We all like to believe our images have ‘quality’, but how do you make sure you get the best out of the camera you are using?
Looking at some pictures, my fashion-photographer colleague said rather disparagingly, ‘I think those have been taken on a phone’. The images in question loomed very large on the walls of a coffee house. It was a subjective judgment, but they were unsharp (when viewed at close distance), lacked a full tonal range especially in the shadows, and were to our eyes uninviting. Neither of us underestimates how good phone photos can be, if the photographer understands its limitations.
For decades, the photo industry has pursued miniaturisation and convenience: witness the evolution of Kodak’s point-and-shoot film cameras from 120 rollfilm to Disk. Thankfully, APS was not an even smaller format than Disk, though if it had been based on 35mm film, it would have been an improvement on 35mm, and been more widely adopted.
How we as photographers record faithfully the vast range of detail in any scene, let alone its brightness range, depends on many factors, but I was always taught that one of the most obvious influences is the size of the film or sensor I use. Miniature and sub-miniature film and sensor formats not only limit, among other things, the size of the sharp enlargement you can make, but also compress the tonal (black & white) or hue (colour) range. The smaller the format, the less information we can record, so the less we can reproduce in the final image.
If sensor size made no difference, we would not have full-frame or large-format DSLRs. Film thus has a quality advantage. No- one at the height of the SLR boom in the 1970s and 80s was introducing half-frame SLRs: full-frame 35mm was better, rollfilm was in principle better than 35mm, and large format was better than medium format. Film today offers, nearly always, a larger format that than in APS- C or Micro Four Thirds.
Compare the difference tonally and in terms of sharpness between miniature (35mm), medium- and large-format negatives on a lightbox. Students can see it. Compare the photos taken on small sensors and large sensors for low light capability, colour depth, sharpness, etc. We can train ourselves to look for these. There are photographs all around us, yet often we do not perceive them. Also look at others’ photos and discover technically why they differ and what is the difference.
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Part of Mamiya’s 6x7cm range, which offered a huge quality advantage over 35mm in the studio