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Divining the Details

A Musing on Megapixels (featuring the Sony A7rii mirrorless camera)

This commentary was partially inspired by a snapshot containing a spider I did not see crawling up a large monument of an angel in a Catholic cemetery, hence the title, Divining the Details.

The faculty of seeing and reacting to the world can be facilitated by precision tools that have had a thoughtful history of real-​world practice built into their design. The Leica M was the benchmark for 35 mm analog (cameras and lenses) and the Sony Alpha mirrorless series may be laying claim to a similar, digital legacy if they continue to combine precision, dependability and usability in the same system. The Sony A7rii defies initial expectations by offering something intuitively precise in its base potential that is even a bit fetishistic for those fascinated by well-​crafted devices.

As an on-​off photographer for 30+ years and former (brassy-​as-​hell) Leica user, at first grasp the A7rii has good balance with the right lens, a solid feel for those who have carried cameras for years, made for eyepiece framers (as I rarely use the tilt screen) appreciative of quality optics that can be fine tuned and confirmed in the viewfinder when magnified for manual, critical focus.

Following up on the theme of the divine, it seemed appropriate to return to the Cemetiere des Notre Dame des Neiges in Montréal, and test the A7rii within a garden of monumental beauty and a haven for insects living within so many fine webs to focus on. The assemblage of layers of insect life living among representations of death and deity in stone unfold together in almost symbiotic fashion.

For in no other place as in a cemetery can stone and thoughtful silence be so frozen by light.

Where a proverbial illumination of the past may become so starkly visible. We are drawn into this silence with reverence of all who came before us and whose remains we walk above but cannot see. It may be for this very reason that such silence can refine our practice of ‘seeing’ into an equally thoughtful experience. So that we may see deeper into that silence. Can better technology help us do that ?

Higher megapixel cameras do force us to look closer and to appreciate the infinite language of every surface texture in relation to light at a closer level. Combine that with macro and focus stacking and a sense of superior quality really comes forward visually. The ability to record that detail with greater scale and accuracy may translate to a greater appreciation of sharing the world for what it is, if indeed something profoundly precious can be found in those areas of the previously unseen that we choose to share as part of our practice or research.

The notion of divining the details also recalls the early wonderment of photo taking we may remember as a fascination with seeing the world and developing that sight into a personal, visual literacy. If one still possesses that fascination for photo taking including those still waddling on their bellies and shimmying on their backs, squeezing into dusty and damp spaces, that wonder may still be the required inspiration into seeing more profoundly into those unknown and silent spaces that are at one time, part of everyone’s vision.

It occurred to me that this increased megapixel range and the high optical quality of lenses like the Zeiss 55 mm f1.8 Sonar, open the possibilities for more precise and thus exciting, scientific, academic, and artistic research. In this respect, the DSLR versus mirrorless debate may fall short as photographers judging the Alpha mirrorless series by their criteria alone are well to realize there is a completely different market for this type of high resolution camera besides those doing typical pro photo gigs. I would add, this camera is for serious researchers of all stripes who want high detail in the field or lab. (For this reason I do take umbrage with spoiled-​shooter-​kids working in-​studio making mediocre head shots, and then complaining.)

This speculation imagines every new photo pro / artist / researcher who is handed a camera of this quality and sent into the field will hitherto uncover unseen process and patterns in their work, practice, or research more precisely. Suddenly we are all potential image anthropologists because the representations we produce are not only aesthetic, but optically accurate. We can anticipate greater accuracy as part of a collective process. Though accuracy was always a given with good optics, once combined with higher and higher resolution sensors that are more affordable than ever, extraordinary results are possible with every image. Divining those details demands greater attention to the precision of the representations we produce. The A7r2 achieves a plateau of digital quality delivering details on a scale that many photographers are only experiencing as they upgrade from the 20-​something megapixel standard we have all come to enjoy as pretty dependable for most of our photo needs. Once this new, larger megapixel range is common, there will be little difference for the average user between major brands, and it will come down to preference of a particular camera design, feature-​set, and the quality of the lenses offered. In this respect, will Sony-​Zeiss hold a future advantage ? –Ron T Simon 0616 

RT Simon
Canada