How Much Resolution Do You Need?
Ah, yes, the eternal question. I remember in 1970, long before the digital age, debating the same question relative to film formats. For some of us, me included, this internal question is always been associated with an eternal guilt — If only I had a bigger camera…
Examined a bit more dispassionately, however, isn't it easy to see that a bit of reverse engineering answers this question definitively? Simply put,
- If your ultimate goal is a screen presentation, you only need about 4 megapixels.
- If your ultimate goal is a book publication, you only need about 8 megapixels.
- If your ultimate goal is a modest size print, say, 11 x 14" or so, 12 megapixels will do just fine.
With this in mind, a 12-16 megapixel camera offers just about everything most of us will ever really need. So why all the fuss for gazillion megapixel cameras? Well, there are a few pragmatic answers:
- If you want to make giant wall size prints, you need all the megapixels you can muster.
- If your working method involves a lot of cropping, you need all the megapixels you can muster.
- If you need bragging rights about how big your camera is, you might just need… therapy. (Please, I'm kidding, no emails.)
My failing memory is going to butcher the following story, but the essence of it is correct. I remember Ted Orland quoting some other photographer that the camera one should use is the one least capable of providing the desired result; anything beyond that is overkill, merely adding expense and confusion to the process. Over the years, I've found that bit of wisdom to be spot on. Said colloquially, KISS — an almost laughable bit of advice in today's digital complexity.
Assuming we all can agree on the above logic about reverse engineering, the flaw in this line of thinking is the assumption that we actually know — before hand — how any given image is going to be used. The great fear is, of course, that we will use a lightweight camera and wish, down the line, for a heavyweight result. I've been known to literally have "troubled dreams" about finding myself with a low resolution camera unexpectedly in a situation that would create a fabulous giant wall-sized print. In my more rational (ahem) waking states, I still have that fear. Hence, overkill in the selection of my camera is as much about searching for a comfort zone than it is about strict mechanical reverse engineering. How do we determine out comfort zone?
Ultimately, the strictly technological question about resolution boils down to artistic and aesthetic decisions. What do you want to make? In what form do you see your creative output? When it's finished, what will it be? And therein lies the rub. So many photographers that I've talked to over the years simply cannot answer that question because finishing is such a difficult thing.
So much of photography is all about potential — the power of the negative (or the digital file) to be reinterpreted for some new purpose, at some undetermined time in the future. There's that famous maxim about the negative being the score and the print being the performance. But, if the eventual performance is an unknown commodity, we are easily seduced into making the score all-powerful, all-adaptable, all-potential, be it negative or digital file. Well, let's cover all the bases and make every exposure with a 20x24 view camera. Too ridiculous? Use an 8x10. Too bulky? Try a Nikon D800E. Too costly? Maybe a D5100…
But wait a minute, what is that exercise all about? Obviously, it's about figuring out where you want to draw the line that fits your means and still provides you an expansive comfort zone. As has been so often joked, the first Commandment is, "Thou Shalt Draw the Line Somewhere." We all do it whether we are conscious of it or not. But, why? In essence, I'm suggesting that the incessant desire for more megapixels might just be an indicator that there is indecision about what format is best for the artwork.
So the question How much resolution do you need? is a bit of a red herring. The real question is What form of media will you use to complete your creative vision? With all respect to the Bard, "To be, or not to be" is not really the question. Instead, we need to ask ourselves "Is our artwork is to be A, B, C, or D?" That is the question. Indeed, it's not merely a question, but a question requiring an artistic commitment. And that, my friends, is one of the most difficult tasks facing all artists. It's far easier to just plop down the credit card and demand, like Oliver Twist, "More, Sir, please!"