photos. For example, I derive great pleasure from the RICOH GR II photos I’ve been able to produce in monochrome (RAW x ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset):

Or even my RICOH GR II JPEG (positive film preset) images — they look fantastic and beautiful in my eyes!

I love the way the RICOH GR II photos look. Seriously some of the most epic image quality (benefit of not having an anti-aliasing filter).

Digital medium format

This is where things get very interesting— looking at the pinnacle of modern photography image quality; digital medium format:

For example these photos on the Fujifilm GFX50R:

Photos on digital medium format look and feel different — reality looks enhanced, and the “DMF” photos look “more real than real life”, which isn’t necessarily “better” nor “worse”— it is just different.

Or examine these Pentax 645Z photos — the photos certainly feel more three-dimensional than any other camera format: