I have been on a bit of an anti technology or more specifically an anti technology vs emotional and artistic connection bent over the last week or two.
I thought it might be worth looking at the realities of the argument a little closer.
First up, what do you (we) do with your images?
As this is surely the end of the process, what do you do with your images. If any endeavour is to be undertaken, surely the point of sufficiency must be determined first so you know whether you have reached or exceeded it and by how much. Lets look at the likely end point for most images, what is required to capture the images and how relevant a super camera would be in that circumstance (assume a state of the art full frame 24-30mp or similar).
The social media upload. By far the most common type of public sharing of art, in many forms, is the social media upload. It is realistically where most images will end up, so lets look at it’s requirements. Technical requirements. A 2+ megapixel image that is taken quickly and efficiently, with good enough lighting and a subject that will hold the viewers attention for the required time. The main contributor, the mobile phone is getting ever better at doing just this. The forced limit of a (usually) fixed lens with a reasonable aperture helps the user by limiting their choices and training their eye, making them learn their device and it’s limits. Ironically this is what most of us should do with our “better” cameras. The super camera? Total overkill in every way unless the camera helped facilitate the capture of a particularly difficult image or the intention is for a file that can do more (see below). Probably the perfect social media device would be a mobile phone with a semi wide lens, clip on-flip over portrait/macro and a 2-3mp sensor with huge pixels for clean low light shooting.
The non-photographic web page. This is a the next step up from the above, requiring a better and more relevant image with decent to excellent creative technique. The image is expected to have a longer viewing life and will be accompanied by relevant text, hoping the combination will invoke a deeper connection with the reader. The image becomes the grab or visual example to the written concept. Requirements. A camera with enough controls to give the photographer creative freedom, good performance in poor lighting if required and enough file quality to print bigger, again only if required. Generally 4-8 mp would do, in a 1” sensor “super compact” and a reasonable lens or a basic mirrorless/SLR. The actual capture size could easily be a small jpeg if the web page is all it will be used for as most down size images anyway (I expert my files at 50% from Lightroom and this web host still down sizes). The super camera. It again may allow some tougher shots to be captured, but would be overkill in file size.
The Fine Art Print. Ok, so how many of us really print our work? When we do print how big do we go? Then when we do print that big, what viewing environment are we printing for? I will take a wild guess here and say that most serious, hobbyist digital photographers only print on demand for their family or friends and then only print up to a certain comfortable size (maybe 16x20” before framing), and let a lab do their printing. I work in a lab/shop environment and see a lot of images that are important to the owner, printed to a size based on the importance of the image to them, regardless of technical quality. The irony of selling high pixel cameras with all their virtues at the shop front and then more often than not trying to lift a reasonable image from an important (often old) phone file to make a massive canvas print of a loved one, in the lab is not lost.
If you are a serious fine art printer, then other realities come home to roost. Personally I can max out the visual quality of my A3+ printer (an ink jet Canon Pixma 9000 mk2 which is slightly finer rendering than an equivalent pigment dye model) with a mildly cropped 16mp image. Ctein, known as one of the premier colour printers from the wet process era through to digital, made a 17x20” fine art print from a 12mp Olympus Pen file (the first model, with the softer/stronger AA filter configuration) and sold it on cheaply to anyone interested, just to prove a point. You can count the rivets on the bridge used as the main subject. He has also gone on record as saying the 16mp sensor in the EM5 mk1 is equal to a Pentax 67 medium format camera when comparing print quality.
Sure there are those who legitimately need prints measured in feet rather than inches, but they are the few and they would likely argue that their work is no less relevant for the want of a few megapixels previously unavailable. Printing allows the artist many many choices in texture, colour rendering and presentation. The base quality of the file is just one of these factors. Requirements. A controllable camera with a mid sized sensor (1”+) and 16mp+ resolution if you intend to print big, less if not. Good photographic, post processing and printing technique and of course a relevant subject. The super camera could of course help, especially if colour, ISO and dynamic range are to be pushed to available limits (for now anyway), but they have been dealt with in the past, so surely we can get around some minor technical difficulties?
The photographic web page. Finally we have found a use for all of those pixels. 100-400% comparison shots between new cameras and seemingly good-enough-yesterday-but-no-longer ones, lenses/process/noise etc. and simply the bragging rights of better being better are the most common destination for big pixel files. Requirements. What ever floats your boat. The photographic web page is probably to only place where every camera is relevant, for better or worse. Where else can the actual process be examined so closely. Who else would care? Super camera? Why not? bring them all and lets pull apart what they can do. Lets take these wonders of modern engineering and find fault by comparison. The whole industry relies on this to stay alive. Pity really. Conversely, try to convince a non photographer it matters.
If we only post images at normal sizes, print to the sizes that will hang on a normal wall for an extended period of time and do not pixel peep, the basic requirements for good photographic imaging are suddenly most devices old and new. There have only been a few periods in photography since it’s earliest days where quality was a genuinely limiting factor to the photographers vision. I will embrace useful camera advancements when they come. I am not going to look that gift horse in the mouth, but bigger pixel counts do not impress me. Anything that will help me get a better image is fine, but there is nothing tangible in more pixels for their own sake.
I am not pushing or recommending the use of 3 mp images as the norm, but before we get too caught up in the pixel race, maybe enough is easily reached for most uses.