View Full Version : Why are we so concerned about sharpness?
After having followed several rather philosophical threads, I dare to come up wi th my question that has been haunting me since a long time: Why are we so concer ned, if not obsessed by a perfect sharpness of our photographs?
because it gives the illusion of reality, especially at large magnifications.
If you start with a sharp lens you can always create a deliberate softness. A soft lens is just soft. None of us likes to be soft when something else is required!
I think many photographers (in art) are just caught up in aspiring to the Group f/64 standard of sharpness from the foreground to infinity. I personally find the old pictorialist look quite appealing.
What Ellis said.
I've sometimes thought about this, because my natural view of the world, without glasses, is not entirely in focus... So why should I correct it with the camera - I don't wear my glasses all the time.
(I also don't have 3D vision/depth perception, which greatly influences how I envision a photograph - it is already, to some extend, two dimensional to me. To try and give an image depth is, in some way, very unnatural to me...)
Emil, I don't think that "we" are obsessed by perfect sharpness in our "photographs". But we should be obsessed by it in the parts that need perfect sharpness to deliver the right (intended) message. This does not always apply to the whole photograph. In fact, unsharpness is as good as sharpness as a Rule of Composition. It always depends on the expression.
Sharpness might be something a Large Format Photographer is more concerned about. It could be one reason for him to use Large Format. But the opposite conclusion is not valid. The longer focal length in Large Format does also provide a better control of unsharpness.
And there are some disciplines that traditionally have a stress on the more documentary aspects of photography. E.g. Architecture is usually not associated with fuzzy images. A sharper image has more detail/information. An unsharp image makes use of less detail/information to isolate a specific motif or to stimulate a more global perception of the whole image. Regards,
Hi Emil, that's the question I put to myself! and my answer was, I'm not. First, to judge by many great photographs I've seen in the archives at George Eastman, sharpness isn't a criteria for a great image. Second, "sharpness" whatever it is, is perceived (it's all in your head), and if you put it to a test I think you'll find a lot of perceived sharpness is found in the individual image. You hit it, sharpness as criteria is the wrong approach as far as I'm concerned; I'm not concerned with sharpness perfect or otherwise. Best, David
Once a viewer is pulled into an image for compositional or asthetic reasons, they are usually then drawn to the technical aspects of that image. Depending on the subject and how it's being conveyed, sharpness can be a dividend. I like images which show a lot of texture and detail, so sharpness important to me. But I understand that sharpness does not soley rest on the camera lens. Good darkroom technique and knowing your equipment is just as important. Having a sharp lens alone will not ensure a successful image. It goes way beyond that. Just my 2 cents...
I was just looking through a recently published photography book, and there was a segment on Robert Capa's war photographs. Some of the images were very blurred, and according to the author, this made the photographs seem very real and authentic - there is Capa in the field, bullets and bombs whizzing by, and he is having trouble controlling his hand held camera because he can't control his nerves. The author then goes on to reveal that the reason for the blurred images was an assistant who developed the negatives accidentally "overheated" them, and made the emulsion a bit drippy, thus creating strangely unclear images. Yet another example of a darkroom accident creating something good.
One more thing, I was recently looking through some of Edward Weston's portraits, and I could not understand why my mind wanted to believe the images were clear and sharp, while my eye saw that they were anything but. Weston was able to create an illusion of sharpness, even though the pictures are obviously a bit out of focus. He was a good magician......
Funny, what made LF appeal to me most was the ability to defocus using movements and the smaller depth of field (than MF or 35mm).
group 64 didn't advocate the literal interpretation of a scene, but creative interpretation through the use of photography without the need to use another form of expression as a "crutch" to make it seem more accepted as an art form. of course you have to consider the attitudes towards photography at the time.
as for the question, who is the we you are talking about? the need for sharpness also depends on the situation, I would hope that we are less predictable than that.
