“Pixel peeping” gets a bad rap because a lot of people agonize over details that would never be noticed unless the image was printed at billboard size, but the impulse to inspect an image carefully is a good one.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I print and frame images for my first exhibition. Here’s the thing: No matter how much we rely on the concept of “proper viewing distance,” in real life people attracted to a photo are going to get as close as they can to see it better. They’re going to stick their noses right up to the image. It’s wrong, but it’s reality.
I’ve been visiting other photographers’ exhibits and often find that an image’s composition or colors draw me closer, but when I get closer, I see that the image isn’t really sharp or there are distracting elements visible, and the feeling that sticks with me is one of disappointment. I don’t want mediocrity hanging on the wall – I want excellence. In these cases sharpness matters. Sometimes we print the image bigger than its resolution allows, and sometimes printing reveals flaws in our shot discipline.
Yes, we know our images look best at the “proper viewing distance,” but if our composition beckons people closer, they need to be rewarded for the engagement, either through appreciation of the technical prowess on display or because some other interesting detail is revealed upon closer inspection. In most of my work, which is shared online, I can prioritize moment quality over technical quality. Prints on display, however, need both a sense of moment AND technical quality for an optimal user experience.