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Thursday, 07 July 2016


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Seeing Ctein's A2 12Mp prints in all their glory certainly gave me some useful context - they weren't lacking in resolution - even if the Internet disagrees...

Your mention of Jane Bown and her portraits, her use of an OM1 camera and 85mm/2 lens, brought back good memories. Then I read about the new fugi camera. What a disappointment, for me. I like dreaming about that zuiko 85mm/2 lens--and thinking about Jane Bown's portraits.

The real key is being selective, and subtle. You have "Full Modern Resolution" FMR? in some places -like the eyes, and soften skin in general and imperfections in particular. I try to think de-emphasis, rather than removal. ---To not call attention to some things, in the dame way a slight vignette can focus the viewer's attention.
With digital, It is far easier to mitigate or tone down biting sharpness than it is to add or correct insuficient sharpness.
(the kind that gave the 'clarity' slider a bad name.)

Because of that I lean toward my better lenses and careful technique.
Not because sharpness is an end in itself but to give me the best "raw material" (sorry) with which to work.
"Sub optimal post processing" can cut both ways ,--over-doing things, or under-doing things (like leaving too much captured detail in the final print) it is a choice and a skill.

Another reason is that anyone who has done a lot of work understands that our frames are not uniform in quality, we aim for them to be but there are Always variations. Because of that I try to aim a little higher on the technical quality scale so that more frames will reach the level of "fully adequate from a technical point of view".
--- technical sufficiency, if you will...

Of course, it's still possible to get perfect resolution 'the Bown way'. With the bonus that old film cameras are both nice to use and cheap.

Perhaps consistent with your thoughts, pretty well all my favourite pictures of my wife and children have been made with 35mm film or at silly high iso on my digital cameras. Usually the former.


Exactly right Mike, thank you for expressing that in the face of escalating pixel wars.

I'm finding it hard to like what I see in a lot of digital work - clinical sharpness, a plastic, almost cut out look, high resolution and no "soul". Not every image is like that of course, but I see enough to make me wonder if it's part of a photographic trend.

My personal holy grail, in order, is tonality (smooth & wide), dynamic range (lots), depth-of-field (control of), resolution (enough) sharpness (variable).

For digital I'd prefer to achieve that through a transfer function consisting of a combination of lens, sensor characteristics and firmware. Ideally I'd like a fully re-programmable firmware layer to define my own look and shoot direct to JPEG or TIFF.*

Film - yeah I think we've had that sort of thing nailed for years.

* Unknown if house style would have these file types in upper or lowercase :-)

What we have here is three wildly different portrait conceptions. We have the super high resolution of digital, the wide open (or thereabouts) medium format film portrait, and then there's a portrait by Jane Bown.
The medium format portrait - at least I'm assuming medium format film was employed - is not by any means lacking in resolution. Its super shallow depth of field makes everything but the eyes look out of focus, but at the same time it selectively guides us to the feature we usually look at in the first place when we see a human face. And the lighting is excellent. This portrait is not quite up to Karsh's standards, but it is an excellent sample of mid-20th century's professional portraiture.
The high resolution approach is, in my view, the less interesting of the three styles showcased here. In this case the photographer seemed to be looking for something that's beyond our reach - perfection. Perfect sharpness, perfect lighting, perfect colours, perfect background, even going so far as to fabricate perfection. A sign of our highly technological times, perhaps...?
And then, of course, there's that wonderful portrait of Björk by Jane Bown. How can anyone not love it? This portrait sums what Björk Gudmundsdóttir was at that time - a girly, sensual and groundbreaking singer, albeit one with depth and mystery too her music. Jane Bown had that rare ability to tell someone's whole story with her portraits (most of which, incidentally, were taken with 85mm lenses on Olympus OM-1 cameras). Though quite different, this is almost as good as Samuel Beckett's and Orson Welles' portraits by Ms. Bown.
To be fair, though, Björk's portrait is the one made with the most obvious artistic intent. The digital portrait is made to be accurate; Rosser Reeves' is an extremely well made picture of a man, but it was made to feature on the inner pages of a magazine - albeit one in which image quality stands very high in its list of priorities. Ultimately, Björk's portrait is the one I'd hang on my wall.
Yet none of these portraits is really intriguing or challenging. This one, a portrait of former West Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made by Karl-Heinz Hargesheimer, best known as Chargesheimer, is:

It's an interesting point.

We don't tend to look at human faces the way we look at other objects... it's all about the face shape and eyes-mouth-nose relationship.

