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Thursday, 26 September 2019


I fully agree, both on sharpness and Capa, BUT:
When shopping, I'd go for max sharpness. Why? Because it is easier, and more successful most of the time, to to desharpen in post processing. Less risk of artifacts or other problems than when wanting to sharpen a less sharp image.

Now who'll be first to pass any of the above through Topaz Labs software processing?

I like lenses and cameras that have the potential to be sharp. But I often fail to achieve that potential. That's when I say, "I meant to do that."

Concerning D-Day, I once read an article or a section of a book that stated something like 7 out of 10 veterans of the invasion admitted to soiling their pants during the operation. The writer said he related these statistics to someone who was also a veteran and the response he received was, "Then 3 out of 10 were liars."

Hear! Hear!

Of course, some great pictures need to be sharp. I'm actually thinking of several iconic portraits. There's a genre I don't immediately associate with sharpness, but portraitists have been exploiting sharp/soft to great effect since long before photography.

Irving Penn's portrait of Picasso in hat and scarf, for example, is a wonderful composition of visual sharpness and subject softness, characteristic of many classical portraits, IMO, whether of people or peppers.

And that's the point, really, isn't it? Sharp/soft is a thing (tool, quality, effect) that applied judiciously or encountered serendipitously, can elevate an image to another level.

So are we headed for a discussion of the uses of sharpness and its corollary, softness, in photography?

I choose a lens for its character and how it renders the image to my liking. My part is to use the best technique that produces a properly focused and exposed image that suites my subject.

Ernst Haas


One of my own favourite photos:

Shot at 1/30 sec while panning with the skateboarder, on 800 ISO color negative film.

Congratulations. I occasionally visit another photo site, a blog. and I have seen the ugly underbelly of photography. There have been two things lately that have really shown me how photography as a hobby is in the dumps.

One subject was the use of UV/Protective filters. Let's just say there a lot of folks, obviously amateurs, and I mean that in the worst possible way, that feel there is never an excuse for a filter on the front of your perfect lens. I first related a story I read on another forum (maybe yours?) where someone saw a video of Joel Sartore with his camera, which had a UV filter on the lens. This person somehow got Joel's phone number and called him to discuss why oh why would he do this. Joel said he often found himself in positions where protection was necessary, and he foten forgot to take the filter off, and as a result at least 75% of his photos were with one. I related this to a particularly strident detractor, and said Joel Sartore thinks it's OK. You're not Joel Sartore, so shut up. No response.

I have also noticed an ongoing discussion on the subject of MP counts and lenses. How many megapixels are need to produce acceptable results. How many would a professional need to be credible? And how sharp should lenses be? The general feeling among the great unwashed was there is no point where more megapixels are no longer a concern, and lenses can never be sharp enough, and a heavy tripod is always required whenever shooting photos.

All this led to my misbegotten belief that my Nikon D3 suited me perfectly and I would shoot it till it dies. I really like the results it gives me, there is something smooth and gentle about it's files, but, OMG, it only has 12MP. The trolls don't think 12MP is even suitable for a P&S.

And there was just a guy who posted wanting advice on getting a bridge camera. It MUST have a 30MP sensor.

I'm sick and tired of this pointless quest for sharpness. But what do I know? I like Cartier bresson, and sharpness wasn't his thing. Please keep up the good work.

Bill Pearce (not the famous one)

When those examples were modern, when we viewed a photograph, if it wasn't sharp, it didn't even occur to us to comment on it because there was no expectation that it should be. Sharpness just wasn't part of our collective experience.

Today, sharpness is normal and expected. It's part of the story of photography's evolution over time.

Thanks for this. I am weary of the worship of sharpness. After looking at some razor-sharp work on line, I wonder if my eyes are bleeding.

As far as street and documentary photography goes, right on! I could not agree more. Sharpness in photographs are over rated. Its probably because digital photography makes it so simple, but I would argue—why? Just because sharpening an image after its taken is possible, doesn't make it a better image‚—in fact the opposite could be true. Leonardo daVinci discovered 500 years ago that the illusion of depth in an image comes from the softening of the details in an image—not the opposite.

When you were striving to be as sharp as possible with an original grainy image the size of a postage stamp (ie- 35mm), it was at least... understandable. Now, I am amazed at just how "sharp" photographs can be, but as you alluded to- sharpness in and of itself does not constitute good photography, although it does make bad photographs even more obvious. We need less of that, and maybe more of this...


The Deer and Omaha beach examples aren't practically relevant, because no one would buy a lens that always rendered in that manner. You buy, ostensibly, for a system that can reproduce sharply, and then decide on a case-by-case basis if you can accept the inevitable technical shortcomings that occur in a particular instance.

I can't recall ever wishing my lens were less sharp, and i've had medium format, and some of the best 35mm lenses. But, i constantly wished images had been sharper.

Doesn't mean i don't like images that aren't technically 'sound,' but i do have specific memory of a Cartier Bresson exhibition in NYC, where i was astounded at just how often his photographs 'sucked' because of blur or focus issues. I wouldn't have printed/exhibited those shots. And at the same time, i can love the intentional softness of Sarah Moon or Lillian Bassman. Intent and opportunity are important considerations. I can 'excuse' Capa's Omaha Beach photo—and even there, we're prejudiced toward appreciating it because we're pre-warned that it's an 'amazing, important photograph'—but i can't excuse an HCB shot where he's not on assignment, doesn't have a deadline, has good light, and still doesn't bring home a sharp photo.....

