Photo-Philosophy

Sharpness? Overrated, and very rarely part of the definition of a good photo!

Sharpness

I’m not going to overdo this particular sentiment, it’s been articulated a million times. That being said, I do want to chuck a few thoughts into the mix about sharpness not being everything in photography, specifically because I’ve just had a very pleasing reminder of that fact in my own work.

We in the analogue community are probably a little more aware of this than those who solely shoot digital – not least because our world isn’t so turned by the camera manufacturers trying to sell us new, bigger, better, faster and sharper lenses and cameras. To be fair, it’s probably a slightly unfair stereotype, but nonetheless it does seem that more digital photographers obsess about sharpness than don’t. You only need to spend a few minutes reading the comments section on DPR to get this impression. I’ve no idea when Bresson said what he did about sharpness and the bourgeois, but I’d suspect that even he would be shocked at the extent of the obsession modern photography often appears to have with it.

To be fair, it’s not isolated to digital photography either. Lens reviews have fetishised high numbers of line pairs since way before digital photography existed. And it’s not like there’s been an official ceasefire in the war of words between those who take the opinion that film out-resolves digital and visa-versa.

The problem with the arguments for sharpness and resolution is that they often forget to acknowledge the content of a photo. As I talk about in my post about defining the perfect lens, the image making process is well-analogised as a puzzle. The “best” lens for the job is not always the sharpest, fastest, most expensive, or whatever; it’s the lens that’s right for the desired aesthetic in the result. That sentiment applies here too. There are plenty of fields of photography where some requirement for sharpness is valid. But there are just as many where a need for sharpness is way less important than narrative or simply overall aesthetics.

It’s also worth noting that, conceptually at least, sharpness is a bit of a grey area anyway. Sharpness is derived from contrast and resolution. Without contrast, sharpness from high resolution would be imperceptible. What’s even more interesting is that perceptible sharpness can be derived from higher contrast even where the resolution is lacking. This has practical implications on so many elements of the process of taking a “good” photo, yet they seem to me to be rarely acknowledged in modern photography and the choices that many modern photographers make when choosing their equipment. But anyway, I’m drifting a little more into the details here. I’ve written a load more about all this sharpness, resolution and contrast lark here, if you’re interested.

What inspired this post was something much less technical. What inspired it was a realisation, or at very least a reminder of my own opinions about all this stuff when looking through some snaps from a recent holiday in North Wales. I took a few photos I’m quite pleased with on that holiday, but the one that arguably put the biggest smile on my face was this one I took of of my girls:

Wales 2018

The only thing that’s sharp in this image is the ice cream, and even that is debatable. Now, I could argue that Norah’s cheeky little face was because she was after a lick of Connie’s post-bike-ride treat, and therefore the ice cream is actually the subject. In reality, I was taking photos with an Olympus mju-ii – it didn’t focus on the ice cream because I wanted it to – I was just point-and-shooting – it focused on what it wanted to in the moment.

What’s interesting about this for me personally – and is I suppose the whole point of this post – is that there was a time in my photography-life that I would’ve been disappointed by this photo. I would have seen it as a miss because the real subject of the photo, Norah, is soft. I no longer feel this way at all. In fact, it occurred to me looking at this “miss” that the lack of sharpness doesn’t detract at all from this photo in my eyes. More importantly, the lack of sharpness doesn’t detract from the memories I captured in that moment.

There’s the stuff you can see in the photo: my three beautiful girls, Norah’s cheeky little face, the lovely weather etc. But there’s all the stuff you can’t see too: the pride I had in Connie having just cycled 11 miles without needing help or even stopping to complain, my enjoyment of the sea air, the time away from home with my family, my enjoyment in having some time to take some snaps… This photo contains such a wealth of happy memories that the arguments about sharpness seem insignificant to the point of mockery. Whether or not it’s a good photo by anyone else’s standards is another matter…

Of course, the other side of the argument is articulated by a photo like this one:

First roll from the Minolta TC-1

Taken with a Minolta TC-1, the rendering of the foreground detail makes the image for me. I might still have been an ok photo without the biting detail in the bricks, but for me, that detail is where the interest in this image is.

