By Michael Furtman
One of the great banes of digital photography is the very same thing.
Huh? How can that be?
Simple. It used to be that when you shot print film or slides, you would judge the photographs with the naked eye. Sure, you could project an image if shooting slides, but still, you sat back and evaluated your work largely "as a whole." A blurry photo was one that looked fuzzy at the printed or projected size (or under an loupe on a light table, which is the way the photo editors I work with, or photographers shooting slides, evaluate a transparencies image).
Today, though, we have a whole new tool with which to examine photos -- the computer. And a wonderful tool it can be. In fact, if I had to go back to film and the old ways, I think I'd quite photography. I'm that much in love with the digital medium.
But this tool brings with it a tendency to over-examine our photos. We zoom in to 100%, 200%, even 400% and declare an image "soft" or "showing artifacts" or having "chromatic aberration." We debate endlessly whether a RAW file or a JPEG file is better, something that rarely makes any difference when viewed at anything less than 100% zoom. In the quest to produce an image that survives such intense scrutiny, some tend to pay less attention to the image's emotion and composition. It is as if, in the quest to judge the suitability of an automobile, we examined the tolerances between the hood and fenders, and overlook the interior's ergonomics.
Try this. If you still have your 8X loupe around, grab a transparency, put the loupe on it, and hold it up to the light. How much of the frame do you see? Well, I'll tell you. You see nearly the entire frame -- perhaps 80% or a bit more. The same would be true of a 35mm negative. And that's pretty much how we judged images since photography was invented. An image that looked sharp and well exposed when viewed like that was considered a fine photo. You made great prints from it. Editors bought them. The greatest photographers in the world -- and their clients -- judged photos in much the same manner.
If you're on my website, chances are you've visited plenty of other photography websites and forums. They are full of pixel-peepers saying "send us a 100% crop for evaluation." That's fine. Join the fun if you like. Such scrutiny can be useful, and when I have two nearly identical images and I'm trying to determine which one to send to a publisher, I certainly will examine them at 100% to choose the sharpest.
But such scrutiny can at times be less than meaningful, if not downright worthless. I have sold very large prints to customers, and many, many images to magazine and book publishers, that could have been a tad sharper or had fewer artifacts, both of which showed when zoomed in at pixel-peeping levels. Yet when printed, they were gorgeous, and people snapped them up from the gallery, spent real money to frame and mat them, and have them hanging in their homes. Isn't that really how a photo should be judged? The same is often true of images destined for publication. Images that pixel-peepers would declare "flawed" are purchased by art directors and look great in their publications.
No one strives to produce an image that has weaknesses. But we need to judge the photograph as a whole, not by peeping at individual pixels. Just as we don't put our nose against the Mona Lisa and complain about the irregularity of a da Vinci brush stroke, but stand back and marvel at the whole, neither is it always wise to evaluate an image pixel by pixel. I shudder to think how many great film-based photographs of the past, if they could have been examined in this manner, would be declared by some pixel-peeper to be "out of focus" or "showing too much grain" and have been relegated to the dust bin.
Perhaps the pixel-peepers need images that are absolutely free of any problems at 100% because, due to poor composition at the time of shooting, they need to "go in" and crop 50% of the photo to get composition right. Of course, at that level of cropping, all the little things that are wrong with an image certainly will show up when printed. But that's their problem.
You should strive to compose an image well in-camera. Ask any professional photographer -- I don't care if they shoot weddings, sporting events, wildlife, or studio -- how many of their images have ever had to be cropped before being printed, and the amount of cropping that was done, and the answers you will get are "very, very few" and "maybe ten or twenty percent, maximum." They compose in-camera, and if cropping was done, it wasn't because the photo needed it, but because it had to fit a particular space in a publication.
A great image will, of course, always need to be in focus. But it also needs to be well composed, make beautiful use of light, evoke wonder or emotion, accurately portray a subject or person, or capture a moment in time.
And that isn't revealed by peeping at pixels.
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