Art, photos and life in low res – Or where do all the pixels go?

11Aug10

Just a thought, but if Justin Ramsden, an enthusiast of building things with Lego, can create a recognisable and artistic representation of Amy Winehouse in only 3,000 Lego bricks; why do we need 12 million mega pixel cameras to take a decent photo?

Admittedly my main assumption is a little tenuous, in that I assume a Lego brick is like an individual pixel. So if 3,000 bricks create a dramatic and compelling likeness. Why are so many needed in digital cameras to produce realistic tone, depth of field and perception of distinctive colours?

While the human eye can differentiate between colours, the number of colours we may see at once is a somewhat debated topic. The starting point in recent years appears to have been 16.7 million colours, perhaps in part because we can make machines that see that many.

The study by Gunter Wyszecki established that humans see up to 10 million colours. However there is a degree of variability between the two eyes of each individual, let alone in the average per person.

David Myers Study in 2007 claimed that most people are lucky if they can discriminate between 7 million colours. But with a characteristic preciseness, for a person with a German sounding name, Kurt Kleiner commented on his extensive study “Humans, other apes, and Old World monkeys have trichromatic vision, with eyes containing three colour receptors; sensitive to blue, green, and yellow-red. They allow us and our Old World relatives to distinguish around 2.3 million colours.”

And so the difference in what we can actually see continues to tumble.

The near-urban myth seems to suggest humans may reliably distinguish between around 1 million colours at any one time, as this allows for recognisable graduated change in each colour represented. This has become a joke, but one with a degree of evidence and acceptance. From Google, an example:

“Every single pixel shown below is of a different color, but still, the human eye is capable of distinguishing ten times as many colors! (It’s really not practical to create a ten times larger image for this demonstration, as it cannot be easily viewed in full on most screens… So this example should fulfil demonstration requirements.”

A techy note: Saving this image as compressed but lossless PNG, the file size is only 11 Kb – while saving it in uncompressed TIFF, the same image is a whopping 3Mb! Saving in “artifacty” JPG would of course change the value of some pixels, some would describe this as altering the true intent of the image… But also note that most modern computers can display over 16 million colors (256 levels each of red, green & blue), while only 100 levels of each color are shown here.

But if the drop down to only 1 million sounds significant, think back. Only a few years ago images described as ‘Life-like’ used a system known as HighColor or HiColor. Many 16-bit colour photos used 5 bits to represent red, 5 bits to represent blue, and (as the human eye is more sensitive to the colour green) 6 bits to represent 64 levels of green; this was sometimes referred to as 5650 format. These RGB levels can be combined to give 65,536 (32 × 64 × 32) mixed colours. Computer screens, cameras and TV sets weren’t able to beat this level of detail for years – did we see what we thought were photo-realistic images at the time, but now change our minds to describe this as low-res images?

Before 16-Bit (described originally as photo-realistic), we had 8-Bit, and if you keep going back there are some who remember basic photo scans that reproduced an image in 256 colours. Not thousands, but hundreds of colours, for a basic photo in colour.

So when we think of Lego, a product with more than 100 colours (perhaps not all commercially available, but the number continues to expand), it perhaps becomes easier to think of an image made from Lego; using only 3,000 bricks, but still producing an image that may be called art and have a good likeness to its subject.

The artist, Justin Ramsden, aged 19, has said of his work “I really like Lego. It’s a different medium to express my art. I like the fact that although it is all bricks and angular, you can still create curves and artistic designs.”

Simplicity may still convey compelling truth, and realism. So why do we need 12 million pixels for a photo?

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