But, of all the photos I’ve taken in the last ~10 years, it’s the only one that stands out in my mind as being good specifically because of particularly sharp elements within the frame. Every other photo I’ve taken that I’m pleased with, I’ve been pleased with for reasons above and beyond sharpness.

So does sharpness matter? Yes of course it does. I’ve used two examples here that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum within my photography. A large majority of photos that sit between these examples in the soft-to-sharp spectrum are better off for a modicum of sharpness, or at very least the benefit from being in focus. The point is though, an incredibly high percentage of the time, sharpness is not what defines a good photo! Which makes one wonder why so many people – myself included – talk about it so much…

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Jordan Lockhart
    September 9, 2018 at 10:39 am

    I guess sharpness HAS been an obsession for a long time. Lately I’ve been reading photography magazines from the 80s and 90s.

    In one double page ad talking about sharpness it showed a picture of a cowboy, on the other page there is a 2500% enlargement of the cowboys face. I’d say the beats the modern 100% test pixel peepers are so keen on!

    Funny enough tlit was advertising the film though, not a lens.

  • Reply
    Julian Higgs
    September 9, 2018 at 11:40 am

    Agree totally Hamish, some of my favourite images either of my own or others have been very much less than sharp. It is all about content and what the image is saying. How it connects with the viewer. Be that yourself, your family member or a third party that has no emotional/personal connection to the picture. More of this kind of attitude to photographic output would in my opinion make a lot of people better photographers. Seems to me a lot of photography has been turned into graphic art, I can admit to that myself, and why not, but truly powerful images tell a story or illustrate an emotion. That it the gold dust I search for.

  • Reply
    Tom Perry
    September 9, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Photography is a game set up for three players. The photographer, the industry, and the audience.
    The photographer and the audience both have subjective tastes – soft and sharp don’t really matter as much as the context of the picture, and what they get from it in terms of feeling.

    The industry, however (and I’m using that term to cover every camera and film manufacturer and those whose products affect the final image), wants to push amateurs towards the goal of *technical perfection*. Mostly because it is very difficult to get to, and will take time, effort and more gear. Endless rolls of film for practice, specific lenses to get certain fields of views, flashes, tripods, filters, memory cards, extra batteries, bigger sensors to capture all the detail, newer software to process images…. The list goes on and on. Technical perfection relies on sharpness as a crutch to sell lenses, and if you are gear obsessed, sends you down a rabbit hole. Like all good stories, there is a grain of truth – most totally unfocused pictures are unusable. But once a picture has the subject focused…. what then? All lenses do a job – there are obviously variances in quality, but once you’ve got a camera and lens for a specific purpose, and you’re happy with it, that’s it. No need to buy another.

    But all the manufacturers NEED sales to survive – so new systems with mounts, new lenses for those mounts, and all the extras keep coming out. Manufacturers cripple cameras by removing features, drip feeding improvements to allow them to have fresh product with new features. If they didn’t they’d run out of road pretty quickly, and they wouldn’t be able to keep the value of their current lines as (artificially) high for as long. So the myth of sharpness being key and the goal of technical perfection lives on because to make your pictures better you’re always looking for the next bit of tech rather than being happy with what you’ve got.

    I’d also like to throw a thought out to the notion of ‘professional work’ because that feeds into this goal. Because we only see the best work from professional photographers there is an impossible precedent set. It takes seconds to view a picture – but a great piece of professional work has the potential to take weeks to perfect. We don’t see those images straight out of camera, ever. Every one of the technically perfect pictures we see every day involves timescales that most people do not either know about or contemplate. The image is there, viewed for a couple of seconds and then gone. But ‘professional photography’ as defined by the photographic industry sets a bar and creates an illusory destination for amateur photographic practice – once people get past the notion of sharpness and perfection, there’s a lot more fun to be had in photography. It also works out a lot cheaper.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 10, 2018 at 9:22 pm

      “once people get past the notion of sharpness and perfection, there’s a lot more fun to be had in photography. It also works out a lot cheaper.”

