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Saturday, 05 December 2009


I see what you're saying.

This week I noticed that people are buying, comparing, and collecting tremendously blurry C-mount lenses for their micro Four Thirds cameras. [example here ]I think it's the same thing: people - particularly people who got into photography via the artsy/hipster/hacker route - are interested in the artistic effects they can squeeze out of lenses. Some of it is clearly people new to photography craving f/.95 lenses for speed and bokeh*

I got pretty excited too - I also crave such things, and was disappointed that the flange back distance on C-mounts only really works for micro four thirds, not plain vanilla four thirds.**

I am a little suprised that after the success of the Diana/Holga/Lensbaby stuff, that no one has made a line of cheap, fast, aberration-loaded prime lenses. A cheap (100$!) 25mm f/2 in a T mount would be just perfect for such things, and would cover full frame through 4/3's just fine. A moderately cheap (150$) 20mm f/1.2 or faster that vignetted somewhat badly would probably be really popular.

I actually spent some time looking around at what would go into building something like that myself, and it looks like one heck of a can of worms, but there's money to be made for somebody there.

*I think you get credit for making the idea of bokeh notorious enough for said artsy/hipster/hackers to take notice.
**the lack of a unique term to distinguish the two in searches is a PITA. "Four Thirds to C-Mount adapter" doesn't filter out the micro four thirds stuff at all. Also, since it is 'obvious' that m4/3 lenses can't work on regular 4/3 cameras, it isn't mentioned anywhere.

The reason why the Soft Focus lenses exist, right?
28 and 85mm 2.8 lenses.

With the classic large format portrait lenses it's also the case that most of the action is happening within a few stops of wide open, with the exception of lenses like the Imagon that have "sink strainer" or star shaped apertures. I usually look at the groundglass and adjust the iris without looking at the f number and pretty much always end up at 5.6 with the 14" f:4.5 Verito, 36 cm f:4.5 Heliar, or 10" Petzval.

"The sharper the better" is a truism that plagues the photography world and chatter like a disease. Your thoughts on this matter are a breath of fresh air.
And I really appreciate your putting the subject (the viewer, the photographer) at the center of the perception process. The world as we see it (and hear, smell, touch and taste) only exist in our mind. It takes a human eye/brain system to transform an electromagnetic wave into something we use (and agree) to call light. Without us, the world is dark. Light does not exist by itself: light is an experience.

Are you saying that sharpness is a bourgeois concept? :)

Anyway, yes. Slightly unsharp portraits usually look better. What I particularly like is that slight glow of spherical aberration (which you pointed out to me a while ago). A slight unsharpness and a slightly ethereal look. The Contax has it at 1.4. The OM 50/1.2 I have occasionally has it. And I've got a Helios 58/2 that I'll have to recall to service just because of that glow at F2.

BTW, it appears that something went wrong with the Contax. At 1.4 everything is fine, the blurry highlights are rounded. At 2.0, the highlights acquire a very distinct hexagonal look. At 2.8, they are back to more or less rounded. I noticed that at F2 the aperture blades are not interlocked completely and you can see the tips protruding out into the opening. Should I have it serviced? I'd be loath to lose it as it's my fastest lens.

I also agree. In every lens I've got, I have my favourite aperture, which is neither the fastest nor the sharpest one.

"light is an experience"

I really like that....


Anyone who builds and then photographs scale models knows this phenomenon well. A miniature can look very good to the eye but often falls apart (visually) when seen in a photograph.

When you say "sharp" do you mean "so sharp you don't need to apply unsharp mask in Photoshop" or "so sharp that after you apply unsharp mask you can see every tiny follicle of facial hair?"

Since you introduced lens aperture into the discussion it's also possible you're referring to "zone of relative sharpness." (That's as close as I'll get to the dreaded mention of depth of.... well, you know what I mean.) Just wondering...

That's a beautiful set of photographs, Mike. I like the way they capture a special stretched moment of time.

