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Quality

Is there a valid distinction between high and low quality photography? I have heard pictures described as low quality, where the meaning was poor technical or image quality. But there are also pictures held up as icons of photography that would be classed as low technical quality. Think of Capa’s D Day pictures, for example.

Poor quality development

Technical quality I can understand. If a lens isn’t sharp or causes colour fringes, it’s not a good lens. If a camera is unreliable, it’s low quality. My Diana camera is low quality. It was made of thin, fragile and poorly-fitting components. I can’t be sure of its results. But it was made to be sold cheaply and still turn a profit, so it is as good as it needed to be. But I have also owned what looked like an expensive wristwatch that had fragile and unreliable working parts. So this had the appearance of quality while turning a larger profit. There are probably a lot of film-based point and shoot cameras that fall into the latter category: they appear to have good features but turned out to be fragile and giving poor results. Our family camera was like this when I was young. The pictures were always off: poorly framed, exposed or focused. I think my mum believed the marketing, that she only had to press the button and Kodak would do the rest. On the other hand the pictures are perfect, because they are the only existing record. So in emotional terms, quality doesn’t matter. But it’s nice to have better pictures if you can get them.

But aside from the technical quality of the camera and the resulting negative or image file, I wonder what other aspect of quality exists? There is good design, of course. Two things can do the same job, but one of them uses materials well or is easier to use. The Olympus Trip was a brilliant design. It simplified the operating controls, blocked being used in low light and had a sharp lens. Perfect for its job.

Poor quality in design

So what’s a poor quality photograph then? Is it one where the technical quality of the image is not overridden by the value of the subject matter? Or where the subject of the picture was not the low-definition rendering, so we feel it should be sharper or better exposed? Do we all agree that Ansel Adam’s landscapes are high quality? They are generally sharp and show a full range of tones. What about Ernst Haas then? His pictures were blurred.

The risk is of going down the rabbit hole on a Zen mission to define quality (although Pirsig sought to balance the romantic and mechanistic viewpoints, of which perhaps more anon.) But to get to the point, perhaps quality is fitness for purpose. So good quality means it does the job expected and is reliable. This would mean that a poor quality photograph is one where the subject matter and the image rendering are at odds. Adams’ sharp depictions of nature fit together well, and so do Haas’ blurred images of motion. A good quality camera or lens would do what you expected, and do it accurately and repeatably. A poor quality camera would be unreliable in operation or results.

This was taken with a poor quality camera

If that’s right, then that explains what a poor quality photograph is: it’s one where the results are worse than they should have been and where that difference was not intended (which excuses the Lomo crowd). Except that you rarely know the intentions of the photographer, which leaves it all open to argument. Rabbit hole, here I come!

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Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

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