Having a 100% perfect image isn’t always necessary. “Pixel Peeping” every image is just not worth your time as small flaws or a higher grain usually do not matter.
Zoom in, just a little closer! What do you see? That’s right. Pixels. Oh, so many pixels to peep. But what’s the problem with “pixel peeping” and why is this not only “bad” but outright damaging to your artistic as well as commercial value as a photographer? What even exactly is “pixel peeping”?
A lot of photographers, especially ambitious amateurs like myself, are often looking for the fastest, sharpest, most reliable piece of hardware they can get their hands on. At whatever cost that may be. We’ve fallen for an, indeed, clever marketing strategy.
Whereas professionals often work with cameras older than some photographers — simply because they still work well and have yet to fail — newer photographers and amateurs are even seen “switching brands” regularly to be two megapixels ahead in resolution. But for what purpose, exactly? Better image quality? I’d argue that this is simply not necessary.
Assessing the “Quality” of an Image
What does “quality” even mean? Is quality even an objective measure? Is it subjective to the photographer? Or the client, if any?
If a photograph was taken with a clear goal, set out either by the photographer or client, quality can be measured by how close the photograph is to the set goal. If you want to capture an emotion, you might even rely on a moody, dark, and soft image. A crisp, sharp photograph and a well-lit environment may look odd for a moody scene and could instead convey the total opposite.
Photographs do not have to be the sharpest and most pristine images; they can be blurry, their bokeh can have “onion ring” impurities, they can be dimly lit — as long as the result portrays exactly what was meant to be portrayed.
Now, What Exactly Is “Pixel Peeping”?
Consider if you had a client or you yourself wanted to take a clean and sharp image of a certain animal. Unless you’re at a zoo, wild animals are typically very shy and very far away, so you’ll not only have to use the largest focal length possible to get a good view of them but you’ll also have to crop your image in post-processing afterwards.
How do you assess whether this image is “sharp”? Some photographers like to “pixel peep” their images, meaning they’ll fire up Photoshop and Lightroom, select the magnifying glass and choose the biggest magnification possible.
It is often considered good practice to focus on the eyes of both humans as well as animals, so to check whether you’ve hit the mark, you’ll want to look at the eyes of your subject up close.
However, if you’re zooming in too much (to values of above 100%), you’ll end up thinking to yourself: “Wow, my camera is bad! Look how soft the image is. I need a new body! And a new lens as well!” And after buying new gear that only amplifies the tiniest of flaws you may have made on an even larger resolution, you’ll start to wonder whether you’re just not good at your craft.
But don’t worry — you, yourself, are always your worst critic. Going into 400% magnification on your images isn’t the smartest idea to assess their quality — that’s the exact “pixel peeping” we don’t want to do. If you want to assess your image quality, a magnification of no more than 100% is all you need; even a magnification of 100% may not be necessary most of the time.
I have recently discussed some photography myths in a previous story about why sharpness isn’t the only concern a photographer has to deal with in an image or lens. This plays a role there as well.
Granted, it is always impressive to zoom in to an image, see every eyelash of your subject, and then see yourself in the reflection of the eye as you took the picture. But, albeit nice, this does not constitute a “good” image per se, just because it’s technically pristine!
Judge by Your Use Case, Not by a Technical Checklist
Photographs are often taken with a goal in mind. Some images are used for a social media profile picture, others are used to be printed on a billboard. Some are just memories of a past event.
You have to ask yourself first and foremost: Is the image sufficiently fulfilling the set-out goal?
For example, can it be printed on a billboard and seen from 60 feet away? Does the image spark an emotion? Is the viewer reminiscent about their past after seeing it? Or, simply (if it’s a commission work), is the client happy with it — even if you, as a photographer, aren’t? If so: Perfect.
Personally, I’ve had quite a few images where I, as a photographer, was not happy with the result. Maybe something in the background was off, which I did not see prior, or the subject matter was — for me — noticeably out of focus, whereas my client was exceptionally happy with it. Does this not mean that the goal set out to reach was reached? Even if it is afflicting your artistic freedoms?
