Orquid "Phoenix"

Orquid "Phoenix"

by ceinmart

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I have heard countless times that "resolution is of utmost importance for landscape photography". This also comes up often when landscape photographers look to medium format for it's detail and resolution. Here is a quote from a dpreview Landscape Primer:

Superb image quality and the ability to record as much detail as possible are hallmarks of landscape photography.

A few reasons come to mind why this might be the case such as:

  • The enlargement of such images is common in public displays and home uses
  • Many landscapes have far distances, so capturing more detail allows for cropping later
  • Landscapes are often marketed as "Fine Art" prints, so maximum resolution is demanded

On the other hand, I can think of reasons that this isn't necessary:

  • Often the subjects are naturally occurring, making distortion difficult to spot imperfections
  • Interpolation of features such as a sky I would think would be easier than a human eye in a portrait for example
  • If a image will be enlarged significantly, typically it will be viewed at a corresponding further distance, negating the necessity for additional resolution
  • I am wondering if this might be a somewhat dated stance, considering what type of detail and resolution can be captured with basically any current DSLR. Maybe this theory comes from 35mm film days and no longer applies

As you can see I can't decide myself why this "rule" of landscape photography is so prevalent. What makes an image of a waterfall "require" higher resolution than an image of a wedding ceremony or football player in action(per se)?

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I don't want to completely change the question at this point, but please don't get stuck on the word "utmost". I have heard that as well as "resolution is very important for landscape photography". What is important to this question, is that it seems to be more important than for (some?) other types of photography. –  dpollitt Apr 26 '13 at 12:59
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3 Answers

Well, the statement that "resolution is of utmost importance for landscape photography" is questionable in itself. As far as I'm concerned, the highest priority in photography is taking a great photo, so composition and timing are of the utmost importance.

However, high resolution is always good. For landscape photography, you pretty much nailed the reasons why in your first three points (the third one being similar to the first).

  • Enlargements! Landscapes lend themselves well to being blown up large and hung on the wall; at least, many people feel this way.

  • Landscapes capture detail that stretches far off into the distance, as well as detail that is closer. The more resolution, the more detail a close viewer can see on the horizon if they look closely enough.

However, the statement might appear to imply that resolution is only important for landscape photography, or that other forms of photography don't require as much resolution. This is wrong. Other types of photography can benefit from high resolution, too. For example, high resolution portraiture captures better texture and detail in clothes and hair.

As to your possible problems:

Often the subjects are naturally occurring, making distortion difficult to spot imperfections

Low resolution doesn't cause distortion, it causes lack of detail. Lack of detail will mean that distant objects on the horizon will be less distinct, or that very small objects or fine texture will be less distinct, along with the edges of objects.

Interpolation of features such as a sky I would think would be easier than a human eye in a portrait for example

The sky usually isn't what would benefit most from higher resolution - unless there is a lot of detail in it (what we call a "spectacular sky").

If a image will be enlarged significantly, typically it will be viewed at a corresponding further distance, negating the necessity for additional resolution

This isn't necessarily always the case. How often do you see a photo in a gallery and peer at it to get a closer look?

I am wondering if this might be a somewhat dated stance, considering what type of detail and resolution can be captured with basically any current DSLR. Maybe this theory comes from 35mm film days and no longer applies

It's certainly true that sensor resolution of new DSLRs has reached a point where you don't need to worry about it more than other things. 12 megapixels is pretty low end these days, and yet it is more than enough for a pretty high resolution image. There's also the resolution of the lens and of the output medium to worry about, though. It's no good having a 36 megapixel sensor if your lens won't resolve that kind of resolution or you print it using a 150 dpi process. So, sensor resolution is only one part of makes up the achievable final resolution of a photo, and you are correct that in some cases it's not the main limiting factor. It would be wrong to assume however, that it doesn't matter at all.

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Thomasrutter - it's interesting to note that 12 mp to 36 mp is 3:1 in pixel density (which doesn't sound like THAT much and 1.73:1 in linear dpi or pixels/mm which sounds fairly unlikely to make a vast difference. That said I have a FF 12mp D700 and a 24 mp APSC A77 and in practice the 2:1 pixel areal density of the A77, even though achieved in half the sensor area, "feels" visually far "higher resolution" in practice for the same final image size in each case. –  Russell McMahon Apr 26 '13 at 5:17
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You admire a view that really impresses. To convey the same view to other people you take a photograph. Low resolution gives the viewer an impression of impressive view, but high resolution (and large print) really impresses the viewer. No, of course it is not the resolution that impresses, but the feeling that you are not looking at a photograph, but actually seeing the view yourself.

In short: it is not a question about the amount of detail you see but about the amount of detail that you want to see. That's why highest resolution for landscape photography.

High resolution never hurts and lots of detail is okay, it is just that you might be perfectly happy with a photograph of your car standing on the driveway without being able to read the maker of the windshield wiperblades. If you can read it, that's fine, but the subject of the photo is the car, not the wiperblades. So you don't really miss anything if you see the small logo or not. In a landscape photograph the subject is the landscape and everything counts as interesting. You want to see it all.

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I really liked your last two sentences. "In a landscape photograph the subject is the landscape and everything counts as interesting. You want to see it all.". –  dpollitt Apr 26 '13 at 13:00
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It's also worth adding that we often don't want to see all that detail when looking at, say, portraits. Seeing pores, dandruff, wrinkles, and whatnot is often "too much" for our comfort. Not so with landscapes. –  bRad Gibson Apr 28 '13 at 3:11
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I would like to add two addendums to the two excellent answers.

  1. Time. Landscape images and especially landscape prints are often looked at for much longer than other types of photographs. Yet, the longer we can stare the more we will notice the little defects and blemishes; the more we become tempted to step closer. Have you ever notices how visitors in art galleries look at a Flemish landscape first from afar and then step closer?

    I have a 160cm x 240cm landscape picture in my living room and hours of sitting in the room have made me aware of numerous little things in it, like a blurred branch of a tree. Had I only looked at the image for a short time, I wouldn't have noticed.

  2. Beauty. Images 'work' for the audience often for two reasons: Because they tell a story or because they are aesthetically pleasing, beautiful. An image that captures us because we react to its aesthetics needs perfect craftmanship.

    Look at it from the other side: Photojournalism from a war zone would often fail all the basic technical criteria for good images and yet they tell a story and so it doesn't matter. (Amazingly, some photographers get really interesting lighting even under these adverse conditions. And that happens often!)

Of course, it is not only landscape that benefits from high resolution but images that benefit are those where either time or beauty are important.

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Great point that 'step closer' after first looking from distance. Large view (often a large print too) is not to only suck in as a whole, but after initial look up you'll go for detail - and take the step closer. –  Esa Paulasto Aug 7 '13 at 14:28
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