It's not just you, I see the appeal every time I look at a favorite classic photo book. I like the idea that sharp can be ugly. Sometimes I like a photo I take, and by the time I'm done with sliders and sharpening I hate it.

Things I also like from older photographs: the right kind of shadow detail, and the right kind of general tonal qualities. Film has a way of compressing the image signal that's probably similar to vinyl and tape compressing sound. We get used to it and find it warmer and more inviting than 192 bit perfectly recorded digital.

I have my hopes up for Fuji's DR400 setting. Recently found it works in Lightroom with raw the same way as in camera. With some high contrast photos it has the "just right" look to the shadows.

Mike, you went halfway, and stopped. To complete, add too much or too little contrast, and add blown highlights or blown shadows. Or add awful white balance, and no understanding of depth of field, etc.


Elliot Erwitt believes digital is destroying photography. Now, though there is a special place in hell for photographers who disagree with him, still, I disagree(as I make the sign of the cross and quietly offer a prayer, “Santo Cristo, por favor, perdoname.”) :-)

But he has a point, which I think is the same one you are making, Mike.

Saint Ansel said it best:
"There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."

My sentiments exactly, and I’m reading this following my, thankfully, uneventful six month dental appointment today.

Can I be the first to quote HCB? "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." I really don't like digital sharpness. It hurts my eyes. The maligned Fuji 18mm is one of my favorite lenses precisely because it is not overly sharp (unlike the 27mm which I like less).

I often remember the piece on Jane Bown published here at TOP and her use of 1/60. Her portraits don't look soft but not overly sharp either. She captured faces that look like people, whereas so many today look like androids.

However, regarding Sharpen AI I think it's a keeper. I tried it (via a mask) on a shot I back-focused with my Leica M9 and it did a credible job of correcting it. So, for triage like this and local sharpening it seems to work more authentically than other tools but I personally wouldn't use it on every image.

Mike, you are on the right side of 'Sharp' and when it comes to Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, André Kertész...and many other masters, give me Shrapnel over Sharpness any day!

For me, discussions of things technical about a photograph are only ever, at most, sidebars to "Do I like looking at it?" And then, maybe if I'm feeling analytical that day, why do I like it, or not. I can't remember a time when I saw a photograph I liked and asked myself "Is it sharp enough?"

Yes indeed, I would like to see more unsharp pictures!
They often just leave more room for the imagination.
These days popular photography is usually ...so real.

Btw Pascal Jappy also just wrote about this on Dear Susan.

Just wondering if Peter Turnley's photo you posted yesterday of the young woman on a Paris balcony motivated you to write today's article on image sharpness. Peter's photograph is magnificently soft. A sharper image wouldn't make it better, and indeed I dare say a sharper rendition would have sterilized the sensual beauty of the scene. Lovely image...timely discussion about image sharpness.

So, you were scared and failed to do a proper post! (Written from the high ground of my armchair)

It's time this was said.
There's been a detail fetish in the 'fine' photography market for decades now.
As you imply - sharpness may have its place in some works, but time now to accept that it is more often than not unnecessary and often detracts from the image.
(I don't wish my favourite Monets were as 'sharp' as a pre-Raphaelite).

I still have a few shots from Sebring in 1956 taken with my Kodak Six 20 Flash camera. I was 14 years old and happy to have blurry photos of Juan Manual Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jean Behra, Luigi Musso and others in their Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, and Aston Martins. Shot a lot since then, most lost to a flood in 1997. Blurry was fine then, and it is fine now. I know what's there.

Thanks Mike, I watched one of the Masters series on Lula, presenting Charles Cramer. His view was that an image should be evenly sharp from corner to corner. So not absolute sharpness, and taken in the context of landscape / nature photography.
Perhaps Pictorialism will make a comeback as a counterpoint to absolute sharpness - and the cost that goes with that ;~)

If we're talking about lens attributes, my attitude has always been: I want a lens that can shoot as sharp as I want, when I want it sharp. Because I can always soften an image, but it's much tricker to sharpen a soft image.

If we're talking about motion blur, I want a picture to have zero, unless I decide it should have some -- meaning I want a camera that's best able to overcome motion if that's my artistic decision, because that same tool can also capture blur when needed.

(And if we're talking about the softness of media like Polaroids, well, those aren't my tools.)

In a nutshell, I want the tools that let me shoot really sharp for when that's the artistic goal, because those same tools can also allow me to be less sharp anytime I choose.

It's all about choice.

Mike Johnston in top form.

And why is this essay in any way "Off Topic"?

["Open Mike" is just "often" off-topic, not "always." --Mike]

Up till a few months ago I was inadvertently a member of the 'sharp- sharp-sharp" school. I was one of the ways I used to focus the viewers attention on what I wanted them to see/look at. Lately I've taken a less in your face and more subtle, softer approach using no post processing sharpening or reducing the sharpness to some degree. Estheically, I like the results I'm getting much more than the sharp-sharp images. I do a fair amount of street photography and have always liked the contrast between stillness and motion and have taught myself how to use blurred movement in the background to accentuate the foreground. Certainly not a recipe for anyone else to follow, but just another way get the results you want.

