Blowin’ up some photos!
Q: I KEEP GETTING FRUSTRATED WHEN I BLOW MY IMAGES UP TO 1:1 AND SEE THAT THEY ARE NOT SHARP FROM ISO 400 UP ON A FULL FRAME BODY. IT’S NOT A FOCUS ISSUE; IT’S MORE OF A NOISE ISSUE WHERE THE IMAGES DON’T LOOK AS CLEAR AS I THINK THEY SHOULD. AM I BEING TOO MUCH OF A PIXEL PEEPER AND SHOULD GET OVER MYSELF, OR AM I DOING SOMETHING WRONG?
A: First—“...when I enlarge my images to 1:1....”
You don’t blow up a picture. You enlarge it.
Second—water is clear. Photographs are sharp.
You are being too much of a pixel peeper and, well, you’re not going to get the sharpest, cleanest files on DSLRs at ISO 400 and up. I’m never happy with my 35mm format images at 1:1 so I always judge them at 50% view. For a long time I thought I was the only one. I thought that I couldn’t get that super crisp, sharp image that I wanted. Was it my lenses? My camera? My monitor? Then I asked some friends for a few of their RAW files and saw the same lack of tack sharp details, and their images seemed to fall apart at 100% viewing. I mean—the images were sharp but not that sharp.
I accepted this to be just how it is. In the days of film, 35mm film wasn’t the sharpest thing out there. Medium format and large format film rendered much sharper images when you put a loupe on them or made prints. Four years ago, I went to a gallery showing that had the work of five or six photographers. One photographer’s prints shined above all the others. There was clarity to his prints. A sharpness. A quality about them that no one else’s prints had. I got close to them. I studied them. They were about 30x40 inches in size. The details were amazing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard photographers complain about the quality of a camera or a lens and then back up their complaint with a stupid photograph of a squirrel or a table full of kitschy shit. So if we are going to pixel peep, we are doing so in the time-honored tradition of looking at a squirrel and some kitschy shit.
The photographer who shot these images, Drew Gardner, walked up as I was studying them, and I turned to him and said something like, “There’s something about....”
He stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Phase One. Medium format.”
“Ahhhhhh,” I said aloud. “Shit,” I said in my mind.
When you see a large print from a large sensor, your DSLR goes limp and crawls into a corner with its tail between its legs. You can’t ever go back to your DSLR images again knowing what’s out there. Note that I’m not talking megapixels. I had as many megapixels in my DSLR as Drew had in the Phase One. It was the physical size of the sensor. A medium format sensor, like medium format film, renders an image with astonishing detail. It will ruin you.
Phase One IQ140
Please know that I don’t say this to wag my medium format camera in your face. I left that gallery show and started planning my way to a medium format system. It took four or five years to get it. Now that I own a Phase One, there’s no going back. I wish every image in my portfolio was medium format. Is it the best camera for all situations? No. It’s horrible above ISO 200. It’s slow. It’s tedious. When I nail focus it’s amazing. Get it off by the slightest bit and it’s unusable. Yet, for the portrait work I do it can’t be touched by any DSLR I’ve ever used because of the dynamic range, the shallow depth of field that comes from using a larger sensor, the sharpness, and the fact that it can sync with flash at shutter speeds up to 1/1600th of a second thanks to its leaf shutter lenses. That’s not some sort of hyper-syncing or tricking the system. That’s just straight-up 1/1600th of a second sync speed.
The problem? I could have bought a car. A nice car—or the camera.
Actor Chris Kayser, dressed for his role as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Photographed for Atlantan magazine. :: Phase One IQ140 / 80mm / f4 @ 1/500th @ ISO 50 / Lit with an Elinchrom Quadra in a Westcott 28″ Apollo softbox.