The obsession with perfection ends here

What’s so bad about a little noise?

There. I said it.

The internet is littered with sites dissecting every aspect of camera and lens performance – image noise, high ISO performance, dynamic range, lens sharpness, etc etc etc. Photography forums are overflowing with fanboys foaming at the mouth over some aspect of image quality they see from a new camera, with images viewed at 300% on their computer monitors.

What does any of that have to do with making good images? Frankly, in my opinion, not much. To be fair, I’m as much of an equipment geek as the next guy. I like reading about gear, and combing through test results… yet recently I’ve begun to grow weary of it all. I feel as if I’ve allowed myself to be caught up in the “latest and greatest” syndrome. In doing so, it’s taken away my focus (no pun intended) from where it should be – the art of making compelling images.

Even some of the sites on my recommended list fall prey to the obsession with perfection. A post on one such site recently questioned the “viability” of the m4/3 format, since in this person’s opinion m4/3 sensors are so much noisier than their APS-C counterparts. Here’s the viability of m4/3 – overall size and versatility. Fixed lens cameras such as the Nikon Coolpix A and Sigma DP Merrills no doubt possess outsanding image quality… but they’re FIXED LENS CAMERAS. This severly restricts what and how one can shoot. Lots of luck on your African safari with your Sigma DP2 Merrill and it’s 45mm equivalent fixed lens. I hope you’ve got really good insurance, if you expect to capture images of wildlife that look like anything more than tiny dots in the distance. And I hope the animals are thoughtful enough to stand still while you wait several seconds for the camera’s buffer to clear between each shot. Ah, but what about the Sony NEX cameras, you say?! They have interchangeable lenses – this, along with their larger sensors/superior image quality surely must make the NEX system a better choice than m4/3. This might be true, if Sony ever got around to actually making high quality lenses for NEX. As of now, there’s really only one top-notch performer in the NEX lens lineup, with the rest ranging from good-but-not-great to “did someone smear vaseline on my front element?” Zeiss, lens maker par excellence, is riding to the rescue by making a handful of new prime lenses for the NEX (and Fuji) system, but most of them come close to duplicating what already exists, only with obviously better quality. Versatility is still lacking in the NEX format. Telephoto primes? None. High quality zooms? None. A useful macro option? None. Oh, and even if these things did exist, they’d be considerably larger than their m4/3 counterparts, all but negating Sony’s big sensor/small camera claim. After all, a bigger sense needs a bigger lens to cover it.

Now I didn’t intend for this post to turn into a defense of the m4/3 format. My point is simply that I’ll take portability and versatility with good quality over “great quality with restrictions.” Every time. My m4/3 images may be a bit noisier than images from larger sensor formats, but I’m not bothered by that noise. In my opinion it doesn’t detract from the images in any meaningful way, certainly not at reasonable print sizes (20″ and under). In the meanwhile, I can carry two camera bodies and a half dozen lenses into the field, be prepared for any situation that arises, and I can do it without breaking my back.

Most big sensor (1″ and up) cameras made today are more than good enough to create useable images – images of a high technical quality, sufficient for publication or even fine art printing. Even cameras such as the aforementioned Nikons and Sigmas and Sonys are good enough – certainly from an image quality standpoint – if you only shoot certain subjects in a certain way, and can accept the restrictions such cameras place upon you. Heck, today’s cheapest consumer DSLRs produce technically better images than the early pro DSLRs used to capture images for National Geographic a decade or so ago. The obsession with technical perfection benefits the equipment manufacturers, not the photographer. Internet gurus and techno-geeks pushing us all towards Leica and Zeiss and 36MP full frame cameras, and their nose-bleed price tags isn’t making anyone a better photographer. Yet, most people clearly want to read about equipment. My site stats tell me that gear-related posts are far more popular than posts pertaining to technique, or the art of photography. Other bloggers have reported similar stats. Some bloggers choose to feed this obsession people have with the latest and greatest, offering up endless technical analysis, while offering nothing that helps people create better images. I mean, that is the point of all this, isn’t it? The goal is not to capture the most technically perfect image of a test chart that anyone’s ever seen.

You don’t need the best gear to make compelling images – you only need good enough. This is one instance when good is not the enemy of great. In fact, many times great is the enemy of great, if you’re too tired to lug your heavy full frame DSLR and fast zoom lenses another hundred yards, missing what could have been a spectacular photo opportunity.

For me, the obsession with perfection ends here, today. On this blog, gear talk will be kept to a bare minimum. There are plenty of other places to read about the latest and greatest. From this point forward, the focus (okay, pun intended) will be where it should be – on the images.

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