Why Do We Want Better Cameras If We Keep Making the Photos Look Worse?


There was a time in the mid to late 90s when Nirvana was all the rage, people wore too much flannel, and the design world was pre-occupied with “grunge.” Ironically, the proliferation of digital design via Aldus Pagemaker led to a decidedly analog look that was epitomized by David Carson’s Ray Gun magazine – a vehement statement against clarity, cleanliness and legibility. Carson even went so far as to lay out an entire magazine piece in Zapf Dingbats because it was “just a really boring article.”


Design aethestics ebb and flow, and we are now in an era of “flat” design. The buzzword of the day, “skeuomorphism,” has left the building, and ultra clean type and layout is in.

In photography, however, we’re seeing somewhat of an opposite trend. Despite an ever increasing resolution and fidelity of camera sensors and lenses, a large subset of people seem hellbent on making photographs look grungier.

The most obvious manifestation of this phenomena is the enormous popularity of Instagram and its nearly requisite filters. It’s almost not an “insta” if you don’t apply a filter. This trend is so incredibly pervasive, that it gave rise to the #nofilter hashtag. As if one couldn’t believe a sunset could be so fantastic as to not require the use of a filter!

Photo by allen3

Photo by allen3

Google’s Snapseed application offers a similar “one button” effect for photography, and not only will it alter the tonal curves and saturations, but you can also apply dust and scratches to the image. Yes, the very things that we worked for hours to eliminate in the analog age, can be reapplied in fractions of a second in the digital age.

And as big a fan of lomography as I am, I’m still scratching my head at the runaway success of its Petzval lens Kickstarter campaign. When it was invented in the 19th century, the Petzval lens was popular because it allowed a super fast f/3.5, which was a significant technological development since film speeds were so slow. The unintended optical design of the lens featured a crisp center focus, but suffered from heavy vignetting and edge distortion. But now, those defects are being marketed as a plus for portrait photography.

Lomography writes, “Photos shot with a Petzval lens are immediately recognizable for their sharpness and crispness, strong color saturation, wonderful swirly bokeh effect, artful vignettes and narrow depth of field. The totally distinctive look of Petzval photos is all about the fantastic lens design that gives you the satisfaction of the instant optic experience that goes far beyond using photo editing software and filters.”

Photo by Lomography

Photo by Lomography

This all sounds wonderful, but the sample images simply don’t match the description. Yet, nearly 3,000 backers believe that this will be a welcome addition to compliment their $3500, 22.3 MP Canon 5D. I definitely don’t need another 2 lbs of glass and brass. This might be yet another manifestation of Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or perhaps it’s something else.

Perhaps it’s all about self-expression. Perhaps we want to induce the instant nostalgia that faux analog seems to afford us. Or maybe tailoring the output of our images allows us to personally embellish the literal medium. “Worse” to me might be “better” to you, and I can accept that without reservations. But then why on earth do we continue to pine for the latest and greatest technology? The faster lens with more megapixels and the Mark 38 designation.

For me, nostalgia is induced by the subjects of my photography – what they were doing and wearing, and how they are situated in the environment – not some gimmick to make photos look old. True faded photographs will die off like the dinosaurs, which makes me wonder how our children will feel when they view a digital photo taken 50 years earlier with perfect fidelity. But I’m going to wait 50 years to tackle that issue, and in the meantime, you can find me taking some tack sharp photos in the corner while wearing my flannel shirt.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

Image credit: Camera LCDs by Hamed Saber

  • Alan Sailer

    Good article.

    The one point I would like to make is that the sales of compact P&S cameras as well as DSLRs are currently in free fall.

    So the majority of people are not pining for super-fast lenses and more megapixels. Which could explain a lot of what you note in this article.


  • Brett

    I personally see it as the fact that we can choose to have both a filtered version and a non filtered version.

  • Michael Rasmussen

    I’m kinda with Alan here.
    Are you conflating two distinct groups of “we”?
    The we with phone cameras and lots of filters,
    The we with stand alone cameras and an aesthetic focused on image quality
    Seen to be, largely, two different groups.

  • RMillward

    Yeah, I’m with you on this – and that second group is a LOT smaller than previously thought, as evidenced by the freefall in sales numbers for both the P&S cameras being replaced by smartphones and the DSLRs no longer being bought by the type of people who never learned how to use them in the first place and are now switching to smartphones, too.

  • radiancedeluxe

    Could. Not. Agree. More.

  • radiancedeluxe

    I disagree. there are legions of folks with nice cameras using “faddish” post processing. not for me to judge, and to each their own.

  • SquarePegPinhole

    There’s a huge market for textures, effects and filters in Photoshop…a tool used mainly by the stand-alone camera group you mention. Really, amateurs just emulate the pros, right?

  • BrokenHelix79

    There are folks who would call themselves members of both groups, and I’m one of them. I love both aesthetics almost equally, and in vastly different ways.

