Camera technology: tools for art

“Photos from digital cameras today have far better detail than a photo printed from film ever could be.” This claim from an optical engineer is most likely true – the amount of detail that can be captured today by digital sensors is hard to fathom. However, in this blog, I will argue that it matters very little to photographers.


First of all, photography is more than technology. Finely reproduced detail is not the always the goal. Just as in painting, realism is not inherently better than impressionism, in photography, the artist may choose for a technique which produces photographs with less resolution. Of course, each viewer might prefer one or another – just as some adore impressionism and others realism in painting. An art photographer may have a certain style which fits best with highly detailed images, or the photographer may choose different styles to suit the project or theme.

In addition to the resolution in the image are many other decisions an artist might make about a photographic style, such as color or back-and-white, style of post-processing, and the surface of the final print (glossy or matte, bright white or buff paper, canvas or mulberry paper – so many choices! – not to mention size, companion pieces, and framing). Some kinds of prints, such as textured canvas, even would ‘fight’ with a print composed of a lot of varied detail. Thus, for some projects, less detail is better than more.

Technology today

In the heyday of film, photographers who wanted more detail were limited to the number of reactive molecules in the emulsion on a piece of film. These crystals have a minimum size dictated by their chemistry. Although the light-reactive crystals could not get smaller, film could made bigger. Rather than the popular 35mm format, many well-known photographers such as Ansel Adams and Vivian Maier used medium- and large-format film cameras. Large format meant that the film was at least 4 inches by 5 inches in size, allowing more reactive moelcules per dot in the image. And, despite innovations in digital technology, large format photography has certainly not died out.

Digital sensors are matrices of tiny constructed light-receptors rather than sheets chemical, and so innovations in technology permit smaller and smaller pixels. More and more tiny light-reactive pixels are crammed onto a sensor. This is not always good: although one would expect finer grain of pixels always makes the picture better, small pixels can show more noise. Noise – unwanted signals – visual noise in a photograph is not much different from a music recording with unwanted buzz. Both can obscure the purity of the art.

One solution to the problem of visual noise has been a recent counter-trend trend toward fewer rather than more pixels on a sensor. New cameras are being launched with fewer pixels on the same size sensor, making the size of each pixel larger and reducing the appearance of noise. This also bucks the trend toward capturing more detail. Someone who takes digital photos inside or in the enening or at sunset, might prefer the sensor with less detail and less visual noise.

So, yes, digital imaging technology has been improving, and more and more detail can be recorded. Whether the artist chooses this tool, or another, depends entirely on the art.

What do you prefer for your current project?