Reader Questions Answered

"I notice that many of the photo forums (e.g. the former dpreview) throw [the term Image Quality] around willy nilly, and that term has become quite a ubiquitous one. Camera A has better Image Quality than camera B. It is such a nebulous term and has so many facets to it. Does Image Quality just refer to sensor size or pixel size? Does Image Quality mean lens sharpness? Are all high megapixel count cameras high Image Quality and all smaller formats low Image Quality? Or is Image Quality just a measurement of someone's ability to learn?

You came closest with the last question. “Image Quality” is typically a term thrown around by someone who doesn’t yet know what they’re talking about. The user tends to be hiding behind some vague construct in order to disguise the fact that they can’t yet talk about specifics.

You’ll note that when I talk about capturing an image, I talk about capturing optimal data. That has a whole bunch of sub-topics, but let’s just address one: dynamic range. I generally capture optimal data with a digital camera if (a) the camera’s capture range fully encompasses the scene’s output range; and (b) I’ve placed the capture in the highest bits without truncation of highlights (e.g. Expose to the Right, or ETTR). Anything else would be sub-optimal and mean that my eventual “Image Quality” could suffer as a result.

"Image Quality" is a bit like juggling. Some seem to think that if you can keep three balls in the air, that’s good enough, you’re juggling. Ultimately, however, the best juggler controls more balls than others and does so with rhythm, structure, and showmanship. 

Discussions of “Image Quality” are also a bit like wine tasting. No two tasters tend to agree on anything. Even when it appears they have some agreement, they’ll argue over nuanced details. Eventually, they try to anoint a winner when there isn’t actually a competition in the first place. Subjective starts overriding objective, and then it starts to become all about who can speak the loudest with an authoritative voice. Think Ted Baxter.

Why we need winners and losers in “Image Quality” I have no idea. I’ve taken photos that still resonate with people to this day with cameras we’d all call losers (particularly compared to what we can buy today). For every facet that gets debated, there tends to also be an alternative answer. For instance, pixel count. Which is better, 100mp sensor or eight 24mp images stitched together? Or dynamic range. Which is better, 14 stops of dynamic range in one capture, or a three image 2EV bracket on a camera with 12 stops of dynamic range?

Of course, some of you just got out of your chair and screamed “but stitching and bracketing doesn’t work for moving subjects.” Sit down. You’re embarrassing yourself. That’s because you’re walking right into my contention: there’s no single solution that’s right for all possible photographic scenarios. 

Just prior to answering this question I was answering another, and the answer was the same: once you understand the variables, you have to figure out your priorities and maximize them individually. 

No camera/lens combination with maximum pixel count, maximum dynamic range, maximum MTF recording, and anything else you want to say contributes to “Image Quality" actually exists. If it does, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. And that’s before we get to any subjective evaluations—"the colors have a hint of peach, with an underlying reminder of late day"—and the debate that will bring. 

To what end? If a “best Image Quality” thing existed, all the other companies not making it would collapse, the maker of the best would increase prices, and the discussion would immediately turn to “why didn’t I achieve 'best Image Quality' when I used mine?” [sic ;~]

I find it far better to change the question: what’s the Best Image I can create? And what qualities can I embue it with? 

Notice how I separated the words Image and Quality in the last paragraph? The image has to work, first and foremost. Subject, moment, light, composition, and so on. Without those things working right I’m not going to have a very good image. Now, given that, what underlying pixel properties might enhance/detract from the image? 

That’s actually an interesting thought process for another article, but I’ll give you a hint. For example, noise tends to work against light. If you have great light but too much noise, the noise is masking or hurting the capture of that light. Still, I couldn’t really care less about noise until I’ve gotten the light right. And then I’m only trying to control the noise enough so that it isn’t damaging my light. 

Notice how my answer started talking less and less about cameras than it did the photo itself? Funny thing, that. 

“Why do so many companies use Kickstarter for new photography products?” 

Let’s talk about online economics for a moment, because most of the companies doing this are mostly selling products online (either directly or indirectly). 

If you watch Shark Tank, you’ve probably heard about CAC (customer acquisition cost). This is sort of the online equivalent of “marketing and sales costs.” Another issue that comes up a lot is cashflow as it pertains to production. You need enough cash to produce hardware products in sufficient quantity to get your landed cost per unit down and your gross profit margin up.  

Kickstarter basically is a way of bundling all those problems into one convenient pre-packaged system. You offer a discount for pre-orders, which nets you the cash you need to start production, and you create an affiliate program that points to the Kickstarter campaign, which puts a somewhat reasonable and clear number (typically 10-15%) on your customer acquisition costs (Kickstarter siphons off its profits by handling the online credit card system and tacking on a small fee). The affiliate program extends your visible marketing well beyond your own Web site, creating new customers. The ones that cost you most to acquire.

Kickstarter thus becomes sort of a Product Release for Dummies template, one in which all your risks and costs are well known in advance. You set your goal to the lowest point of pain you can tolerate, and push the publish button. I haven’t looked, but I’m sure there must be business school classes that have popped up to help even the most challenged college students understand how to do this (the Kickstarter for Dummies class for Product Release for Dummies ;~).  

I jest a bit. To fully appreciate what you can do with Kickstarter requires some higher level thinking and an understanding of all the give/take elements in product marketing and sales. You don’t want to lose money on the campaign, but you also don’t want it to stall at a level below what really provides you a useful growth boost. You don’t want to take no profit on the campaign, but you also need to make it attractive enough to generate enough cash you need to fully produce inventory that will last you past the campaign. 

You’ll also note that the Shark Tank investors often want to know what a candidate’s Kickstarter goals were and how they actually performed to that. That’s a crude assessment of whether the product really attracts enough attention to be considered sellable. As Mr. Wonderful likes to say to those that have no meaningful sales: “Stop the madness!”

I don’t publicize Kickstarter campaigns on my sites. I do sometimes personally purchase something on one. That’s generally not because I think it’s a product I need, but rather because I want to encourage innovation in a specific photography product. Sometimes I get something interesting and useful out of that, more often I donate the result to film/photography students nearby. Every now and then we get the stalled product. There’s one I bought into a couple of years ago that still hasn’t shipped, but I kind of hope it still does, as it was doing ambitious stuff I don’t see anyone else managing to do. 

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