    My professional work deals squarely with superior quality (in terms of sharpness, low noise, etc.), but I spend much of my personal, “hobby” time playing with filter apps on my phone and experimenting with tools like the Lytro and Holgas, etc.

    I’ve never quite understood the venomous rants against one side or the other. Those people are only selling themselves short, and stifling their own creativity by limiting the tools they use. I have clients and friends who praise me for my professional work, and then groan when I pull out my iPhone to Instagram (or, lately, VSCOcam) something that catches my eye.

    And while they groan and roll their eyes, I’m satisfying my creative spirit.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Not a big fan of this trend either, but to play the devil’s advocate, Google the term “wabi-sabi”. That -might- explain part of it.

  • wickerprints

    I think the Petzval lens is a poor example of the point the author is trying to make, and it suggests that he does not understand the appeal of deliberately aberrant optics.

    Many optical aberrations are phenomena that cannot be easily simulated or otherwise achieved. For example, the Petzval design has a strong effect on the bokeh of the image due to its uncorrected field curvature. To choose this effect is neither “nostalgia” nor making the photo look “worse.” It is no different than any of the other innumerable choices a photographer makes when creating an image. It is simply another creative tool at one’s disposal. That is may be a popular or sought-after effect is irrelevant.

    Photographers have always chosen specific lenses not just for utility, but for aesthetic impact. This is no different. I might not care for its steampunk styling–such a simple lens could be at least as functional if its barrel was made of plastic or aluminum–but that is a minor point.

    The artist’s toolbox is fundamentally about choice. It’s not, and has never really been, about function, efficiency, quality, status, money, or technicality. I see people buy the most expensive lenses, thinking that doing so will automatically make their images better. Conversely, I see others make compelling images with the most basic of tools. But neither approach is entirely correct nor entirely wrong. The only truth that we as photographers are ultimately left with is the reality of the creation we have made; even the most deceptive, processed, and manipulated fiction is itself a real, concrete visual object. And it is on the merits of this result that the work stands, not the nature of the tools used.

  • MStrait

    I’m with you on this one. I shoot 90% with a Canon G12 and I’m looking at the SX50 to get access to the long focal length. I have a Canon 7D and a Mark 5 with lots of L lenses that I use less and less. I know what the trade offs are, but having a camera with me all the time makes it worth the loss of resolution, speed and low light brown out. I have learned to compensate for all of the above. I’m a happy and very prolific photographer and that is the best I can hope for. I take photographs every day which I would not do with my huge and heavy DSLR’s.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Aye. As with the Lensbaby selective focus lenses, the Petzval lens is yet another tool that utilizes unusual bokeh.

    Owning one of these will not guarantee great images, but it does allow a little more variety that goes beyond simply changing apertures or focal lengths.

  • Adam Cross

    I wouldn’t say people are necessarily making images look “worse”, it’s just an aesthetic choice I suppose, but in the way that it’s fake I also think it adds some kind authenticity to it in the way that it’s affordable and accessible to everyone (not everyone can go out and buy an 8×10 and $$$$$’s worth of sheet film and lenses). It pulls down the walls of what would be an exclusive club, people don’t care that they’re not shooting with real medium/large format gear because what they create is what they imagine they could create with the real thing, it makes them happy and they have a good time snapping away, swiping and pressing buttons. In the same way that bands who put out vinyl and cassettes with limited pressings, record albums on vintage analogue gear or people who still shoot video on electronic tape – There are plenty of people out there who simply can’t afford to go and buy analogue gear to record an album or hunt out tapes and video cameras with something to transfer them to digital so they can sell their product they way they really want to, so they use the readily available and cheap digital technology and “fake” it. it’s an aesthetic or creative choice that lends itself to a way of thinking that just because we are living in an age of ultra-high-definition-gigapixel-3D-madness doesn’t mean we should limit ourselves to a particular trend in creativity. Of course you could argue the opposite and that people are simply happy to be part of another, different crowd and that they’re still limiting themselves by using Instagram, or whatever, but who cares if people are just having a good time creating, right? who cares if Alice Gao takes photos on her “real camera” and the majority of her 600,000 followers will only ever see her images on Instagram as a tiny square image… so what :)

  • Jeffrey Lee

    Expression isn’t always about sharpness and clarity. Neither is having fun. Have you ever seen a Picasso painting from the earlier part of his career vs that of his later life? Did he communicate ideas only though painting subjects in a realistic fashion? Part of the application of filters is because the iPhone (and I assume other camera phones) require one to take a clean, all-automatic “clean” shot and then post process it. Just because it looks “clean” at the beginning of the process doesn’t mean it has to stay that way or was ever intended to. I shoot pinhole photos on 5×7 negative film, in part because of the distinctive look of it. I could take those photos with a 1DmkIV I use for work and make it look like they were taken with a pinhole by using PS, but why is one better than the other. I just enjoy the process differently. Instagram and its ilk are just means by which more people have fun taking photos. I think there’s few people outside the photography world who take such umbrage to the use of filters. They’re having fun with taking photos and don’t feel burned by the vagaries of chemical based products or the difficulty of expensive software. I think we’re doing ourselves a favor by being less dogmatic about this issue.

