« Yeah Baby | Main | The Arc of a Forum Exchange »

Friday, 11 January 2008


Nice article Mike. You bring up a valid point and have managed to bring Leica and a cat photograph to the table at the same time!

The key thing for me with regards to sharpness is 'sharp enough'. Your linked example uses the wonderful Leica-sonic 25mm f1.4 Not quite as good, but less than half the cost is the sigma 30mm f1.4 It's not as sharp, but it definately falls in the category of 'sharp enough' for my purposes.

Interesting article Mike. On the whole, I agree with the sentiment. However, while I have more 'soft' shots in my 'keepers' now that I'm shooting poeple instead of nature, I find that only certain pictures get away with being soft. If they're powerful enough on their own, if they suggest motion, if they suggest dim lighting ... they might work. If they have sentimental value, they might be personal keepers, but not show-to-others keepers. My immediate reaction to your two examples was that they're soft. That's in small pictures on a fairly high res laptop screen. I imagine many of us are much more accustomed to looking at technical qualities of pictures; most 'regular people' I know wouldn't flinch at a picture far, far less sharp than those. But those aren't powerful like, say, 'migrant worker' nor do they suggest motion or dim lighting so I get more of an impression of softness than sharpness.

It's easy (after a while) to get a sense of lenses in a manufacturers range and get an idea of whether a given lens would be 'sufficient' or not for your needs; for me, any prime lens in the Minolta/Sony is going to be good enough for anything I'd do, and zooms vary, but I don't need the best zooms. I'm happy with the wide open performance of the 28-75/2.8 (the KM lens based on the Tamron equivalent) even though it's noticably a bit softer wide open than stopped down and noticably (a bit) softer than the old Minolta 28-70G. I actually owned both and opted to keep the 28-75/2.8 because AF speed, manual focus (the older lens had an awful grindy manual focus ring), minimum focus distance and size/weight all added up to a lens that I found more enjoyable to use. In short, I have my own personal standards for how sharp I want lenses to be (based on personal preferance and subject matter), and an awful lot of lenses (including many affordable zooms) are just fine. Practical considerations outweigh mtf when it comes to choosing a lens for me.

"Sharpness" is actually just one more property of photographs that can be used and handled judiciously and intelligently"

Yeah, baby! :-)

Although I like a sharp picture as much as anybody, I'm slowly getting sick of incessant carping on "sharpness".

Mike, you know that I played with that old OM 50/1.2 lens last summer. And I like the look it gives - slightly soft, with a gentler appearance than the clinical sharpness of many digital lenses. Having consciously avoided the film era, I'm nevertheless feeling slightly nostalgic.

Why do many people get hung up on "sharpness"? Well, I think it's the same case as with "noise". It can be relatively easily measured.

Clinicism (if that term doesn't exist, I claim copyright :-)) never did anybody much good. But it's still widespread.

I am usually willing to own the fact that I'm a stickler for sharpness. But I think, now having read this, that objective resolution isn't exactly what I mean. I think that what I am actually saying when I proclaim my devotion to sharp lenses is that I am looking for a combination of features -- resolution, contrast, overall black and white performance, even bokeh -- that to me makes a lens seem 'sharp.' I was recently reading something that Erwin Puts wrote some time ago about black and white ASA 400 film's high apparent sharpness, despite a lower measurable resolution; and I think it's similar with lens quality. There are a lot of issues in addition to resolution that all balance to create a quality lens, and somehow, in my mind, they all combine to equate to overall sharpness.

As usual, a very thoughtful article. I have two reactions that work from the contents. In regards to the issue of lens choice, the question of whether one likes the optical quality of a lens is, of course, paramount, but I for me at least, there is a physical element as well. Here I am not referring to ergonomics per se, but rather to a "tactile affinity" that I feel with certain lenses. This might be a matter of the barrel material, or the focus thrown, but sometimes I like to carrry a certain lens just because I appreciate its physical as well as the optical qualitie. For example, I have a Nikon 35 Ai mm F1.4. It is certainly sharp, but there is also something about the size, the weight, and other atributes that make it a comfortable, even alluring, fit.

Yes, I know this sounds potentially kinky, but consider the following. We often hear commentators who note that cameras are "just tools." OK, that is true, but after having spend years with a master Japanese calligrapher, I noted that he preferred some brushes over others, because they just "worked" for him. A similar case might be Brian May, the rock guitarist who made his first, and for his style, best instrument. I recently read that he later used a replica, but at one concert he became so frustrated with it that he broke it on stage. Clearly, the orginal guitar had become more than a a "mere" tool, and I wonder whether the oringal "tool" fashioned him as much as he fashhioned it.

