jack kurtz

Do Megapixels Matter? – by Jack Kurtz

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This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural and hangs in BMW's North American headquarters. You don't need 30+ megapixels to do high end work.
This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural 5 feet wide and hangs in BMW’s North American headquarters.

The answer is yes, but the bigger question is “how many megapixels is enough?” That’s a much more complicated question to answer.

I’ve been working with digital cameras since 1997. The first event I covered with a digital camera was the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash in Roswell, NM. The camera I had then, the EOS DCS3,  was a loaner from Canon. It came with a whopping 260 megabytes of storage on a built in internal hard drive and shot 1.3 megapixel pictures that measured 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. I had to hook the camera up to my laptop with a SCSI (pronounced “scuzzy”) connector because the storage was not removable from the camera.

Once you got past the cool factor (no need to process film or scan negatives) using it was a pretty miserable experience. Your exposures had to be perfect. Overexposed highlights had a god awful and uncorrectable magenta color cast. Blocked up shadows had so much digital noise (grain) even an ISO200 photo looked like it was made at ISO3200.

And then there was the file size. 1.3 megapixels: 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. Most newspapers were printing color photos at 200 dots per inch. A medium sized photo that was eight inches wide needed to be about 1,600 pixels wide (200 X 8). We had to upsize most pictures just to get them to the resolution needed to run them at the size the newspaper wanted. Cropping meant more upsizing, which led to image degradation.

It’s the reason so many photographers then worked with both film and digital bodies. Film for most of our work, digital when we knew we had to turn it around right away.

When I was issued a Canon D30 (not to be confused with the 30D. I mean really, what was Canon thinking when they named their cameras?), with its 3 megapixel sensor I thought I was in heaven. Three megapixels meant we could actually do a little cropping and didn’t have to upsize every single photo.

The first digital camera I bought for myself (as opposed to using cameras issued to me) was the Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D). It weighed in at a whopping six megapixels (3152 x 2068 pixels) and was the first digital camera, that for me, came close to achieving what I could with film. The negative scanner I had at the time (for my film cameras), was a Nikon LS-2000 Super CoolScan. It output files that were 2700 pixels on the long dimension which was a little smaller than the files from the D60.

Canon, and other camera companies, kept upping the megapixel ante. The EOS 20D was an eight megapixel camera (3520×2344 pixels) and offered enough file size that we could comfortably crop pictures if we needed to.

The Canon EOS 5D was a 12 megapixel (4368 x 2912 pixels) and for me this was the first camera that caused me to ask – “how many megapixels is too many megapixels?”

One of the advantages of coming of photographic age in the days of color transparency film and early digital cameras was that you had to have strong technical skills, the ability to fill the frame when you shoot, properly expose the picture and working within the parameters of color balance and color temperature. The better your original exposure, the less work you had to do to the digital file and that almost always translated to a better picture in the newspaper.

With the tremendous latitude of the 5D raw files and generous size of the files you could make a lot of mistakes and then fix them on the computer.

I was covering an event in Yuma, Arizona, for a wire service and after I transmitted my photos, the editor in Washington DC complimented a specific frame but said it was a little too loose. He asked what camera I was using and when I told him I had the 5D he told me to crop the picture by about 40% and send it again. When I hesitated he said something like, “come on, that’s a 12MP file. It can take it.” I would not have been able to crop that file if I had made it with my old three megapixel D30.

Canon has held steady at about 22 megapixels (5616 x 3744 pixels) for a few years now (both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III are basically 22MP cameras). But Nikon and Sony have stormed the megapixel gates with 36 megapixel cameras. Both cameras use sensors made by Sony.

Even smaller cameras, like APS format cameras and Micro 4:3 are raising their megapixel counts. Nikon’s APS cameras are about 24MP and Canon’s right around 20MP. Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras are 16 megapixels (4608 x 3456 pixels).

You have to ask yourself, do you need 36 megapixels? For most people I think the answer is no. There are real disadvantages to these megapixel behemoths.