  • Carl Meyer

    But people don’t buy smart phones to replace P&S cameras they buy smart phones because subsidized monthly plans allow them to.

    Durability was the main constrain of analog camera sales for years Camera sales only boomed again by the switch to digital photography and sales have only been sustained by the rapid increase in image quality.

    Relating camera sales to smart phone sales is deceiving at best.

  • Renato Murakami

    It’s all about market size an options.
    Several of the examples given are not representative of the entire photography market.
    There’s enough room for both photographers seeking a tack sharp image, as photographers who would rather use filters, lenses, and other stuff to give a different aesthetic to his/her work.
    Better resolution and quality of camera and lenses simply gives people more options to choose, because you can’t go wrong with those. You can start with a crisp sharp huge image and turn it into something that looks like it came out of a polaroid camera with expired film, but you can’t take a picture with a lomo and turn it into something that came out of a latest model Hasselblad.
    I particularly don’t think there’s nothing inherently wrong with filters and whatnot. Of course, what separates amateurs from pros is knowing when and how to use them.
    The problem seems always to be the overuse and bad use of such things. Artistically speaking, everything is valid.
    But photography nowadays not only is not something exclusive to professionals anymore, the end objective of them can vary quite a lot too.
    What some photographers these days don’t seem to get is that photography is somewhat like food today. Some think fast food is enough, some just want to have a quick grub to fill their bellies, some have more refined tastes and have the palate for finer, exotic ingredients. Everyone can do it, prepare it, but it’s not always “artistic” in any shape or form because that’s not always the purpose behind it.
    As always, do try to remember that the type of photography you work with (or like) is not the only one that exists out there. Not only in discussions like this one but also on several others (like the watermark discussion, the gear discussion, the lens discussion, etc etc), there seems to be a wide range of people who will always only consider their favorite type of photography, or their particular area of coverage, to build arguments on.

  • mrbeard

    Adding filters to smartphone photos enables the masses to feel creative, just the act of choosing which filter to use is a design choice which gives the user the sense of creating something, which they might not have did since they were at school.

    A similar event happened in painting with “paint by numbers”

  • Diddybond

    I have spent thousands on my photography gear, even put myself through Uni!! I also have an iphone 5 with the Instagram app. I love my Instagram app. You know what the difference is, my Instagram app is for convenient fun and my dslr is a tool that helps me make money. I really don’t get what the hang up is. Maybe there are people who own a dslr who can not find enough creativeness inside themselves and therefore fear an Instagram filter will show them up.

  • Stan B.

    These proclamations, trends and resulting counter trends have been occurring forever. Back in the pre digital mid-’90s, someone on The New York Times remarked that “never in the history of photography have so many bad photographs been taken so well.” You can, of course, multiply that a thousand fold today.

    With today’s continuing digital sensor evolution, people twenty years from now will no doubt remark on the primitive technology we had to deal with today. And just like today, some of us will be trying to make our work look different via any trick in the book,* instead of concentrating on developing a more integral and comprehensive vision.

    While the vast majority always crave newer, faster, bigger- some of us will always lament that which was lost, that which was worth keeping. Sometimes (sometimes) its the little flaws and imperfections that help make art… art.

    Be careful what you wish for.

    * Yes, I too fear the inevitable, oncoming torrent of unbridled Petzvalmania.

  • Eugene Chok

    “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
    Not to mention Flannel is soooo hipster

  • RMillward

    You misunderstood me. In the smartphone era, P&S cameras are literally expensive, excess baggage. And I think if you look at the retail statistics, the boom in digital had nothing to do with image quality – it was all about pricing within reach. Now, no one cares because they have a camera that’s good enough for their purposes in their pocket already. Except for the special purpose units – ruggedized, super zoom, et. al., they pretty much can’t GIVE those things away.

  • markz

    maybe the simple fact that
    “camera users are not homogeneous”
    covers the whole argument
    hell, if water drinkers are so non homogeneous that we have to have a million “flavours” of bottled water and yet people still want to drink tap water what hope do we have of collapsing photographers in to a Borg collective

  • Alan Klughammer

    I think this boils down to not everyone is “into” photography. Some people just want a snapshot as a reminder. For these people, a smartphone is more than enough.
    (Yes I know there are some people doing great work with smartphone cameras, but they are by far in the minority)

  • seaswho

    I agree and it baffles me why so many people feel a “good” photo is one that is blurred and smeared aka instagram. I also was amazed by the runaway success of the funding for the Petzval remake. I looked at the sample images and the images taken by the fitted original were cool, but the images taken with the proto type were just plain bad.