We can recognise people instantly from an accurate line drawing of just these features.

In our ideal of female beauty, everything else is de-emphasised - what we call 'flawless skin' is in fact nearly featureless.

So yes, a surgically sharp image of a face draws attention to thing that are not important.

Ironically, the better the camera the more work the makeup artist has to do to hide all the parts we didn't want to see in the first place...

A few years ago (I can't remember exactly when) my aesthetic changed, suddenly it seemed. I went from f64 to a more ethereal, perhaps even "dreamy" look, at least for some subjects and situations. I don't know what flipped the switch, but maybe it was seeing all the high resolution, over-sharp images on the web. Boring.

That's one of drbrtsl reasons I recently picked up the Leica CL and Summicron 40 - not that the Cron isn't capable of high resolution, but I can use film and get the look I want without fussing with post processing. Which, I have finally admitted to myself, I don't really like or enjoy.

I agree that the Biggerstaff photo was cleaned up well, but at some point it no longer becomes a photo, and turns into a photo illustration, or whatever you want to call it. Also, if you do too much, it no longer looks like the subject, or just becomes a lie.

Personally, I like the idiosyncratic things like freckles and moles, because it makes the subject look human, instead of a plastic manikin.

The heavily edited second portrait in Dan Biggerstaff's post just *nails* precisely what I hate about a lot of magazine portraiture these days. Cover images of celebrities and models are generally so heavily processed, they might as well be mannequins. Celebrity photogs are often shooting with ultra-high resolution medium format digital cameras, then effectively tossing out most of that resolution in 'post' to get the Barbie doll look. (It can be done in Photoshop, but there are commercial portrait retouching software programs that do it with a few clicks. Which may explain the mind-numbing sameness of a lot of fashion work.)
I just don't get it. Not every portrait needs bitingly sharp resolution, but who can deny the impact of Jill Furmanovsky's iconic portrait of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts?

I guess the thing about resolution....is the fact that it is entirely a function of the equipment in use. I suppose you could, literally, train an ape, through a reward system, to unfailingly select the button that produces the highest resolution. The photographer does not come into the resolution equation until a decision concerning how much resolution is appropriate is required.

I agree with Earl Dunbar: the endless procession of tack sharp, ultra-high resolution photographs is becoming boring.....well....maybe tedious....About as engaging as watching a pitching machine throw strike after strike at batting practice.


I did a series of portraits recently as part of a project with a friend. Every subjects favourites were the slightly "soft" ones all shot with an 85mm lens that has never been sharp below about f11.

With the Olympus EM-1 you could enable focus stacking and select the level of resolution you want via a defocused exposure... I suppose.Or you can employ one of the many "tricks" to get a softer exposure, like veiling over the objective, etc. It's all a matter of style. Those gritty portraits of sports stars, football players, etc. those photogs seem to prefer the detail so high it's crunchy. Different strokes for different folks.

Some times a good close portrait on 8x10 or larger contact printed looks very good. Every detail, flaw and character line is there. Not every portrait needs this but when you want that crisp detail it is nice to have it.
All in all I try to remember the first rule of fine portraits: if you want a better picture, bring a better face.

My wife complains that my head-and-shoulders portraits of her reveal much of her pores and wrinkles. OTOH, she likes photos of her taken with a smartphone (especially those filtered with a "Beautify" app) that are rendered soft and unsharp.

I'll keep my pictures and continue taking portraits of her. As the years go by (and my local adjustment prowess grow), I look forward to a series of portraits showing her age gracefully.

In portraiture, black and white often accentuates the essentials while hiding surplus information. It's less about spatial resolution, I feel.

There is a place for ultra high resolution and super sharp images in scientific and medical recording. It is totally inappropriate for portraiture.
I have been howled down many times by photographers who insist that only the sharpest lens will do for portraits. And have recoiled at the waxworks retouching robbing a face of any character. Thank you for calling attention to the concept of "just right".
As an aside, my favourite photos of people I care for are usually on film. The tonality and grain seem to "draw" in a more meaningful way than digital. Digital just doesn't seem to have the same presence, or needs a lot more talent and work to get it. (pardon my clumsy words in trying to convey visual nuances)

Cooke PS945 on 4x5 film. LOTS of resolution, and yet one of the best portrait lens, as seen on this photo on Cynthia Felice, science fiction author


Oops, I meant to say Rolleinar close-up lens for the TLR.