Or as the darkroom manager at the local community photo co-op used to say: "If the best thing about your photo is that it's sharp, then ... you need to take another photo". (Which probably sounds like a paraphrasing of a certain "bourgeois" quote from HCB, but apparently to pay attention to that quote is also bourgeois, so I won't.)

As long as it is sharp where I want it with the amount I want it, I am OK. Then..., there is over the top contrast to try and appear sharp.

"Is it just me, or does anyone else miss all the ways that photographs used to be able to be unsharp?"

Couldn't agree more Mike. This is where books become a treasure trove of inspiration for photographers suffering ocular lacerations from sharp imagery - two of my favourites being Stieglitz's Camera Work (Taschen) and Yasuzo Nojima (Skira).

Maybe film will become more popular for those seeking relief to ever more megapixel sharpness (108Mp on the new Samsung S11, anyone?).


I made a large monochrome print that, aesthetically, bothers me because it is so sharp and graphic and contrasty. However, that was my intent, because it's a social statement about inequality. I couldn't make it look "nice."

But, entered in a local art group's photography show, it got "Best in Show." The pro photographer (an Olympus "Ambassador" or some such) jurying the show commented about it being "tack sharp" as one of the reasons for his surprising pick.

Nevertheless, it's still a "cheese grater" to my eyes.

Oh Mike, no, no, no. The "Photographers" on Dpreview have proven via thousands of pictures of brick walls and cat whiskers that sharpness (and megapixels) are the most important things in the world. You must be behind the times.....

Last week I was looking at a friend's collection of back number of Automobile Year, from the 1960s. Photos of Grand Prix drivers of the past, in the action on the track and in the pits. Presumably shot on 35mm transparency film, cropped and enlarged way beyond what any modern 300 dpi obsessive would regard as conceivable.

Are they soft? Yes. Are they grainy? Yes. Do they work? Absolutely. A real sense of excitement.

One of my pet peeves is over-sharpened photos in advertisements or advertorials in magazines. They look artificial and appalling. Many more photos one sees in print are over-sharpened than under-sharpened. Sharpening is like HDR, a tool of the Devil.

(The ultra wide-angle fad that's just about to plague the world of phone photography is another one.)

Mike, You have made some very good points for the varying degrees of sharpness acceptability. I’ve experienced a lot of them, and come to the same conclusions. It’s one of a few a highly personal values that one places on their work that’s hard to define for other viewers.

I get your nostalgia for how photos once could look. One of the reasons I've debated with myself to switch to a medium format film camera, as my main camera, is the idea that the limitations would have to make me accept photos that are "imperfect" in various ways.

My digital camera helps me to make technically faultless photos.

Even so, I think that if anybody would comment on one of my (digital) photos that it's so sharp, I'd take a hard look at that photo to see what I did wrong. That's not to say that my photos aren't generally sharp, but I try to make sure that they're never so noticeably sharp that the sharpness becomes a feature of the photo.

It might be useful, where the data exists, to make the point by publishing test results for those lenses that produced famous, well-regarded photographs. I suspect they'd show all sorts of uglies.

Sharpness is a requirement of content and its intent.


I am fatigued by so many "hypersharp" photos that we see today. I agree that sharpness has its place, but we seem to have gone over the top. To illustrate that sharpness is not always vital, we need look no further than your last post. The photo by Peter Turnley titled "Paris" is not very sharp at all... but it's beautiful.


I think the word you're after is "contrive" not "connive"

Totally agree

I don't agree. I don't agree that as many pictures are spoiled by being too sharp. Yes, pictures can be spoiled by excessive digital sharpening. But that is not the same as being (optically?) sharp in the first place.
The three examples are in my opinion bad in illustrating your point. The first picture is sharp. Only the moving horses are not sharp. Imagine the same exposure made handheld. Everything would be blurred. That would not be a great image. This is. Capa's pictures were spoiled in processing. They were not intended to be blurry and we don't know how good they would be if they had not been spoiled. Or how good the other rolls would have been that were spoiled completely. They are iconic images because of the subject matter. Not because they are blurry. They would be just as iconic if they were sharp. Maybe more so. The other iconic WW2 image of Iwo Jima flag raising was reshot to improve its quality. Would it be as iconic if it was grainy and blurry? I doubt it. The third picture is sharp. It is as sharp as this particular technology allows. Would it be better if there was camera shake or misfocus to make it less sharp. No.

Maybe because of my darkroom experience (short as it was) but sharpness or lack thereof, and grain has never bothered me in particular. I still want to make a 1x1.5 yard sharp print and to that end I’m saving to get a high megapixel body and then a tilt shift lens. In photography the feeling of the image trumps any and all technicalities, just as in movie making, editing flow trumps continuity. We (photographers) obsess mainly about sharpness and bokeh, and the better ones about light and composition. But the common folk just want a picture of the moment, a moment they were to busy living and enjoying. And that’s the main reason you get a photographer.

On a side note, I really hope you would reconsider your stance on podcasts, I think these off topic blogposts would be great. Maybe just once a month. I saw that Roger Cicala started his own podcast, and just like I want to hear anything he talks about, so I would with you. I have been reading you for years, and hearing you once in a while would be a real treat.