An interesting question and I think that we as photographers are more concerned about sharpness than our viewers are. I have seen people (non-photographers) commenting favourably on images which I notice are unsharp, but because the image has it's own impact, perhaps due to the subject or the composition or whatever, the viewers are not concerned that part of the image may be unsharp - they just like it for what it is.
If we try to reproduce "reality" type photographs then sharpness and detail certainly enhance these images as they relate closely to what we see, but if we are trying to create an "emotional" response to a photograph I think that sharpness is not so important, look how well abstract images can work and they are often not sharp edge to edge.
I believe it comes down to the subject matter - a portrait with unsharp eyes, whether human or animal, looks very odd, as would an architectural image if the building was not looking sharp and detailed. A landscape photograph on the other hand may look quite nice even if it is a bit soft.
I agree with Thilo; [snip]. . . ."we should be obsessed by it in the parts that need perfect sharpness to deliver the right (intended) message. This does not always apply to the whole photograph. In fact, unsharpness is as good as sharpness as a Rule of Composition. It always depends on the expression. . ."[snip]
- Don't squat with your spurs on.
I do many images that use bokeh, but they are planned and I control where and how much for the effect I'm looking for. I confess what drew me into large format is the lenses (a good one's) ability to make images far sharper over much wider areas than my eye ever could. It fascinates me. Our eyes (when we were younger) can only focus sharply on a very narrow area. When we look at a large scene they "update" many times as we look around and keep adding different parts of the seen to our memory. We think we've taken in a large sharp panorama, but actually we've memorized many little scenes to make up the whole. My camera on the other hand can capture a huge area in resolution my eyes never dreamed of. That kind of sharpness can draw a viewer in even though they're unconscious of why. It is a tool that begs to be used on some images, not all.
Sharpness is in the eye of the photographer. People don't plunk down a few thousand for new LF gear and lenses to have unsharp images unless it is part of the design of the image. Look at most advertising work. The in thing is selective focus and depth of field. I would imagine most of this work is done with LF because you can calculate the exact placement of sharpness with in the image.
Most of my LF work is totally sharp because it is documentary in nature. I am recording a scene that needs to be sharp and do what needs to be done to eliminate exteraneous material from the image. Lf is simply the best tool for that particular aspect of my work.
The current trend in fine art photography is for unsharp images bordering on total blur, usually taken with 35mm, sometimes toy cameras, and pinhole cameras. I am not a sharpness freak, but some of the work I have seen looks the same as what my duaghter could do when she was 3. Check out www.photography-guide.com/index.html to see current Photo galleries in New York. Look for any name you are not familiar with and the work will be of the unsharp-blurry genre and not inexpensive to purchase.
I think we may confuse sharpness with completion and unification.In my experience sharpness is only a tool to be used or discarded as the situation demands and the soul of the photographer permits.Sharpness is really, way smaller in scale than perfection....the light of the sun is perfect....only when it interacts with dense physical matter does it appear to sharpen.To imagine that sharpness equals perfection, is like someone who, wearing the most expensive jewlery, will somehow... become a real person.
I like LF mainly because of its rich tonal range, not just because of sharpness. I found modern lenses sometimes even too sharp for portraits and I prefer the results from 40+ years old lenses. Sometimes even still life looks better with old lenses. Regards, www.janez-pelko.com
"Most of my LF work is totally sharp because it is documentary in nature". Interesting statement? Explain why a photograph that is documentary in nature needs to be totally sharp? The scene or situtation itslef isn't totally sharp to the human eye. In fact I would suggest that by making documentary photograph of something that is totally sharp in all it's aspects may in fact take away from the "documentary" nature of the image, and impose upon it something of the photographer own view of what the scene should look like.
I think that I concur with Ellis' response.
People look at an image taken with a large format camera, and they say, "Wow, that's a great photograph!" I think that sharpness is an essential ingredient for an LF photograph to achieve that effect.
