Much ink is spilt in the photographic press on the notion of image quality. We have at our disposal a large and varied vocabulary for dissecting quality, a toolset both useful and sprawling. How sharp is your capture? Does sharpness diminish at the edges of the frame? How many pixels do you have at your disposal for enlargements? Is your work afflicted by chromatic aberration or lens barrelling? Sometimes the terms are welcome and allow us to be discerning in the way we speak about an image; sometimes they are abstracted and fetishised (as in the case of so many equipment reviews).
I’d like to propose a counter-term that points us in another direction: image quality. Not, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind’, or even ‘the degree of excellence of something’. No, I mean it in another sense of the same word: ‘a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something.’
Sure, I choose Kodak Ektar film for its fine grain, Ilford HP5+ for its exposure latitude, or Ilfosol 3 developer for its sharpness-bestowing qualities. These are technical qualities but they do not speak to the image qualities that make me choose a certain film. Here I mean the skin tones of Kodak Portra, the lush tonality of Kodak TMAX, the cleanliness of Delta 100, the electric colour palette of Ektar … the inimitable look of a negative on silver gelatin paper. These are the ‘distinctive attributes or characteristics’ that trespass on the subjective, part objective image quality, part personal preference. I choose it because it has that ‘quality’ that I like. It fits with my vision of the world, of the world photographed on my terms.
So the next time somebody asks you why you have chosen a particular camera, lens, or film (especially if they come armed with reviewer’s score notion of quality), rebut them with your contrary idea. You’ve chosen it because it gives you the look that you want, that special look in a sea of endless visual possibilities. That very personal and undefinable image quality.