Photographic Quality

Some thoughts on the elusive quest

posted 6/28/03

Photographers come in two varieties: Those who think photographers can be divided into two categories, and those...

Actually, I meant to say, those with asthetic aspirations, and those with technical aspirations. The former want to take beautiful, pleasing photographs; the latter want to take perfectly-exposed, pin-sharp photographs on the freshest, finest-grained film, with the highest-quality, highest-contrast lenses, using expensive tripods and filters, and often toss about terms like "bokeh" and "optimum aperature". Both search for quality in their own way. One group tries to produce beautiful, moving photographs; their ideal of "quality" is subjective and largely unmeasurable. The other care less about the composition or subject of a photo as long as it is technically perfect (or as near as possible), for a given and rather short-sighted defenition of "perfect".
If an image is in focus, not noticable blurred or unsharp, and exposed with some degree of precision (negative film is a very forgiving media in this last respect), it should be considered of acceptable quality, assuming that it is asthetically pleasing - the horizon is level, nobody's finger was covering the lens, there's no huge blotch of flare. Nitpicking about how it could be better if it was shot with a Summarit on a Leica is pointless and defeatist.
What set me off on this was looking through a box of old negatives and proofs I've made over the years. I've had a lot of cameras, and feel there's little point in having something you don't or can't use, so I've taken pictures with many cameras over the years.
Looking at negatives is fine and dandy and fun; often I can tell what camera made what negative due to their idiosyncracies, like round corners, or unusually wide or narrow frame spacing. Indeed, often just seeing the negatives brings back memories of exposing them; wandering around the State Fair with an Argus C-3 "brick" and a lightmeter, for instance. But looking at negatives can't really tell you the quality of the picture, or the camera, and that's what I was interested in. Prints and proofs, though, are another matter. I came across a bunch of favorite images from a few years ago. Some were taken on 35mm with my Canon, or my Yashica; others were taken on 120 film with a Zeiss Nettar, or a Kiev. A few were taken with an Argus C-3, and one or two were taken with a cheap little bakelite Smena camera from the Soviet Union, which has in it's favor a very small size.
Let's leave aside the fact that, among any two cameras or lenses, one will be sharper or contrastier than the other. That's a given, and we're not really interested in dull, technical data here, but subjective quality. Are all these photos of acceptable quality? Yes, absolutely. Are some better than others? By aesthetic grounds, of course yes, and by purely technical terms too. But none, in my opinion, would be a better picture if it were taken with different equipment.
The Argus pictures, for instance, aren't the sharpest images ever exposed on film (the Smena is actually sharper), and the "Argus Coated Cintar" on it's front isn't the highest-contrast lens ever built. Despite this, in black-and-white, which is all I use that camera for, they have a beautifully vintage look to them; the lowered contrast and slight softness add to the effect, not detract from it. For some types of environmental portraits, it's very gorgeous, and preferrable to the Canon or Yashica and their sharper, contrastier optics. The Nettar pictures are fairly sharp, but again have - on Plus-X or Tri-X - a beautiful, vintage tonality. For the right subjects, this is a beautiful look. For situations where this look isn't appropriate, TMax 100 or 400 produces contrastier, starker pictures with this camera. The same TMax films look harsh and overly contrasty with the Kiev-60's more modern optics, but are wonderful with the vintage glass.
If a camera holds the film in the right place, has a working shutter and diaphragm, a lens that focusses correctly, and doesn't have light leaks, it is capable of making beautiful, quality pictures. This disqualifies a lot of point-and-shoot cameras, which are unable to focus even close to correctly. This also disqualifies a lot of faddish toy cameras, like the Diana and Holga, and the slew of worthless rubbish employed by "lomographers". It's perfectly fine to criticize or praise a photograph's asthetic merit; some people have "better eyes" than others. It's fine, too, to be critical of errors in technique. But criticizing the equipment a photograph was taken with speaks only of your envy and pettiness. Capable equipment, as defined just above, will not impact the asthetic quality of a picture.
It truly doesn't matter what equipment you use to make a photograph, if it's a good and pleasing photograph. There's a woman in Oregon, for instance, who produces beautiful photographs with a homemade pinhole camera constructed from an Altoid tin and gaffer's tape. If you can't see the photographs for the camera, if you take more pride in your equipment than the results they give you, if you belittle others because their photographs taken with 'clearly inferior' cameras make you jealous, you've lost sight of what this hobby is about:

Making photographs.


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