      I really couldn’t agree more – thanks for the comment, Tom!

    • Reply
      Neil
      September 10, 2018 at 10:20 pm

      Fantastic comment Tom

  • Reply
    Daniel Fjäll
    September 9, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    It’s what people generally determine the overall performance of todays lenses it seems. I think it’s the camera enthusiasts and not the photographers though.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    September 9, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Hi, Hamish.

    I don’t think sharpness per se can ever be over-rated, as you put it, but the search for ever and ever increasing sharpness is probably a futile quest for the vast majority, and most likely unnecessary. I agree that sharpness isn’t a pre-requisite for a good image (whatever this may mean) and certainly given the lack of sharpness or, more correctly, detail, in the great paintings doesn’t impact one iota on our appreciation of them.

    Some subjects do beg for crystal clarity such that if they are not sharp, or at least meet a certain minimum, will produce less than satisfactory images. Look how we are more likely to appreciate a really sharp macro image than one that is slightly soft, or architectural images and those where texture is very important?

    The image of your children, though, depends for its effect on the fact that you have a strong personal attachment to it. Like many of our old family photographs, we are often not seeing technical perfection, but the memories they invoke and, dare I say, if one views such images purely for their technical competence we’re probably missing the point of the image in the first place.

    This may partly explain why high resolution digital images can look somewhat sterile, IMO. Anyway, just my tuppence worth.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 10, 2018 at 9:19 pm

      Thanks Terry, I’m with you on all of this – I’m coming back with a followup post with more thoughts soon

  • Reply
    Steve B.
    September 9, 2018 at 5:31 pm

    I have recently been looking a lot of Saul Leiter photos. They are definitely not sharp but they sure are brilliant.

    http://www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/saul-leiter?view=slider

    So to my way of thinking sharpness is an overrated concept. It just seems to be more about the camera than the photo.

    As for Saul Leiter I can highly recommend these two books and this video:

    https://steidl.de/Books/Early-Color-2936435359.html

    https://steidl.de/Books/In-My-Room-0811234546.html

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZpevsNKmuM

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 10, 2018 at 9:18 pm

      For sure, pure genius!

    • Reply
      Blinx
      September 11, 2018 at 10:39 pm

      That’s a coincidence. As I read the article Saul Leiter came to mind as a photographic colourist for whom sharpness was relative, not absolute.

      Thinking about this issue recently trying some older lenses on the X-Pro1, the kind of glass that only reaches peak sharpness at f11 or f16, unlike modern lenses that optimise sharpness and resolution much wider. At f5.6 an old Industar or a 7artisans 25mm 1.8 is just getting going, but the relative sharpness of the object in focus doesn’t bite, or “pop” to use a meaningless modern term, which I really like. The background falls away much more gently, without harsh gradations of what’s in and out of focus. The “3-dimensional” rendering modern lenses are praised for isn’t conducive to attractive or poetic photographs.

  • Reply
    Olli Thomson
    September 9, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    I think one of the key things that is often overlooked in the obsession with sharpness is the limitations of the viewer’s vision. Only 35% of people (in the West) have 20/20 or better vision and there is research that suggests that people in SE Asia have even worse vision (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-17942181). While some conditions can be corrected not all can, and not all can be corrected fully. I’m a 50 something bloke and I now have a combination of short sightedness (for many years), mild astigmatism in one eye and presbyopia. I wear contact lenses which renders my vision pretty good, but I cannot distinguish between the microscopically small variations in sharpness that are the obsession of too many photographers (or the kind of photographers who frequent internet fora. The majority of people don’t have perfect vision so the pursuit of perfect sharpness is, I think, a fools errand.

