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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Tiny-JPEG Fallacy

M. Johnston, Surface Tension, 2005

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."

14 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Ivey said...

I've the reverse of this happen many times: The tiny thumbnail looks awesome, but at full res the picture is disappointing. For me, this happens frequently with computer generated scenes. The thumbnail looks so lifelike and realistic, but at higher res it looks too straight, clean, and obviously rendered.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous John Koontz said...

Something you hear quite often is "ANYTHING looks better bigger." Because we're so used to looking at things small, whenever we see something big, we interprete it to be better. In fact, we should be comparing these large prints to other large prints to get a true feeling for what is good and what is not so good.

This isn't meant to be a critique of your photo. It is meant to warn people of the seductions of big.

1:51 PM  
Blogger pascal said...

Reminds me of Chuck Close's work from the 60's and then the more recent stuff after his stroke. You look at the tiny art book reproduction of his old work and see it as a photo. You look at his newer work in an art book and see it as a painting. You look at both in a gallery and see both as a painting.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good Mike.

I also enjoyed your weather comments on WI. That is why I can't go back.



Dick S.

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Sean Ellwood said...

I think there's a flip side to this coin, and it's a message to any photographer expecting to disseminate his or her work through internet-land. Different images work better in different media, and if you want to have success on the internet you need to master certain skills- making images with striking, simple composition so they look good in thumbnail, the technical side of sharpening and jpeg export, gauging the effect of an internet gallery space on the images it contains, so on and so forth.

Looking at images from the past with a scholarly eye, the onus is on us to suit our viewing to the subject matter. It's equally important for us to recognise now that the majority of viewers won't make any such effort.

/$0.02

Nice article. I can see just from the difference between the small and large(ish) jpeg that the difference at full size would be staggering.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Janne said...

Another way to see this issue is as a question of medium. If you, as a photographer/artist expect your work to be represented as small JPGs, then that's the medium you have to work with.

It would be a bit disingenious to create an image that only comes alive at large size, happily allow it to be represented as a small print or jpg and then complain that it doesn't represent the true work.

I know, many do not in fact complain - getting wider exposure is important after all, and many are probably quite ahppy to have people see their work even if the full impact isn't there. But knowing the reality of small catalog reproductions, web site presentations and so on, the prudent artist will take that into account when creating the image. If the subject matter really, truly can't "work" at less than a meter-long print, then you probably shoud forbid any reproductions - and accept the inevitable loss of exposure.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Heck, ARTISTS have no control over how their work is viewed at all! I'm making this point as a VIEWER of pictures, as a part of the audience trying to understand and appreciate the work for what it really is. The artist can be held responsible for what she or he signs off on. Beyond that it's largely out of their control and it's up to us to try to understand what we're looking at. It's a big distinction.

--Mike

9:44 PM  
Blogger nimesh said...

Going one step further, if instead of digital, this was a slide film shot, I wonder what the impact would be on viewing this image projected on the wall by an optical projector.

5:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the other hand, I've seen instances of where smaller (prints) may be "better".

I'm sure everyone's seen some Man Ray work before (think woman's back with violin f-hole, close-up of eye with water drops, etc.), and because of their popularity, they've been reproduced fairly big (e.g. poster size). However, I was fortunate enough to see a Man Ray exhibit with originals, and most of these shots were quite small... say, no larger than 8 x 10. Mind you, I think at the time, paper size was limited, so that may have influenced the final size more than anything. Although, there were several shots that were say, wallet sized (2 x 3).

Totally changed my impression of the photos (for the better). Can't say if bigger/smaller is better/worse, but even smaller can give a good impression, depending on the context, medium, display space, etc.

- thigmo

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Josiah Davidson said...

Mike, you really opened up a great topic -- with all of its attendant different sides or faces.

It also needs to be considered in how we see/shoot. How will my shot be reproduced? What format/equipment will be most appropriate? Can I achieve a "multi-level" image here (one that works at various sizes and in varous media, being many things to many viewers)?

This is all extremely applicable in my shooting stock. I know that if my images don't jump off the page in a sea of small jpgs, they will never be seen any larger (or bought/published).

11:44 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

You make a good point, Mike. We think we've seen it, but we haven't.
I think many photographers cut their own throat by posting only very small versions on the web, out of fear of "theft". Most images can't really be appreciated at less than XGA (768x1024), in my opinion.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Dave New said...

My 'large-size' epiphany came a few years back, when the traveling Monet exhibit came to Chicago.

In spite of the fact that I have a door-sized mounted/framed poster of Monet's "Water Lilies", it never occurred to me how mind-boggingly BIG he painted sometimes, until I saw the originals, and realized that my door-sized poster was only a 100% reproduction of a small portion of what turned out to be a thirty foot (or longer) painting.

It became my introduction to what has been called in digital photography as 'pixel peeping'.

The interesting part, though, is I find my door-size detail still satisfying, perhaps because I realize that I could never own or accomodate the real thing. I think it has something to do with the fact that viewing a door-sized object is more comfortable in the confines of a typical room in a house, rather than having to stand too close to something much larger. In either case, though, Monet's depiction strikes me as 'larger than life', as if one is practically swimming in the lilies, rather than viewing them from some reasonable distance on shore. Perhaps an example of art macrography.

As a counter-example, I've also had a wall-sized poster of the surface of the Moon with a spectacular Earthrise in one room. The experience there, though, was one of feeling as if you are of the same scale as the poster. At that point, it draws you in, as if you are standing on the Moon.

I've also been interested recently, in the really big Hubble space telescope mosaics that have been posted from time to time on the astronomy photo of the day site. The Cranbrook museum in SE Michigan has an approximately 30x50 inch print of a Hubble mosaic of the Orion Nebula across from the entrance to their planetarium, and I must say it looks absolutely gorgeous at that size. If I remember, the original is 16K x 16K pixels, or 64M pixels. When you see really sharp astronomical photos like that with thousands of stars, bigger really IS better.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

On the other hand, there's something really special about tiny pictures - they're peculiarly intimate in the way they invite the reader to peer into another world, one they might otherwise miss... That's what I used to tell people when I had a 2mp digicam anyway :-)

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

12:05 PM  

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