Tim, "documentary in nature" requires to capture as much information as possible. A sharp image contains more information than an unsharp one, whereas Information is simply an abstraction of Detail.
I think it depends more on the subject. Some need great sharpness which will allow the viewer to get close and revel in the details. Some work just fine with a bit of softness. A previous poster mentioned that sharpness is needed in the catchlights of the eyes in a portrait. In the old days, when studios did their own lab work, the retoucher would sharpen up the catchlights to make the portrait look sharp even when it wasn't. Sharpness is just another tool to let the photographer get his or her message across.
sharpness is mandated in my work. the HABS/HAER standards require that "all areas of the picture must be in sharp focus." pictorialism and other soft focus effects which may be desirable for you "fine art" practitioners certainly do not require out-of-focus negatives. this seems like a bogus question/issue to me...
Hi Emil, since you asked me to give my two cents, I'll try say something sensiti ve. Or rather, I will relate what viewing experience made me think that sharpness was a plus. A friend showed me a photography book some years ago and in it was a picture taken with a large format camera. The picture represented a wild meadow on the edge of the forest, taken in mist. The background spruces were emerging from the mist, and the foreground was made of all sorts of plants, but predominantly wild roses. The wh ole athmosphere was of an etheral beauty but if you looked closely at the foreground, you could see the de tails of each bud, each leave, and I found it just wonderful to have that much information in the picture. Shar pness means information on details and details are life and intimacy. Maybe that's why some subjects are be tter treated blurred, desaturated or over contrasted, for intimacy is not always appealing. If the sho t I just mentioned had not been taken in the mist, it may have been too crude and all the dream would have vanis hed from it. But when the subject is beautiful right into the details, then sharpness adds to the picture. In the other hand, we all (I think) have made pictures that were sharp and detailed, but had no content and others t hat were not sharp for some reason but were still rich and pleasing!
"sharpness is mandated in my work. the HABS/HAER standards require that "all areas of the picture must be in sharp focus." pictorialism and other soft focus effects which may be desirable for you "fine art" practitioners certainly do not require out-of-focus negatives. this seems like a bogus question/issue to me..."
To me, Personally, I would find it very hard to describe that as documentary work, wher you are shooting to such specific guidlines for a client/organisation. You are being required to manipulate the image in one particualr way, but exluding others, giving a very specific view of whatever you are documenting. It's somewhat akin to shooting a brochure for the Toyota 4Runner.
Neo-Pictorialist. Don't wan't noth'n in focus. Don't care. Long live the soft-focus lens!!! Verito or bust! Dean
LF has the biggest negative, simple as that. What people think should be in focus on that negative will be swayed by the passage of time and whim. The idea of 'bokeh', things out of focus as a means to draw attention to the subject in focus is a part of a particular technique and a valuable one.
I've shot some of Carnaval in Bahia and many shots were at 1/15 of a second, I'll have some these images on my website. I picked 1/15 of a second to record dancing, celebrating, and movement and with the intent that there would be blurring and degrees of focus. The results are varied, every shot's different, but these shots give the viewer more of an idea of the explosion of Carnaval than If I shot everything, every movement frozen at 1/500 of a second.
I will say what James Chinn didn't say, this kind of technique doesn't always work, can be overdone, isn't going to be done well by everybody, but it's a valuable technique on the right things.
I've seen shots of people sitting still and just plain out of focus and misframed and it looked terrible to me, the shots didn't work(for me), but I disagree with painting a great idea with the brush of some folks who can't carry it off.
Regarding James Chinn thread, it brings up the same recurring theme, when something comes up that's perceived as new or fresh or whatever, plenty of people attempt it, and then do it to 'death'. That doesn't diminish the original idea, but like the sunset shot with a 1000mm, after a million of 'em it gives you a headache.