This is quite possibly your best post ever...in not so many words (a bit like Capa's WW2 iconic picture) you managed to put the finger exactly on what I dislike about fashionable modern (not necessarily "digital") photography and why instead I search for contemporary "underdogs" authors instead! Besides, it was fun to imagine some of these ivory tower critics in the midst of the DDay ;)

Well said, Mike. After getting into digital photography in the early 2000s, I dedicated much time and effort to trying to perfect my sharpening technique - constantly dissatisfied - until one day, the penny dropped, and I realised that I like images that aren't particularly sharp! Since then, I use no sharpening at all on most images, though just occasionally, I do use a touch of very light local sharpening.

Incredibly sharp images abound these days - often waaaaay OVER-sharpened, IMO - and I suspect that my growing aversion to this 'fad' has been responsible (in part, at least) for my return to using a lot more film.

One could say this comment is directed at the wrong audience - that it should rather be sent to the image editors of my daily Dutch newspaper, NRC. Nevertheless: Lately, colour pictures are published in my newspaper that look unnatural, to the point of being unpleasant, due to exagerrated use of ‘Clarity’, unsharp mask, ‘Texture’ or whatever the particular slider or trick employed is called. IMO this is a cheap, tasteless solution aimed at a problem that doesn’t exist, over-shooting its goal completely. This runs parallel, I think, to holy-cowing sharpness. A good photograph is primarily something to be experienced, not to be judged with rulers etc. As the famous line from ‘Le Petit Prince’ goes: ‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur’ (‘It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly).

I have seen that Caponigro print, and it is every bit as luminous as you'd hope it would be.

Dear Mike,

thank you very, very much for this article!
I certainly agree with all your statements, but most fascinating to me is the relation between the highly subjective sharpness perception and "scientific" measurements of lens resolution.

In 1986, when I was 15 (Jesus Christ!), I bought my first SLR, the lovely Minolta X300 with a push-pull "Unitar" Zoom lens. I didn't know much about photography, and close to nothing about camera gear. I trusted the seller in the tiny store and he did what he could according to my very tight budget. I remember, while reading the manual at home, someone in the radio told something about an accident in Tschernobyl, Ukraine...
Well, after a while I lost interest in photography and it was 1999 when I touched the Minolta and the "Unitar" again to take it to a trip to Seychelles with my fiancée.
The prints I got from these holidays still belong to the "sharpest" I ever got - according to my personal sharpness perception.
And, you guessed it, the "Unitar" is a piece'o'crap. Or ist it?
Anyways, these prints caused a severe GAS attack and the journey began...

I bought a Nikon F80, two Tamron zoom lenses (being well regarded by photo magazines) and the Micro-Nikkor 60/2.8 AF-D.
After a few months the zooms mostly stayed at home. The Nikkor was oh so sharp! I started to photograph flowers. Sharp photographs of flowers - and critters - and things.

From those years two shots made it to the wall in our living room. Two black & white shots of my wife in the woods I took with the Tamron 70-300. I printed them by hand on baryte paper and I love them. They seem to be very sharp as well.

F80 keepers 25%

In 2006 my daughter was born and I bought a Nikon D200. I was afraid the first word she would say was "KLACK". The Micro-Nikkor burned holes through the CCD of my D200. Scientific sharpness overlapped with perceived and the fact of being a father gifted me with photographic superpowers.

D200 Keepers 80%

In 2009 my son was born and I bought a Pentax K7, along with a Zeiss Planar 50/1.4, a Pentax FA limited 77mm, and a Pentax DA limited 21mm. For the first time I started touching my gear for no reason. The Samsung sensor of the K7 was special. Dynamic range worse than todays phones, but with serious mojo going on - especially with the Planar and ISOs between 800 and 1250.
Apart from the FA77 the lenses had mediocre "scientific" reviews. The Planar being very soft at f1.4 (HA, YOU BLINDED FOOLS!), and the DA21 being soft, slow crap essentially -
Both gave me most keepers of all time.
I stopped reading "scientific" reviews.

K7 keepers 85%

In 2010 I decided all digital is crap and bought a Zeiss Ikon ZM rangefinder together with the sharpest soft lens of all time, the
c-Sonnar 50/1.5.

90% Keepers.

In 2011 I decided I must stop ruining myself with buying film and bought a 5D Mark II with a 35/1.4 L and a 24-70 L. The 24-70 turned out much, much "sharper" (Wait, what?!).

I adapted an 28 Euro on ebay m42 55/1.8 Takumar on the 5D MKII and it turned out to be "sharper" than both the 35 and 24-70 L (wait, WHAT??!)

5D MKII keepers about 48%.

In early 2012 I decided the Canon is too heavy and bought an Olympus OMD EM-5 with the Panasonic 20/1.7 and Olympus 45/1.8.
Enter the Garden Eden of sharpness everywhere.

OMD keepers about 72%

In early 2013 the Olympus died 3 times within warranty.
I bought a Nikon 1 v1, a Sigma Merrill DP3 and a Ricoh GR as a set of a 28, 50 and 75mm equivalent setup.
Enter the enchanted Unicorn raped by a demon from outer space sharpness arena.

keepers Nikon 30%, Sigma 45%, Ricoh 75%

In 2015 I decided to calm down and bought a used D700 with a 45mm f/2.8 P single lens setup. A tessar lens of mostly bad reputation.
What a beautiful combination. I later added the 50 and 85mm f/1.8 AF-S Nikkors, with the most boring clinical sharpness ever.