A Miata, a Corvette and a Ferrari walk into a bar... Only kidding, but the three of them were parked very close together on a street in Santa Monica on my last visit there. (Have I not seen an image or two of the Miata on these pages?)
Having just picked up the smaller iPad Pro (impressive 12mp camera/system), adding a Fujifilm X (impressive 24mp camera/system) and eyeing the latest, marvelous Hasselblad (impressive form-factor, 50mp camera/system), I equate capture resolution to horsepower. (I will leave all audio-related analogy that appears on TOP to others.)
If "image destination" is considered, we thus select the appropriate "horsepower" to build the content. (BTW, would love to know the photographer involved in Rosser Reeves portrait. Thinking a Karsh-like, 8x10 experience with expert manual retouch on that large horsepower negative. I mean, look at the God-up-above lighting. And, yes, nailed the eyeglasses, don't ya think?)
So, in the shed, my Ducati Monster awaits his companions: the Vespa on the right for milk and bread runs, the Superleggera on the left for the Sunday morning scorch with full leathers/SIDI boots.
What choices these days...

So the choice seems to be either shoot modern digital and try to "correct" in post to soften clinical sharpness while trying to avoid a overly smooth plastic look OR shoot film with an old lens at its less than sharpest aperture.

Technical limitations can be wonderful, beautiful things.

There's the real world and then there's the interweb. People on the interweb say all kinds of things, they need more resolution, faster auto-focus, 4K video, and to be sure, some people actually need/want these things. But we too easily jump to the conclusion that it's what the real world wants because we do most of our reading on the interweb.

When people read Jonathan Swift, did they assume that there actually were places tiny people.

There's a thread somewhere I read where people were bemoaning the fact that the new Hasselblad mirrorless camera did not have fast enough auto-focus. Elsewhere I read a thread about how evil they are for announcing something that won't be available in stores for a while yet. As if these things were important. They're only interweb-important.

I recently went to a talk about Jane Bown by her friend Luke Dodd. Interestingly she rarely used more than one roll of film per portrait session, and she often didn't even need that!

I think that says a lot about picking a combination of kit and settings and sticking to them.

Maybe it's because, having read this, I was on the look-out for resolution, but I'm going to have to disagree with the Rosser Reeves photo as an example.
Even popped-out, what it tells me is more that it's a thing-of-its-time so perhaps we should be regarding generations as a factor?

The higher-resolution the images I work with, the more I appreciate them even when small - but then I'm a landscapie at heart. Shoot image-data, process to taste - and move detail from the technical to subjective space in the process.

My favourite portraits of my kids were taken with a 6mp Pentax ist armed with a Helios 44-2 lens. The resolution is enough to clearly see individual hairs and eyelashes - but the accompanying softness [comparative testing spelt out that was down to that specific lens rather than mp] is just beautiful. I only wish I could reproduce that with my Nikons - but that lens does not mate with an adapter without trashing the infinity focus element. In fact it would be easy to hanker for one of the new full-frame Pentaxes purely to be able to use that lens again. No, I have not sold it! Not flashy, not expensive, and I own far 'better' lenses, but special in that role.

I find your comments, Mike, about perfect resolution for a portrait, completely arbitrary, and not reflective of the wide range of successful portraiture in the history of photography. No one ever accused Yousuf Karsh of having too much resolution in his famous photographs, mostly shot on an 8" x 10" camera. His work illustrates the point that ultimate resolution of facial features, including skin texture, depends on the magnification size of the image and the resolution of the taking system. You can shoot a "soft" image with an 8" x 10" camera or a "sharp" image with a macro lens on a small format camera. All systems can and have been used for successful portraiture.

[Actually, lots of people DID accuse Karsh of having too much resolution (and detail and contrast) in his portraits. For a long time.

But never mind. You're objecting to something I never said. It's possible to get the "just right" resolution with any kind of equipment, and what that level of resolution might be is different for everyone both behind and in front of the camera (i.e. for different photographers and different subjects). All I'm saying is that the "mostest" ain't necessarily the "bestest" in all cases. --Mike]

The Rosser Reeves portrait is not one I like, technically. I don't really mind the terribly shallow depth of field, but I do mind the blotchiness in the skin tones, and the way it's been printed down to eliminate some areas of glare on the skin (I think).

Biggerstaff's portrait is ordinary, but the edit by Bergeron is much better than the original. It's actually fairly restrained.

Since the portrait by Bown is about perfect technically, we probably don't disagree all that far here.