Even if your taken photographs are not meant for your portfolio, some photographers voice concerns that images that are not on par with their style or technical skills are neither to be published nor sold. Especially if it’s a commission with which their clients are more than satisfied.
Limitations in Viewing Capabilities
But apart from your personal perception, there are also practical components to assess whether a photograph is of sufficient quality — each of them depending on the use case of said photograph (and desires of your potential clients, of course).
Screens Have a Maximum Resolution
If the photograph is primarily for digital use, it will be seen on screens of various sizes. The typical “Full-HD” screen on a computer has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. Nowadays, “4K” screens with up to a resolution of 4096×3072 pixel (scaled to a 4:3 ratio) are increasingly more common, meaning that your typical “4K” screen can render a 12.6-megapixel image in full size with one pixel in the photograph corresponding to exactly one pixel in your monitor.
Unless you need to crop the image to a certain resolution, arguably an image with 12 megapixels is sufficient for any digital media usage like screensavers as well as websites, stunning portfolios, or even the above-average profile pictures.
Most digital cameras offer a resolution of at least 16 megapixels nowadays, thus offering not only a substantial crop-ability from about 4899×3266 down to 4096×3072. They offer, in that case, more pixels than there is screen resolution. Ultimately, this means that the accuracy of the literal single pixel is not even remotely substantial (if uncropped). Images with higher resolution are usually fitted to the width of the screen for a full-size view and not on a one-to-one scale.
A higher resolution has many advantages that typically outweigh the two disadvantages of diffraction and higher storage space usage — so I’d argue having more resolution is desirable nonetheless; although having a high resolution is no mandatory factor either. However, the higher the resolution, the less relevant “pixel peeping” will be. And if you’re really out to have a technically pristine image with 46 megapixels and more, I would like you to share your use case with me.
The Larger the Print, the Further Away You Are
When it comes to traditional prints, it should come as no surprise that a small print is seen up close whereas a large print is usually seen from further away.
The largest print I had ever printed was about 400x500mm (15.7×19.6inch) in size and is now being used as a poster for my wall. So far, I’ve only once seen it up close — as I hung it up.
Individual pixel acuity does not matter in either case as the purpose of a photograph is to be seen as a complete image and not counted or assessed by the pixel.
Photographers are perfectionists. Admittedly, we do like to think that it matters. Modern technology grants us the ability to assess every individual pixel — but just because we can, does not mean that we should. Instead of obsessing over minuscule details, like whether lens A or lens B is more acute in the top left corner than the right one, we should be obsessing about getting the photographs done in the first place.
Clients or even other photographers would rarely take a magnifying glass, get up close to your photographs and complain about a certain level of noise and grain or even some softer pixels in your image. Most often, it’s just you — the photographer — worrying about it.
To Sum It Up
With modern technology, both in-camera as well as lenses, most images are of at least sufficient quality. Even old DSLRs from 2008, like the Olympus E-30 or Nikon D90, can produce wonderful and acute photographs — albeit on a lower resolution than their modern peers.
The same goes for older lenses. They sure are lacking various amenities like image stabilization and fast autofocus, but once the camera and lens are stable and the focus point is set correctly — it will be more than enough.
Having “more” is, of course, better and cuts the photographer some slack but it is, in theory, not needed. Modern comparisons are typically not comparing lenses and camera bodies ten years apart but instead pose the question of whether a complete switch to another brand is required because one brand is now offering a new generation of a two-year-old lens.
For everyday use, these differences do not carry any weight. Especially if you are buying a top-of-the-line camera body and lens, you will not have a problem that needs every individual pixel to be checked.
Even a basic camera and a basic lens do their job properly. Do not fret over the latest gear, work with what you have, focus on creating good photographs according to your needs, and buy new gear only if your old gear breaks. And you’ll be fine.