I finally stopped thinking about sharpness.

D700 keepers Nikkor 45mm 75%, 50 and 85mm 30%.

The D700 broke my back and I am now settled down with a Pentax KP, 20-40 limited, 70mm limited, 15mm limited and the marvelous 55-300mm PLM.
I recognize very sharp and lesser sharp shots but couldn't care less about anything that goes beyond "sharp enough".
I don't care about my keeper rate. I enjoy using the wonderful KP with those wonderful lenses. For now.

TO ME PERSONALLY, during all the years and gears, the idea of sharpness evolved to, for now, MY following insights.

- Achieving sharpness in photography can be a separated joy by itself and is not necessarily connected to the desired outcome.

- The perception of sharpness is extremely complex and highly subjective. Resolution, transition, micro/macro contrast, lens corrections/flaws, number of elements, sensor saturation, quality of light and output media, etc. are too many critical factors to be condensed in a single word. The word "sharpness" is insufficient. Consequently the meaning of sharpness itself is "blurred".

- The thin line of common sense regarding to "sharpness" causes misunderstandings and different opinions.

- Critical sharpness can be an additional bonus to the final outcome.

- A highly corrected lens should be very sharp.

- I mostly prefer the look and perceived sharpness of simple lens designs.

- Sharp enough is sharp enough.

- The haptics and aesthetics of MY gear is way more important to ME, than its potential.

- A sharp lens left home takes no pictures.

- My wife never used the word "sharp" while watching my photographs.

Mike, I must tell you how much I enjoy the approach and knowledge found in your site. Thank you.


This got me wondering if the acceptance of sharpness is based on the amount of the photographers’s experience with film, since grain often made things different...

I think the trend towards over sharpening comes somewhat from over enlarging digital photos. People try to overcome a lack of detail with extra sharpening.

I saw your new post ("Yesterday's Post") in which you (jokingly) say that "We're finally going to get to the bottom of whole sharpness thing and settle it once and for all."
The thing is, beyond the subjective view of which photos work with subject motion blur or camera shake or general lack of sharpness (and which ones seem to demand sharpness), I think that there are other characteristics (that people who understand mtf charts would probably be able to comprehend much better than I can).
There are lenses that can capture fine detail, but that don't look "tack sharp" - I believe it's because they have low contrast, at least at high frequencies - and photos from these lenses can look wonderful. There are lenses that are very contrasty, but don't seem capable of recording fine detail. I'm pretty sure my first "digital lens" (the Konica Minolta 18-70) behaved like this. Viewed small, images looked brilliant, but you didn't have to view them very big to see a distinct lack of detail.
I've shot with lenses with "soft corners" (particularly wide open), but also with at least one lens with decidedly "smeared corners". There's a print hanging in my office that, I believe, relies on being sharp, but the foreground corners are soft and that's fine. But I'm glad I didn't take it with that lens with the really bad corners.
I'm perfectly happy, as a photographer and as a photo viewer, with sharp photos and unsharp photos (and unsharp for various reasons), so long as the sharpness "fits". (I'm not sure I'd agree that as many shots are ruined by being too sharp, but I agree that the knife cuts both ways). But I'm still going to be somewhat picky about my lenses.

Sharpness is a bourgeois concept
– Henri Cartier Bresson
(I see I'm not the only one to recall this.)

I had a cheap poster of White Deer on my wall for many years, and another vertical "Ski Colorado" poster showing the result of the last time they ran the "shmozzle" parallel start for a downhill race at Aspen. This resulted in an explosion of snow and skiers at the bottom of the bowl down which they had all simultaneously launched. Sharpness was not required to get the message across -- there were many serious injuries. Sadly both are long lost.

Sharp, soft, saturated, unsaturated, contrasty, low contrast, lots of movement, static, balanced, unbalanced, dark, light, and on and on.

It all depends on what you’re trying to say.

But most people don’t see, feel, and express outside of whatever the prevailing style happens to be. Human nature there.

I love my M43 Voigtlander 17.5mm f0.95 for portraits because it just has the right non-sharpness between f0.95 and f1.4.

I forwarded the article to my wife, who is not a photographer. She is now contemplating Patreon in your favour. I, on the other hand, am ...

A further comment on the Open Mike sharpness discussion. (If this goes a step too far, you can discard it with my blessings.)

I believe photography tends to attract what I call the "engineering mind" because most of the front-end involvement in photography involves machinery that is technically interesting (lenses, shutters, etc., plus the various aspects of the physics of light.) It also engages the engineering mind in an area that might be difficult for people who tend to think in engineering terms: that is, "art." All kind of people, including engineers, wish to involve themselves in "art" because art is cool, and engineering is often thought of as nerdish, the opposite of cool. So, engineers are drawn to photography, which really doesn't (at the onset) involve the acquisition of a lot of complicated physical skills like drawing, dance, etc., but plays to their already-developed engineering skills. Some, of course, go on to become highly skilled and artful photographers. But many become entranced by the engineering stuff -- getting more sharpness, more resolution, better low-light qualities and so on. Artists may take advantage of those qualities as they come along, but that this point in the development of digital cameras, really don't need them to work.