I recall that when I began experimenting with digital cameras I would proudly show family members my informal portraits of them in which every pore and wrinkle could be enumerated. Somehow they never seemed to share my enthusiasm for the incredible resolution of these images ...

This is where razor thin depth of field comes in handy. Just get the eyes in focus and let the physics take care of the skin imperfections.

In digital I strive for fine detail, but not the harsh or edgy sort of sharpness we often see in digital. Maybe it's just me, but I like to start with a highly detailed image, then control it in the computer. My general policy is temporary problems disappear -- zits, makeup crumbs, etc. -- but permanent features such as "laugh lines," moles and even scars stay, though I often reduce the contrast to avoid overemphasis. If you wouldn't notice it during a conversation I don't want it jumping out in a photo.(As an aside, I recently had to redo a woman's portrait because she felt I had toned down a scar too much. "I'm proud of my scar," she said. "It's part of who I am.")

The Biggerstaff photo does not work for me. To me it looks fake -- as if someone erased the original skin and replaced with a canned texture.

In the past I spent many years looking for just the right balance of detail and softness for portraits. I was never able to get it on 35mm, but had a couple of lenses for 4x5 that worked well for me. When I moved to digital I set out to approximate the look of the old Rodenstock Imagon. I find two advantages in digital: First, I can control it after I shoot, rather than having it locked in at the time of exposure. And second I have a near-infinite range, from just enough to take the edge off to a full-on romantic glow, rather than just a few choices depending on what lenses I own.

Michael Perini pretty much said it for me. I do lots of different types of photo, from macro to landscape (and only occasional portraits). Sometimes in landscapes, what I want can't be isolated from my closest possible approach and longest lens. So I take the shot and crop it in post. That means I need all the resolution I can get. Similarly in macro, too much resolution is almost an oxymoron. In either case, softening in post is easier and more controllable than sharpening or up-resing.

I have to politely disagree with Manuel regarding Jane Bown's lens selection. Although the portrait of Björk does appear to have been shot on an 85, which Jane certainly had, by far the majority of her portraits from the 80s onwards were shot on a 50. Working for a Sunday newspaper, Jane also had the reputation for "stealing" the developer used by other photographers midweek when it was partially exhausted, leading to softer negs. As a young photographer, Jane Bown was my inspiration and I was very fortunate to work with the Observer from time to time from the late 80s and meet Jane on several occasions. I'm grateful to see Jill Furmanovsky's name mentioned on TOP. I used to admire Jill's work and this has prompted me to seek it out and enjoy it anew.

It's not just resolution, though.
Modern lenses are also (almost invariably) designed to maximise contrast, which is not exactly desirable for portraiture. Many old primes actually have pretty good central resolution, even on modern sensors, but have a far softer look.

In any event, my current favoured lens for portraits is an adapted 16mm format projection lens, on M4/3.

To Tom:
Jane Bown was a photographer that struck my main (photographic) nerve like only a few others did. Actually, I find her only second to Yousuf Karsh as a portrait photographer.
As you might imagine, having her in such high regard led me to gather as much information on her as I could - which eventually included the equipment she used.
It was exhilarating for me to find out that she used Olympus OM-1 bodies, mainly because I have an Olympus OM-2 with which I do 98% of my photographing. (I don't own an OM-1 because the mercury battery alternatives make metering unreliable, otherwise that'd be my camera of choice.) At the same time I learned she used a Zuiko 85 mm lens. After reading your comment, though, I felt doubtful and unsure of the veracity of my knowledge. As I said, I don't have the habit of making claims like that just out of my head, but something could have misled me. So I did a little search, trying to retrieve the information I had gathered.
I didn't take me too long to find something: a few clicks led me to the confirmation that Ms. Bown, in fact, used an 85 mm short telephoto lens. "At first she used a Rolleiflex, moving on to a Pentax and finally to her beloved Olympus camera with an 85mm lens, always at a camera speed of 1/60th of a second and with the aperture at f2.8." That's from her obituary on 'The Telegraph.'
I could have gone on with my searches, but it's not my intention to start a little debate on gear here. That's against TOP's guidelines anyway.

[And funny thing, I'd always heard she preferred the OM Zuiko 100mm f/2.8 wide open. --Mike]

"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."

That's a pretty good job. But it's also something anyone reasonably adept at PS and the use of masks shouldn't find hard to do.

However, neither a separate Pro to do the work nor all that much expertise are necessary. There are many plug-ins and stand alone aps designed to do exactly this job. We see the results of overuse all the time, plastic faces sans pores, in posted images, even in ads for the aps.

