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Resolution – The Last Step To Sharp Photos

One last thing that will help you take a sharp photo is resolution.

Usually, we think only digital camera’s have resolution, but film has resolution too (some think that digital cameras are a revolution but we are just concerned with resolution right now). I am also going to tie film grain and digital noise into resolution, even though they are different from resolution because the end result in the real world is the same (less grain or noise will appear to be a higher resolution in many cases).

Resolution is the amount of information your camera records when you press the button. With a digital camera the light causes an electronic process in the camera. With a film camera the process is a chemical one. It is most easy to understand in digital terms.

A six megapixel camera will produce a file of about 18 megabytes in Photoshop.

In a digital camera, the sensor chip is made up of little circuits that change when light hits them (to put it very, very simply so I can understand it). Each circuit records a speck or pixel of information about the light hitting it (again, this is a very simplified, inaccurate way of describing it but you get the picture). The number of pixels (basically dots) that make up the picture equal the resolution. The first digital cameras had a sensor with about 640×480 rows of pixels or dots. This equals about 307200 pixels orĀ  about .3 megapixels (this was loudly proclaimed photo quality by the manufactures – a term they used for several generations of digital chips which still tends to give digital a bad name around some professionals). This is also typical of many mobile phone cameras today. The size of file this actually about 921600 pixels when you open with Photoshop in a computer. A six megapixel camera will produce a file of about 18 megabytes in Photoshop.

A good 35mm negative shows about 24 megabytes of information

By comparison, a good 35mm negative, when scanned into a computer, shows about 24 megabytes of information. You’ll find that a 6 megapixel camera will produce quality that is equal to a 35mm. This is why I recommend if you are looking for a digital camera you start looking at 6 megapixel cameras.

It is amazing how often that “once-in-a-lifetime” shot occurs

It is true that most people will never make anything larger than 4×6 or maybe 5×7 prints from their photos with maybe an occasional 8×10. A 2 megapixel camera will give an ok 8×10 and is just fine for 4×6’s. Why do I recommend a 6 megapixel camera if all you want are 4×6’s for your scrapbook?

Chances are, sooner or later, you will take a picture where you just cannot get close enough to the subject (maybe you don’t really feel like getting into the swamp for a close up of that alligator).

If you want to crop around that alligator you will actually be using a smaller number of those pixels. If our alligator takes up a quarter of the original picture, your 4×6 will already be more that equal to that 8×10 in actual information. What are the chances that photo will also be the one you really want to make 8×10 for the starting page of your vacation scrapbook? Because we view smaller photos more close up, you may not have as much detail when you crop as you would like (those sharp teeth may look more like dull white blobs up close). I can’t tell you how often I saw situations like this in the film processing business. It is amazing how often that “once-in-a-lifetime” shot occurs.

A 6 megapixel camera will provide a level of quality equal to 35mm

The standard in photo quality that most are used to has generally been the 35mm photograph. A 6 megapixel camera will provide that level of quality that we have become used to in terms of resolution. If you are really into photography one of the 8 megapixel cameras will make you happy for years.

What about grain and noise? Do they have an effect on resolution?

While a bit different than resolution, grain will make a difference in how much detail you see in a picture. Grain shows up as speckles in a photograph. It is very dependent of film speed. 100 – 200 ISO film speeds (or less) show very little grain. A 400 ISO film will show moderate grain. High speed films such as 800 ISO and higher show excessive grain. Again, at 4×6 size grain (even in high speed films) will not bother you much. As soon as you crop or enlarge those photos, that grain will become very apparent.

The film companies can charge a lot more for an 800 ISO film than a 100 ISO film

A few years ago, many film companies started to suggest higher speed films as do everything films (or even calling them “self adjusting” films – an extremely liberal use of the term – I won’t say dishonest, but….). While higher speed films do have an advantage when it comes to exposure latitude (the amount your camera can goof up the correct exposure) and stopping action (remember those high shutter speeds we wanted to eliminate movement), you may be sacrificing useful resolution for speed.

