Musings on Photography

Desire, Noise, Resolution

Posted in aesthetics, equipment by Paul Butzi on September 29, 2007

There was this interesting post on TOP about noise, resolution, and whether or not seeking higher resolution and lower noise will improve your photography. Mike Johnston writes persuasively:

But the fact remains, it is just as possible to take a wholly successful, excellent, outstanding picture with a sensor that has tons of noise, as it is to take such a picture with a sensor that has no noise; it is just as possible to take a great picture that has almost no resolution as it is to take one with very high resolution; it is just as possible to take a great picture with a lens that distorts badly as it is to take one with a lens that does not distort at all; and the list goes on to all the other technical properties that we concern ourselves with so happily. We should not lose sight of that.

And I don’t disagree. I’ve seen too many wonderful photos with supertanker loads of grain to argue that grain ruins a photo. And when I’m tempted to think that a lack of resolution makes things impossible, I’m reminded of the beautiful work that Chris Crandall did in the Washington Palouse with a pinhole camera – just broad washes of color that do a wonderful job of evoking that landscape.

And, truth be told, lately it seems the argument seems to run the other way, as with the recent dustup about digital B&W being too noise free and thus seeming plastic. I don’t put much stock in that, but that’s the argument being made.

One thing being ignored in all the discussion, though, is this: there are these image properties: noise, resolution, distortion. The information gradient of these things has a definite slope, and when people are clamoring for noise free cameras, high resolution lenses and sensors, distortion free optics – what they are clamoring for is the top of the slope rather than some point downslope (perhaps at the bottom of the slope).

That is, it’s easy to ADD noise to an image, and it’s a damn sight harder to get the noise out. It’s easy to reduce the resolution of the image (and in fact you can reduce the resolution in interesting ways by having different shapes to the spatial resolution filter), but it’s essentially impossible to add resolution. And it’s trivial to add distortion to an undistorted image, but it’s again an uphill battle to correct distortion that’s built in.

So given a choice, it makes sense to yearn for a camera that is noise free, has infinitely high resolution, and no distortion. Then, the amount of noise, resolution, and distortion in the final image are determined by the artist exercising creative decision making, and not by the imposed constraints of the equipment. Not enough noise in the image to suit your historically based preference for photos that depict homeless people with lots of gritty noise? Just add some in, until your homeless people look suitably downtrodden, unwashed, and supped full with despair. Too much resolution in your photos of scantily clad women to give you the fine art look to which you aspire? Run a low pass filter over the image, your wish is granted and your images take the shape after which you lust. Not enough distortion to suit you? Dial in a little barrel distortion, throw in some chromatic abberation, and you’ve turned your $8k EOS 1ds Mk III into an instant Holga (or just mount a holga plastic lens or Lensbaby on the body, if you like).

But God help you if what you want is high resolution, low noise, low distortion images like those you could get from your EOS 1ds Mk III and your L series lenses, but all you have is a Holga loaded with TMZ.

It makes little sense to argue that good photographs can’t have noise, must be high resolution, can’t have distortion. On the flip side, it makes just as little sense to insist that photos MUST have noise, can’t be high resolution, and shouldn’t be distortion free. There are more styles of photography in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in ANY philosophy.

But when we’re picking (or yearning for) equipment, it makes sense to choose the equipment that preserves the greatest number of photographic options for us. And that means that even though we might not need a camera that’s fast, has high resolution, low distortion, fast lenses, and a very high resolution low noise sensor, it might make sense to buy one anyway, just because we never know what we’ll want in the future.

7 Responses

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  1. Roger Cuthbert said, on September 30, 2007 at 1:47 am

    I am reminded that a photograph is taken by the eye. The camera is only a light tight box.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on October 1, 2007 at 6:27 am

    While there’s a lot to be said for that – pushing to get the cleanest, sharpest, artifact free starting point – I have some reservations. On occasion I shoot with a lensbaby, making my ridiculously expensive camera take distorted, crappy pictures. I’m sure one way or another I could recreate that back home in photoshop with a variety of filters.

    I could. But I never do.

    A big part of it is in the process (not the processing). Moving that lens around, looking through it, shooting what I like, at the time, through that lens, is a major part of making successful pictures or not in that style.

    I also shoot quite a bit totally out of focus. I’ll throw the lens wide open and manually defocus it. Then I’ll compose and shoot for the light and shape that I see – again, this is about the process. I could probably make my sharp, perfect pictures look the same way after the fact, but it would change how I react to the subject (I know with a perfect camera system I could still defocus it – but I’m making an argument about process, not specifics 😉 )

    Same with noise – I occasionally really like the grainy results from shooting at ISO 3200. Would I like some of those shots to be perfectly noise free – probably yes – but in other cases it makes the shot. I’m not convinced I’d go back and actually add it in to those shots. Also the occasionally screwed up colours work in favour of the image – again unlikely to be something I’d actually do.

    Same way I sometimes deliberately shoot in the “wrong” white balance – I could change it in RAW later, but looking at a cool, blue tungsten scene outdoors in daylight changes my approach to it, even when I review on the back of the camera.

    I realise you understand a lot of these things but I think it is worth mentioning. Post processing can give you a big range of choices, but you’ll tend to avoid the happy accidents that happen in the process of making art, because you’ll (or I’ll ) over think the thing and never try the things that happen every day as a result of our imperfect, noisy, non-ideal camera systems.

    Someone smart once said that art was a verb. This is a big part of that – photography done well (for me, obviously – this is my comment) has to be done in the now. Not some time later, changing a mood in photoshop, not some time early with a whole lot of planning.

    The camera goes to the eye, you react. Perhaps you chimp or look at a polaroid, and adapt. It can be improved later, it can be changed later, but it can’t change how you respond in the here and now.

  3. Anita Jesse said, on October 1, 2007 at 9:34 am

    This post reminded me why I stop here every single day.

  4. Sebastian said, on October 1, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    Where can we find the Chris Crandall work? Nothing on Google. Sounds very interesting.

  5. Greg Heins said, on October 2, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    There might be some other good reasons not to buy that ultra-high-resolution, no-noise, no-distortion, high-speed totally wonderful mega-mega-pixel camera.

    For one thing, you might want to be able to spend some of that money on these new beautiful papers for your prints. You might want to be able to do some travel to places that will stimulate your photography, or to one of the excellent portfolio reviews around the country. You might want to not have to worry about walking into a particular neighborhood with a camera that you couldn’t afford to replace the next day were it to be forcibly taken from you. And you might not want to feel that you’d have to shoot yourself if you left your perfect camera behind in a diner somewhere, or on the roof of your car.

    You might even – and this one is really a long shot but I’ll mention it anyway – want to improve your photography by using one camera long enough and often enough to be able to use it easily, fluidly, unconsciously.

  6. Sean said, on October 5, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    Queen wrote a song that describes my camera purchasing habits quite succinctly:

    “I want it all…
    I want it all…
    I want it ALL…
    …and I want it NOW.”


  7. […] more important, perhaps, than the noise level. Yes, I understand that freedom from noise is a good thing. But it’s not the ONLY […]

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