Analogous things go on in other art forms, like music, where enthusiasts may spend huge amounts of money searching for perfect sound -- but that sound is not the sound that you would hear at a musical performance, even at a musical performance by a genius.

I think most arts (other than the more purely physical like dance or basketball) have niches in which enthusiasts can play to their deep-seated interests which may have little to do with creating actual art. In music, for instance, there are people who totally disappear down the rabbit-hole of theory. You need some theory, of course, to perform musically, but some people carry it to maniacal extremes; and the Beatles did quite well with a of couple dozen chords.

In visual art, some people become obsessed with perfect drawing, and some even become so highly skilled that you are astonished by the skill, but not by the drawing, because there's not really much there except graphite on paper. In other words, even in drawing there are sharp representations of fuzzy concepts.

Nothing wrong with all these niche enthusiasms, of course, but what is going on there is not what we really think of as the main line of the art form. Rather than producing art, the practitioners in these niches create demonstrations of technique.

Yeah, and all this time I never knew "sharpness" was what's holding me back.

This is not a joke.

Sharpness for me depends on which pair of glasses I'm wearing. Most of the time when I'm out with the camera I'm wearing no glasses.

Now at 75 I'm not going to worry about sharpness but let the camera do it.

PS: I do no sharpening in LR.

Over-sharpening is something I see frequently at exhibitions when a negative, or transparency, has been scanned then printed digitally.

I remember an otherwise excellent show at The Wall, in London, when contemporary 'street photographs', (Tony Ray-Jones, etc.), were exhibited. Some were original silver-gelatin, but a number inkjet. At first I thought it was just the difference in the prints, but then I realised all the inkjets had been sharpened far too aggressively. It actually hurt the eyes!

Mike, very well said.
Sharpness works sometimes as does not so sharp.Both can be good, both can be bad.
If the photograph works, it works ,Period.

For a very long time, most lenses were not that sharp, for a while it was celebrated as in pictorialism, and then as lenses got better sharpness and accurate rendering began to be celebrated as with group f/64. There are masterworks in each group. further proving Mike's point.

Many of us grew up going to the drug store to pick up prints to see how many "Came out". Sharpness and correct exposure were not 'givens' they were attributes to be hoped for,---goals.
Good photographers took sharp well exposed pictures.
Now technology and computer designed lenses have made sharpness and proper exposure a given, and extreme sharpness is achievable even with many kit lenses. Add to that the fact that sensor resolution has far outstripped what 35mm film offered. You almost have to make a conscious decision to make less than 'tack sharp' pictures. Manufacturers know if their lens is reviewed as not tack sharp, it usually will not sell very well. So everything has conspired to push sharpness to new heights.
Our home TV's are 4k, computer editing displays and software encourage the 100% view.
Every new tool or technology tends to get pushed to its limits, then reason and aesthetics pull the 'focus 'back to where it should be---namely we should be judging the picture on its content, and not as a collection of technical attributes.
Technique is important in all art, but the goal is to know it well enough to allow it to disappear and serve the content.

Mirrorless cameras may help, because for the first time in a long time it is easy and practical to mount classic lenses like HCB's f/2 collapsible sumicron and see what the fuss was about.

I knew a vet who was on Omaha beach on D-day. After his description of what it was like I am in awe of even one frame.

@Tom R. Halfill, Full disclosure should also note that J. Ross Baughman's photos were withdrawn for consideration for the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in '78 due to controversy about how they were made. Baughman apparently wore a uniform and weapon, making himself indistinguishable from the troops. I respectfully suggest that Baughman should have recused himself from the group trying to debunk Capa. So far those efforts have proven nothing about how many frames Capa shot on D-Day. They'll never prove exactly what happened to the film that night in London. Regardless, that photo is one of the iconic images of the Second World War.

I'm a bit late to comment on this but I thought for sure someone would have already pointed out that Capa's memoir of his time in WWII is called "Slightly out of Focus". ( https://www.amazon.ca/dp/0375753966/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_YdOJDbAMRVP3K ). Seriously, you can't make this stuff up :-)

While sharpness comes naturally for me and I have to work hard for attractive unsharpness, I pretty much agree with your sentiment. In particular, I find the current fascination with aggressive sharpness combined with a high amount of background blur and small DOF annoying. Like all looks, it has its place, but it's also a very common cliche these days.

I must add that while I like Caponigro's picture (though as other pointed out the trees are sharp, which makes all the more technically impressive) and Capa's picture (there's a hint of sharpness in the soldier, adding definition), I dislike the Polaroid portrait. It gives me a discomforting feeling that my eyes are not focusing correctly. Aesthetically, the color and lighting do not seem like good choices either, but those have nothing to with sharpness.

A print's too sharp when it gives me a paper cut.

It's been a long time since I read Capa's autobiography, "Slightly Out Of Focus," and I recognize that he may have exaggerated some aspects of his life. But I do recall him describing his exit from the beach on a returning craft as being something not really under his voluntary control. Of course he was scared! Who wouldn't be? Why should that discredit the photo in any way? And are we seriously supposed to think that if he had a couple of frames left before reloading he had an ethical obligation to stay put? Bah.

I don't think Susan Burnstine, who makes her own cameras and lenses from bits and pieces, has taken a sharp photo in her life.

