I hope I'm not talking too much lately about things I care about that no one else agrees with. :-) But here goes this one anyway.
Take another look at the portrait of Rosser Reeves at the top of John Kennerdell's recent post.
That, to me, is about as much resolution as you want in a portrait. It's not soft enough that it shouts "soft"—or even speaks it—well, maybe it whispers it—but the resolution isn't very high.
Now take a look at this recent post by Dan Biggerstaff Photography. Look closely at the second illustration. It shows a side-by-side detail of a portrait taken by Dan before and after professional Photoshopping by Peter Bergeron.
The Biggerstaff photo is still much higher resolution than the Reeves portrait, but it required adroit Photoshopping by an expert to effectively reduce the resolution of the portrait subject's skin.
It's certainly a hard sell these days to suggest that any subject needs less resolution than the utmost our equipment is capable of. I love casting an appraising but appreciative eye on old portraits, from when photographers cared not just for the maximum amount of detail but just the right amount of detail. I miss "just right resolution" in portraits.
...Or maybe I just miss the search for it, which used to be a favorite pastime. The endless experimenting and tests and tricks.
I always thought the late Jane Bown did it about the best, back in the day: 35mm, 400-speed film with a little grain, and an '80s-era medium-telephoto lens opened up a stop or two from its optimum aperture. Decent resolution but seldom too much.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Richard G: "Asked about her technique, Jane Bown offered helpfully that she had an exposure she liked, ƒ/2.8 at 1/60 sec., and she just made the light work around that. It sounds facetious or reckless but that aperture is not just the right depth of field, but also not yet too sharp; and that shutter speed is not so fast that some very minor blur will be missed to improve the portrait, to say nothing of the unique interaction demanded by a slightly less forgiving shutter speed."
james wilson: "The portrait retouch is a product of a process called 'high frequency retouching' that has become the darling of portrait retouchers for that look of smooth flawless skin. You can set it up yourself in PS or buy a plugin that will do it for you."
John Lehet: 'Maybe lens designers of old built this into their designs, or maybe they just didn't pull it off quite well to get sharpness wide open. In the case of one of my old Olympus Zukios—I forget which one—there is actually a patent by Olympus for that lens to increase softness wide open.
"I won't go through and name all the manual lenses I'm trying and using now (and the modern Loxia 50, which shares this characteristic), but there is very much a dual personality or triple personality on full frame. Wide open, not only are these lenses softer, but there is a veiling or glow, very different from any modern lens I've used besides the Loxia 50. In my general use I consider that the widest aperture of most of these vintage lenses is not to be used. The Konica Hexanon 50mm ƒ/1.4 I would never use at ƒ/1.4 for general use, but it would be great for a portrait.
"The Loxia 50 was my first all manual lens this year for the a7rII, and at first I was quite disappointed at the veiling wide open, and that the sharpness was far below the rest of the aperture range at widest. Then I saw very similar characters again and again as I tried vintage manual lenses. I guess really it is a feature not a bug. The best of these vintage lenses beat many or most modern lenses from ƒ/4 to ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 in sharpness, but they have a very different character wide open. Modern lenses that are not sharp wide open look like they are simply failing to perform well. These old (and vintage design) lenses are doing something else."
Lynn: "In portraiture I find film is mostly preferred by sitters for its gentler treatment of fine detail. I’ve yet to find someone who wants skin pores and imperfections in bitingly-sharp digital high resolution!
"Selective softening in digital processing often results in a visual disconnect between sharp details like eyelashes, and adjacent softened areas of skin—which is interpreted as artificial fakery...while film gives enough detail and enough softness to look both authentic and 'natural.' Getting the balance between detail and softness in in digital portraits can be done but it takes quite a bit of skill and work. Packaged software shortcuts look like packaged software shortcuts.
"This is why I’ve gone back to using film for most of my portraiture, including Jane Brown’s beloved Zuiko 85mm ƒ/2 on my OM-4 as well as inexpensive Leica screw-mount bodies with older screw-mount Leica lenses like the Summar and collapsible Summicron ƒ/2’s. A good balance of contrast and resolution. A TLR handles situations where high enlargement is required. A Rolleikin close-up lens attachment allows one to take head and face shots with a TLR.
"With digital, a 1" sensor around 10 MP can also give a pleasing balance of detail and softness. I find the 10 MP Nikon 1 V1 with an 18.5mm (50mm equivalent) at ƒ/1.8 has a film-like rendition that I can’t get with a Canon 6D without pushing the 6D’s sensor to very high ISOs, where noise reduction starts to destroy fine detail.
"My wife also tells me some of the most flattering portraits I’d ever taken of her were on Polaroid and Impossible film. I’m not about to argue with her!"
JK: "Digital can replicate a number of film looks reasonably well but I've never seen it approach the look of a not-too-sharp old lens on 8x10 film. And that to me remains the gold standard for portraiture."
Jacques Cornell: "I remember seeing at the Guggenheim a roughly 24x24" head-and-shoulders portrait that seemed to have been shot with a medium-format digital back. The detail was exquisite. And repellent. I actually wanted to back away from the print, because seeing the hair follicles in each pore was way TMI. Eeeeewwww."