    The other issue for me is that I think images can be too sharp. I’ve noticed this in a couple of photo exhibitions where images were printed at very large sizes. The subject matter of the photographs (in one case wildlife, in the other landscape) to me looked unnatural, even sterile (though I realise this is my subjective judgment and may not be true for others).

  • Reply
    JamesW
    September 9, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    “Whether or not it’s a good photo by anyone else’s standards is another matter…”

    No it isn’t? You took it for you, and by your standards that matter to you, you are pleased with and by it. Yar boo sucks to anyone else who tries to impose their standards on you.
    Of course I may have misunderstood…..

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 9, 2018 at 9:48 pm

      Ah yeah, I couldn’t give a toss what anyone thinks about the picture 🙂

  • Reply
    David
    September 9, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    I try to focus every time I take a picture. Sometimes I get it, the focus, and sometimes I don’t. I hope they don’t confiscate my camera based on the ratio of sharp vs not.

  • Reply
    Louis A. Sousa
    September 10, 2018 at 12:58 am

    I agree wholeheartedly, great post. The overall feel of an image and the story is tells or makes one recall is what matters to me. I have been shooting with frequency for about 9 years – much less than others here and on other photo-centric sites. Today I shoot far less images than I did 9 years ago. I have over time learned how to see an image that works for me. If the scene doesn’t resonate, I don’t capture it. It is not always that I have or take the time to tailor gear or settings to my intent. But when I have this time and use it, sharpness does not enter the equation.

  • Reply
    David Hill, Boston
    September 10, 2018 at 3:49 am

    Regarding the Bresson quote on sharpness—this occurred in 2003, in the year before his death. Someone had the bright idea to have photographers over 80 shoot portraits of each other, and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was tasked with shooting Helmut Newton (1920-2004) when Newton was 83 and HCB 95. They met in a park, HCB was shooting with his Leica — and being 95, perhaps his hands shook a little. Some of the resulting images were blurred, and HCB quipped, “Sharpness is a bourgeoisie concept”.
    And though he was talking of simple stability, and not of lens resolution or sharp focus, the point remains the same — a photograph is more than its technical features.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 10, 2018 at 9:14 pm

      Know-it-all! 😉
      Thanks David – very interesting!

      • Reply
        DAVID HILL
        September 17, 2018 at 6:08 pm

        I know nothing except how to use Google.

  • Reply
    David Hill, Boston
    September 10, 2018 at 3:57 am

    AND… regards your closing query (‘why do we talk of this so much?’) … We talk about sharpness because when it matters it really matters. The photo of your girls would be equally good if the focus was spot-on Norah, or was taken with a sharper lens than in the little Olympus, or as it is — because it’s the content and expression and emotion that make that image (and memory too, but I don’t have your memories and the photo still pings for me). In contrast, your bricks-at-the-riverside photo would fail without sharpness. It may still be good or even great with an unsharp dreamy quality about it, but the character of the photo would be completely changed without its biting foreground detail.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 10, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      Indeed – I have a follow-up coming, thanks for the thoughts!

  • Reply
    DaveG
    September 10, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Look at Anon Corbin’s photos a large percentage of his music work plays with out of focus elements & not shallow depth of field. The legendary fashion photographer Sarah Moon is another example who champions “soft” images & celebrates blur in her work. To me it’s more interesting rather than a technically perfect shot.

  • Reply
    Neil
    September 10, 2018 at 10:28 pm

    First it was the Sony ‘farce’ post, then the X100F meh review…..now this – ooof controversial. Good luck changing the minds of the landscape photographers on YouTube with their L glass and drones.

    Spot on mate.

  • Reply
    Daniel Fjäll
    September 12, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Ansel Adams

  • Reply
    Sharpness? A creative goal, but still not a prerequisite for a good photo, or: why I’m enjoying my Makina 67 - 35mmc
    September 16, 2018 at 8:01 am

    […] recently wrote a post about sharpness being overrated where I ended up alluding to the question (somewhat rhetorically) of why we as photographers obsess […]

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