In sum, yes optical issues are vital to the selection, but since we are dealing with a physical device in order to obtain those optically generated results, the symbiosis between the photographer and her/his lens-camera combo are also a vital element in the selection process.

My other reaction was in relationship to the issue of sharpening. It seems to me that with the advent of PhotoShop and the endless possibilities of image manipulation, we are in a period where "hyper-sharpening" and "hyper-lighting" have developed a particular following. A case in point would the work of Jill Greenberg, or perhaps Dave Hill. Perhaps this tend is reflective the present generation in human-body transformation technologies. We now commonly see surreal botox/saline laden women and steroid enhanced males, so why not over the top PhotoShopped images? (Of course this "will to warp" is hardly new. We marvel at ancient Greek statues as being the first kind of "realistic" sculpture, but those artists at times took such liberties with the human form that their representations are not necessarily anatomically correct. The DVD series entitled "How Art Made History" offers a number of other examples.)

Alex Vesey

The biggest reaon for needing lens sharpness is the same as it's always been: (Not being Cartier-Bresson) I crop a LOT.
It is also important that the "resolution" of the sensor and lens match each other. My 8 MP Minolta A2 camera uses the same lens as the virtually identical but only 5 MP model A1, and detail captured was/were not improved. It was time for a better lens on this otherwise nearly perfect camera (but, sadly, they went belly-up instead).

I can relate to these observations. Original film lenses had a wider range of "sharpness" that added flavor to conversations when photographers talked shop. There were lemons and there were lenses. There were also coveted lenses that aren't razor sharp but were capable of rendering a form of roundness in pictures that was pleasing in portraiture.
Dan K.

You make some nice points. I find that two of my lenses, the Nikon 50mm and 35mm, give my pictures an intangible, magical quality that my consumer zooms, as good as they are, don't have. I don't think my friends could tell the difference, and sometimes I think it must be psychological, but I know it's there. So much so, in fact, that I use those lenses almost exclusively even though I have to manually focus them on my D40.

Which is why my skin crawls whenever some joker on DPReview makes a smarmy claim like, "primes went out with film!"

An additional note:
One of the presents that I gave myself for Christmas was a copy of W. Eugene Smith's "Dream Street," with over a hundred images from his famous but flawed 1955 study of Pittsburg.
Smith was one of the greatest of all 35mm photographers and darkroom wizards, using the best equipment available at that time (both Leicas and Canons). One picture shows him backlit with a 35mm dangling from his neck, and two view cameras on tripods pointed at the city below.
I was really astounded by the softness of all the images! They just aren't critically sharp, as we would expect from our equipment today.
He was known to shoot Tri-X and develop in D-76, and Summicrons came in '53.

I agree with what Dave said about lenses being "sharp enough". I think there are other factors which have greater influence on me with camera and lens choice - such as handling, viewfinder, weight, size, maximum aperture and linear distortion. Don't forget price as well!

This echos Michael Reichmann's comment in his latest 'Canon vs Nikon' opinion on how pro photographers seem to harp on more about interface issues, rather than just image quality.

I like using prime lenses because of their wider maximum apertures compared to zooms. It lets me take photos of subjects that even image stabilisation won't allow, such as moving ones.

"I’m always amused by the idea that certain people have about technique, which translate into an immoderate taste for the sharpness of the image. It is a passion for detail, for perfection, or do they hope to get closer to reality with this trompe I’oeil? They are, by the way, as far away from the real issues as other generations of photographers were when they obscured their subject in soft-focus effects." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

This is what I love about TOP. The week isn't over yet and already we've had articles about, and continue to discuss: The world's finest glass; a $10 keychain camera; two new fine full-size cameras; how the importance of looking and seeing overshadows any technique or equipment; two fresh approaches to two age-old photo cliches; amateur images stolen by billion-dollar corporations desperate for authentic amateurishness; and a beautiful piece of a cappella. All over the place, and yet all connected. I'm sure I missed something, too.

Consider this a standing ovation. Bravo! Brave! Encore!

I agree, as you might have guessed, that sharpness is just one potentially interesting property of lenses among many, but "top dog" and "second fiddle" in the same sentence... I don't know, Mike.