"At 1.4 everything is fine, the blurry highlights are rounded. At 2.0, the highlights acquire a very distinct hexagonal look. At 2.8, they are back to more or less rounded."

You noticed that eh? Very observant--

As you say, it's because the aperture when the lens is wide open is effectively a perfect circle, but stopped down a little, the aperture blades assume their most non-rounded shape. Stop down some more and the aperture more closely resembles a circle again.

I used to use that lens either wide open or from f/4 on down--never at f/2. [g]


That is a nice expression on the boy's face. It is also the stillest and quietest of the four. But I think I prefer the more active frames, and (on my LCD monitor at this file size) the tonal range in the two right-most. But well done, all around.

I think I know what you mean regarding true-to-perception photographs, or perhaps we could say "naturally rendered" or "psychologically accurate". But I'm in two minds about this, and not just with portraits. I appreciate the psychologically accurate photograph, especially when that accuracy is achieved by something gone optically awry (DOF, blur, flare, distortion, etc.).

On the other hand, I also appreciate the way photographs let us see more than we can or normally do, such as portraits super-rich in clinical and textural detail that I can--unnaturally--peruse and consider ad infinitum. For me, the ability to contemplate transient details fished out of the stream of time is one of the pleasures and wonders of photographs.

Also, it is socially acceptable to stare at people in photographs for as long as one wants, so why not take advantage? I figure the latter type of portrait is still amenable to being looked at "naturalistically", if I choose.

Paintings can be very sharp, if a good draftsman/painter (like Ingres) wanted to do that. But given the ability and the choice, they always opt for what amounts to a soft focus. Dutch floral painters like Jan Breugel sometimes would paint life-sized insects, including ants, on their flowers, with detail in the insects; but the flowers themselves were softer. I think it might be because soft focus suggests a soft feel, like flesh or flowers, while a sharp focus suggests hardness or brittleness, like glass or rocks (and a rough texture to the paint might be used to suggest tree bark, etc.) The same perceptual effects would be present in photographs. At least, that's *my* analysis, and I'm sticking to it.

There is so much written in reviews on the quality of a camera or lens - how sharp it is or how much resolution can be achieved. I think this pursuit of quality is much less important than the issue of character; how a lens draws, or how a camera feels in the hand. Sometimes the imprecise carries much more feeling than the clinically sharp. (Capa's D-day landing shots spring to mind)

I *think* I've written before on selective sharpening, which would be an example of the sort of thing you're talking about, only on a more limited scale...I typically only sharpen very small areas of most prints, sometimes limited to just the eyes on certain portrait-style shots, maybe just the eyes and parts of the hair. Sharpness can definitely work as just an accent.


I had that Pentax 85mm f/1.4 and loved using it for years. Don't recall who did the sharpness test with it, but I share your opinion of f/2,where I settled in for most of my people shots. When I bought it, the lens retailed for around $1,350. Best price I found in a North Carolina shop was $1,150. Joyce & I flew to NYC, picked it up at B&H for $750 and did New York for a couple days on the difference. I remember an assignment covering a golf tournament when I bounced the camera with lens attached out of a golf cart along the path. I had to unscrew the large hood and refit it but except for an almost unnoticable scratch, everything was fine
...Those were the days.

Question to the assembled: does the inherent softness of digital actually help for portraits? When I work on a portrait, I prevent the software/camera from doing any sharpening, then selectively sharpen channels to affect eyes, hair, and clothing.

Can a lens that's too sharp for portraits on film work OK on digital?

Mike, are you going to give us a photographer-priority comparo on the 55/1.4 vs. the older 50/1.4? That lens is the sole reason that I'm sad I ditched the k20D and Pentax for Olympus (the Zuiko 12-60mm is really something else, though...).

""The sharper the better" is a truism that plagues the photography world and chatter like a disease."

