Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tools of the Trade ~ On Considering an Important Truth

Assume, for a moment, that photographic tools are really no different than tools used by other artists.

Pencil, pen, brush, ink, paint, chisel, forge, and hammer are all tools of art.  When viewing a finished work, how the work was created is, many times, less important than how a viewer responds to a work.

Assume, for a moment, that the goal of photography is to make images that express how you feel and how you "see" the world. 

In this way, cameras, lenses, printers, and paper are simply tools of photographic art.  Carefully consider how you look at a photograph and see if you can tease apart the marketing hype and camera equipment forum driven relationship between how the image was made from how you respond to it.

~ Having a camera is many times better than not having a camera ~ 

For making truly great photos, it simply does not matter what you use. 

The properties of one camera over another are largely unimportant.  Cameras simply enable image creation.  As we have seen, the current crop of imaging sensors are more than sharp enough for just about any subject in just about any situation.  What matters is how you "see" and how you use the tools of photographic expression available to you.

On a practical level, any sensor of 4 megapixels or greater are capable to delivering critically sharp prints up to 13x19inches and well beyond.  I will write more about printing in the next blog entry on Tools of the Trade.  I hope to illustrate that, in making beautifully expressive prints or publishing to the web, sensor size simply does not matter.

There is a interesting exception to my statement that having a camera is many times better than not having a camera.  There is a large field of photographic art that is, in the traditional sense, camera-less.  Commonly available and shockingly inexpensive flat bed scanners are the solution I'm considering here.  It is easy to find a perfectly usable high resolution flat bed scanner for 10USD/10Euro or less.

If you are curious about this photographic solution to image making and aren't already aware, check out Flickr's "Interestingness" selection of scannerart.  There are some wonderful ideas to be explored using this approach.

~ Having a lens is many times better than not having a lens ~

As we have seen, optical resolution out-performs currently available imaging sensors.  This holds true with an aperture setting anywhere from wide open down through f/11.

My claim that sensors are the limiting factor in photographic resolution, while seemingly heretical, is easily backed.  A blogger recently compared a Sony 50mm f1.8 against the much vaunted Leica Summicron 50mm f2. The author mis-understands the results by claiming equivalent optical quality between the two lenses.  From what we learn from my preceding blog entries, you can see what the role of the sensor really is.  In any event, results like these must drive Leica users crazy.  If they are interested in the finest image quality, their pricey equipment is really no better than, say, Sony's gear that's available at a fraction of the cost.

We have also seen where chromatic aberrations (CA) can effect resolution near the edge of the frame.  I talked about how to control the effects of CA in reading test results to learn which aperture settings return the lowest CA.

We have learned how to read modulation transfer function (MTF) charts.  Hopefully you can now see how contrast delivered by a lens to a sensor is different from all the other optical properties you might encounter. Field curvature and field spatial distortions could also be considered, but these details are not readily available in MTF chart information.

Yet, with all of this detailed knowledge about lenses and their properties, the single most important factor in image resolution remains the sensor.  Further, optical performance effects can be easily controlled in post-production.  Contrast, CA, and field spatial distortions can all be "processed" out of or corrected for by software you likely already own running on your computer and are many times corrected for in-camera.  In short, base optical performance need not be considered when choosing the best tools for your intended situations.

There two interesting exceptions to my statement that having a lens is many time better than not having a lens.  There is a fascinating field of lens-less solutions that date back hundreds of thousands of years and were more recently used by medieval artists.  Solar eclipses have been safely visible for as long as there have been trees and beings to witness the event as images projected on the ground.  Much more recently, Canaletto was only one in a long line of artists who used a "camera" (the word means "room" in Italian) to project an image onto canvas from which he would paint.

In current photography, we have at our disposal two interesting lens-less solutions.  They are the pinhole and the zone plate.  If you like the style and approach of these solutions, you could altogether avoid the costs of a glass optic.  For inspiration, here is Flickr's "interestingness" images for pinhole and zone plate work.

Which might lead a reader to wonder: 
If cameras, lenses, product marketing, and on-going internet forum flame wars are not important in photographic image making, why did I spend four long blog posts and well over a decade of my life considering the minutia of photography equipment?

One answer is that I was trained and worked in software and electronics engineering.  Taking a rational view of the craft and art of photography comes naturally to me.  I have an innate curiosity about things and the way they work.

Another answer is that I felt pushed and pulled by the marketing hype and on-line discussion forums.  It seemed all to easy to be misled and to stumble on irrational explanations of things that simply were not provable.  When I say irrational, I mean it in the sense of being not rational, and in the sense of being emotional and not scientifically thought through.  So much of what passes for discussion about photography gear is nothing more than wishful thinking and unsupportable claims.

I wanted to get to the truth of the matter and that the truth I have come to understood is rationally justifiable.  Once the truth is known, I could then turn my time and energies toward other interesting things.  The truth of things allows me to safely ignore the yammering babbling masses and marketeers while concentrating on making the best images I possibly can.

If, on the other hand, it's easier to see the practical application of my conclusions, what better way than to share the work of someone who is increasingly internationally known, celebrated, and heaped upon with well deserved accolades?  While it will be easy to sort out what the photographer uses, try to postpone that search long enough to look at his results.  Perhaps you will see for yourself how effectively used photographic equipment quickly transcends marketing hype and on-line forum equipment flame wars.

As Bill Gekas recently wrote on Facebook, "Revisiting some photography groups and forums the other day made me a little sad that some things just don't change and probably never will with some people. All gear no idea!!!"

No comments: