On Pixel Peeping

Dream Bicycle-1When I launched this blog a bit over a year ago it was with the idea, in part at least, of rekindling my love of writing which had waned a bit over the years as a result of my nearly always having to write to other people’s specifications and expectations. Along the way though I rediscovered my old and long buried love of photography, something I had put away and nearly forgotten about years ago for reasons that now aren’t clear to me at all.

It has been like an awakening. I have really enjoyed getting back behind the lens, creating images, using light, getting back in touch with my artistic side and meeting (or trying to meet) the challenges of being both subject and photographer as I record aspects of my daily rides. As I began to find my old skills, visual imagination and ability to see, I have felt myself constantly wanting to expand, improve, do more and better.

I have been investing. A few months ago I picked up a Canon G1X – a rather pricy pro-quality compact with which I have been using and enjoying greatly, revelling in its improved high ISO capabilities, bigger sensor, near DSLR quality images yet still in a convenient, nearly pocket-sized package.  Satisfied though I was with my G1X (review to come eventually) the momentum continued to gather.

This week I made the big splash and acquired a full-frame DSLR, a big capable Canon 5D Mark III – in part to generate some (hopefully) nicer images for my blog (and how frustrating it is to be laid up right now!) but also to let me pursue some new and interesting professional leads that have opened up as a result of my re-launched photographic career.

I love the new camera. I still have a couple of excellent L-series lenses left over from before, but to cover a focal length gap in my collection I also bought a Zeiss 35mm f2 prime – a lovely piece of glass.  It is manual focus, of course; all Zeiss lenses are. I don’t mind the seemingly retrograde step. I am old enough to have learned on manual focus lenses (as I learned to ride bicycles with toe-clips). Furthermore in tinkering around in my living room – my battered shoulder doesn’t allow for my doing much more – I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the auto focus assist works with manual focus lenses, beeping softly and a green dot lighting up to tell me when focus has been nailed.

One of the things that intrigued me most about buying this beautiful manual focus lens, and indeed in buying the new camera body as well – one whose technical capabilities far, far exceeds that of my old DSLR – has been reading the reviews of other buyers, and long threads on photography forums where aficionados debate the relative merits of various types of lenses and bodies. In reading all these critiques, test reports, reviews and comparative analyses I found myself thinking that somewhere along the line, while I have been away, art has been subsumed by technology.

In shopping for a lens I found myself reading – surprisingly often – that manual focus is simply impractical, or even impossible, if one is going to be serious about photography in anything other than a tripod-in-the-studio set-up; certainly that for of action, sport or street photography manual focus is out of the question.  It makes me wonder how pictures ever got taken in the old days.

And on the optics and sensor front I found myself reading – and this despairingly often – about the urgent, desperate necessity for Canon or Nikon (fill in the blank) to address their woeful shortcomings on noise, dynamic range, resolution and the sharpness of their lenses in the corner of the frame. Pixel peeping is the term for this particular form of nit-picking and if one was to take seriously some of the jeremiads I’ve seen in photography forums, you would be left with the impression that even my spiffy new Canon 5DIII, or the unaffordable 14 frame-per-second 1DX (a sports or wildlife shooter’s camera) or Nikon’s near medium-format-quality D800 were little more advanced than the cameras Matthew Brady was using during the U.S. Civil War.

There seems to be this insatiable demand out there for more and better, and as quickly as possible, together with swift scorn for yesterday’s breakthrough. Twenty-two megapixels, pin-sharp, at ISO6400? That’s so five minutes ago. Forget the matter of how they used to take pictures in the bad old days of manual focus, one is left with wondering why they even bothered.  And, my God, what sized prints do these reviewers and forum posters imagine they are going to be making with their ultra-high resolution 70 megapixel cameras with 24-stops of dynamic range they dream about and expect to have in ten years time?

The one positive thing about all this was that it prompted me to take a couple of hours off the other day and do a reality check: look over some of the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Frank Hurley etc. – and also to look over the old pictures in a book I contributed to for National Geographic some years ago about the history of photography in the magazine (The Photographs: Then and Now).

My goodness. All those people muddling through with their manual focus lenses (and in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s case pretty much the same old boring 50mm focal length) and their grainy old film. Funnily enough, despite the passage of years and yes, often the graininess of their prints, none of their photos have lost their power to fascinate and involve.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the technology that we have today. I am not longing for the days of film. When was the last time you shot nice sharp usable stuff at ISO6400 on film?) It is just that when you are shopping around for lenses and bodies it becomes so easy to be swept away by technology and clinical test results that you lose perspective and forget it is the person behind the camera, and the composition that makes the biggest difference of all.


  8 comments for “On Pixel Peeping

  1. February 12, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Well said! One of the reasons I gave up my photography hobby was that I allowed myself to get disenchanted with my lot. My first digital DSLR was a the lowly Nikon D40 which I got early 2007 I believe. If I was to believe, and take notice of, reviews and comments on various forums, I would have put it in the bin. As it is, I still use it and am always delighted what can come out of a 6.1 mega pixel DSLR. Although I now mainly use my Canon D10 compact, almost always set on 80 ISO as it does have noise issues at higher speeds, I am still pleasantly surprised at the overall tone and quality of the pictures taken on the Nikon at its lowest ISO of 200.

    OK, there is no way I am saying it is a super quality camera, but it is a better camera than I am a photographer and until that situation reverses, it will remain with me.

