Defining Image Quality
“Image Quality”. It’s a term that is used all the time, yet the definition of it can be somewhat nebulous. Whether you’re talking about a camera’s sensor, or evaluating a specific photograph, the term “image quality” often can mean a wide range of things, and different people use the term in different ways.
So what is “image quality?” What does it actually mean? How do you define it?
There are many aspects that define the “quality” of an image, but in my opinion they can probably be broken down into two main categories:
Technical Quality & Artistic Quality
These are things that you can measure. How sharp is the image? How much noise does it have? What’s the dynamic range? You can chart these, and put them in spec sheets and on comparison charts. The technical aspects of image quality can be objectively measured and scientifically quantified. When you read reviews of new cameras which talk about image quality, this is often what they’re referring to.
By using these quantifiable aspects of an image, reviewers can provide objective comparisons based on verifiable and measurable statistics. This isn’t anything new. Reviews have been charting the technical abilities of cameras for some time, and its a staple of reviews for everything from cameras to lenses, and even back to the days of film.
There is a downside to relying on technical details however. To the average person, the value of certain specifications can sometimes be confusing, especially as to how those numbers translate to what you actually see with your eyes. Differences that may appear large on paper may actually be relatively insignificant in the real world. You often see arguments on forums and in comment sections online arguing over minute differences in numbers between one camera and another, but in reality, those numbers don’t correspond to a massive difference in the actual image that you see with your eyes.
The Second category of characteristics of what could be considered “image quality” is what I like to call the “Artistic Quality”. These are qualities that are more subjective, and can’t easily be measured or put on a graph.
What are the colours like? Does the image look filmic or realistic? Is it vibrant. or does the image “pop”? How is the overall tonality. Do the highlight have a nice and natural roll off. These things can’t be easily defined numerically, but sometimes these attributes are what attract people to certain cameras, despite everything in the first category.
For some people a camera, or more specifically the image it produces, its “look“ so to speak, is more important than some number on a chart that may say it’s not quite as sharp or has marginally more noise than some other camera. While the camera’s “Look” may not technically be “Image Quality” people often use the term to describe this aspect too.
When you hear people say they like Canon colours, or Fuji colours, this isn’t something you can put a number on, but it’s a subjective emotional response to viewing the actual image. While the term “Colour Science” is often used, and there is a scientific aspect to a camera’s colours, more often than not it’s a personal choice.
So when you’re making a decision about a camera or an image based on Image quality the more important question is probably: “What is most important to you?”
It is a question that you have to answer yourself. Is it .. Sharpness? Noise? Dynamic Range? Or how the image looks to you? do the colours speak to you? Does it have a certain “look” that you find appealing. A scientific analysis may make for good comparisons, but to really judge an image, how good it is or whether a certain camera is what you want, you have to look at it for yourself.
So, when someone declares something has better image quality or the best image quality, remember they are usually only referring to one aspect of a bigger picture. The technical, measurable aspects of image quality may make for easy comparisons and handy charts, they are often not as important in the real word to people actually looking at an image.
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