2 of my favorite lenses in the digital world are the Nikon 50mm 1.2 AI , and 28mm 2.8 AF. They are not the sharpest lenses, but as an earlier poster mentioned, they can have a "magical" quality to them sometimes. Sharpness is easier to define than magic, so it makes good fodder for testers, marketeers and discussion forums. Lets come up with a standard "magic" rating, to put along side the lpi numbers :)

It used to be that the sharpness of a lens was created through its optical design. But that has changed and now the sharpness of a lens is determined by the optics plus a program like DXO. Together they produce images sharp enough for my purposes. I use a Nikon D200 with the AF-S Nikkor IS 18-200mm. This lens has some center softness that DXO fixes very nicely. Without the DXO software correction I would not have bought the lens. So now when I consider buying a new lens I look at both the optical performance of the lens and available software correction. It's become the package that must deliver good sharpness performance.

My photos are never sharp now that I am shooting digital.
Could it be that I am always looking at them very closely on screen, at 100%, with an equivalent size of a large poster?

On the cameras used in the early days of "miniature camera," I've read that Eugene Smith nearly lost several of his early jobs for using a Rolleiflex against direct orders. And much of his WWII coverage was also done with 6x6 cm. All photos of Robert Capa with a camera that I have seen show him holding a Contax (although his net worth tended to be negative, he kept rich company). Certainly the famous D-Day pictures were all taken with two Contaxes. Nonetheless, his biographer persists in referring to his "Leicas."


As usual, a great article, and great comments. I've come to appreciate the considered opinions found here as a new benchmark for reading online.

Anyways, I pretty much agree with what seems to be the central thread here, that sharpness, and the value of it, is in the eye of the beholder. I'll go out and shoot an afternoon of shots of various subjects, and sometimes the sharp one jumps out at you, sometimes it doesn't.

Also, I don't think that anyone would disagree that many of the most stirring images from photojournalism over the years are anything but sharp. The character, composition and emotional impact of the captured moment will almost certainly outweigh any invectives lobbed against an "unsharp" phototgraph.

On another note, since making photographs is a blend of art and science, it is a requirement of good practice that we understand the properties behind sharpening. Photoshop's tools are no different than those of the enlarger in the sense that a working knowledge of the tools is necessary to affect improved results.

But it is equally important to *look* at the results and know when sharpening is important and when it is far less important than other dominant themes (color, lighting, composition, etc).

In the film Barfly, the man character, Henry, said, "Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance."

I feel the same way about photos: anyone can take a sharp photo, but to make a worthwhile blurry ones takes a special talent. I saw a gallery exhibition a year ago of beautiful large blurry landscape photos with such vibrant hues. They were emotionally powerful in ways that a sharp photo couldn't be. (Not that I'm against sharpness, mind you.)

And to show that I'm a playa, here's my favourite recent unsharp photo: http://electro.aminus3.com/image/2007-11-02.html
Taken with my magnificently unsharp Magnicon 70-210mm.

I have my most recent Black & White Photography magazine #79. In the back "Next Month" is the absolutely iconic picture of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, black gloves and cigarette holder.

Iconic, but not very sharp.

On the cover is "Kylie" by Stephen Perry.

Very, very sharp, but not iconic...

I don't completely understand it, but I like what the poster Dan Khong said about the way some lens are capable of "rendering a form of roundness" to a picture. It's kind of one of those things that you can't describe but know when you see it...

And I really like a line of Mike's near the end of his piece: "Arguing over what's best is fruitless and pointless, but understanding what's good and why can be fruitful and rewarding." That's something to put on my refrigerator as one of those pieces of life's greater truths to be thought about over and over. Thank you.

As someone mentioned, often the standard for measuring sharpness is to look at the photo at 100% on a monitor. I stopped paying attention to this nonsense after the user review of the Sony R1 on Luminous Landscape. If I remember, he said that at 400 iso, it was not as good as whatever Canon he was using at the time, but that the prints looked just fine. Aha, I thought, a meaningful review. So I bought one and never looked back.

We should have more equipment reviews like that. Wait for the pixel peepers to finish their interminable threads, then use the equipment in question to produce prints at various sizes using known and reproducible workflows, giving a thumbs-up/thumbs-down at the different sizes. That information I could use.

Hey Mike,
I check into TOP several times every day - to read your great writing on photography and to see the contributions from the members of the community of like-minded photographers you are building.

