The answer depends on what you mean by technical quality. Few would argue that good color management, for instance, is unnecessary. Most photographers would see a significant increase in quality just by using a well calibrated monitor - the first step in color management. Print quality is another fundamental area but one that’s far harder to quantify. What’s the difference between a great print and an okay print? It’s like many other things - you know it when you see it but it’s very hard to define. Let’s just say that experience in looking at fine prints helps one know the difference. In general, a fine print has a balanced, “real” quality comprising a wide range of tones, sharp details, information in both shadows and highlights (not just black and white) rich blacks, clean highlights, accurate or at least “realistic” colors, a sense of “balance,” correct contrast and saturation… the list goes on. It also has no significant obvious defects such as scratches, excessive spots or other artifacts such as stains. (Though I can think of exceptions to just about every one of these criteria.)
When might higher cost equipment/technical solutions be necessary? (This is not a comprehensive list but rather a few instances.):
- Technical Imaging - Medical, scientific and other forms of technical imaging may be worth whatever the cost might be. If the most subtle detail can help with a diagnosis, produce a more accurate map, or insure that a part will work better in an expensive machine then cost is hardly the issue.
- Answering Important Questions - If a higher resolution sensor can help answer a meaningful question, for instance, “Is there a planet circling that star?” then it is likely to be worth whatever it costs.
- Very Large Images Viewed Close Up - If your objective as a landscape photographer, for instance, is to capture the finest details in a scene and have them be clearly visible, sharp and with minimal distortion or artifacts when reproduced large, then a state of the art system might be justifiable.
- Highly Cropped Images - The same as above…
- Motion Analysis, Fast Action, Sports - Applications that are demanding of both high resolution and high frame rates (frames per second) almost always require more expensive equipment. Faster chips, bigger buffers, speedy image processing are all necessary and not cheap.
- General Professional Imaging - When your images require reliability in all conditions system quality becomes paramount. Redundancy, versatility, a comprehensive range of accessories, mechanical build quality, weather proofing, great optical qualities, high enough resolution for most everything you might encounter are all expensive but necessary criteria. Your equipment may need to sit for extended periods of time in the 130-degree trunk of your car; be tossed about by luggage handlers or subjected to freezing temperatures in arctic or lab conditions; when you might need to have access to replacements quickly and easily no matter where you are; when capturing the right image might be critical to success or failure; in these instances, among others, cost trade offs become less important. But always keep in mind that someone has to be willing to pay you sufficiently to justify the purchase of such equipment. (Renting can be an excellent alternative.)
- Art Reproduction - Quality art reproduction doesn’t come easily. It requires versatile lighting, high resolution, and superlative color management. The ability to control lighting ratios top to bottom and left to right, for instance, is critical to creating the kind of shadows that help define the 3D, “reach out and touch it” feel of oil and acrylic painting reproductions. High resolution scanning or capture may be necessary to preserve detail or create a very large print.
- “Future Unknown” Archives - No one knows what the future holds and, in some instances, it might be deemed worthwhile to capture as much information about an object or phenomenon as possible. Might the critical original vanish in an earthquake or fire? Might it deteriorate over time? Might it disappear in a fraction of a second? In such cases, maximum technical quality and resolution might be necessary to capture and preserve such things. It would be hard, for instance, to make a detailed life size image of a whale if it’s species became endangered or disappeared. The same can be said of temporary phenomenon such as the creation of sub-atomic particles.