The 2 or 3 I've tried have been capable of quite competent, nuanced results, comparable to my eye to what I see in the Pro example.

Film grain is my friend and resolution is highly over rated for many types of photography. Digitally, I rarely try to remove noise, other than color noise and will even add some "grain" when the situation warrants, and not because I'm trying to make a digital image look "film like".

Decades ago I attended an exhibition (long forgotten who the artist was) of photos done with 35mm and printed fairly large. I was impressed by how "sharp" everything was when even when a picture showed a little subject movement. I realized the impression of "sharpness" came from the use of high accutance developer (I.e.Rodinal) rather than a "fine grain" developer. Fine grain developers might actually have more detail but it always left me with the impression of "softness", and I guess a high resolution softness is preferable for some subjects.

I had a friend recently show me some of his aerial work in Lightroom. It was taken near dusk and his iso was set high and his efforts to remove the noise just left his photos looking smeared. I suggested taking out the color noise but leaving in or even adding just a subtle amount of "film grain" to increase the perception of sharpness. It worked and the following day he told me that after sleeping on it and reviewing the adjustments, he was keeping them because it helped. I've even gone so far as to use the technique of adding a little "film grain" on a slightly out of focus family picture to salvage it.

Now, don't get the idea that I disdain resolution, I don't, (my equipment cabinet also says I don't ) resolution can enhance many types of photographs but it is no substitute for the innate qualities of the subject.

This is an interesting follow up to your discussion of Steve McCurry and the limits to acceptable use of Photoshop depending on the context, photojournalism versus photo illustration and the occasional, sometimes brilliant work of highly contrived, Photoshopped fine art.

Portraits are a special kind of photograph and among the most prized when they manage to accurately convey someone's character. Having someone strike a pose or hold a prop is arguably out of bounds for a photojournalistic picture, yet such moves are de rigueur for a portrait, which is almost always posed and deliberate on the part of both the subject and the photographer, whether or not props are involved, and perhaps with some flexibility in such matters as snatching away Winston Churchill's cigar just before snapping the shutter. The results can become instantly recognizable, canonical representations of their subject, as in Mr. Churchill's case.

(I suppose the familiar "grip and grin" ceremonial photos that used to appear in local newspapers when we had such things are a middle ground where posing is expected but great results aren't and the fact that the handshake is contrived for the camera doesn't keep it from being newsworthy in a way and acceptable journalism in any case.)

Anyway, within that portrait context but getting away from the world of politics and art and other official subjects and shifting to more popular applications involving everyday people, working to make the appearance of skin in a photo match our subjective impression of the person posing for the photo seems like a reasonable part of the process - and what commercial photographer would stay in business if it weren't? How much correcting is done is in most cases a matter of taste and the reaction of the subject, who is usually footing the bill.

The before and after efforts of Messrs. Biggerstaff and Bergeron seem ok though maybe a trifle overdone. In the end the subject looks to me like a friendly girl with a few freckles who has had them surgically removed for the camera, a sad loss for freckles fans and a correcting-away of part of her visual identity.

It does seem like the photographic community is still thinking this question through with respect to digital photography. The several references to film cameras in the comments and your inclusion of photographers who worked with them in your original post is telling in that regard. Portraits done on film, often black and white film, are the gold standard, not so much, it seems, the work of any particular modern and digital photographer.

Mike, perhaps further journalistic inquiry on your part would be helpful. Could you widen the discussion? Do an interview or two or a roundtable free-for-all? Bring in more pros or gifted amateurs who work in portraiture and see what they have to say about this, along with examples of their current work? In any case, thanks for another thoughtful post.

Oh Lynn -- that Zuiko f2 85mm! What a lovely lens (although I always felt it was 5mm too short -- I always had a crop a little!). now I use the mZuiko f1.8 45mm lens on my m43 cameras -- and then run them through Topaz adjust to calm them down! I have just woken up to the fact that my Panasonic G6 and GX7 cameras offer a portrait mode; I must give that a try.

Cheers, Geoff

I love this image of Bjork. I happen to be in Greece where photo portraits are everywhere ... Devoid of everything that makes us human. Its quite an achievement as so many rural greek people have faces full of life and expression.

One thought though .... If I get the Pentax K1 I will have the joy if using the wonderfully less than perfect 77mm Ltd. In my view a lens which is improved by its imperfections. As it is now it is sort of a 110mm lens so it gets used less than it should.

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