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Tuesday, 01 October 2019


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A practitioner cannot "unsee" technique. The mark of really great work is to be agog at the technique/formal qualities and the subject-content continuum. Obviously this is true of photography, but try thinking about this with respect to great painting.

For me, the picture discussed says more about color versus black and white than it does about sharpness. I would be similarly distracted had it been shot using Kodachrome. And while that might be due to some past experience and picture ‘norms’, I feel color vs b/w choices and reactions persist for certain subject matter and emotional impact.

After decades of 35mm 400ASA Tri-X, even a 16MP crop sensor seems like night and day when it comes to "sharpness." It's a noticeable change for sure (as is shooting color), but you adjust, you compensate- and carry on. I hated my EVF at first, then I realized, it's really not that different from learning to deal with the parallax on a RF, or the totally wonky VF of a Widelux.

BTW- I don't hear too many people complaining about HD-TV.

"I'm kind of sorry, though, that I did examine End of the Caliphate with such a cold eye for technique...I'm finding it a little difficult to "unsee" that aspect of the pictures now that I've seen them that way."

Bruce Davidson once stated that, "I am not interested in showing my work to photographers any more, but to people outside the photo-clique."

Apparently, he was sick of photographers viewing his pictures with an eye for their technique and technical properties as opposed to what he was trying to "say". And it would appear that your experience of doing just that (albeit an after thought) is a vivid example of Davidson's point (one that I share). Fortunately, you first chose to view the picture free of technique / technical considerations. Mores the pity that you can now not "unsee" what you saw through your "seeing" as a photo guy.

For me the one unforgivable sin is #LivingInThePast.

After I got out of my US Army Basic/MOS training, I never wore my greasy-flat-top again—I also got an FM radio for my car. Times change, and I changed with the times.

Motion Picture DPs and Still Photographers have different priorities. When I was working for Lee Motion Picture Services, in the 1970s, we rented a lot of soft-focus and double-fog filters. Now-a-days it's black/white pro-mist filters, or maybe re-housed older lenses (B&L Baltar, Cooke Panchro or Kinoptik Apochromat), to kill that unwanted clinical sharpness.

You seldom see 45 year olds playing ingénues today, but it's still good to get-it-right in-camera.

Your detour into the question of what does "sharp" mean has been extremely helpful Mike. Tomorrow I need to have this conversation with a small group of students; you've enriched that conversation with these posts. Thanks.

What is referred to in digital parlance as 'sharpness' is actually acutance, contrast along edges, brightening the lighter side of the edge while darkening the darker side of the edge. The edge may or may not be resolved to a sharp line between two pixels particularly in very high MP images the 'edge' may be spread over several pixels and is determined more by the quality of your lens and focus than anything else.

I confess I find myself backing off on sharpness in processing compared to a lot of images that I see including your example. I do so because we don't see that way so to m it looks mechanical and unnatural. Certainly I don't see the world with that unrelenting crispness that seems so popular now. Perhaps it is due to my cataracts but I think not or your sample image wouldn't look so crunchy to me.

What excellent writing! Thanks!

The basic speed of gaming computers hasn't increased much the past few years, outside some accessories (faster SSDs) because there's a human aspect to gaming -- once a game's reaction speeds are faster than human speeds, what's the point of making them even faster?

Likewise, is it possible that we're coming to the end of sharpness? That we *could* make things ever sharper with ever more resolution and ever more expensive lenses and cameras, but once we've gotten beyond the capability of humans to see it, what would be the point? And I think we may be getting there, and may already be close with images well-printed that are less than, say, 36 inches across, shot with high-res cameras. And we're certainly there for video screens -- a 8k video screen can't really make full use of an image from a 47mp sensor. (And there may be growing market reasons for not doing something like going to 16K.)

When we get there, or approach it, a lot of photographers are going to have a problem, IMHO. They will no longer be able to claim, "My camera is sharper than yours, end of story." They're going to have to ague that "My photos are *better* than yours," which is radically different than any claim based on some technical quality.

