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I'm not arguing for or against you here; I just thought it funny that I read the article below before reading your post.


Brooks Jensen

Interesting article, but I'd ask the same questions. Come to think of it, I'd ask one more — what if I made a photograph of those flowers at the bottom of the article with a camera that had even more detail? Would that be an even better photograph? Is there a one-to-one correlation between quality and detail? Or is quality one thing, detail a different thing? I've always thought of detail as a component — like color, depth of field, tonal values, white balance, etc. Quality is a valuation that is a measure of the sum of all this on a completely different ruler.

I've always loved Larry Wiese's great quote about this: "If you know it's a tree, what more do you need?"

Bottom line for me is that there is an unhealthy seduction that can so easily creep into a photographer's creative life that pulls us down a rabbit hole of pixel peeping and robs us of precious artmaking time. I know because I've lived there.

Curious that Mark Dubovoy and George Barr are writing on the same topic at the same time that I'm thinking in the opposite direction. Must be something in the air or the position of the moon. Oh, well.

Franz Amador

Obviously George is really the one to respond here, but my understanding is that his quest for more detail is motivated by his customers' desire for larger prints, and, at least for the kind of stuff he's doing, a larger print with more detail looks better than one with less. I think he's after incremental improvement, not a make-or-break difference.

But more generally, consider Christopher Burkett's big, carefully unsharp-masked Cibachromes from 8x10's of trees. They have a presence that would be lost if they were less sharp and detailed. He has said that a big part of what motivated him to do photography was when he got glasses for the first time as an adult and at last could see the detail in the world. He wants to share how marvelous that experience was, how extraordinary is the endless, fractal detail of nature. I'd say that for him, an essential part of the subject of those photos is the detail itself.

Godfrey DiGiorgi

Many photographers are lost in the bits and bytes when it comes to the technology of digital cameras.

I care, deeply, and love to understand "how things work" at a very intimate level. But once I know how things work, I switch that stuff off in my head and return to the realm of idea, gesture, and expression ... as what happens to make things work only answers the simple questions of the technology.

Idea, gesture, and expression are the complicated questions.


Hi Brooks,

interestingly I´ve both read George Barr´s post and the article by Mark Dubovoy on LL, like many photographers interested in classic landscape, I suppose.

What struck me when reading the LL post is that you can really tell a difference even in websized images. This I have not anticipated, though the whole discussion seems pretty obvious at times. Of course you get better signal-to-noise when averaging (which is what you do when downscaling a large image), and of course tonal variation is subtler, dynamic range of larger photosites is better etc. But I have not really expected it to show in images of 800x600 pixels. In 16x20 prints, yes, but on the web? Though I would still like to know what sensor size the "smaller sensor" was in that comparison. I think it still matters whether you compare a 2/3-prosumer camera or full frame with medium format digital.

Regarding your question concerning George Barr´s image: If the image is all about detail, then more detail is better. But if the image is JUST about detail, is it still a good photograph? Only in rare occasions, I would guess. Craft does not trump composition. Or, as David Ward put it: Craft is not paramount. Vision is.

Nevertheless: A finely composed image could benefit from the highest technical quality. But honestly: How many of us agonizing over tests and specs really have the photographic competence so that it would matter for OUR images if they were shot with 4/3rds, full frame or medium format? Do we not all get caught up in "gear porn" far too often and easily?

I have not yet seen a direct small sensor/medium format comparison with my own eyes in a print and probably never will (I doubt I´ll ever have the means to go for a Phase One or even "only" an 8x10, which still is better). Hence, for the time being, I'll buy the best equipment I can afford and invest my time in developing my photographic eye, and not in pixel-peeping. At least not so often...

Brooks Jensen

"The images received no processing adjustments. I exposed them as carefully as possible, did a direct conversion from RAW to TIFF with no adjustments..." (Dubovoy)

See http://daily.lenswork.com/2012/01/real-world-sensor-noise.html which demonstrates the artificiality of this premise. Wouldn't we all do something to the image in post-processing to make it art?

It's the underlying premise that "more detail is better" that I guess I'm questioning. Would the Mona Lisa be a better painting if Leonardo had used a finer brush? Remember when the sovereign criticized Mozart for "too many notes"? Would the composition have been better with more notes? Would War and Peace be better if it were longer? Would a Sting concert be better if he had 500 musicians on the stage with him? Would Moonrise be a better photograph if we could see the individual leaves on the sage brushes?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting we all dump our gear and buy Holgas. I'm just wondering why it is that photographers are so reflexively compelled to question the optical and mechanical engineers and manufacturers who spend their lives designing and building equipment? Do we not trust them to do their job? I don't know, maybe we shouldn't; but it seems to me they have their job and we have ours — and ours is to make art, not run consumer QC departments.

And there is one other element of Dubovoy's discussion that keeps haunting me. There seems to be another underlying premise in these types of discussions: that the really serious, really dedicated, really noteworthy photographers are those who pursue the most arcane and picayune details and technical subtleties using the most obscure, exotic, and expensive equipment. And, I suppose, conversely that if you don't do any of this, you can't possibly be a top-tier photographer. It's a form of elitism that just rubs me the wrong way. I've seen far too many photographers trudging around their 11x14 view cameras making perfectly forgettable images to be convinced that the key to success is in exotic equipment. I can't help but think that Eric Clapton on a crappy guitar would still be mesmerizing, or that Cher on the world's best microphone would still be . . . well, you get the idea.


