Time is one of a photographer’s most valuable resources, so it makes sense that you would use it efficiently and not engage in activities that are only going to diminish the amount of time you have to spend on this magnificent craft. There are numerous poor uses of time that we could talk about — unchecked gear acquisition syndrome, spending more time watching or reading about photography than doing photography, arguing on forums, pixel peeping.
Wait…is pixel peeping really a waste of time? Yes and no. Let us flesh this issue out a little bit more.
What is Pixel Peeping?
Pixel peeping (a term that typically takes on a derogatory tone) is the process of viewing an image at 100% (or greater) in order to examine pixels in minute detail, ostensibly with the intent of looking for pixel level defects.
The Efficacy of Pixel Peeping
In the pre-digital era, the closest you could get to what we now refer to as pixel peeping was to use a loupe to view negatives and slides in greater detail, and this was generally something only pros or serious hobbyists did. Everyone else found out what was wrong with their photos when they had them printed or projected.
Photo by Franck Michel
Today we view our photos on computer monitors and have the ability to zoom in to the point that we’re not even sure what we’re looking at anymore. I’m not sure what more anyone expects to learn from viewing a photo at 400% that they couldn’t discern at 100%. I’m not suggesting that pixel level examination is completely devoid of value; depending on how your photos are going to be used, it may be beneficial to zoom in and check for softness, chromatic aberration and artifacts. If you’re doing ad work or you intend to make large prints, for example, then an extra level of scrutiny is certainly warranted.
Most photography these days is formatted for the web and consumed on screens — mobile devices in particular. It’s not that these screens are bad — they are quite good, in fact, and improving every generation — but under the circumstances, they aren’t going to reveal what the most paranoid pixel peepers are scouring their images for. Sure, your shot may have some corner softness but none of your Instagram followers will notice it. If they do, they won’t care about a minor flaw so long as it’s an awesome shot.
Photo by Andreas Øverland
I have often thought to myself that maybe chronic pixel peepers insist on perfect pixels in order to mask imperfect technique. If one is lazy, careless or unskilled with composition, there’s a natural inclination to “fix” a poorly composed photograph by cropping it. When a shot is cropped at 40 or 50% just to achieve the composition that should have been attained in camera, of course the image is going to show some problems — even at web size. But the blame doesn’t lie with the screen, the camera or the lens.
The True Measure of Worth
Again, pixel peeping has value in very specific circumstances and for a limited segment of the photography community; for most of us, incessant pixel peeping is a waste of time. In the real world, a photograph’s worth isn’t measured by how technically perfect it is. When you buy a print do you buy it based on an assumption that the photographer scoured the image at 100%? I hope not. Of course a good photo has to be well exposed and in focus; but among the many things we can learn from even a casual examination of the history of photography, is the fact that some of the greatest photographs ever recorded are hardly perfect according to any technical metric. If you can create a photo that boasts a pleasing (or intriguing) composition, is beautifully lit, features an interesting subject and evokes a particular thought or emotion in the viewer is, then you’ve done something worthwhile. And you don’t need to pixel peep to validate that — the people who see your photo will do it for you.