To show my appreciation of your contributions and to encourage you to keep it up I went to the "Tip Jar" on the lower right side of your blog, and put in it, a few dollars more than I spend every year renewing subscriptions to several photo magazines.


A good article again Mike and I would say I agree with most of it. Strangely, you have chosen to post a parody of a dpreview thread as a follow up, as there is a relationship between the two for me. Denizens of dpreview are way too fixated on sharpness in my opinion and having spent some time there, I am now of the opinion that the more someone harps on sharpness as the key to lens quality, the less likely he (and it is always a he in this case) is to be able to produce memorable photos himself.

I think there is a relationship between sharpness in photography and power output in audio gear. The relatively uneducated purchaser or listener of new gear almost always asks or makes mention of "how many watts". A more knowledgable enthusiast might ask the question, but s/he is very likely to expect the piece with lower rated power to sound better; it is almost always true if the price and features are the same. Watts are easy to measure and people like numbers. Similar, measures from an MTF chart give numbers, which are concrete and easy to use for those who don't really understand the big picture. I see a lot of parallels anyways.

For me, I am not discounting sharpness as a positive, it is far behind the way a lens transitions from in focus to out, the bokeh quality it produces, the way it handles bright highlights in the bokeh (a big issue with me), colour and midtone contrast are all at least as important as simple sharpness is. Then again, I don't spend my time taking photos of newspapers or brick walls.

I could mention some personal, real world experiences of different lenses, but this is probably not the right spot for it. Suffice it to say that I am totally in agreement with you when you say that sharpness is overrated; I think maybe you didn't even go far enough.

Sorry for the rant, I guess you touched a nerve.

"To show my appreciation of your contributions and to encourage you to keep it up I went to the 'Tip Jar' on the lower right side of your blog, and put in it, a few dollars more than I spend every year renewing subscriptions to several photo magazines."

Thank you Peter! I'm finally keeping a list of everyone who contributes, something I should have started a long time ago.

Mike J.

When I shoot black and white film I can alter the way the photo looks through film and developer choice. When I was at art school studying photography I had a lecturer who had what is best described as a pathological obsession with sharpness. Woe betide you if you submitted anything she considered not sharp. We had to do an assignment that involved using two different emulsions, I shot with Pan F and Hp5 using the same camera and lens. For the assignment she claimed that the shot taken on Pan F was very soft and I should replace the lens, and the one on Hp5 was in her words one of the sharpest she's ever seen. I've still got the lens. The lecturer is still teaching but believes digital to be a passing fad as its impossible to produce a sharp image with it.

I used to worry a great deal about lens sharpness and prospective lens purchases were a source of great anxiety. Then one day I went to a group exhibition from Magnum and had an epiphany, many of the great photographs that I had admired were soft, in fact very few were bitingly sharp. I realised sharpness wasn't the be all and end all of photography. All lenses have particular characteristics and I think that working with them is better than working against. I have 75mm Voightlander Color Heliar that is quite soft but its a wonderful lens for portraiture while at the other end of the spectrum I've a recently acquired 35mm Color Skopar that is so sharp and contrasty that you could shave with it and is fantastic for urban landscapes.

Gone are days of endlessly pouring over graphs and reading endless reviews. Its a case of learning how to use what I've got.

Wonderful article.

One point where you lost me though:
You wrote:
"Finally, there's the fundamental lack of resolution of the Bayer array. Even with pixel pitches as small as they've become, they're still significantly larger than the grain in fine-grained films"

Was it Ctein who wrote about how grains are not equivalent of pixels? ) A pixel can vary in millions of shades, a grain only in two. So it takes many, many grains to make up the equivalent of a pixel, in real-world pictures.

My Canon 5D has a resolution and image quality far beyond what I was ever able to squeeze out of 35mm, and at higher ISO too.

Dear Eolake,

I have written about that, but I never said grain was binary. Film grains (or dye clouds), in fact, vary in size with the amount of exposure they receive.

Still, it's an erroneous comparison. Film grain size and pixel size can only be compared when discussing noise characteristics. Film grain size, especially for fine-grained films, is not anywhere near the resolving limit of the film, which is always much larger. For the purpose of this article, you're discussing resolving limits. Film grain has nothing to do with that.

For that sort of comparison, you need to look at in-camera film and digital resolution tests. Even then, the comparison will be wrong, but at least you're in the right country.

pax / Ctein

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007