N00bism #4

This episode of the N00bism series is something that I have been wanting to write about for quite a long time. One of the reasons it took so long for it to materialize is that I really haven’t pushed my equipment hard enough to prove a point until recently.

This post covers the mindless obsession on camera gear, more specifically, IMAGE QUALITY. Forumites refer to this as IQ.

So what about IQ? There are lots of different criteria: sharpness, bokeh, CA and high ISO noise, just to name a few of the very common ones. The no-brainer solution to these “issues” is to buy more expensive equipment. Your photo isn’t sharp enough? Buy a more expensive lens. Is the bokeh not good enough? That 85/1.2 should solve your problem. Are you getting yucky CA in high contrast areas of your frame? Maybe you are not using that multi-thousand dollar prime lens. Are your snapshots at the club too noisy? The latest full frame camera from CaNikon is your answer. That’s it! Buy more expensive equipment. In photography, a solution that does not involve buying more gear is not good enough. And always remember, you get what you pay for, so says the gearhead. If I tell you that there are workarounds to your “problems”, you would probably just ignore me.

I could have ended this post right here except that I like to stir up things just a tiny bit. Maybe your dream gear is still way out of reach so allow me to offer a solution. It’s not the easiest but I can guarantee that it will solve your gear acquisition syndrome (GAS).

Let us concentrate on the most difficult among the problems I listed above — high ISO noise. Even if you get the most expensive camera money can buy, it would still produce very noisy shots in dim light at ISO 6400. Let me rephrase that: every camera manufactured today is noisy at ISO 1600 even in good light. If you don’t believe me, search for any camera in dpreviewor dxomark. What does that mean? If you are a gear whore, the game is over for you. You will have to wait a few more years before you can get your hands on that noiseless sensor. And since camera manufacturers are back at the megapixel wars more agressively than ever, that day may never come. You might as well sell all your gear.

For the rest of us mere mortals, I offer you a genuine solution:

Learn to photograph and do not worry about superficial image quality issues. If your shot is good enough then image quality issues are immaterial.

I have been to a gallery that featured Henri Cartier-Bresson’s masterpieces. Let me tell you that a good number of his shots are noisy and/or blurry. That photo of a man leaping over a puddle of water and that cyclist that was captured from the top of a stairway are far from being sharp. In fact they are blurry and noisy.

HCB is an expert though so what about us new amateurs? I will show you some of my shots that have image quality issues if only to proove that I do follow my own advice.

This was shot at ISO 6400, 30 seconds. That’s the maximum exposure I can get from my camera without using bulb mode. Yes, it is noisy but I honestly think it is more than good enough. Here’s another one shot using the same exposure settings:

But then you might say that it’s too dark to really see the noise. Well the reason it’s noisy is because it’s too dark. If there was enough light then I would not have shot at such high ISO. But I accept the challenge. In this next shot, I still used ISO 6400 AND pushed the shadows during post processing:

You can see how noisy the shot is. I consider this as already crossing the borderline of my patience. Why did I not use a lower ISO and use bulb mode? Because it will result in star trails. I did not want to shoot star trails. I wanted to shoot the Milky Way galaxy. Even star trail shots may require shooting at high ISO as well such as this one taken at ISO 3200:

High ISO shots are also used to freeze motion in dim light conditions. Here, I wanted to capture a sharp image of the man and at the same time avoid the waves from blurring the boat so I shot at ISO 3200 f5.6 to get just enough shutter speed.

Do you think that the noise is distracting or the part of the jetty touching the left frame unsharp?

Here’s another ISO 6400 shot. This was taken using a m4/3 sensor camera in JPEG format (RAW capture won’t offer much improvement here):

And finally, an extreme shot captured by my iPhone in very dim light:

Yes, the noise on that one is just plain ugly but I captured the moment. It took a few attempts for me to time the blinking disco lights with my iPhone. I was after the shadows created by the kids.

I’ll say it once again. If the photo was worth capturing, image quality issues become insignificant. If the viewers get distracted by the noise or the lack of sharpness then your photograph was not good enough. You should not have taken the shot in the first place.

Until next time.


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