Not to mention. the film companies can charge a lot more for an 800 ISO film than a 100 ISO film.

I personally recommend not going above 400 ISO unless you are trying to shoot indoors without flash (and without a tripod). If you are looking for the absolute best photos you can take, and it is bright and sunny, use 100 ISO film. If your shooting fast subjects (sports like Grandpa in the Olympics mentioned above), or it is cloudy out, use ISO 400. Many point-and-shoot cameras are really designed for ISO 400 and if you need one film that will work in almost all situations use ISO 400.

What is noise anyway? (I don’t hear anything from my photos)

With digital cameras we have something that acts just like film grain only it’s called noise. Ever try to watch a television program on a channel that did not tune in good? Those little specks of color (the “snow”) are noise. Noise is almost exactly like grain, the faster the ISO setting on the digital camera the more noise you get. For the moment, just like film, you’ll see little noise at ISO 100 -200.

Most consumer digital cameras lose out to film at ISO 400 and higher

This is where things change very drastically between digital and film. As I write this (early 2006), most consumer digital cameras lose out to film at ISO 400 and higher. In fact, combine a 400 ISO and a lower resolution camera or file setting (maybe 4 megapixel) and things will look more like that out of tune TV than a photo. This is very dependent on the camera. High quality new SLR cameras like the Canon D20, D30, 5D, and the 1D and 1Ds actually do better than film at higher ISOs. Typically the smaller chips used in point-and-shoot cameras are more sensitive to noise (even higher resolution models). While they are currently a little behind film (for the most part), I expect that within the next year we will see this change as the new cameras will improve on noise even at high ISO settings. Very soon I believe ISO settings will not matter at all as far as noise is concerned and will be an additional creative tool.

Always, always use the highest quality (jpeg) setting you have

One other difference between digital and film is the quality setting on a digital camera. Always use the highest setting you have. Something that I can never figure out is why someone would spend hundreds of dollars more for the latest gigapixel camera and then use the lowest quality setting so they can fit more on a memory card. Buy a cheaper camera! (Sorry I feel like screaming.) Then spend the extra money on memory cards.

One last, minor factor on resolution is lens resolution and image size

A lens also has a resolution or at least resolving power. A cheap plastic lens with simply not give you as much detail as a high quality lens from a top camera company will.

As we increased film resolution and began to use smaller formats the importance of having sharp lenses increased

In the early 1900’s camera lenses were no where near as sharp as current lenses. Photographers used larger sized film to help make up for this (along with the higher grain film had back then). The larger film formats would be less sensitive to lens imperfections. As we increased film resolution and began to use smaller formats the importance of having sharp lenses increased. Almost all digital cameras today use a sensor the size of an APS film format (about 1/3 the size of 35mm) or smaller. The only exceptions to this are very expensive professional level cameras.

This is something I have not seen mentioned in most digital photography discussions

What this smaller image size means is the quality of the lens is very important. It will actually have to be sharper than the lenses used for 35mm film cameras to produce the same level of detail. This is something I have not seen mentioned in most digital photography discussions. For the most part lenses today are extremely sharp but I suggest staying away from consumer electronic brands that so not have a reputation for optics, although many have lenses made by well known lens makers,like Zeiss.

Some manufacturers may do this to make their camera appear to make sharper pictures vs. a manufacturer that doesn’t sharpen as much but has a camera that produces more detail

Some digital cameras also tend to over sharpen the image when the camera is processing the image. This is something you won’t notice till you have an enlargement made and the halo around object is noticeable from over sharpening. Some manufacturers may do this to make their camera appear to make sharper photos vs. a manufacturer that doesn’t sharpen as much but has a camera that produces more detail. Some cameras will let you set the amount of sharpening done to a file. All digital photos will need to be sharpened at some point. It is usually best to go with moderate sharpening in camera and let the real sharpening be done as the photo is printed.

Here is the conclusion to this guide to taking sharp photos.

About James Thoenes

James has spent most of his life involved in photography. He is now dedicated to producing portraits that his clients will treasure for the rest of their lives.