Wow, thaks to all for so many answers! However, my question was lazily written and therefore not clear enough. I meant that weird kind of satisfaction that makes us (please understand by us or we = some photographers including myself)happy and proud when the whole picture, or the part that is intended to be, is tack tack tack .... SHARP. I do not say that because I have problems with sharpness of my photographs. After nearly twenty ears of LF I know how to make sharp or unsharp pictures depending on the purpose. The answers posted are mostly wise and technically and politically correct. But where are all the people who compare MTF curves before changing a Schneider for a Rodestock in the very hope that their photographs will be even sharper? (Yes, I know there are also the contrast, color rendition, etc., but...)And all those getting so close and even closer to exhibited prints to control whether they are REAL sharp? I more hoped for some answers from the guts about that strange value that the sharpness represents (for some photographers including me...)than for perfectly correct but perhaps somewhat impersonal statements like that the sharpness is a tool or an element of the composition. Just an example from the real life, and the only one that I can give (sorry, Paul): Paul Schilliger answered the question in his very nice and poetic style but no word about the excitement that we both can feel when we are spending excellent moments around his or my light table and transparencies, using lupes with still greater magnifying power, and then saying: Well, this one is REAL SHARP. It is real EXCELLENT. Even with the Peak 10x! I could put it also in a more complicated way - that my intent was to discuss about sharpness as an introjected cultural value or driver and related gratification, but never mind.... Frankly, should I believe that I am the only (even if not always) obsessed fool on today's LF scene?
Where would Art or Photography be without obsession?
I'd say that large format photographers have to be a little (?) bit crazy in order to lug around 30-40 pounds or more of equipment in order to be able to take a picture. If he/she wants to make a full day or week trip the weight picks up logarithmically. But we all do it and (at least) say that we love it. The obsession about "sharpness" is probably something that we "have to" believe in to justify our craziness. :-) Another part of the craziness is the fact that these sharp photographs actually can be done. Dealing with shifts and tilts is difficult, but most of us master that science to some degree, and from time to time we have to show others that we can make those shots where every single grain of the film is sharp. (Will I be shot if I exchange the word "grain" with the word "pixel" in the previous sentence. :-)
I don't know about different trends in different countries, but here in Sweden extremely shallow DOF has been popular in some ads for a long time, preferably developing E6 films in C41. Making those shots look good also takes skill and knowledge and mastering your camera and lenses.
Looking at facts isn't always that fun. Some of the facts in this case says that a good MF camera will produce originals that make it hard to differ those orignals from similar shots taken with LF cameras. But being pushed up against the wall, I recon that we mumble something about "other qualities ... tonality ... ". As someone else said, making a shot soft with a sharp lens is easy, but the other way around cannot be done...
In the 19'th century there was an english photographer, whose name illudes me at the moment, who was convinced that his prints was supposed to be sharp in the middle and softer towards the edges. He claimed that it had to be that way because that was the way the human eye worked. Towards the end of his career he revised his theory, as he probably used the very same eyes to view the prints. I.e. you don't have to make the same mistake that he did. But his pictures was nice anyhow.
And so on...
Just got back from a Japanese dinner and a good dose of sake ...so in my current state of mind I'll say this...sharpness is like a beautiful woman or a Samurai sword...completely arresting! But we need sake also ...like good bokeh to give us a break from the intensity of the obdurate world.
Bjorn, the English photographer you're thinking of is no doubt P.H. Emerson; however he didn't renounce his theories about focus and how the eye sees. What he renounced, after reading Hurter & Driffield's paper describing the characteristic curve, was the idea that one could alter the tonal values of a photograph. He didn't realize, as Ansel Adams did later, that "H&D offered photographers a superb creative control" (Nancy Newhall) but mistakenly thought H&D delivered a death blow to any pretense that the photographer could have any control over the tonal scale. In his renunciation of the idea that photography could be art, he wrote, "I thought once (Hurter and Driffield have taught me differently) that true values could be obtained and that values could be altered at will by development. They cannot; therefore to talk of getting values in any subject whatever as you wish and of getting them true to nature is to talk nonsense." and two years later he wrote "..for taking the picture is pure science, as for ever proved by Messrs Hurter & Driffield. ... the photographer does not make his picture, A MACHINE DOES IT ALL FOR HIM.
