Thanks to the viewing options available in today’s image editors, it’s easy to view images at extremely high magnification. Many people do that, just because they can. I ‘ve found, in my own work as well as others, that it can cause as many problems as it solves. For example, many people photograph flat detailed surfaces every time they buy a new lens, and peek carefully at the results. With today’s high-resolution cameras, the slightest flaw in focusing or camera/subject alignment can cause visible flaws in the image. In that case, pixel peeping can result in perfectly good lenses being returned as defective.
Even if the test setup is perfect, many lenses will show visible defects under high magnification, defects that will have no effect on actual photography (as opposed to testing). Those lenses often get returned as well.
When the testing is over and the gear is put to work, pixel-peeping can cause lots of image editing that’s marginally visible. Is that good or bad? It all depends.
When it comes visibility of imperfections in images, two things are at play. The first relates to the viewer: is the technical flaw observable? That depends heavily on print size. I normally print in three sizes: 17×22 inches, 24×30 inches, and 44×66 inches. Very rarely I will encounter a customer who — be still, my heart — wants a 60×60 print, which I can’t do at home, but am delighted to go to a local printer for. Detail visibility is also dependent on the medium: baryta papers are very sharp, matte finish much less so, and the canvas that I use for 60×60 prints even less so. I know that conventional wisdom is that people back up from big prints so that the size/detail relationship is mitigated, but that has not been my personal experience, nor my experience when watching people view my work in a gallery: they get just about as close to the smaller prints as the larger ones, although they also back up from the larger ones to take in the whole effect.
So how picky you need to be depends on the intended size of the image.
The second thing is the artist’s attitude towards imperfections. There are some people who, once they’ve seen a tiny flaw in one of their images, won’t rest until it’s fixed, regardless of whether any other viewer of the image could reasonably be expected to see it. There are others who are less tightly wound.
For myself, it comes down to what I’m going to do with the picture. If I’m going to sell or exhibit it, there’s no flaw too small for my to attempt to excise. One of the things that’s great about making art is that you can take all the time you want to fiz things that are important to you, regardless if anyone else will ever notice. For other uses, I am more relaxed.
Erik Kaffehr says
Very interesting posting, as usual. I would say that pixel peeping is a good tool to find out how to get best results from our equipment – but thriving for perfection may distract from other factors. Just as an example, we may want to avoid small apertures to keep diffraction at bay, thus limiting depth of field.
On the other hand, if we buy expensive stuff, it may be wise to learn how to make best use of it.
I have also found that prints are quite forgiving. Now my standard print size is around 16″x23″, quite small on your scale. Occasionally I would print larger, but in that case printing is at a pro lab.
Anyway, your article reminds me of a recent experience, I started a thread on GetDPI discussing my experience with my Hasselblad V/P45+ combo: http://www.getdpi.com/forum/medium-format-systems-and-digital-backs/59021-some-reflections-my-v-series-hasselblad-p45-kit.html
One issue discussed was the performance of the Distagon 40/4 FLE. This lens is sort of mediocre regarding MTF data. Still, pretty sure I can make decent A2 (16″ x 23″) size prints from it, but for some reason I didn’t make a lot of large prints from the P45+. My Sony A7rII with the Canon 16-35/4 at f/8 and 24 mm yielded much better image in off axix areas.
It has been suggested that the Distagon would be good enough for large prints. So, I made a 50% crop from comparable shot with both systems,and printed at A2. That resulted in a print corresponding to something like 31″x47″ size.
So, have you seen, the Canon 16-35/4 combo was clearly better in the midfield areas, exactly as on screen. Also, the Distagon was no good at all in the midfield.
But I was looking at around 50 cm (20″). Moving back to something like 100 cm, the two prints were almost identical and possibly with a small advantage to the P45.
I guess that these observations re quite consistent with yours.
Regarding viewing distance, my take would be that we tend to view images from a bit farther away than commonly belived, 25 cm (12″) is an uncomfortably short distance. I sort of found that around 40 cm is the closest I get, measured from the eye.
David Braddon-mitchell says
There’s a simple calculation I wish more people would perform: work out what is the maximum size they are likely to print (or equivalent taking into account cropping) and at what distance it’ll be viewed, and then decide what level of onscreen view displays the level if detail you’ll see there. So I figured out for my purposes if I can’t see a difference on screen at half life size with a 42mp ff sensor then I’ll never see the difference. Very useful for deciding how much to crop, agonizing about corners and so on,,,
I think the internet has developed a following who want to see “who’s best” without attention to a lot of the other 90% that makes an image worthwhile-then chat rooms carry it to unbelievable limits. So, no pixel peeping is not a good thing.
My gallery told me the other day, when people were looking at my prints they ask: “why are they so sharp”. Which is funny, but also sad. I wish they had something else that stood out.
Jean Pierre says
Hi Herb, equal happen to me. all people visiting the gallery said, your images are “over-sharpen”! my exhibition shows artisan by their work. All picture taken with the Olympus E-M5II.
My experience visiting other photo-gallery:
the most images are not sharp and most even blured from not cleaning lens, bad lens or not good camera-body! And I do not speek about “worst” post-processing!
So, do we really need pixel-peeping? Yes, we need it, to know and understand the limit of the gear!! And, it helps to find out, which lens is bad, and if the focus-point from the AF-System is correct.
And least it show me, how much I do need to work out with photoshop or other tools for the final image (print or web)!
Max Berlin says
I’d like to contribute a unique and novel thought on this subject that might change someone’s mind.
But after participating in some and lurking in many online debates on the matter, I’ve concluded that it’s impossible to change anyone’s mind that already has taken a position.
Max, normally I wouldn’t approve a comment without photographic content, especially one so elliptical. But, since it’s you, I’ll cut you some slack.
Now, are you sure you want to keep your thoughts to yourself?
Max Berlin says
Come on, Max, tell us when and why. Don’t tease.
Max Berlin says
I use Imatest to ascertain sharpness and lens/sensor alignment to reject bad lenses or cameras. Not sure if that is pixel peeping in itself.
But I often look at others and my own photographs and pixel peep less at sharpness and more for color disruptions and defects.
I might notice a set of pixels with all the same value at 100% and then peep in to see if the pattern is unnatural and if it repeats in other areas. I often look at transition zones like solid objects against a sky.
Or as a theoretical example, white daisy petals against stunted pines and grasses near a creek, where peepers might notice disturbing transition areas surrounding the petals. Especially those in the 5-7 o’clock position.
If such a photo existed and was published openly, a peeper might also look on the far left and right sides in the shadows and see a lot of unnatural blocks of color that would be impossible to find in nature.
I am less concerned with sharpness as I was (but still want in spec gear) and am way more concerned with color accuracy.
tex andrews says
tex andrews says
I should have added: I think it depends on the audience and the subject matter. Certain types of both are going to be more demanding. I also agree that people will put their noses right up on a big print—maybe more so than with a small one! at least, that’s something I’ve seen at my and my wife’s museums.
Lynn Allan says
That was also my reaction …
And that was pretty mush the point of the post.
just a further bit- I never “sharpen” my images in post. The camera and/or the DNG converter may do it unbeknown to me,
but I have not found the need.
Erik Kaffehr says
So, you set sharpening to zero in your raw converter?
Just to say, I don’t think zeroing out sharpening is a smart solution. A good sharpening is an essential part of image processing.
Even in old darkroom times we used to have sharpening. For instance, highly diluted developers would achieve some kind of sharpening.