Saturday, December 08, 2012

Image Quality

A friend has been looking at mirrorless cameras with an eye toward getting one that he could easily carry around. He is insistent that he wants one that is capable of the same or better image quality as his Nikon D80. In our conversation he mentioned some photographs he had missed back in film days because he didn't have his SLR with him and that he bought a small rangefinder camera but the image quality wasn't up to his SLR so he only used it once. He doesn't want to do the same again with digital.

That reminded me of Jay Maisel who has an incredible eye, not just for the obvious photograph but for finding top notch images in the mundane. Somewhere, on one of my old hard drives, I have a video of him talking to another photographer at lunch in NYC and the other photographer says that he passes up photos where the light is too dim or "not right", images that won't be high quality. Jay's response was "To hell with quality. I just want to get the picture". It must work. He is probably the most highly successful stock and assignment photographer ever.

Technical image quality is only one aspect of a photograph and not necessarily the most important one, often in fact it is not all that important. What is important is the emotion, the way the scene feels and how well that comes through to the viewer. The real challenge of photography is determining what is most important about the scene before you and how to best convey that with the least distraction by other elements in the photo.

The last couple of days I've been scanning and playing with some 35mm images I shot back in the early '70s but never got around to printing. I had no darkroom at the time but could develop film in a daylight tank so I simply filed the negatives away to print 'someday'. Someday arrived for this roll. It was undoubtedly shot with a Miranda Sensomat, the only camera I had at the time, and the 50mm lens that came with the camera. It was made on Plus-X Pan and would have been developed in D-76, my stock developer back then.

My personal favorite from the roll is the Winter Corn Field. Why? I like the arrangement of the bands of trees & brush, the small hill rising in the background, the sweep of the rows of corn stubble and the tractor tracks cutting across them in the snow. I like the dark sky. Overall it reminds me of photos and engravings from the 20s and thirties, the sort of images my grandmother hung on her living room wall. To that end I toned it, a way to heighten that feeling. Is it sharp? Not especially. It is quite grainy. I shot that scene about 40 years ago and don't remember doing it but I look at the scan and know exactly what I saw and why I shot the scene. The feeling is there. My challenge today is to interpret the negative in such a way as to convey those emotional qualities and I don't believe that absolute sharpness and clarity are necessary.

Following Jay's advice, I believe it is better to get the image with the equipment you have or can afford, under whatever conditions you encounter than to pass it up waiting for a better camera, better light, whatever. This roll of film that I'm playing with is not the only one that I shot and never printed because I didn't have the resources at the time so I'll likely find others in the future but I have the negatives and that's what counts.

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