How good does "good" have to be?

This has been a month of contrasts and it makes me wonder at times just how good "good" has to be. What do I mean by that? We tend to carry around presumptions about professional photography that were true in the days of print delivery but may not be true in today's practice. I shot a job in the Fall that entailed shooting many interiors in a period ranch house outside of Fredericksburg, Texas for a magazine dedicated to historic homes and crafts.

When I first started working for this magazine in 1979 we aimed to make every shot a cover shot. The magazines were printed on the best paper the printers could find and no expenses were spared in the color separation stage either. In those days it would have been unthinkable to shoot the assignments with anything less than a 4x5 inch view camera. Partly for the quality of the image latent on the very large piece of film but just as importantly for the image controlled provided not only by tilts AND swings but also for the ability to do perfect double exposures (this comes in handy if you'll be doing one exposure for the interior and a second exposure for the exterior on the same piece of film---we call that smart man HDR).

Over the years the content and the production quality (not the design quality!!!) have undergone changes. Many pages in the magazine are no longer on a glossy stock. The printing has been economized in order to match budgets. The images are used smaller. And the new style is to ask for more images from a day's shoot on location which means there's no time to do the painstaking lighting set-ups we used to do as routine. The bottom line is that clients tasted the Kool Aide of no film costs and no Polaroid costs and no separation costs and they won't go back so they made a bargain with themselves that they would forgo the advantages of film and the flexible camera movements (plural) and all the other trappings that made our old way of working able to turn out such perfect images.

Once you abdicate full view camera flexibility with all focal lengths and once you bid big film goodbye you are already in no man's land. When we worked for the magazine in the early days of digital they were delighted to use the files we sent them from six megapixel Kodak DCS 760's (shot scrupulously at ISO 80) and then images from the Fuji S2 with its fake 12 megapixels and then they were happy with the 12 megapixel Nikon D2X images and finally, they were happy last fall with 16 megapixel images from a Panasonic GH3 and a 12mm lens.

But I hear from so many people that we must pursue perfection at any cost. Really? Even when we're being paid less for each working day than we were ten years ago? Even when the perfect images will end up on imperfect paper, on an imperfect press? Even when the usage size renders all files more or less equal? Interesting bargain we seem to be making. We maintain our part of the "ultimate equation" while the rest of the transaction mutates and flails to our disadvantage around us.

In the effort to pursue a perfection, most dubiously "required", many are rushing to buy the highest pixel count cameras they can get their hands on. Maseratis and Aston Martins for the daily commute on the over-crowded freeways. Nikon keeps selling D800s and Sony is making progress (but less than they'd like...) with the A7r. Both generate giant files. Files that will be reduced, converted to 8 bits, rendered into CMYK and then subject to the tender mercies of digital printing. Each step tossing up a lowest common denominator filter which makes all technically proficient files equal to each other; regardless of the cameras that spawned them.

I'm heading out this month to shoot another assignment for the magazine. I'll do it again with the GH3. I'll do most of it with a Panasonic 7-14mm lens. The client will most likely have warm and fuzzy feelings about the images for several reasons: 1. The camera and lens combination is head and shoulders better than the ones from the early days of digital. 2. The 7-14mm used at 5.6 and f 8.0 will yield a remarkable depth of field which will allow readers to see whole rooms in good focus, letting them make a detailed inspection of all the fun artifacts and nuances. 3. Much of the quality of the work depends on my point of view, my composition and my lighting skills and these have not diminished since 1979 but, in fact, have improved---- a lot. And finally, the client will like the take because they will get a great selection of images for the same budget which used to yield "only" 8-10 good images a day.

If the images exceed the threshold of my client's needs (by a good margin) when using an inexpensive camera that is fun and convenient to use then it's good to remind ourselves that there won't be more budget coming along if we choose to buy and use a more expensive camera. And, you never know, we might want to shoot some video content while we're there....and what better camera could you want than the GH3 for those multiple uses?

So, how good does good have to be? Does every assignment need to be a re-painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Even at house painter rates? Does every image have to have the potential to be printed 8 by 10 feet at 600 dpi to have value? Do we need to kill ourselves financially in order to assuage our egos and our need to present status to our peers?

I think not. Times have changed and it's good to know how the x/y axis of performance and return really work for our businesses. A case in point is the video project I recently completed. In my earlier career in advertising the shoot would have been done on 16mm file and necessitated a crew of six to ten people. It would have taken twice as long to produce. And the only place it could have played was in an auditorium with a projector or as a iteration on a VHS tape. And we all know it would have been disseminated on the VHS tape.... seen on a 20 inch CRT. With tinny little speakers....

Now the job was done with the assistance of one 18 year old person (with an exhaustive knowledge of film production) and an animator. Potentially viewable on millions of screens of various quality, certainly viewed by thousands on three 50 inch HD monitors at a trade show and all at much higher image quality standards. We did it with less than $10,000 worth of equipment= from camera to final edit. And we did it in less time too. Could we have done a better project with an Arriflex Alexa, a truck full of lights and crew of dozens? Maybe the production values of the final presentation on the big 50 inch screens would be marginally better but would the enormous increase in budget passed the client's assessment of the x/y axis curves of (marketing) performance versus financial spend? And if they won't pay for it we certainly won't show up and add gratuitous layers of "production quality" and complexity just for the heck of it.

Perhaps a new mantra for projects is to right size the tools to the job and not try to size the jobs for the tools. Invest in what you need to do the job. Disregard the gear's peer-to-peer blingization. 


Michael Matthews said...