Yet she manages to take some incredible and compelling photos regardless ... check 'em out!

Interesting that the Caponigro example is not something I would put in the category of "sharpness." The fact that he chose to use a slow shutter speed to allow some motion to be apparent in the image, to me, is very different than the image not being "sharp." I've always thought of "sharp" in terms of whether the actual intended point of focus was successfully rendered in-focus. So I guess right or wrong, I have always associated sharpness with being "in-focus" or not.

Warhol's shot of Sean is not sharp because it is out of focus. Whether he intended that or not, I don't know. I would imagine he did not try to take an out of focus image in that instance.

The Capa image, from what I have read and from what I would gather about the moment, has lots of movement in it, but I think it is probably in-focus? There is camera shake which is understandable even if shooting a relatively faster shutter speed like 1/250th or 1/500th - he may have been jumping, falling, being hit, shaking like a rabbit, or all of those things at once. And his subjects are all doing the same. I've also read about something happening in the processing that actually smeared the emulsion of the film in some way - may be true or untrue. From reading the comments, that may have been people trying to pass the blame for the "unsharp" image!

For that image, it seems like the movement of various kinds in the image help to relay the franticness of the moment. We don't have a similar image that is both in-focus and without movement to compare it to, so we don't know if that might have been a more of less powerful image. But in this case, I think it's safe to say that Capa did not purposely bang the camera around during shooting to get this aesthetic.

There's a great story in Anton Corbijn's U2 book about the Joshua Tree shoot where a bunch of images that were intended to be "sharp" and in-focus, were not. It was a mistake. But those ended up having a look and feel that ended up being desirable - no pun intended!

I have long loved showing movement in images and do it often. I still find it very difficult getting my head around purposely rendering the subject out of focus, though I do love some images that have done so.

A few blogs back I took issue with your comments on the new iPhone. You asked me to wait because there was always something different to consider on TOP. How correct you were. This blog on sharpness is one of the best I've read since finding TOP. I read all of the comments and thoroughly enjoyed them. One particular comment from Kodachrome about the "Photographers" at DPR seemed to be "tack sharp". For me, DPR seems to champion sharpness as the be all and end all of photography. For many years I shot with an AE-1 and the FD 50mm f1.8 and never thought about how sharp it was or wasn't. Thanks, Mike, for this article.

Sharpness might be defined as less is more.

While I totally endorse this article as a critique of the worship of sharpness in final images (and concomitant dismissal of non-sharp final images), I hope nobody shortens the very large leap from this point to saying that one's photo gear need not be capable of very high sharpness. I would rather have kit that offers the choice, than kit that is incapable of offering the choice.

I am bored by sharpness. Appropriate composition and conveying emotions beat sharpness all the time.

The trouble with sharpness is that nobody defined what it is, and there are many ways to achieve it, including artificial edge enhancement - which usually looks horribly fake.

You can have a sharper image with less detail, or more detail and less sharpness. The latter generally looks better. Noise makes images look sharper, as does textured paper, but it's a more organic looking sharpness that few object to.

Sharpness is also context dependent. I do not like over-sharp portraits, by I don't like plastic skin. Texture resolution is good, sharpness is not.

I guess none of us mind sharpness if it derives from similar qualities to optical sharpness. No one complains about good eyesight, but a lot of digital enhancement looks fake.

Ironically, a lot of the images I edited when I had cataracts were over-sharpened. Now they look rather hideous.

I don't disagree with anything in MIke's original post, but I don't quite buy the notion that "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." (which he did not say) [Yes he did, as quoted by Helmut Newton —Ed.] I would argue that sharpness is a highly evolved feature of vision in humans and other animals, and it is hardly surprising that we have a natural affinity for sharp images. Sharpness in vision helped keep our ancestors alive to breed!

In fact, it is well established that our brains use a neural mechanism entirely equivalent to unsharp masking (called lateral inhibition) to enhance local contrast in the visual and other sensory responses. See:
Perhaps we are used to this natural level of sharpening, so that over-sharpening is jarring to many of us.

So, I would argue that fuzziness is a bourgeois concept, a luxury of those who don't depend on sharp vision for survival!


So are we back to pictorialism? Maybe some nice fuzzy romantic shots made with vaseline on the lens? After all, they're more artistic, right? More like real art--paintings? Mike's post doesn't say that [no, it does not —Mike], but some of the comments seem to verge on it.

It's obviously true that some photographs work despite, or because of, their lack of sharpness. Every serious photographer should have their own visual strategy, which includes the use of, or lack of, sharpness. In that sense, I agree with the title of this post: sharpness is just one way photographs can be.

But one of photography's great strengths as a medium is the lens' ability to yield a highly defined physical trace of the light bouncing off the real world. The tension between that "objectivity" and the very subjective way that photographers select, frame, and time their work is what has historically given the medium much of its distinctive power. That's what the f64 group revealed, and what has been shown over and over, IMO.

Sharpness can therefore play a critical role in many photographers' creative strategies, by enhancing that underlying contradiction. Much of the classic photographic tradition is rooted in this very phenomenon. Weston, Adams, Sommer, Siskind, White, Strand, Bullock, Evans, on and on. I can pretty much guarantee that none of them said, "Hmm, that's just way too sharp! Let me dial it back a bit."

