What is Your Resolution?

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon (that is not entirely true) but what is it these days with this unholy quest for ever-higher resolution? It wasn’t too long ago when we were pretty happy about a 2000 ppi scanner, that is until the 4000 ppi scanners came out.

But at least we were really happy with the 4000 scanners. With 4000 pixels per inch we could make big prints that looked great. Why would we ever want or need more? We didn’t until the 5000 ppi and the 8000 ppi scanners were introduced. Suddenly the 4000 ppi scanners we once loved were no good. After all, if 4000 ppi is good isn’t 5000 ppi better?

This lust for more is not restricted to scanners, unfortunately, it has spread to everything and to all aspects of photography. If a 6 mega pixel camera is better than a 3 meg. camera isn’t an 8 meg. camera better than a 6?  And if 8 meg. is really good than 12 or 16megs must really, really be good.

Photographers are about as sensible as hound in heat.

And let’s not even bring up 6 frames per second motor drives vs. 8 or 12fps or 11 auto focus points vs. 51. Here’s an idea: lets put so many auto focus points in our viewfinders that we spend all our time selecting points and in the process missing the shot. It will be like a Gameboy with a lens. Who cares about actually taking a picture?

So as I understand this, the cameras and scanners (and printers, and memory cards, etc.) that we were so happy with a year ago (a day ago?) must actually have been inadequate and we just didn’t know it. It follows then that the gear we have now is also inadequate but we don’t want to think about it. Either we are all idiots or we are all ignorant.  Take your pick.

Here is what has happened: We have all been seduced into thinking that more megabytes and higher resolution are better and that somehow (apparently magically and without effort) if you have more and higher you are a better photographer. It doesn’t matter how the equipment is used, if you can get more pixels, dots and bytes you will be a better photographer. Spend your money, improve your photography. This is a wonderful world in which we live.

But here is the question: You know what the resolution is of all your equipment but what is your resolution? What is the resolution of your technique, your craftsmanship? Can you get 4000 ppi out of your photography?  Can you get 2000?

If you have sloppy technique and awful craftsmanship no matter what the resolution of your digital gear is your pictures will be terrible. Let me repeat that. If your technique is sloppy and low res your pictures will be sloppy and awful.

The resolution of your technique is far more important than the resolution of any of your equipment. Nothing contributes more to the outcome of your image. The problem is that you can’t buy technique (although coming to one of my workshops would certainly help!). Better technique can only be learned through practice and dedication.

For you digital folks out there who don’t believe anything unless there are numbers involved, if your technique has a resolution of 1000 ppi it doesn’t matter what the resolutions of your gear are your images will have a resolution of 1000ppi. You all will recognize this as the much said but little appreciated: garbage in, garbage out. It doesn’t matter how much the garbage cost or how fine its resolution, it is still garbage.


So what are the most common reasons for low personal resolution?

1. You spend $5000 for a camera and $50 for a tripod.

You know you should use a tripod but you really don’t want to so you go out and buy the next to cheapest tripod you can find (you don’t want to be accused of being really cheap). Then you put your expensive camera on it. I see this every workshop I teach.

For some reason photographers have a really hard time spending more than $100 for a tripod. They will spend $5000 for a camera they really don’t need but they won’t spend $400 for a sturdy tripod they do need.  Go figure.

Many of today’s cameras and lenses are getting bigger and heavier with every new model. This means you must have a very sturdy tripod to hold these new cameras. The ball of your ball head must be at least golf ball size. Cue ball size is even better (the bigger the ball the more surface area there is to grip on to, the steadier it is). If it is a particularly big camera or lens than your ball should be tennis ball size. Don’t bother arguing with me, you now I am right.

Go out and get a good tripod and a good tripod head. Your pictures will thank you.

2. You rely on VR or IS technology when you shouldn’t.

Image stabilization technology is never as sharp as using a tripod. Never. The only time you should use image stabilizing/vibration reduction technology is when it is not possible to use your tripod. Laziness, fatigue or my personal favorite, elaborate rationalization are not reasons to leave your tripod in your car.

And no, you can’t shoot a sunrise or sunset handheld, at least not a good one.

If you do manage to get your shutter speed high enough to justify hand holding chances are your depth of field is insufficient, the ISO is so high that there is grain every where, or the light is hideously contrasty. Even if you get a sharp picture hand holding your compositions will always suffer because you won’t be able to carefully consider all the important compositional elements of your picture. You’ll get a nice, sharp mediocre picture. Oh, joy!

VR and IS technology is a great tool and makes picture taking possible in situations that were once impossible. But it is a tool for a specific purpose not for all the time. That is, of course, unless you want soft, average pictures.

3. You stack filters, never clean your lens, never clean off your sensor, never use a cable release, use 2x and 3x teleconverters, shoot through windshields, crank up the center post on your tripod, never use a lens hood, shoot ISO 1600 on bright sunny days, use loose quick-release plates and use your 20 – 400 f11 lens exclusively.

There are so many ways to degrade an image before you even push the shutter it is astonishing. I know this because I am always astonished on my workshops when I see yet another really creative way to diminish the quality of the image.

On my last workshop one of my student’s tripods was too short so he just picked it up and help it as he was taking the picture! Not just the camera, he picked up the entire tripod and held it up to his eye. And to do a vertical composition (yep, you guessed it) he just held the tripod out to his right! I can’t make this stuff up!

Inexpensive filters, lenses and other equipment are inexpensive for a reason…they are dreadful! Save your money and get a good lens, filter or quick release plate. And one lens can’t do everything and neither can one filter.  Trust me.

4. You always photograph with a time limit, you think the number of pictures you take indicates how well you did, you hate getting up early and think cocktails are more important than sunsets, you would rather talk about the gear you are carrying rather than actually use any, you only photograph where there is a convenient place to put down your bag and a comfortable place to sit and you believe in-focus is a relative term.

Most of the degradation of image quality I see is not due to bad equipment or badly used equipment but bad technique and terrible photography habits. The closest thing to your car or the first thing you find is seldom the best thing to photograph. I’m sorry, I wrote ‘seldom’, I meant ‘never’. It is always better to look for the best subject to photograph once you get an idea for a picture. The best one is never the first one you see. Life doesn’t work that way.

This assumes that you are giving yourself plenty of time to explore and relax and ‘get into’ the photography process. This isn’t the Olympics. There is no clock running on your picture taking (although a panel of judges critiquing your techniques with numbers 1-10 might not be a bad idea).

And finally, focus is like organization, pregnancy and hemorrhoids….you got it or you don’t, there is no in between. You can’t be sorta organized, kinda pregnant, maybe have hemorrhoids and be more or less in focus. If you are not sure you’ re organized, you’re not. If you’re not sure your picture is in focus, it isn’t. You will know when it is in focus as surely as you will know……well, I think I have gone just about far enough with this example. You get the point.

So rather than giving yourself a new, upgraded camera or spending all that mental effort trying to convince yourself that you really do need all those mega-bytes why don’t you just slow down, think about your craftsmanship, consider your technique and take a few great pictures instead of lots of so-so ones. This won’t cost you anything and you will get better pictures. What a retro concept!