Monday, June 27, 2016

Image Quality vs. Viewing Size

Stars Above Sharps Hallow - Morgan, Utah
LG G4 @ ISO 1000.
I received a surprising amount of positive feedback to my ISO 1000 night image captured with an LG G4. High ISO and tiny sensors don't mix well, and image quality noticeably suffers. ISO 1000 is above the practical high-ISO limit of the G4, and so the image is especially noisy. And because of the amount of noise reduction applied, it's also a bit soft.

For many viewers none of that mattered.

I think some people simply overlooked it. No one will notice an image's flaws as much as the photographer. I know every imperfection very well because I'm the one who created the photograph. You might not look closely enough to even spot them. You might appreciate the image for what it is and move on fast enough to miss the things that you don't really care about.

I think for a large number of people, it has more to do with the viewing size than anything else.

You are seeing the image, either on your tiny cell phone screen or a bit larger computer monitor, only a few inches by a few inches big. It's probably not much bigger than a dollar bill, and maybe it's significantly smaller than that. And your eyes are likely 18" to 24" away from the screen. You are viewing a small image from a distance. It's harder to see the flaws.

Here's the interesting thing: the larger an image is, the further away it will be viewed. We do this naturally without even thinking about it--it's subconscious. If you print something big, people will automatically move further away to see it. They can't take it all in if they are standing close.

In some cases, like at some art galleries and exhibits, people are purposefully placed close to the images to force them to view them closely. They want you to appreciate the fine details. And in your home, you might put a picture on your hallway wall where the viewer can't step back, which forces them to view it closely. Typically, people will only look closely if they have to look closely. Otherwise, the natural instinct is to move back (and the larger the image, the further away people will stand to view it).

If you have a flawed image, like Stars Above Sharps Hallow, which has some serious image quality issues, don't force your viewers to see it close up. Display it in such a way that they'll view it from a distance--that's what they'll subconsciously want to do, anyway.

Of course there are "pixel-peepers" who want to study images up close. They are often more concerned with image quality than the message of the image. I think that most photographers are pixel-peepers (especially to their own images) and most non-photographers are not. If your audience is largely made up of pixel-peepers, they are more likely to notice flaws.

The point here is that you can have poor image quality and still have a good image. Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." The concept matters more than the image quality. Obviously you want both a sharp concept and a sharp image. But if you can't have both, it's better to have a sharp concept than a sharp image.

People--especially non-photographers--care much less about image quality than you think they do. And very few look as closely at your photographs as you imagine they do. You notice the flaws, they don't. So it's alright if your photographs have flaws, just make sure your concepts don't.

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