Yeah. Our minds too. Mine at least. I know better. Many of my favorite pictures in the world are not sharp at all. And yet I can't seem to let go of the constant quest for sharpness and detail.

Some part of it is that sometimes it really is a plus, and can add artistic value.
But another part is that it takes discipline and knowledge to achieve, and once you start on that, the quest takes on its own life, and you start to equate higher numbers as "better" overall. Sort of like the guy who is on a road-trip holiday, and he thinks that the more distance he covers in a day, the better he is doing...

Great portaits Mike -- I remember going through that same painful process of having my first 50/1.4 and wanting to shoot everything fully open... until I started seeing a pattern of soft and sometimes mis-focused results!

I have to generally agree with your conclusion with 2.8. I would generally select anything between f/2-f/4 and let the camera determine the shutter speed. Anything more open, I would only use in clutch situations or if I needed that extra pop from the background.

Oh finally, even if Pentax says those lenses are made for digital -- some of those primes do work for film too...



Nothing beats a sharp photographer!

'Perception is greatly in the mind.'

In a talk on TED, Dr Oliver Sacks describes patients' visual hallucinations, including hallucinations of faces, and how our visual cortexes are detailed enough to include 'face cells', 'cartoon cells' and 'Aston Martin cells'.

Interesting listening for all photographers, I think.

That's the best explanation ever of why I don't like portraits taken with "macro" lenses.

Here here... I saw an interview with Bresson once where he mentioned that he felt that the preoccupation with sharpness was a 'bourgoise concept.' A witty but razor sharp analysis of all the fluff around making pictures. My favourite lens which goes with me everywhere is my nikkor 35mmf2, it's not the sharpest lens but boy oh boy, the way it draws the light is only fab. I came across a couple of old books once on portraiture - one had a complete breakdown on the Weston lightmeter - the emphasis was on a technical term 'plastic rendition.' I've always carried that concept with me.

Nice sequence Mike.
I don't usually do people pictures but photographing neighbours can be fun -
The couple next door

and the little boy over the road feeding the ducks with his Mum.

Cheers, Robin

I'd agree with you mostly, Mike, but sharp lenses have their place in portraiture too. After four or five cups of coffee on the trot, I often find that my eyes are too sharp - at which point quality macro lenses and the like match my perception perfectly.


Last Friday my daughter had shadow play lesson that I was invited to photograph. Having been asked to not use flash I chose Pentax SMC A 50/1.2 lens as this is the fastest I have. And boy, was I afraid that I will miss the focus and even if I hit it, pictures will be soft. I was up to the most pleasant surprise that to look good sometimes pictures don't have to be tack sharp.

Just a thought after having read your post...

P.S. Galia, b.t.w. got invited to the special program to develop her excellence in arts. I reckon that her shooting since age 6 and shooting with DSLR throughout 2009 is at least partly to blame ;-).

Mike, that is a wonderful series. I've tried to do something similar with each of my sons and their mom. It isn't easy!

The combination of blisteringly sharp (and slightly oversharpened) eyes with everything else not quite in focus is wearing on me. It can be striking but is anything but accurate. With millions of people going for this look with their new DSLR, it is a style which has played out (for me).

The other day, I walked through a large hall at Brigham and Women's Hospital termed "the Pike". There's an amazing series of large portraits of physicians, nurses, scientists, and others who have contributed to health care. Most are environmental portraits, capturing the individuals in their workplace, which adds to the historical context and overall interest for me. Relevant to the discussion, there is a slight softness to all of those portraits. As I looked at them, I tried to imagine how they would have looked if critically sharp, and it was clear to me that they were better off "soft".

For anyone in the vicinity (Longwood Medical area, Boston, MA), it's worth stopping by BWH to have a look!

The corollary is that we ignore those aspects that we know to be transient, impermanent, or trivial: oiliness, blemishes, and the very fine details such as skin pores or fine hairs that obscure rather than enhance recognition.