The first one, and one that a lot of people don’t think about, is that all that resolution really stresses your lenses. It’s no coincidence that Zeiss and Sigma are both coming out with very high grade lenses that in most cases test better than the Canon or Nikon lenses (even the high end pro grade lenses from Canon and Nikon) they compete with. Older and inexpensive kit lenses are out resolved by the bodies they’re marketed with.

These pro level lenses are very expensive. Canon’s 24-70 f2.8 L zoom is about $2,100 (US). Canon’s 85mm f1.2 L prime lens, a legendary lens, is also about $2,100, which seems cheap compared to the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 which will you set back an astonishing $4,500.

The second drawback is storage. I can get about 270 full resolution 22MP files onto an eight gigabyte card. Doing the math, the 36MP Nikon and Sony files are about 36% bigger than the 5D Mark III 22MP files (give or take). The eight gig card in my 5D Mark III, that holds 270 images, will only hold about 190 images from a 36MP camera.

Now extend this throughout your workflow. How many files can you get on your two terabyte hard drive? Divide that by ⅓. If you plan to get by using one 2TB hard drive for your images for the year (what I am on track to use this year) you need to buy at least a 3TB drive.

How long does it take to import and edit your files in Lightroom? It’s going to take longer, in the case of importing files, a lot longer, to do the same work if you’re shooting 36MP files.

For me, the the 16 -22 megapixel files from the Olympus or Panasonic Micro 4:3 or current Canon cameras have emerged as the sweet spot. I think they’re a good choice, especially for photographers who know what they’re doing, what Thom Hogan, who recently wrote about this, would call an “optimal” photographer.

By that I mean photographers who would consider themselves intermediate level or higher. They understand the principles of filling the frame, they have the right selection of lenses and they use their equipment to its full potential. (Lens selection is not universal and depends on what you photograph. A sports or wildlife photographer needs long fast lenses, a street photographer needs lenses in 24mm to 100mm range, in full frame terms, and someone who photographs bugs and flowers needs macro lenses.)

It’s interesting that both Nikon and Canon have, for the time being, held their high end professional cameras (the D4S and 1D X) to under 20 megapixels. These are the cameras they sell to their most discerning customers.

A lot of this depends on what the final use of your photos is. If you’re photos are mostly going online, whether on a personal blog or Facebook, I can guarantee you that 36 megapixels is overkill. Heck, the 16MP of the Micro 4:3 cameras is overkill for those uses.

If you’re printing your photos, it depends on the size of your prints.

Sixteen megapixels can be printed to at least 15 inches on the long dimension (at 300 dots per inch – 4608 ÷ 300 = 15.36). With careful editing and resizing you can easily print 16 X 20, assuming you don’t crop too much.

American Frame, one of the many online print vendors, recommends a minimum print resolution of 130 dpi (minimum meaning the lowest recommended resolution, not the best resolution). At that resolution, a 16MP camera will allow you to make a 24″ X 36″ print. That’s a big print. A full resolution file from a 36MP camera at the same resolution can be printed to 30″ X 45″, which isn’t really that much bigger. A photo I made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16MP camera, was turned into a mural 5 feet wide (1.5 meters) and hangs in the BMW North America headquarters. They didn’t come back and ask for a bigger file (although I did send them the original raw file so their printer could upsize to their specifications).

What 36 megapixels does give you is wiggle room. If you’re photographing something that requires a 400mm or 500mm lens, for example, and all you have is a 300mm lens, the extra resolution of your 36MP camera means you can comfortably crop in to a view you would get with that longer lens. If you regularly find yourself in the position of having to significantly crop your images that drastically you should either buy a longer lens or refine your technique.

There are some people whose work requires the 36MP or higher cameras. They’re high end commercial photographers who work for the most discerning clients and have the cash flow to support those cameras.

Not everybody, not even all professional photographers fall into that category.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about using Micro 4:3 cameras and how we were moving past the one size fits all era of digital cameras, into a time of different digital formats for different purposes. The 36MP cameras from Nikon and Sony represent that trend. Those cameras, although they accept lenses designed for traditional dSLRs, really compete more with medium format cameras, like the Pentax 645D.  I’m comfortable with 22 megapixels from the 5D Mark III and 16 megapixels from the Micro 4:3 cameras.