  • Rabi Abonour

    The proliferation of Instagram filters means that all photographers are obsessed with grunge? Give me a break. You are equating disparate trends in the photography world. Yeah, Instagram is popular. But in other segments of the photo world technical quality is being embraced more than ever.

  • Bewar3them00n

    We want better cameras, because we still haven’t reached the same quality level as cameras of old, and I’m talking about the old box of photos in the loft in a box, shot by your grandad using his medium format, or later on the 35mm rangefinders and then the SLRs of this world, like my OM-1
    Digital has been the biggest con of the last decade, shite quality cameras that have only recently in the last 5 years only just begun to approach the quality that was commonplace, my LX3 , while only 10megapixels was the first digital that gave me anything I was happy with ( and still am) when I have to pay £500+ for a quality compact dslr or mirrorless, that can compete with something I can, and have picked up for peanuts, it makes me reluctant to keep replacing digital cameras.
    I have recently picked up a Contax TVS for £70, a beautiful camera, so, it shoots film, so what! I want an x100 but at £500 second hand I can wait.

  • notyou

    Worse? Better? pretty subjective things really! Maybe some people want to take ultra crisp product shots for billboards then slap on a petzval lens and shoot some fun portraits in their own time? Or a lensbaby, cctv lens, or old scratched manual focus lens for that matter.

    There is no such thing as ‘correct’ photography, just your own particular taste. Just like there is no universally good music, film, painting or any other form of art either.

    So do your own thing and stop worrying what everyone else is doing! If you can’t do that you are spending too much time wondering why none of them are paying any attention to your ‘perfect’ photographs.

  • CSM

    This trend is also being driven by art directors and photo editors who are requesting “iphone” and “instagram” type images. Pop culture will out.

  • Rudy Bega

    Why do so many of you care so much? It’s just somebody else’s image.
    Relax and don’t worry about what makes other people happy.

  • ddougyy

    People are clearly jumping for more megapixels. Take a look at the Nokia Lumia 1020. Why does a phone need to have 41 megapixels? I don’t even want that many megapixels on a sensor that small. Marketing departments have lead you to believe that megapixels make you a photographer.

  • AllMixedUp311

    The 41 megapixels IS ridiculous, however, it’s just part of the system they’ve decided to implement to have a broad “zoom” range (aka. cropping large photos). I’m not biased about this, if the resulting image is of great quality then more power to them for doing something different I guess.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    The VSCO/grunge/fake-film look will be out of style in less than five years so plan accordingly.

  • Adam

    The defensiveness in some of these comments is astonishing. It appears that many people perceive Murabayashi’s lamentations as a passing of judgement. The article seemed to me more of an expression of confusion at the intersection of competing trends. I did not see a direct condemnation of Instagram users (or their right to have fun, which several comments seem quick to defend) as much as a bewilderment at how we could be so benchmark-driven with our technology only to use it to reintroduce all the things we obsessively sought to avoid in the past.

    In fact, Murabayashi went to visible lengths to *defend* the subjectivity of art, going as far as saying “I can accept that without reservations.” The crux of this article is not to condemn the rise of low-fi or retro image styling, but to reflect upon how our technologies have evolved and what we’ve done with them along the way. When the age of holographic snapshots arrives, I suspect a similar write-up could appear, anew with bewilderment, highlighting how people are flattening their holograms into 2D images to simulate the imperfect pixel technology of yesteryear.

  • Cody

    If this author was intending to simply state the obvious and not take a stance it is not a very good article.

    I think he takes a clear stance in the last paragraph, “For me, nostalgia is induced by the subjects of my photography – what they were doing and wearing, and how they are situated in the environment – not some gimmick to make photos look old.”

  • ripley

    This is something that has always bothered me since the advent of Instagram. I love looking through boxes of old faded family photos. It’s a tangible experience.

    Then everyone switches over to digital, and keeps all their pixelly photos on their computers. Then everyone realises that the harsh clinical nature of digital photography doesn’t bring the same warm-fuzzies that analogue photography did, however, in our era of instant gratification we cannot simply switch back to analogue, we must fake it. Take a sharp, crisp photo on a phone, flick through a few different filters and upload it. Instant, pseudo-warm-fuzzies.

    I shoot both analogue and digital. In fact, I think I have about 14 different analogue cameras. The rule I always go by is that if I’m shooting digital, the photo must always look digital, I will never try to analogue it up. Because if I want a photo that looks analogue, then I shoot analogue.

  • VSanity

    I have the 1020, and it will definitely replace my P&S, it won’t replace my DSLR however.

  • James

    Perfect, Dead on, Couldn’t have said it better myself.