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Monday, 30 September 2019


Next … explain what an "unsharp mask" is and how it applies to the above.

Just curious.

In the Photoclub back in the day, one of the very good photographers suddenly turned up with pictures with a *magical* sharpness. Acutance. I tried my best with tripod and such to emulate it, but could not. Finally I found his secret: Rodinal developer. It had, and probably still has, big grain and poor shadow detail sometimes, but those edges, man.

Another time in the ol' photo club (an excellent club in Denmark), I was a judge and praised a photo of two girls on bicycles. I liked the tones and composition. But two of the young members treated it with high disdain because it was not sharp. I didn't see how it mattered.
Which is slightly odd since I still have a little sharpness fetish to this day. I guess we all have split minds.


I'm a Boston kid that's been hangin' out in the Austin, TX area for over 13 years now. The only southern expression I have adopted is "Y'all" and it took me 8 years just to feel qualified to say it. Oh I pronounce my "R's" some now too.

I am totally on board with "sharp" making some photos better and "too sharp" hurting many others.

Wow, a nuanced description. You have a lot to learn about the modern interweb, Mike. You still write as if it's on paper. :)
Love that picture of the the birds by Schmitt.

I am just going to throw this out there. Someone recently posted to the Canon Discussion forum with the following question:

"Which prime lens produces the sharpest portrait photos?"

I still don't think you can beat film for the 'feeling of sharpness' - even, maybe especially, films like Tri-X. Probably only when printed and viewed at appropriate distance of cuorse

If it looks sharp, it IS sharp, is sort of my take, even though as you correctly point out there are lots of subtle differences in how pictures can be sharp. And neither do I worry about weather or not an image is sharp at 100%. If at the size the picture is printed it looks sharp enough to satisfy me (if my intent was a sharp picture) that's good enough for me.
As several people pointed out the other day, there are also different kinds of unsharp. Motion blur rarely others me, in fact I often consciously go after it for certain kinds of pictures. Camera shake usually bothers me a bit more but I've seen examples that work.
Capa's extraordinary picture clearly works and looks like a combination to the two kinds of motion I described but is in fact (I asume )due to the emulsion moving.
Then there is unsharpness due to lens aberrations which in some lenses is a virtue.
What seems to other me most is an obviously out of focus image. As circles of confusion get larger on either side of the point of maximum sharpness for any given lens where my brain identifies it as out of focus, rather than just not tack sharp.
That's the one that seems always to bother me.

OFF TOPIC: It is good to see you going to flickr for your examples. I have been using flickr for a few years now and really don't understand many photographers disdain for it.

I started to use flickr for my work when I realized that Instagram really wasn't for photography but it was using photos as a social mechanism. I wasn't interested in being a social butterfly and I wanted to be able to be around other photographers.

With flickr you can see how successful your work is.

I generally only put less than 100 photos up at one time. When I reach 100 I will start looking for photos that aren't all that popular or have been up too long and remove them from flickr.

I will even use it to explain my process. Which means putting up photos that didn't succeed. I will always try to put up as much info about the photo as possible. Fabrice Schmitt is a good example.

Here in southern Massachusetts a yawl is a sailboat with two masts. Think of a sloop with a smaller second mast on the stern, quite different from a schooner. My southern relatives pronounce it exactly the same way when they try and say ‘you people’.
Bad eyesight has made ultra sharpness a non issue to me, it’s just not the way I see the world.

This post and the previous one re sharpness remind me of a conversation I had with my uncle, who was an electronics engineer and musician - played trombone in a silver band.

He couldn't see the point of designs for guitar amps that had low distortion and a clean sound - didn't all guitarists want a graunchy guitar sound? I, as a mediocre electric bass player, had to explain to him that they didn't always want a graunchy sound, sometimes they wanted a clean one, or one modified in some other way. So they went for a clean amplifier and introduced the distortion/modification in another part of the signal chain. Effects pedals and so forth.

I think the same applies to photography. It's best to have a camera/lens combo that is capable of capable of sharp clear pictures. The unsharpness or whatever can be introduced outside that combo - with filters or in Photoshop (other picture editing software packages are available!) or maybe with a 'special' lens chosen for its softness, colour rendition or whatever.

This may not be totally 'on topic', but it's something that occurred to me.

As a former resident of upstate NY, and current resident of Austin, TX, I find no reason to apologize for the wonderfully warm and inclusive use of "y'all"


You may perceive overall image contrast, clarity, dehazing and sharpness as steps in a continuum of increasingly localized contrast (enhancement).


Mike, here's a shot that might fall within the two boundaries of sharp and soft without the bokeh effect.


It's taken with a Nikon D90 and a Konica lens...

One of my favourite portrait lenses is a Leitz Summar 5cm f/2 that has - as is often the case with these old lenses that used "soft" glass - a finely scratched front element. The result is "sharp but soft" ... quite wonderful for female portraits. This example was a chance encounter with a stranger while I was on a late afternoon walk through local wetlands.

I find the brain's ability to create detail when it's not there in the original quite fascinating. No surprise that I like Impressionist paintings, and pictorialists like Stieglitz.

A few years ago my wife and I were visiting the Getty Museum here in LA to see a show of vintage photography from England back to Fox Talbot. She commented on how “sharp” the oldest photos were, even though many were low contrast. After thinking a short time, I said, the lens had been invented three centuries before so that part of the process was already well developed.

My general sense is that for subject motion blur, bokeh, or other localized unsharpness to really work and enhance an image, at least some portion of the image (perhaps the background as in the Strand image) needs to be sharp and crisp to provide context and counterpoint.

Otherwise, it's apt to be just another blurry image. Not always, of course, but usually so.

I found this discourse on "sharpness" to be very interesting and informative. That said,it's whatever works within the context of the picture. To me, the various elements of the Capa picture give me a feel for the emotion of being there. Also, my late father in law, who was there, said it was a pretty good expression of that reality.

Back in my medium format film days the best overall film Developer to achieve "edge acutance" was a Pyro formula. The line or edge that separated light and dark on the negative was incredible. Typically silver halides drifted between light and dark separations in the film developing process resulting in less edge acutance. The Pyro formula helped to keep silver halides in their place when light and dark areas of the film met. The edges were razor sharp when compared to standard formula film developers. The Pyro Developer was similar to the edge sharpening used in digital software today but without the overdone effect used by many.

To allow best access to a good photographic print, by a broader public, it needs to relate to established traditional print values, craft and tech, to be better readable or perceivable.
The history of the particular art plays a role, as well as the immediate biological ways of how we see. Hence the pain to some, when hit by a sharp stick like HDR or work by people who understand a photoshop slider as just that, something to wildly slide around with, the ease of these tools invite you do overdo anything in a hurry.
Then some people do not see the finesse others live for, ..... but sharp or soft image work, are just a few various tones on a fine scale of photographic moods. It still surprises me often how a good majority of viewers can not decipher any finesse in a finer print. Tone deaf of sorts.
When i saw Running Deer first, i was sure it could not be outdone in its essence, it hits all tones and variables of a photograph head on.

At the end of the post you wrote: "I won't go on and make this into a full-blown disquisition." I actually wish you would! I thought it was really interesting to read your description of various kinds of *sharpness* and see the illustrations you provided for each. I would love to see a whole post expanding on this topic. And then maybe a couple more delving into other similarly ill-defined aspects of photography ;) (not sure at the moment what exactly those are, but I know they exist).

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