I’m writing a series called Photographer’s Woo Glossary on Medium, and I’m thrilled to be here on DIY Photography to talk about microcontrast.
Lens design has improved quite steadily over the past hundred years. That is, modern lenses resolve finer detail, render colors and contrast more deeply, and are generally freer from the defects of spherical distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting. These defects are all easily measurable, and in fine art reproduction and scientific photography they are probably very important. But in artistic creation? For many photographers, our lenses have been more than enough for a long time.
Some aberrations, sharpness, and contrast are all measurable, but the art-making process often isn’t (much like microcontrast). We want the best gear for the job, of course, but that means more ineffable artistry and breathability isn’t lost in the pursuit of our technically and measurably perfect lenses. Who’s to say that a slight reduction in spherical distortion will improve your art? Who decided that a thumbnail is necessarily a bad thing, especially when many photographers add a thumbnail when editing. Anyway, what do the real masters of lens design, what do Zeiss, Leica and Cooke – who don’t even need to advertise – do?
The reality is that Cooke and Leica lenses feature a bit of barrel distortion to create their famous 3D pop, Zeiss lenses are often not as sharp as some of their competitors, but they are (micro?) contrasty and well built. For Cooke and Cinema Glass, in particular, the effort is not necessarily to ensure that every lens performs at its technical peak, but that a very similar set of qualities are found in every lens in every range.
Of course, in every hobby and profession, there are elements where the value proposition falls apart almost completely. I type on a custom mechanical keyboard that I paid for way more than double the cost of any other keyboard, just for the privilege of building myself. I use a preamp in my home stereo that’s a lot louder than any stereo I’ve seen before, but I still like using it because I know the production process and think it sounds and looks great.
Microcontrast is one of the places where the value proposition breaks down in photography. Lenses that can be drastically less sharp fetch much higher prices, and since people still enjoy and use the more expensive lenses, we crave the story. My explanation is that making art is much more about using your constraints to your advantage, and people seem to like seemingly worse goals, even at higher prices, that’s fine with me if that’s what that they like to use.
But let’s explore some of the most compelling arguments in favor of microcontrast:
A good microcontrast test would be to take pictures of the same scene with two different lenses and inspect the differences at 100%. Less scrupulous photographers might compare completely different scenes. Worse still, some photographers present images without any controls and simply claim that their image is beautiful thanks to the “microcontrast”.
One of the best online breakdowns comes from Mark Wieczorek on Medium:
This page uses two different images of different models with variations in makeup and lighting, then extrapolates the difference
“The Sigma camera (left) has more microcontrast – each lash contrasts sharply with the surrounding area. The skin has a strong texture that you can almost feel.
The Sony (right) is sharp, but has less microcontrast – you can feel the thinness of every eyelash, but it doesn’t “jump”. The skin texture isn’t as pronounced, although some of that is due to the depth of field.
Look at the lower edge of the lid – the Sigma really feels like it’s there. On the Sony, the difference between the eyelid and the eye is a bit blurry. The Sigma has more microcontrast – each pixel is distinct from the one next to it.
I don’t see that. Lighting differences aside, the photo on the left appears to have a different mascara application altering the quality of the lashes. The lack of eyeshadow in the image on the left (or more likely eyeshadow in a tone that closely matches skin tone when added to black and white). If any of these images jump out at me, it’s the brighter, more complex iris in the image on the right.
Also, you can see that the position of the light is different in each frame in the spotlights. That’s why you can see a difference in the pores of each model. Ignoring the fact that each person will have slightly more or less defined pores, we cannot ignore the fact that faces are three-dimensional down to the pixel level, and lighting from different angles will show different contrast in the pores. .
Let’s see if we can recreate this experiment using slightly more stringent conditions. I’ll be using my old D700 with the 50mm 1.4D, a low resolution sensor by today’s standards, but known for its excellent microcontrast. And next I’ll be using my newer A9 with the Zeiss 55mm. Not out of focus, but very much within the modern framework of microcontrast swapping for resolution. Unfortunately, with no templates to hand, I’ll be using my own pasty morning mug as a test subject.
I didn’t expect the Nikon to display so much contrast. Look at the inter-tonal changes around the outer edge of my eye and my eyebrow. The Sony photo looks very detailed and crisp, but lacks a lot of the dimensionality and pop you can see in the Nikon image.
For anyone playing at home, it should be fairly obvious that the older “worst resolution” Nikon 50mm 1.4d was used to take the image on the left, and the newer Sony 55mm Zeiss has was used to take the right image. Shame really as I had assumed that even a cheaper Zeiss like the 55mm would still show a lot of pop.
Conclusion: creating dimensionality in our imagery
So, am I a new Microcontrast fan?
Well no. If you’ve been paying close attention so far, it won’t be too surprising that I tried to trick you. The images above were not taken with different cameras at all. They are both shot on the A9 with a 55mm lens, and the difference is that I pushed the light down slightly in the left frame to create deeper shadows. That’s the level of fidelity we’re really working with here.
Mark did the right thing and tried to create a fair comparative conditions for his experience. He’s here doing the same thing I’m trying to do: bringing more interesting scientific analysis to online photography. Although I disagree with his conclusion, the methodology was more thorough than most proponents of microcontrast. I have always appreciated and recommend his articles on Culture factor and Normal lenses.
Now, to anyone rushing to the comments to prove me wrong, I throw down this gauntlet:
We can measure the contrast and resolution of a lens. If you want to prove there’s noticeable lens quality outside of these factors, shoot the same shot with the same sensor, lighting, focal length, aperture, and ISO. Ideally on time and with the cameras stacked on top of each other. Show me these two images side by side and how the differences exist outside of the inherent differences in resolution and contrast between the two lenses.
The other way to prove it to me is if lens designers want to come out and demonstrate how they create microcontrast in their lenses and what steps are taken to achieve this. If we’re going to be scientific about this, the burden of proof lies with those seeking to prove that microcontrast exists, not the doubters. The calling card of microcontrast is that it exists outside of measurement but is perceptible. If it wasn’t noticeable, it wouldn’t matter. I therefore await this proof with impatience.
For the rest of us, while waiting for someone to take on this experiment, try to take advantage of the skepticism. Watch how reviewers, makers, and bloggers lean into the myth to add to their own sense of credibility and perpetuate the cycle of commerce. As a microcontrast skeptic, be sure to take a look at how composition, lighting, and even makeup can drastically change the look, feel, and yes, the depth of your imagery.
About the Author
Josh Wells writes about better photography through science and philosophy for the blog UV Filter Monocles on Medium. You can see more of his work on his websiteand also be sure to follow him on Facebook and instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.