Using Paul Caponigro as an example of why sharpness is overrated is kind of odd, I think. Large swathes of Caponigro's work are sharp as hell; as others point out, so is the background of the running deer photo. That's part of what makes it work. Lots of interesting recent photography relies on meticulous and sharp depiction of detail, which brings home the messages intended by the photographer. Maeda, Struth, Misrach and Burtynsky are just a few examples.

People who want to make unsharp pictures, or don't care one way or another, are well within their rights. People who choose sharpness or unsharpness as part of their visual strategy are too. Same for people who do the best they can with imperfect gear. It's all good--when it's good.

But I would argue that it can actually be pretty hard to make sharp photos under some conditions, despite modern camera tech. It can take not only good equipment, but patience, advanced understanding of depth of field, and various photographic techniques. If a photographer doesn't care about any of that, fine. But that's not a virtue, either.

Posted by: David |

I've always enjoyed looking at images in this thread on the range finder forum. Yes. I have contributed one or two.


I'm late to comment I know but this is so timely as I'm moving yet again boxes and boxes of prints from one room to another. This time however I'm purging all those "work prints", not all but many. So in these boxes are silver prints, scanned film inkjet printed and my digital life from D70/D2H/D2HS/D200/D3 Nikons. I haven't had a printer or room for one for 8 years and the may be a good thing as the number of prints would be triple what it is now.

Sharpness? Hell they are all good. My film shots look great and by todays standard aren't probably sharp. The personality of the lenses is there wether film or scanned film as I can see the 50mm Summicron I owned for decades vs the 50mm 'lux and how "Erwitt" the 'lux looked in comparison.

Scanned film printed "Black Ink Only", remember your article on that? I did that for years. It all looks great still. Early D70 photos are OK but I have prints AKA real freakin photos. The D2 era had different look and the D3 moved the low light goal post where it needed to go. Different ink sets were tried but in the end a system I've forgotten the name of and stock 2200 inks made great B&W prints.

That is when the prints stopped. Point is its all good. All sharp and no complaints. All the different mediums, ways to shoot and ways to print it is fascinating to see the evolution. I grew up on Bresson and Weston so I can acclimate to sharp whatever the is.

Today I shoot D4S and Fuji Xpro2. I over sharpen. I do I know it BUT I use that wonderful mask slider along with the option key to just hit 25% of the frame with USM.

I'd love to see these images in print. Once I weed out all these work printed I'll have empty boxes to fill right?

This is why I like to mess around with single element plus diopter lenses on my 4x5 camera. Stopped down to f45 to f64 they are ‘sharp enough...but not too sharp’.
And cheap!

Hi Mike,
I’ve thought a lot about this post this week, and about the nature of sharpness. Lately I spend a lot of time looking at print repros of large format photos and jpegs of them as well. I think there is something about lots of fine detail at low contrast- the opposite of the super sharpened digital look. I’m not sure how that comes through in repros and jpegs? I began to wonder if just having really subtle tone transitions makes a big difference. Maybe that’s what comes through?

Anyway, I decided to experience lack of sharpness, and see what I could do to capture smooth transitions. I took a camera and lens I don’t usually use on a visit to a stable. I set my camera to iso 100, and used an adapted manual focus 35/1.4, with a slightly too long adapter making the close range correction kinda suspect, It’s dim there, with very bright light in patches coming through open doors and hatches. Soft, yet directional, with huge brightness ranges. So, shallow depth of field, motion blur, hard to meter light.

The initial results look pretty good. Really interesting when tiny, defined forms and coarse textures at small sizes. A little larger, clearly not sharp at all. I have a few plans to test these photos out, and when I’m done I’ll report back to you.

(Regrettably, I’m without a proper email address at the moment.)

When I saw the word, bitingly, I had a moment of panic. Why was I seeing this word on The Online Photographer, the only photography themed web site I lurk? Did I somehow switch to an alternate universe where this word was considered by photographic minds to be a proper way to describe a degree of sharpness? I did watch an episode of the TV show "The Outer Limits" the night before so perhaps my mind was tricking me.

After the moment had passed, I figured I had nothing to lose and typed "bitingly" into my browser and, what, wait, it can't be, bitingly is an actual word!

From my earlier comment:

I don't disagree with anything in MIke's original post, but I don't quite buy the notion that "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." (which he did not say) [Yes he did, as quoted by Helmut Newton —Ed.]

Sorry! I wasn't very clear. I was trying to say that you, the Ed., hadn't written the famous words in your post.

[Oh! Yes, very true. And I think Henri was being enjoué when he said it. --Mike]

I was hoping to resist, but you actually used that precise Robert Capa photograph that people have been using to tout the virtues of unsharpness for a LONG time.

And I'm not buying it. That photo is not helped by the unsharpness. I'll grant that it is historically important, and told people a lot, when it was new, but it is considerably less good because of the blatant technical flaws.

There are lots of places where some peripheral unsharpness is actively valuable, to indicate motion. There are occasional hugely rare situations like the Caponigro photo where unsharpness of all of the main photo element actually works; there just aren't many. There are photos good enough or of an important enough event that the lack of sharpness is tolerable, since it's the best we've got (like the Capa photo).

But the kind of sharpness under discussion has almost nothing to do with camera equipment; mostly it's about choice of shutter speed, and camera support.

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