The 0.22 Megapixel Nikon D800E
First, Kevin Raber is a terrific photographer and I really like his work — so no fair misinterpreting my comments here as anything against Kevin or his skills. I also really like this image from the Luminous-Landscape website — one of my favorite websites, by the way. We all owe a great debt to Michael Reichmann for all he (and Chris, and now Kevin) are contributing to the photographic community. So, I'm not sniping, really I'm not.
But, I do chuckle every time I see this kind of thing on the Internet. This really nice photograph is a whopping 0.22 megapixel image made with a 36 megapixel camera. By my math, that about 0.6% of the camera's capabilities. And it looks pretty good, wouldn't you agree? Should Raber want to (and he should!), he could make a huge print with this whopper of a camera. Good for him, and good for the camera.
My question is this: How many of today's photographers need to — let alone want to — make a stunning, tack sharp 24" or larger print? For those who do, it's a great thing that we have such cameras to work with. But I do worry about how long such behemoth prints are going to be an important part of photography. Right now, they are all the rage in galleries who sell art by the square inch. More and more, however, I find the people I see viewing photography on an iPad, a phone, or even on their HD TV at home using an simple slide show. And I'm not talking only family snapshots. Serious photographic artwork is being produced for the tablet world. I have often wondered if fine art photographers tend to ignore this because there isn't an easy path to monetize it. But, I digress.
Michael Reichmann touched on the edges of this recently in his report from PDN PhotoPlus 2013. Here's my spin on this same line of thinking that I first published years ago . . .
For all of us who are of a certain age and know what the term "N+1 development" means, we would often silently snicker at the foolish tourists who popped out of the cars at Wawona Point and snapped of a frame with their shiny new 35mm camera, thinking in their naiveté that they were making an image that would look just like Ansel Adams'. Ha! We would knowingly smile, content in the unshakable knowledge that our sweat-laden, fastidiously crafted sheet film-produced photograph would toast their grainy little machines. Give me a Red Dot Artar and I will rule the world! Bwa-ha-ha-ha.
Fast forward about 40 years to today. Out pops the tourist from their car who then carefully aims their iPad or smartphone at Yosemite Valley and snaps a digital image. I still want to snicker, but I'm not sure I have anything to snicker about anymore — especially if both theirs and our images are destined for viewing via iPad, computer monitor, or HD TV screen. Bluntly said, the basis of our feelings of superiority in our craft are entirely founded on the large print — a presentation medium that has the specter of anachronism hovering around it like vultures circling in the sky. We serious photographers use better, more expensive, "professional" cameras — sheet film antiques or gazillion-megapixel-cost-of-a-house type devices. Why? So we can make giant prints and hang them in galleries. (I've often chuckled at the double entendre of that phrase — are we displaying them, or choking them to death?)
Well, we are all photographers and intimately involved in the medium — so let me ask you, how many gigantic prints have seen today compared to images on a digital screen? This week? This month? I love prints. I adore them, I make them, I collect them, I treasure them — but compared to images on digital screens and what greets my eye every day, the count is paltry. The tide hasn't just turned; it has tilted the very axis of the planet.
Which brings me back to Kevin Raber's wonderful image. I'm delighted for him that he used a Nikon D800E to photograph this scene. That said, for me, had he used an iPad, my viewing experience would be no different. I am delighted to have the opportunity to see his image, even if it is only at 0.22 megapixels. I enjoyed the moment of viewing it. I'm glad that he took the effort to go there and make the image — and then share it will all of us. It just strikes me as odd that he could have accomplished that same outcome with a tool that didn't cost more than my first car.
Ah, but the prints! "Had he used an iPad, he couldn't make a giant print," you say. True. But, wouldn't it be interesting to know how many large scale prints Raber will make/sell from his trip with this camera? I'd bet megapixels of cash that it won't be a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who just saw his print at 0.22 megapixels at Luminous Landscape and now here.
There is an economic component all of this that is troublesome, too. Has it occurred to you that a giant print in a photographic gallery costs about the same as the giant HD TV that could display it? If you were a consumer looking for the pleasure of seeing great images in your home — as opposed to a collector of investment quality prints — wouldn't it make sense that you might be tempted to buy the TV rather than the print and then have the ability to display thousands of images that fit your mood or the season? I'm not suggesting that those who love photographs might be tempted, but those who love images might be.
I'm not pleading any case here for any opinion or position. I'm just observing a few of the odd realities of life here in the digital age. It's certainly not my place (or anyone else's) to tell a photographer what he/she could/should use to make their photographs. I can't help but wonder, however, what the future of these great machines will be if the importance of giant prints ceases to command a place in our hearts. Michael Reichmann said it succinctly when he proposed that we consider the LP record, the VHS tape, the cassette — and possibly the DSLR. As more and more of photography is driven off the printed page, what does that portend for cameras, for prints, for galleries, for us? We'd best not ignore this — at our peril. I can't help but conclude that we are being pushed to one inevitable conclusion — content. King it is, and will be even more so in the future.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.