As to his ideas about naturalistic focus and vision, he continued to express those views in papers and in the third edition of his book "Naturalistic Photography" which was published in 1899, nine years after his renunciation of the idea that photography could be art. He wrote in 1893, "the methods of practice I advised in Naturalistic Photography I still advise, and the artists I held up for admiration I still hold as the best exemplars of their crafts, but my art philosophy is different... I do not consider photography an art but regard it as a mechanical process..."
This is probably more information than you wanted about P.H. Emerson but since your mistake is a common one I like to set it straight when I can.
And his pictures, they were nice anyway, as you say; I would say some of the most gorgeous platinum prints ever made.
I guess even for me there is an obsession to this. I don't care about sharp, but I still need a big negitive. I don't want grain, and I want the nice tone. Good pictorial work has to be almost contact printed. Diana etc are nice for some people, but don't confuse "Pecker" work (great movie) with LF pictorial. So I guess I have the same ailment as the F64's in the group, but different symptoms. LF is the cure all, from mega-sharp-depth-of-field, to no- grain-fuzzies, it's only side effects seem to be strained backs, shoulders, and empty bank accounts. Dean
a camera and lens are a tool to an end. i think it is great that people are able to manipulate this tool to make images the way they want. while i also record the built enviroment for habs/haer, i do not think the only purpose of a camera and lens, is to make images that are so sharp you can fall into them ... sometimes it is necessary. sometimes it is just as important to make an image that makes the viewer wonder what the heck it is, or what the photographer did to achieve such an effect. while it is obvious that some people are purists and feel that every square milimeter of a photograph needs to be in focus nd sharp as a tack, the folks that use blurr, motion, or other unconventional techniques and in general break the rules are also allowing photography to be pushed as an artistic medium. if rules are not broken, boundries are not streatched, and viewers are not forced to think (rather than just look), the art of photography will become monochromatic, dull and boring.
I agree with Emil in general that a lot of photographers around the world seem to be very concerned by sharpness. This can be seen not ony in this LF forum but also in many other photography forums, including the ones mainly dealing with 35 mm. Let me try to suggest two explanations which are fairly different to what has been discussed hereabove and which are probably more trivial and less philosophical, although they certainly don't apply to professional photographers.
First, I think that a lot of amateurs are very fond of high end equipment and sharpness can be considered as a visible sign of the use of good equipment and sophisticated photography techniques. Owning a beautiful and well made camera with highly reputed lenses is often a rewarding feeling as such.
Second, in most cases (including mine), there is a strong temptation to call "art" what is actually "craftsmanship". Producing sharp images is often an objective as such, which allows us to demonstrate to ourselves how much we master photography. When we (I) look at great photographers' pictures, reproducing the level of sharpness of some in our own pics is more feasible than being as inspired and creative as others. Let's not fool ourselves (once again, I'm speaking only of myself and those of us who are not fundamentally "artists"), mastering the technique is so much easier than being really creative !
That being said, all the previous explanations are valid as well, it all depends on one's own situation and real talents.
You are not alone in your captivation with sharpness. Barry Thornton, the chap who makes DiXactil is a fanatic about sharpness and has written a book about it: "Edge Of Darkness".
Details of availability are available on his site:
Sharpness is not the exclusive domain of LF and in his book he states his case in favour of 6x6 and validates his argument with a number of photographs.
Another photographer using sharpness as a trade-mark, almost, is Nigel Parry whose book of portraits - "Sharp" - again illustrates his point.
Film/Developer choice, lighting, camera stability, lens design, shooting aperture, shutter speed, atmospherics, enlarger and lens, paper and developer - all these are contributing factors, as you know, but every now and then something magic happens and a picture displays an unreal sharpness that can prove highly seductive.