In a Good Light – by Sabrina Henry

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picking coffee cherries thailand

One of the reasons I like being behind the camera is because I prefer not to be in front it. For a host of reasons, I am not comfortable being photographed and my friends will tell you that I seldom let them make a picture of me and if they do, it needs my approval before sharing. Maybe it is because I have my own hang-ups about being photographed that I am sensitive as to how I portray others in my pictures even to the point of not making a photograph. Of course one can always decide not to share a picture after it has been made but for me, often the decision comes at the moment of creation.

Here are a few of the kinds of situations I will not photograph.

Photographing when expressly asked not to make a picture
The streets of Bangkok are a wonderful place to photograph because many people do not mind if you take a picture of them. They often engage in a conversation and share a bit about themselves and you get some context for your photograph. That’s why it came as a surprise to me one day when I raised the camera to my eye and started to make a picture of a woman cooking on the street and she told me: “No pictures!” It took me a few minutes to get over the incident because it was so unexpected and after that I wondered how it must be for her to be photographed day in and day out by all the tourists and others who venture out to make pictures. She had been slaving over a flaming hot grill in the heat of the day and I am sure she did not feel beautiful at all. My BPS colleague Carolyn O’Neill shared her own experience with me: “A lot of things in general here in SE Asia happen out in public and it’s a very known factor that there are many camera-wielding tourists about taking a bunch of random photos. This is probably one of the easiest street photography places I’ve ever lived in, so I’ve become rather spoiled. Thais don’t seemed too fussed about it in general, but as soon as someone waves me off, I totally respect their wishes and thank them for letting me know.” The bottom line for us both is if someone has asked not to be photographed, we honour that request.

Photographing people eating
Hot dog eating contests aside, I also do not photograph people eating. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I make, I have not found any elegant way to photograph people putting food in their mouths. Photojournalist Jack Kurtz, who teaches private workshops at BPS, agrees in general: “I won’t photograph people putting food into their mouths, it’s hard to make that look dignified, but if I’m working on a story about a meal (like iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast) I will make a picture of a person eating.

Photographing people sleeping
Many years ago I made a snapshot of a woman sleeping on a train in Japan. It is a common sight not just on trains but also at stations and in other public places. The picture also included her son who was awake and laughing at his mother being photographed asleep. The picture has always made me a little uncomfortable because it feels sneaky and appears to make a mockery of the woman. Since then I’ve avoided photographing people sleeping and I’ve never found a reason to make that kind of picture for any story. Of course it depends on the photographer’s intention. Jack Kurtz explains his approach in this way: “Because of my background in newspapers, where we photograph everything and then sort it out in the editing process, I don’t really have a hard and fast rule about what I will or won’t photo. I try not to photograph people in a way that belittles or embarrasses them.” For me, that is the key. You can still document what is happening around you or make pictures that are part of a story without photographing people in a bad light.

What’s off limits for you? Is there anything you wouldn’t photograph?

What’s Your Plan B? by Jack Kurtz

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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is Adobe's photo organizing and editing application.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is Adobe’s photo organizing and editing application.

Apple’s recent announcement that it is killing off Aperture, their professional level photo organizing and editing tool, is going to leave a lot of photographers scrambling to find a replacement. Apple is rolling out a new photo editing application in the latest iteration of its operating system, OS X Yosemite, aka 10.10 (due later this year).

The new application will be called Photos and will merge Apple’s consumer app, iPhoto and professional app, Aperture, into one and will synchronize them to the photos on your iPhone or iPad via the cloud.

Apple has said Photos will import Aperture libraries but beyond that has not indicated whether or not Photos will be a feature rich replacement for Aperture or consumer level iPhoto with enhanced editing tools.

This is not the first time Apple has killed off a professional product and replaced it with one that, at first glance, is significantly less robust.

In 2011, Apple replaced Final Cut Pro (then at version 7) with Final Cut Pro X. At the time there was a great hue and cry that Apple was abandoning professional users (Final Cut 7 was used by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including the Coen Brothers, who edited “True Grit” and others in Final Cut) and replacing it with what was panned as a beefed up version of iMovie. Users moved to Adobe’s Premiere and Avid’s Media Composer after trying Final Cut Pro X and finding it lacking.