Sure. Real photographers use medium format digital. Everthing else is just a toy. Actually we should all be hauling around 8x10 equipment. See http://www.onlandscape.co.uk/issues/lgb-0028/ for that.

Why can´t we just let go of such vain discussions? Is it just about being worthy, being serious, getting respect and attention? Shouldn´t photography be engaging, moving, even ... fun? Is a photograph more engaging when taken with medium/large format?

Well, for some folks this is the way to go. As Kirk Tuck put it: "The whiskers on a cat will never be sharper."


John Acurso

You know, when it matters it matters, when it doesn't, well, it doesn't.

Having shot with LF for over 30 years, I recently decided to investigate landscape and the iPhone. Do I think it mattered? No, I couldn't have made the images that I made with LF and the detail is actually stunning at 100%.

I tend to agree with Brooks, when the image works, it works and it doesn't matter what was used, or how much detail is there at 1500%, at 600% or even 100%. If it mattered, then the image wouldn't have worked.

Optimizing the characteristics of your chosen tool and matching that with one's vision is what makes images worth looking at.

Dave Ciskowski

Dubovoy's comparison to the audiophile world crystallized this debate for me -- though likely not in the sense he intended. I started thinking about transcendental musical experiences with recorded music. A few came to mind, but one I remember is first listening to Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5 (recorded by Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmoinc, I believe). I would have been a freshman in college.

It blew me away. It opened me to how wonderful 'classical' music could be, and how accessible as well. It also showed me how expressive and unique an individual could be in a format I'd thought was pretty rigid. It opened my world up. And I first heard it on a cheap $75 all-in-one stereo, with rudimentary speakers and an overused, worn needle.

The next year, I roomed with a nascent audiophile; I gleefully helped him shop for speakers to upgrade his rig. I could certainly hear the difference -- the sound was fantastic. I couldn't believe my luck, and I immensely enjoyed listening to music on his system for the next few years.

So, to agree with Dubovoy, even a fairly naive ear could hear the difference between the two systems. Given the choice, I'd prefer the latter over the former, without question.

But it didn't matter for the emotional impact of the Beethoven. I didn't miss something; the emotional experience went far beyond the technical improvements I might have had with another system. I've had similar moments with music I've heard with a cassette tape on a crummy boom box, with a CD in a mediocre car stereo, and with lossy MP3 rips on an iPod in a noisy airport. The quality of the music and the performance far outweigh the quality of the reproduction.

It's not a choice of one or the other. For my photography, I'll always work to improve both the technical capabilities of my equipment, and my technical skills in using it. But my success or failure won't come there, so much as it will from my ability to find and realize engaging, evocative, and emotionally moving images. Without that, none of the rest matters.

I guess Ansel said it quicker than I can: "There's nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept." Perhaps Dubovoy and Barr have far more confidence in their ability to identify and articulate resonant images than I have in mine. I guess I can only hope to reach that point, but for now, the improvement in my images is going to come from other places.


Another link, this time to a recent Carl Weese article on The Online Photographer blog:


Resolution issues do indeed seem to be in the air at the moment. Another article arguing for the need for lots of detail for certain images that are intended to be printed 20" wide. However, he's happy he can achieve this with the proper handling of a micro 4/3 camera. So there's hope for us mere mortals!

I agree that there are situations where max detail is key to an image, but more often I'm concerned with the better tonal qualities and dynamic range provided by bigger sensors and medium format film than with pixel peeping. I think the history of photography has more than enough examples of masterpieces that are technically weak to undermine the notion that high resolution is a fundamental requirement of a quality photograph.

My officially 'best' photograph was taken by accident during a birthday party when I was assessing the exposure in a dim hall with a noisy 4/3 camera.. The photo happened to capture my son's personality perfectly, was underexposed by 3 to 4 stops, is as noisy as hell, cropped 50% and is the most precious image I've ever taken.

George Barr

Brooks is right - pixel peeping really serves a very limited purpose and as such deserves an appropriately proportionate amount of time spent on it (ie. very little). The Italian photographer Giacomelli (who has an ipad app by the way) used small format cameras to make his landscapes throughout his career, becoming famous and considered one of the great photographers - all any of us could aspire to. His images have little in the way of detail but are full of design and drama and feeling.

As one of the commenters noted though, I was pixel peeping for a purpose, to resolve a problem I had with customers looking for really large prints, and finding images falling apart at a certain size. The image looks great at 20X30, but the customer wanted 40X60 and even at 28X48 it just didn't hold together.

We have known for years that film images tend to enlarge gracefully, perhaps fading a bit when too large, but if the grain was sharp, generally not coming unglued. I met someone last year who had arranged to have enlarged an image made by his father with medium format, to a size of 12 X 12 feet (which should say something about the size of his house). It looked just fine.

the exact opposite has been found with many digital images in which they look great up to a certain point, then with only a slight further increase in size become very artificial looking. Not always, just often enough to be a problem and cost me $1000 in a single sale.

It was this problem I was trying to resolve. I still don't know if the problem was in the image processing (not mine) and hope to do my own testing with a friend who has a Pentax 645D.

On the other hand, one of my oriental poppy images was requested, very large (40 inches) when I knew I had issues with it even at 13X19 and a generous white border. Guess what - it's hanging on my wall and looks fantastic - the flower is so large I don't want to look at the print from 10 inches and the image works great hanging on the wall. So you can never be sure...

By the way, I have met Mark Dubovoy and he's a modest quiet helpful fellow and nothing like the article he wrote for LL.

George Barr

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