As for your problem of "seeing into" those war photos...you'll adapt. Go look at an over-the-air "tube" TV sometime -- there are still a few around. You'll barely be able to make out what's going on.

What a great essay! Its important that we know/accept we cannot step out of our time, and replicate another time's style. For me it is most obvious reading translations of older classics by less and more recent translators (the point is made on two levels then), and of course the visual arts.

Increases in perceived sharpness in only one of the changes that mark what you call "modern photographic style." The others are, in some cases, increases in depth of field, due to smaller sensors and shorter lenses for equivalent coverage and, in more cases, increased detail across levels of subject luminance. Your example photo is a good illustration. Gene Smith would have had to work really hard to dig that boy's face out of the gloom of the house, and I can't imagine the shadowed area to the left would show so much detail in a print of the 1970s, for example. Unfortunately, my brain is having a hard time catching up to these changes. While I appreciate the impact of the photo, it does not feel absolutely real to me--as though it might be a dramatization of the scene by Gregory Crewdson. This is in not a problem with the photo or the photographer. The difficulty is entirely in my stubbornness in holding on to an older aesthetic.

How much of the current style is determined by the gear being manufactured?

As I reflect on this, it seems sharpness has been something easy for camera manufacturers to market and develop, same with the lenses, and of course for photographers to pixel peep at 100%.

I wonder if that's why you read about photographers "re-falling in love" with old DSLR's like their Nikon D40 or D700 or D3s?

Unfortunately, when I first saw the photo from The End of the Caliphate presented here the first thing I noticed was the over-the-top color and ultra HD sharpness. I know the photos in this book are supposed to evoke emotions, just not what I felt when I flipped through the previews online. Despite the intense subject matter it's hard for me to consider the harsh reality of the images when it is presented in cartoon colors.

Living in the past is one thing. Choosing to maintain your style from an earlier time in your life because it is your choice of style is quite another.


As second-hand does sweep,
Your erudite writing speaks,
Silent color - Sold!

With much respect -

I don’t know beans about excessive or regular sharpness! I still have problem trying to figure out what makes a fine art photograph or photographer fine art? I’m serious here, all I can figure if you add those two words prices go up, anybody want pitch in help me understand. Would a documentarian or land scape or Architecture be any different with out fine art tag?

I always wonder if any of the 'old men' (and I include myself) would willingly go back to old black and white cathode ray TVs.

To me, that's what a lot of old black and white prints look like. They were good in their day, but even Ansel's masterpieces look pretty jaded in real life. I'll be honest, I don't enjoy looking at them very much.

I also happen to like my 46" HD colour TV. There is no way I would want to go back to the old days. Give me colour and detail any day.

Not sure I want any of that new-fangled 8K nonsense though. Who needs a screen the size of a wall?

Young people these days...

I like sharpness in my photographs, it's one of the reasons that I have been avdid follower of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and other ƒ64 Group of photographers. For years I have shot many of my landscapes with a 4 x 5 view camera, and sometimes 8 x 10 because of the beautiful sharpness from the big negative. In the film days if you wanted sharpness the view camera was the gold standard. In the digital era, there are plenty of digital cameras that can match a medium format or view camera. I have done my own tests to determine this. Here is a blog post comparing a digital Nikon D850 to 4 x 5, 120 medium format and 35mm:

The preference for sharpness is in other places also.

When I was in college, I attended a class in acoustics (for music) taught by a highly regarded practitioner. This was in the 1980's. For orchestral & symphonic music.

He was saying that modern stereo equipment was actually sharper and more defined than the sound of real music. And that his clients and the attendees at musical events were expecting the sound of live performance to sound as sharp and defined as their high-end stereos did. It can't, because real music doesn't sound like that - real music is often messy and full of all kinds of harmonic clutter - but that they don't know that.