Digitally speaking, 2011 was a long time ago and Apple has worked hard to improve Final Cut and the most current version of Final Cut Pro X is a more than worthy replacement for Final Cut 7 but the damage was done and Apple lost a chunk of the professional video editing community.

I don’t use Aperture. I tried it when it was at version 1 (way back in 2005) judging it against Adobe’s Lightroom, which was also at version 1. At that time both products were pretty immature but Aperture required high end video cards to run most efficiently and I was using Aperture in low end MacBooks. Low end MacBooks, in 2005, did not have high end video cards and my experience with Aperture was miserable so I moved my workflow from Bridge/Photoshop over to Lightroom.

Although Aperture was not right for me, I always liked that Aperture was there. The competition between Apple and Adobe was a good thing and although Lightroom was continuously improved while Aperture seemed to languish, Aperture provided a real alternative to Lightroom. I thought Aperture was my Plan B in the event Adobe somehow screwed up Lightroom.

The problem always was that Lightroom and Aperture are incompatible. Although the two applications are similar and do many of the same things, they do them in different ways. If I had moved my archive into Aperture, I would have lost all of my edits, collections etc. (The same thing happens if you move an archive from Aperture to LR.) That’s a pretty unpleasant scenario.

Imagine you have a library of hundreds of thousands of raw files. (My catalog from just two years in Bangkok has about 150,000 raw files.) That’s a lot of sorting and editing to lose.

My original idea, if I needed to use Plan B, was to have two archives. I would keep the last version of Lightroom with my past archive and going forward put all my new work into Aperture. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but Plan B’s seldom are.

The big question for Aperture users at this point is what to do? Do they migrate their archive to Lightroom? Depending on the size of your archive that can be a Herculean task. Or do they wait and see how things settle?

Apple is giving Aperture users a little advance warning and has promised to update Aperture to work with OS X Yosemite. That will be the last update to Aperture and likely not include any new features or compatibility for new cameras. They’re also promising a path to migrate from Aperture to Photos.

For its part, Adobe has already taken advantage of the demise of Aperture and is marketing Lightroom to Aperture users. If you decided to migrate your archive over to Lightroom there are a couple of places to go for help.

The first thing to keep in mind, whether you’re moving from Aperture to Lightroom or setting up a Lightroom archive for the first time, is to think about what you’re doing and do it in an organized, logical way.

For that I strongly recommend Gavin Gough‘s excellent Lightroom book “The Photographer’s Workflow.” This e-book will help you set up and maintain your Lightroom library in a near bulletproof way.

John Beardsworth, on his Lightroom Solutions website, has step by step directions on moving your library from Aperture to Lightroom. After you’ve read Gavin’s book about setting up your Lightroom catalog, you should read Beardsworth’s article on migrating to Lightroom. Then read it again. You’re about to embark on a grand digital adventure (I’m trying to make this sound fun), so if you’re not 100% certain of what you’re doing, read the Beardsworth piece a third time.

But do you need to migrate to Lightroom (or any of the other photo management applications like Phase One Media Pro)? That’s a decision only you can make.

If Aperture is working for you now, it’s not going to stop working for you just because Apple is pulling the plug on it. You can continue to use it, at least in the short term and probably for another year or two (with Apple’s promised compatibility for Yosemite).

If you’ve been unhappy with Aperture and wondering what your options are, Apple’s announcement should be the incentive you need to look at Lightroom and other choices.

If you’re a low volume photographer who mostly photographs on weekends or in your spare time, you might be able to wait and see what Photos delivers when it’s rolled out some time after Yosemite.

No one has really worked with Photos yet so we don’t know what we’re going to get. It’s probably hoping for too much that it directly replaces Aperture and competes head to head with Lightroom but we should have an idea of its potential in pretty quick order after it’s released.

Whether you use Aperture, Lightroom, Capture One or any of the other high and low end choices, Apple’s announcement should serve as a wake up call. It’s not practical to maintain two libraries in two applications but you owe it to yourself to think about your choices and how you would migrate your photo archive to a new application if you needed to. In my case, I need to think about what my Plan C is since Apple has taken Plan B off the table.