It happened to me once when Kodak first introduced 120 Kodachrome. I shot a studio portrait test of a clean skinned English peaches and cream model. The tranny was almost 3-D in its acutance. I spent 12 months endeavouring to get the same result again without any luck at all. Yes, of course the pictures were sharp - 250mm Super-Achromat on a Hasselblad, mid-range aperture, studio flash - why wouldn't they be. But there was never another image that displayed the outstanding snap of the first test.
It was not an obsession - more like just a nice distraction chasing acuity with a cutie.
pardon the bad pun ... Walter
Hi Walter, thank you for your nice and personal answer. I would personally welcome more of this kind. I visited the site and will probably buy the books. There are some high quality photographs there. Still to your answer, I wonder how you could get such a sharp picture with a 250/5.6 Superachromat. My results with this lens and with the Tele- Tessar F 4.0 as well were always rather disappointing in terms of sharpness (I precise that I use a tripod and lock up the mirror and wait, and use Velvia, before somebody advises me to do so. :0)) More generally, I thought these two days a bit more about the meaning of the sharpness. Once I heard that people are speeding because it gives them an impression to master the space. I would dare to say that some other people are "sharping" as it can give them access to a kind of magical appropriation (if not confiscation) of reality. Funny, the verb "to capture" is often used in connection with photography, and my AMHER dictionnary lists "confiscation" and "capture", among other words, as synonoms of appropriation. As I am writing these words, I am looking at some of my 16x20 prints made from 4x5 Velvias and there is nothing to do, I am weirdly happy and proud that I KNOW that they are real sharp. And I even cannot see it from my place as my eyes are no more what they were 15 years ago. And in the same time, I am not that unilateral, I made many quite successfull pictures using vaselines, soft focus lenses (the Fujinon 250 SF is wonderful, I prefer it to Imagon) and center spot filters (the B+W breed is also wonderful, and damn expensive), some of them being so blurr that it was impossible to tell the subject and I liked them very much, as I can like blurred pictures made by other photographers, like Ernst Haas to name a great one. So, why am I so slyly happy to know that these pictures are tack sharp?! (Please do not worry, I am mentally sound... :o) ) Some other people that would share real personal experience about their relation with the sharpness out there? Looking forward to read from you! Thanks!
With regard to synonyms there are subtle nuances of meaning that are idiomatic to a language. What is your native language? Words and language are a rather fascinating hobby for me.
There are a number of highly technical books I've seen along the lines of Clarity Of Vision. Discussion of 'acutance' vs 'resloution' has raged for decades. I love sharp images - where appropriate. The same can be said for Black & White, Colour, Contrasty, Subdued.
From reading discussions on this and other forums I am coming to the belief that many photographers don't, perhaps, regard the piece of photographic paper as a blank canvas upon which to inscribe their statement. The process of photography somehow distracts them.
I have always deemed the concept of pre-visualisation as the oft over-looked cornerstone of Ansel Adams' prolific teaching. How do I want the scene in front of me to be rendered on the piece of paper in front of the viewer? The range of tools and techniques at our disposal to manipulate that end result is staggering. We have to use them all. Softness, sharpness, diffusion, the obscuring limbo of solid black, the radiance of glowing white, the lure of gentle gradation. We have to use it all.
Cheers, ... Walter
OK Emil, now that the barndoors been left open I'll admit it too. I'm hooked! I thought that was a given. Why else would you haul this stuff around. Once you've looked at a good black and white contact print and thought to yourself "It's a bottomless pit" it seems nothing else will do.
Thank you Jim, it is nice to find a sister soul. No theory can explain what we fell while looking at a perfectly sharp print or transparency... I hope more people will share that heady experience with us.
Sorry, please read "what we feel", not "what we fell", of course... It is getting late here in Switzerland... If I had to handwrite it, it would be rather sloppy...
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