The Tiny-JPEG Fallacy
I went rummaging through my files trying to come up with a picture that illustrates the idea I've been talking about lately, and I think this works as well as any. The "Tiny-JPEG Fallacy" or whatever you want to call it is simply the tendency we have to think we've seen a picture when we actually haven't, because what we've seen is actually a small web-res JPEG or a little halftone in a book. Sometimes you can get all you need from a picture from a small representation of it; other times, as with many oil paintings, you absolutely have to see it in the original to "get" it; most fall somewhere in between.
I've left this as a pretty large file, so when you click on the apple, hopefully you'll see a fairly large screen image of this picture. If you can, you'll see that the point of it is simply the tension between the small area of high sharpness around the water droplets, and the way that plays off the murkiness of the rest of the frame.
This makes a rich, gorgeous print—or perhaps I should say "proof"—but even at the very largest size I can make it on my printer, which is slightly smaller than 11 inches in the long dimension, I'm pretty sure it's not big enough. I'm guessing it would come alive at about 10x15 inches, give or take. Any smaller than that, and you can kinda see it, but you also kinda can't. It just doesn't quite convey.
I hope this illustration gets the point across. I've long been interested in what photographs show vs. what they don't show, as well as the play between things we "see" that aren't actually there and ways in which we can't see, or willfully miss, what's in front of our eyes. (I think we miss an awful lot of the visual world even when we're looking at it.) Being careful to keep in mind the limitations of web viewing and other "incomplete" forms of reproduction is probably more important now than ever.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON
Featured Comment by Anonymous: "Shrinking pictures can cover a multitude of flaws. I have shots that look great at 6"x6" and fall apart at large sizes (e.g. 22"x22") because some things are out of focus that shouldn't be. However, the out of focus aspects are almost invisible at 6x6. So in many cases making larger pictures demand that you be more aware of your technique.
"But once you get past the technical problems I think that the appropriate scale all depends on the picture. Some of them only look good large, some of them only look good small and some of them are really indifferent to scale. I have found that I am not very good at predicting how scale will affect pictures; I'm wrong at least a third of the time. So experimenting with scale and learning to let my pictures speak to me is pretty important.
"It's very easy not to experiment with scale for a couple of reasons: habit and convenience. When I worked in a color darkroom almost everything was printed 11x14 because it was the most convenient size.
"With Epson printers I have a strong habit of proofing everything on 13x19 paper. So I have to think about trying other scales.
"But those magic moments when you find the right scale for a picture that wasn't working make it worth all the energy it takes to break out of doing your work the habitual way."