• Jeff Ascough

Pixel Peeping Suffocates Creativity

Wedding party walking through London on the way to the reception.

A couple of years ago, Sarah was attending a County Show in Derbyshire for her Showfield project. A keen photographer came up to her and tried to strike up a conversation about camera gear. Now, you can talk to Sarah about anything, she's one of the chattiest people I know, but not about camera gear. She has no interest in equipment, pixels, sharpness, bokeh or any of that stuff. She knows what she likes, and that's as far as it goes. Her main cameras are from 2009, and lenses from the late 1990s. Anyway, the guy was persistent and eventually took a bubble-wrapped Nikon out of his camera bag.

"This camera takes amazingly sharp pictures." He said before gently putting it back in the bag. This was the first time Sarah had come across the phenomenon that we lovingly call 'the camera perv', so I let her experience it for a few minutes before rescuing her.

it was the job of the film manufacturers to supply the tone, sharpness, colour and contrast of an image, not the camera.

Photographers have always been into gear. It's only natural. We use it every day and build a relationship with it. As part of our job, we need to know what it does and how to use it. A camera becomes part of who we are and the vehicle for how we interpret the world.

My career to date has been split evenly between film and digital. I spent the first fifteen years shooting with film and the last fifteen shooting digital. With digital, I have upgraded my work cameras seven times. With film, I have upgraded them twice.

In my film days, I would purchase a couple of different cameras and expect to keep them for my career (that didn't quite turn out as planned!!). I had a medium format system and a 35mm system. If any of the bodies wore out, they were upgraded to the latest model. For most of my film career I used older models alongside the latest because it was the job of the film manufacturers to supply the tone, sharpness, colour and contrast of an image, not the camera. With digital, the camera manufacturer also became the film company and that's when it all got really messy.

Camera companies need to sell units, so they tempt us, quite successfully, to upgrade our existing gear. How do they do this? By telling us that our pictures will be clearer, sharper, and more colourful if we buy the latest. We can have more pixels with less noise, more accurate autofocus, and can take pictures in darkness.

Cameras are sent to review sites. Test photos of inanimate objects are produced and blown up to 100% to show noise and sharpness. Glossy brochures follow, littered with high colour, bitingly clear, noise-free photographs. No wonder we are obsessed with how sharp or clean an image is.

It's a stupid, ridiculous thing to do and has absolutely no relevance to photography in the real world.

This obsession has led to the disorder known as pixel peeping. If you aren't familiar with the term, it means zooming into an image and checking things like focus, noise and sharpness at the pixel level. It's a stupid, ridiculous thing to do and has absolutely no relevance to photography in the real world. I've seen photographers reject good images which were not quite sharp at 100% on a large 4K monitor, and yet they would have looked stunning when printed to 60". How so? Because we don't view a 60" print with a loupe from an inch away, we stand back far enough to look at the print and that improves our perception of sharpness. How many times have you sat on the front row of a cinema and thought the picture looked soft, and yet from the middle, it looked stunning? When we zoom into 100% on our screens, we are putting our noses onto that 60" print, taking a loupe out, and seeing how sharp it looks.

The most bizarre thing about pixel peepers, is that many of them will ever get their images printed. They have no clue what a printed photograph looks like. If they did, they wouldn't pixel peep!!

If you want to see how daft pixel peeping is, pay a visit to a national art gallery and take a look at some of the paintings.

When I first saw 'The Milkmaid' by the 17th Century artist, Johannes Vermeer, I was stunned by the use of light, composition, and texture. From the correct viewing distance, it could almost be mistaken for a photograph with its tonal range and subtlety of colour, detail and mood. Move closer to it and it's obvious that this is a painting. Closer still (the Rijksmuseum has a cool website that allows you to do this) and it breaks up into brush strokes and blotches of colour.

Would you want to view a masterpiece at brushstroke level, or would you prefer to step back and take Vermeer's genius in? Why do photographs have to be viewed any differently?

So how is this suffocating creativity? I alluded to it in part, when I mentioned the photographers deleting perfectly good images because they looked very slightly unsharp at 100%. It goes further than this though. Once we become obsessed with looking at image quality, the technical side of our brain takes over from the artistic. We start to judge our images based on how technically good they are, not their artistic content. This is a slippery slope. A photograph should be a means of expression, not a technical exercise.

Take a look at the famous blurry D-Day landing photographs by Robert Capa. Whether you believe they were a result of a darkroom mishap or a massively overexposed negative, it makes no odds. They are incredibly powerful, brilliantly composed images. Technically? They are soft and blurry. So many iconic images are soft, but the creativity and content is strong. I believe the photographers just didn't worry about having their images put onto a screen and blown up to 100%.

I would sooner look at one interesting image that is slightly unsharp, than a million boring photographs which are technically perfect. Much of Cartier-Bresson's work would be deleted as unsharp by the pixel peeper. William Klein's work too. Daido Moriyama - let's just not bother giving the guy a camera, as all of his work wouldn't pass muster at 25%, let alone 100%!! Personally, I am not concerned with sharpness, noise, or critical focus as long as the picture is good and conveys what I wanted. I view all of my images at 25% in Photoshop and 1:4 in Lightroom. This gives me the best representation of how a print will look and what the perceived sharpness will be. So the next time you see a fantastic image only to feel your heart sink once you zoom in to 100%, just take a second and think. Does it look good at 25%? If so, then it will look great as a print. Leave the pixel peeping to those that enjoy it, and get on with taking great pictures.

A note on the lead picture. The image was taken as the bridal party left church and walked towards their reception in London. I saw the image from across the street and took three pictures instantly. I'm in motion, they are too. The image looks soft at 100% on my screen and would probably have been rejected by many photographers because of this. It looked fantastic in their book. The movement adds to the sense of everything being in motion.

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