Pictures from my daily walk “Flowers by a lamppost” January 2019 50mm F1.4 lens and a single layer of a plastic bag filter
Sharpness is not all it’s cracked up to be in photography
Sharpness is not all it’s cracked up to be in photography as the f64 Group thought in 1930’s America, it is a highly overrated “bourgeois concept” to quote Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Pictures do not become more real or truthful when they are clinically sharp. Some of the best and most memorable pictures ever taken by today’s digital standards are not sharp. Sharpness has to be appropriate for the style and use of the picture.
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Some of the best and most memorable pictures ever taken by today’s digital standards are not sharp.
Take for example Robert Capa’s shots of the D-Day Landings taken under enemy fire on the Normandy beaches. When the films were developed in an attempt to speed up the drying time of the negatives a young darkroom assistant turned up the heat in the film drier and then forgot to take them out at the appropriate time. Thus, nearly losing a unique record but giving the pictures an individual soft look.
I was out photographing with a friend Jay Charnock FRPS in London recently (enjoying a glass of red wine in an east end pub, is nearer the truth, to be honest.) (She leads me down paths of unrighteousness after losing 3 stone!). Jay reminded me of something that was talked about in the 1980s. Softening a picture by putting a plastic bag over the lens.
All the pictures in this post have been taken using this technique plus the addition of film grain in Lightroom with settings Amount 100. Size 50, Roughness 50
Is this technique sacrilege?
To some, this will seem like sacrilege, every effort by the lens designer and manufacturer has been to make a product that produces the finest detail for a given acceptable cost.
Others, like me, think just because a lens can produce very fine detail and high contrast that is not why I take pictures. The lens is only part of a tool for me to collect initial pictures that can be interpreted later.
Hence the title of this blog post – How Acceptable Is Digital Sharpness To You?
A sharp picture can be describing reality (descriptive reality) in a clinical way as though that may be the only version of the truth. Sir Issac Newton’s third law of motion stated in 1687:
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
This statement is not only true in the laws of motion but in life as well. Take the dreaded B word as an example, with a 52:48 vote there are many interpretations as to what leave actually means depending on your point of view.
Digital is too everything
For those long-suffering readers of my blog, you will have noted that I have said many times that digital is too everything, I mean too: sharp, saturated, contrasty, clinical and everywhere.
The focus judgement
The focus judgement at the taking stage is all about knowing, subconsciously and automatically, what is right for a given shot. This knowing what is appropriate will come from your awareness and intent. If your intent is to have your dominant picture element sharp then it should be sharp and likewise, if your intent was to place the point of sharp focus not on the dominant element then that is what you should achieve.
Pictures from my daily walk “BWP 650H” January 2019 50mm F1.4 lens and a single layer of a plastic bag filter
Digital Photography is a much less linear process than film, aspects of focus stacking and focus tweaking can be added after the shot has been taken. Focus tweaking is selectively adding Clarity, Sharpness and Dehaze to an area of the picture to increase edge sharpness and give it the appearance of apparent sharpness. This process is of limited value if the shot is clearly not what it should be.
Free Top Tip
We all make mistakes I know I do occasionally especially as I use manual focus lenses for most of the time. If you shot is not as sharp as hoped for then it may be rescued by the addition of film grain in Lightroom or Camera Raw. The addition of Grain softens the look and may cover the fact the underlying picture was not entirely sharp.
Sharpness is a fashion victim
Sharpness has become a fashion victim because the mass view believes camera manufacturers when they make lense as sharp as possible. As an example of vastly exaggerated over-sharpening, I once had a client who pre-sharpened their pictures with Nik Sharpener Pro 3 Raw Pre-sharpening, then in Lightroom Develop module AND then again in the Lightroom Print module. The results to me were totally unacceptable because there had been no awareness of the halos and artefacts generated.
Acceptable sharpness of a photo depends on a number of factors:
1 The intended use of the picture
It is wise to think about the use of the picture and where it may be shown. Will the picture be seen across platforms eg. digital, competition print, large poster, photo book, A5 flyer, A2 exhibition print. Each one of these outputs may require different sharpening for the picture.
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2 The output medium – printing with Fotospeed
Where the output medium is print, the type of paper used can be of the following types from Fotospeed my sponsors
Photogloss – Fotospeed PF Gloss 270
Art gloss – Fotospeed Platinum Baryta 300 Signature paper
Semigloss – Fotospeed Platinum Lustre 270
Matt – Fotospeed Platinum Matt 280
Matt papers with a texture such as the Fotospeed Natural Soft Textured NST 315 are inherently less able to represent fine detail in a picture because of the texture. The bigger the texture the softer the picture.
3 The age and capacity of the capture medium
We are likely to be more accepting of soft focus when generated by an older camera or uncoated lens than we are at a moderately high-resolution digital camera.
Just because a picture is created on a digital device does not mean to say it has to be fashionably or acceptably sharp. The Photographer is in charge of the whole process of taking and making the picture, sharpness is one of the many considerations to be considered by the photographer.
4 Current accepted standards and fashion
The currently accepted standard of sharpness is way beyond film technology. The digital capability has the ability to show us fine detail not possible with the finest grain films. Just because you can make a picture bitingly sharp doesn’t mean to say you have to. With the rise of digital cameras with more pixels and increasing resolution, their needs to be a reference back to the ability of the output medium to display that resolution and fine detail.
The key word here is appropriateness.
5 Personal taste and awareness
Each photographer has their own personal preference as to what sharpness is acceptable to them. My personal preference is less is more, if I have to sharpen it’s usually to a specific area of the picture in a small amount. The reason for this choice is I want my pictures to the film rather than digital.
6 The proposed viewing distance
If a picture is to be viewed say within a distance of 1 m, then the standard of acceptable sharpness will be much lower than when it is designed to be viewed at a distance of 5 m or more
Pictures do not become more real or truthful when they are critically sharp. Some of the best and most memorable pictures ever taken by today’s digital standards are not sharp. Sharpness has to be appropriate for the style and use of the picture.
You are in charge of the whole picture taking and making workflow – you have the right and the power to make your own choices.
For more on the practical aspects of focus click here