As camera companies pack more power into smaller packages, the image quality only stands to improve, right? The Canon 5DS R has an ungodly 50.6-megapixel sensor, which is far more than most people need. Similarly, the Sony a7RII has a 42.4-megapixel sensor, and the Olympus OMD-EM5 Mk II has a 40MP high-res mode. It seems that the prevailing thought is that we need far more sharpness in our images than we already have, but there’s something unreal about hyper sharp images. If you’ve looked at any ad or photos from a high end fashion shoot in a magazine, you’ll notice how crisp these images are. It’s almost as if what’s been photographed is living on the page.
Deployed properly, sharpness can highlight your subject and bring attention to certain details. More often than not, we need at least some degree of sharpness in order to make sense of images. Perhaps you’re photographing a protest and you notice a local politician in the crowd. You’d want to isolate that subject just enough to get the point across.
Deployed improperly, and it can become a strange experience. It’s a similar effect with high definition television. The unnatural motion smoothing that makes it look as though you’re watching a video of the set of Game of Thrones rather than Westeros. It’s real to the point of unreality. With ultra sharp images, it’s as though we’re looking through a window at a scene rather than at a photograph, and I like to be reminded that I’m looking at a photograph, whether it’s through grainy black-and-white or other technical choices.
I find that I’m taken out of the image when there is what appears to be high production value. While technically impressive, the images can only attract so much interest because their technical aspects stand in front of what appears in the image. Technical considerations should come second when look at a photograph. A guy once randomly asked me in the subway if my camera had hexagonal pixels. It was a Fuji X-Pro1, and admittedly, I didn’t know the answer, nor did I care to. I don’t care what shape the pixels are so long as they can effectively resolve light.
There are deliberate aesthetic choices a photographer can make to remind people that they’re looking at a photograph. One of them is choosing to shoot in black-and-white, whether it’s digital or film, as it creates a space between the viewer and the image. What they’re looking at is a particular point of view. The viewer can then focus on the content of the photographer, rather than how it was put together. Granted, there are a wealth of black-and-white images that have an obsessive degree of sharpness, and they, too, are somewhat unreal.
Photographs have greater emotional resonance when the content, story, ideas and the like stand in front of any and all technical considerations. It isn’t about what the camera can do. It’s about what you can do with the camera.