    In your line of work and your aspirations then you quite rightly need the equipment. I doubt many photo agencies or publications will accept stock from much less unless it is an outstanding or dramatic picture. Remember, some of the most iconic pictures in the news since the tragic 9/11 have been taken on compacts and phone cameras.

    Any professional needs good tools, I would hate to go into hospital to see the surgeon opening a pack of Pound Shop snap off knives even though they may be capable of doing the job at a push. It is a fact though, as you say, that some of the greatest pictures were taken on cameras that the modern day ‘Photographer come Bling collector’ would dismiss without a second thought.

    Many years ago I paid £6000 for a brand new Leica M6 35mm with a 50mm, 35mm and 135mm lenses with a dozen rolls of Kodak Tri X and a dozen rolls of Ilford FP4 because I wanted to be like Bresson et al. I re sold it six months later because I was so disappointed by the results. What I should have done was to by a Kodak Instamatic for £6 and learned how to take pictures then I could have called myself a photographer.

    Really looking forward to seeing your next generation of pictures Roff and may your pixels keep peeping as beautifully as they have done so far 😉

    • Roff Smith
      February 12, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      Wow. I love the sound of the Leica.

      I did an assignment once with David Alan Harvey (Magnum) and he used a Leica. Very cool. Not bad results either! :-)

      You probably should have kept going with the Leica. After only six months even Bresson wouldn’t have been Bresson.

      Do let me know how you are faring with the Joby Gorilla and the G10

      • February 12, 2013 at 10:39 pm

        Oddly, I never felt comfortable with the Leica, yet when I got the G10 I just loved using the, admittedly very simple, optical viewfinder. It felt very natural to just raise the camera to my eye and shoot. Looking forward to the G1X though, that looks a great piece of kit.

        Oddly, I am starting to get a severe crush on the retro styled fixed 50mm equivalent large sensor Fujifilm FinePix X100, now that looks one sweet camera. It would look superb in your bar bag 😉

        I am just waiting for some better weather and I will be out with the camera, I am not as dedicated as you!

  2. Mr Will
    February 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

    So true Roff!

    I think this is a disease of the modern time and not one which is just limited to photography. We are able to quantify differences with a greater precision than ever before and (more critically) share and access that data on a vast scale.

    Whereas in times gone by you’d try out something you wanted to buy, or trust the recommendation of an expert or friend, now the physical object is often hard to come by prior to purchase so instead we turn to data. This leads to a legion of men who instead of actively pursuing their hobby are now endlessly deciding upon their next purchase, poring over minutiae and debating with others no more knowledgeable than themselves. Look at any typically male hobby and the same pattern repeats.

    I find myself guilty of the same at times. I’m buying a DSLR myself next month and despite deciding rather quickly upon the body I spent most of yesterday comparing online reviews of two nearly identical lenses (the Canon and Sigma 50mm f1.4 primes). The Canon is sharper over most of the range, but the Sigma is sharper wide open. One has more chromatic aberration than the other, but its an easier kind to correct in post processing. And so on and so on and so on. The truth of the matter as you so correctly highlighted is that both are great and either is more than I need. I should just plonk my money down and buy one (or more likely the f1.8 version for 1/3rd of the price) but as I can’t do that until I’ve got my hands on the body I’ll just keep going round and round in anticipation until then!

    • Roff Smith
      February 13, 2013 at 10:50 am


      Speaking for myself, I ran myself in ragged circles over my wide-angle needs before finally stepping back from the various test results and number-crunching comparative analyses and settled instead on the one I wanted to buy in the first place, a decision I made on build quality and the unquantifiable values of colour rendition and vibrancy, and the possibly mythical (but visible to my believing eyes) 3-D quality Zeiss glass is said to impart to a photo. A mistake? I don’t think so. Zeiss make some pretty damned fine lenses. Yet according to the more anal forum posters and lens testers both the Sigma and Canon editions of fast 35mm primes are ‘sharper’

      On the subject of 50mm lenses – a much-unsung yet excellent focal length – the cheap, plasticky Canon 50mm 1.8 ain’t really such a bad lens, and damn good value for the money. I have an old one. I do wish it were better built – it really does feel cheap – but for a budget lens it does a very nice job. No complaints.

      • Mr Will
        February 13, 2013 at 11:26 am

        I don’t think you’ll regret it, especially for the kind of photography you intend. At the end of the day “sharper” doesn’t make a better lens any more than “faster” makes a better bike.

        Very interesting to hear your opinion of the 1.8. I suspect it might actually be the one I should go for. If I find that I’m getting a lot of use out of it or hitting it’s limitations then I can always upgrade at a later date and sell it on without losing much money.

        You might be interested to know I’ve made a similar decision with the camera; I’ve chosen to pick up a good second hand 5D mark I for about the same amount of money as a new 650D would have cost me. The 5D might be a bit long in the tooth, it might be 6 megapixels down and not have the bells and whistles but I know from having used them in the past that with a little bit of effort it’ll still produce stunning images.

        • Roff Smith
          February 13, 2013 at 11:36 am

          The build quality on a 5D is really nice. And frankly unless you are going to be printing poster sized prints you’ll not miss the extra 6 megapixels.

          As for IQ from the 50 1.8 i have a bunch of shots on this site taken with that lens. From memory, the close ups of the Phil Woods hubs, the TA chainrings shots and a series I did on pedals. More too, but I can’t think of specifics off hand.

  3. Kieran
    February 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    reminds me of a colleague planning on buying a new set of ‘faster’ wheels. He has been planning it for the last 6 months probably! reading and rereading online reviews whilst in reality most of the wheelsets will do a similar job.

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