Analog cameras and pixel peepers

An advertisement on the back of the November 1989 issue of National Geographic talks up Kodak’s new (at the time) EKTAR film. “You’re looking at a 2500% blowup with detail never before possible in a 35mm color print film,” it says. There’s close-up picture of a defeated football player. Inset is the original, uncropped photograph.

In fact, I found the image on Google:

What I find remarkable is that while Kodak boasts “detail never before possible”, the blow-up is actually quite soft. It is far from “tack sharp,” as they say. I read this and remembered several years back when I researched dSLR cameras, read lens reviews, followed the forums. What photogs seem to do these days is called “pixel peep”. They take a photograph, view it at maximum resolution and beyond, and then evaluate the lens or camera responsible based on how crisp the photograph is. I found this odd, as did others, since nobody ever looks that closely at a photograph. At normal viewing size, these photographs could be brilliant, but at the ultra-zoom level, they show flaws.

I remember, too, that the Pentax K10D, which I ended up buying, lost some marks from reviewers because its out-of-the-box settings didn’t produce a desirable quality of photrograph. The problem? The photographs were too soft. They weren’t “tack sharp”.

I’ve never been able to take a “tack-sharp” photograph. Partially because I don’t often use a tripod, partially because that particular Pentax model was design to produce film-like photographs. This is just fine by me. Surely there are other features in a photograph that are more important for judging its quality.

All this to say that that 1989 Kodak advertisement would not make the grade today. The never before possible “detail” in the blow-up would make the pixel-peepers scoff.

I wonder, have we lost something in our age of “tack-sharp” photographs and pixels in the millions? Do digital photographs have the same warmth and “personality” as analog photographs did? I suspect not. That’s not to say that I’m not thankful in many ways for digital cameras–mostly for their instant and forgiving output–or that there aren’t many brilliant and beautiful digital photographs taken. Yet I find that my dad’s old Minolta XG-1 (it’s older than I am) consistently yields better photographic results. And–sometimes–I crank up the ISO on my Pentax to add some of that “noise” and grain that is so hated these days. It may not show detail like cameras can these days, but I kind of like it.

3 thoughts on “Analog cameras and pixel peepers

  1. Andrew

    It took a while, but I’ve finally left the search for the “tack sharp” grail. It just gets in the way of more important things such as subject and composition.

    The one nice thing, though, about high pixel DSLR’s is that you can essentially re-compose by cropping significantly, if the lens used didn’t have the desired reach. With a good lens and high megapixels, you can have a result that doesn’t immediately jump out as a ‘cropped picture’ – no colour fringing, no soft edges, etc.

  2. Toni

    There are lots of reasons why we pixel-peep these days, but TBH photographers have always done it by proxy: when I took photography seriously all the lens tests would carry a large amount of detail about aberrations, resolution etc. We all also knew that if you wanted ‘tack-sharp’ images then you used Kodachrome 64 or 25 or froze the subject with flash (or sometimes both).

    Print films were never especially sharp because prints were never sharp – you relied on the lens of some automated printing machine, which seemed to have been made by the same people that designed 110 cameras. Most serious photographers would get their work printed professionally, or do it themselves. Don’t forget we had no monitors to zoom in with, so you could only tell if an image was actually sharp if it was enlarged – 12″X16″ or 20″X30″ for competitions etc. And in those situations people ‘pixel-peeped’ in very fine detail indeed.

    But for a long time resolving power of the digital camera was low, image quality poor and the results demonstrably inferior to classic film. I remember the ho-hah when Olympus launched the IS1000 – a whole megapixel sized image! Digital photography has always been the ‘poor relation’ to ‘real film cameras’, and still feels a sense of inferiority, even though it’s virtually eliminated the opposition.

    As you point out, it doesn’t have the analogue warmth and natural smoothness of film, so it still has to prove and keep proving that it’s the better medium.

  3. Jay

    Marc, I am happy that you are glad to see a bit of noise in your K10D. Honestly, I found ISO 1600 completely unusable. Except for “artistic” black-and-white I found completely useless. I’ve been entirely spoiled with my D700 and without thinking twice about using ISO 5000 and still feeling confident spitting out a 20 x 30 print. I’ll admit that the K10D was a very good first step in DSLR for me and I’m glad that you are happy with yours because after the numerous times mine was sent in for service in the half dozen other quality control issues I had with Pentax products I honestly felt bad recommending that camera to you. No question what it was working properly was a fine machine for a fine price with a fine collection of lenses to use with it. When it was not, it was a hair pulling experience for me.

    Simply put, I am happy with my move up a doubt that I would have if the Pentax equipment would have functioned properly for me. I have had nothing but perfect behavior and solid performance out of my Nikon gear.

    As for the “measurbaters” and their pixel peeping, I am getting better, but still insists on perfection if it is something that might be printed large. If it is simply art for the Internet’s amusement I don’t mind if it’s ever so slightly soft because seldom do you see a 100% crop. That being said, I offer you a link to a photo that I cropped in response to the K10D’s ability to produce sharp photos. I think part of the problem was the default settings, as you said, but that when you shoot in raw and process to your own personal taste you can very easily get sharpness out of it.

    This photo was from a shoot that I did for an author and her daughter who was the illustrator of her book. Shot with the K10D and 16-50mm f/2.8 DA*, I gladly consider this tack sharp. Yes, it used studio style lighting which negated the effect of any shake reduction but I found the K10D’s shake reduction to be far more effective than Pentax or competitors gave it credit for.

    Nicole’s 100% crop.

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