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:
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:
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…