At some point it would be very interesting to see -- with client name redacted and a few identifying details changed to protect confidentiality -- just how that recent job was costed out to prepare your bid. Maybe that has to wait for your next business how-to book. But if not, some of us are fascinated by the complex nature of the work and how it shakes out financially. Comparing the cost workup to the final product could be most instructive.

Michael Matthews said...

Oops. That's the video project. Sorry, failed to make that clear.

Ray52 said...

A fascinating piece Kirk, thanks. I think you could make a similar argument for the amateur photography world as well. After all, if my work is invariably displayed on 1366x768 screens how 'good' does the camera need to be?

Anonymous said...

This website (among others) convinced me that lighting and composure are much more important than camera. The pictures we post on Facebook are so small that pixel count and color depth matter little.

Even cheap cameras are pretty good these days. But still, the really good cameras are amazing.

Depth of field, for example, matters a lot - even on Facebook. That is why a used D3 fetches about the same price as a brand new A7. Why? Because the depth of field (potential) has not changed.

The Sony H7 super zoom came out the same year as the D3 and was a great camera for its time. I saw one the other day for $40. What changed? Well, for one thing, you can now buy a Sony RX10.

Wally Brooks said...

A camera is a freaking tool, smarter than a rake, and dumber than you are! Craft your vision not your hardware!

Carlo Santin said...

I don't make money from my photography. My photos end up in photo books that I put together. Some of these I make for family members and contain your run of the mill family shots at birthday parties and gatherings. I make other photo books for myself, perhaps a book of portraits or what I feel is my best work. A small portion of it ends up online. For the books I produce, almost any camera will give me a good result. A 35mm film camera, an Olympus EP-2, a point and shoot, a 6mp Nikon D50, a 16 mp Sony Nex 6. Images from all those cameras and more end up in my books and one doesn't look any "better" than any other. I rarely print big because I simply don't have the wall space nor the storage space to keep these large prints...so photo books it is. I still enjoy the experience of turning through a book and seeing a printed image, even in my humble photo books.

christian said...

Well, I agree with Wally. There has been so much mumbo jumbo going on about 'quality' for so long, that I think it is next to impossible to even properly discuss it. Personally I generally hated those 'perfect' interior shots you talk about - not yours specifically, but those featured in the high end architectural/design magazines generally. Then I also remember seeing a 2x3 inch interior shot in the NYT a few years ago which they got by sending a photographer with an 8x10 view camera half way across the US.

Robert Roaldi said...

Which makes me wonder why 4K video when people are watching on tablet screens. I get that Hollywood wants it for theatres, but why would others care. The files from my HD camcorders are already too large for my taste, and they look fine on my large screen TV.

But then I remind myself that we have basically become primarily a consumer society. We buy stuff, that's what we do. We show it off to our neighbours and put in a drawer with all the other stuff.

Mark Davidson said...

AMEN Kirk!

I am still astonished by the 40x60 prints I was able to make with my old Canon 10D (6MP).
Today I drag around a Canon 5DmkIII because I need the 17 TS-E for my architectural work and I wish I could give it up.
I don't because I have a lot of Canon gear that is all paid for and I worry that my clients will wonder why I am using a little-bitty camera on their VERY IMPORTANT JOB.
I have transitioned to a GX-7 in the studio with superb results but ironically it is the place where the advantages of its size are least beneficial.
Here's hoping to a lighter new year.

RFS said...

In my opinion Canon 10D was one of those once-in-a-decade cameras to which the photo gods gave an extra helping of image mojo. I wish I had one.

On the other hand, I rented a D800E this week and the video files from it look MUCH better when uploaded to YouTube than the ones from my Panasonic G6. And the still photos it produces have a fiery inner beauty that I don't see from many contemporary cameras.

On the third hand, the D800e is is huge, heavy, and kinda pricey so I don't think I'll be buying one.

Photographers I know are already starting to follow the Hollywood model: Own nothing. Not a studio, not a camera, not a lens. Maybe filters, maybe. Otherwise rent everything based on the job at hand for the exact number of days they need and send it back the minute the job is over.

Kepano said...

And here is why the GH4 is very interesting to me. Assuming limited motion, you could pull stills from your footage that are good enough to print.

stefano60 said...

It is all correct, of course; I think we can all agree that virtually ANY modern camera will provide more than needed in most circumstances.

The concern I have is that the general appreciation for WHAT is "good" has been sliding in the opposite direction of the technological advances, so we now have unbelievably great tools and they are used to produce less than mediocre work - in astonishingly large volume, but then again, quality should prevail over quantity ...

The fact that most people accept crappy images shot with a phone as 'photography' lowers the bar for the whole industry.

Radu said...

Great article! And completely true!
I first moved from an APS-C sensor in Canon 20D (and later 50D) to a full-frame sensor in Nikon D700 (great camera) - upgrading lenses to f/2.8 zooms and f/1.4 primes along the way - then I switched to m4/3 (encouraged by Kirk, among others) in the form of Olympus E-P3, upgraded six months later to an Olympus E-M5, upgraded recently to an Olympus E-M1 (with corresponding great primes and f/2.8 zooms) and realized that the advantage of having the camera with me a lot more often is huge, and the technical quality is very similar in most cases to the full-frame sensor (I also learned a lot about lighting, composition and exposure along the way).

So yes, we can achieve a lot with a lot less, and the technology also evolved a lot, so we can create great images with much lesser equipment than we used to use (for example Sony RX-10, mentioned above, or Sony RX-100II, which I use now and then).