Photographers become sensitive to each and every lens property, to the point where the first thing we see in a snapshot picture is some fringing or field curvature. Perhaps beauticians who are also photographers prize the DA* 55mm at small apertures for its ability to draw faces as they see them.

For portraits, depending on the lighting, I sometimes selectively go over with a negative clarity in Lightroom for the same reason.

"Light does not exist by itself: light is an experience."

Many thanks Gianni!

The aphorism of the decade.


Take a look at this site if you want to explore sharp is not the best


Wow! What a challenging and interesting subject and with so many variables. I've shot with both Nikon and Canon, they both have there own internal (evan in raw) processing differences, and with similar lens they will have a different feel based on those differences.

Nikon has a softer output and takes to selective sharpening well, (my preference) and the Canons out has to me been very crisp, pore pooping crisp. But the most important aspect in portrait work is depth of field or the lack there of. Creating that sense of depth that the eye perceives in flat art. I'll take the 70-200 2.8 nikor on a full frame camera for that reason.

Great shots Mike.

I can appreciate you point. But I also find that there are enough post processing tools available for me to alter or vary the sharpness of a portrait if I feel it is unflattering. Lightroom 2 has made it pretty trivial for me to eliminate blemishes or smoothen skin a touch in 2 moms. Two of my personal truths: uncorrected spherical abberations are great for portraiture and out-of-focus eyes in portraits of faces greatly diminish my interest in the image. I have just started to use Canon's 135L and I find that the sharper the eyes, the better. So I guess we differ in that respect.

It's nice to see a discussion on the quality of the sharpness of the subject, instead of the quality of the unsharpness of the background.

Yes, those who look at the not-the-subject of a photo first to judge the bokeh, I'm talking to you!

Whatever you do, Mike, don't give this quality of sharpness a fancy name. Not your fault, but you know what happened last time.

Perhaps portraits don't have to be sharp, just sharp enough.

And, nice pix Mike. Can't choose between them.

"Whatever you do, Mike, don't give this quality of sharpness a fancy name. Not your fault, but you know what happened last time."


;-) :-p

A few thoughts:

1 - I remember years ago that you gave a similar definition of a "portrait lens" (and why it didn;t need to be sharp) on the PDML. I later tried to find it but couldn't. Now I've bookmarked this page :)

2 - James comment and link to the Oliver Sacks clip is fascinating. I would highly recommend Sacks' bools "An Anthropologist on Mars" and "The Island of the Colorblind" to any photographer who's interested in learning about human visual perception (and that should be all photographers).

3 - Amin, Thanks for the recommendation. I'm in Boston (near the Longwood Medical area, in fact) and I'll stop by and see the photographs you mentioned.

4 - Just recently a major photography web site reviewed a venerable, well-regarded 50mm f/1.4 lens and found it lacking - in terms of lpm resolution, of course - and thus provoked cries of outrage from the faithful. Which made me laugh because for as long as I can remember, this lens was loved for almost all its qualities *except* sharpness! (It's still one of my favorites.)

Nice set of portraits. First and last for my taste, but none of them strike me as less than "very good".

In #2 the lip-kiss plus closed eyes shades the subject matter towards areas it doesn't belong in; personal reaction only, there's certainly nothing "wrong" with this photo. #3 may still be growing on me, but I don't much like the expression on the boy's face.

I do like sharpness. The arguments about how the brain filters are not, to me, a strong argument against sharp photos. Yes, some photos are successful without being sharp, but I don't think we can map that to any detailed knowledge of human visual processing yet; it may well be better to leave the brain to do its own filtering, not try to do it in advance.

Weston's portraits of Charis Wilson that you used in http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/11/charis-wilson-a-link-to-another-era.html for example need the sharpness they have, it seems to me. And Lotte Meitner-Graf worked largely in high-sharpness, and I think very highly of her work (we have a lot of family portraits of my father's generation by her, so I've lived with the original prints).

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