The upshot was that it was becoming mandatory to add electronic reinforcement (mics & speakers) to satisfy concert-goers. But it was important to hide that stuff as much as possible because, if it was obvious, the concert-goers would frown on the acoustics of the venue.

I think that this is somehow related to your post, but I'm not sure how...

+1 for John Camp comment

Whjen I see pictures like this I allways think they are staged ...


That's a powerful image. I think the saturated color and high contrast serves the photograph well. People see photos now through the super saturated, super sharpened view on Instagram, on very high resolution screens. Putting this image into that "language" makes it legible to ordinary people. Sort of:
"You think what you see on your phone is real? Sure, let me show you what I saw, it doesn't just look real, it is real."
Putting the horrors of war on the same page as the Kardashians forces people to confront them. A more nuanced expression would feel old fashioned, and allow people to escape what they saw.

On aging and getting old and inflexible. Being flexible is part of being adaptable. You don't get to be old unless you are adaptable. (Otherwise the stress would kill you. I'm looking at you, 65 year old recent retirees.)
Part of being adaptable, paradoxically, is a sharpened ability to identify things you like and don't like. So as the years roll on, we are more willing to follow our gut and listen to our preferences. That seems stiff and inflexible.

There is one other element: older people are more likely to develop conditions that suddenly take away their ability to adapt or threaten their basic needs. So, suddenly a normal person "gets old" really fast, when their world is abruptly no longer legible.

One can't help feeling that if the thing that moves you about this picture is the degree of sharpness it exhibits,it's time to re-examine one's way of looking at pictures.
Surely the human emotion portrayed by the mother on the tragic murder of her child is the only thing we need to see and consider?

[Isn't that exactly what I said in the post? --Mike]

Especially love the "pissing off Poseidon" analogy!

Conversely, TV is the medium where I find excessive sharpness the most distracting. My wife bought a 4K TV last year, and I can hardly bear to watch anything on it. She's using it for dramas and gardening shows, where extra detail doesn't support the story. It actually distracts from it, in my eyes. Too much texture, and too much information! It takes brain power to process so much detail, and that seems to subtract from my attention span.

Interestingly, I would never say that about recorded music, and I rarely feel that a still photo has too much detail. Those media are incomplete; the first has no images, and the second has no motion. In those limited, more abstract media, the detail helps fill for what's missing. But video tries to offer everything: images, audio, and motion. Excessive detail pushes that over the edge, my edge, anyway.

I understand the forces pushing HD levels of detail. There are the sports obsessives, who want to analyze every play and second-guess the refs. There are the fans of action and animated movies that pack the screen with more action than can be comprehended at once.

That's the demand side, but the supply side is even more powerful. All this imaging tech is spun off from the defense and surveillance industries. It's vital for the drone warfare folks to be able to ID a target at great distance, and for a satellite to find North Korean missile bases. That's why imaging detail continues to march ahead, fully funded. Let them march without me. My 36 MP K-1 is all the imaging power I need for any conceivable purpose.

Amid all the criticism of "over-sharpness," even blaming it on the equipment that is available today, one must admit that a system that is capable of rendering incredible sharpness is also capable of making softer photos, whereas the opposite is not true.

Even in the "bad old days" before we had today's insane sharpness as a tool, I recall smearing Vasoline™ on a filter to get that "soft look." You could even do "local editing" by making the goo thin or non-existent in the centre, and pushing it up thick on the edges — nowadays, lenses are criticized for being "soft in the edges," with the tacit understanding that you can always take away sharpness if need be.

So don't blame the equipment! Just use the "sharpness tool" like any other in your kit, knowing that over-use of any technique makes for boring, "saw that already" photography.

Sharpness is like salt. First a bit of salt taste feels nice, then the tolerance for salt grows and eventually one ends up with amounts of salt that are obnoxious to the average person. Did you notice that Lightroom has a pretty aggressive default sharpening, particularly for cameras without AA filters? If I'm using a sharp lens, I always need to dial it back, otherwise I start to get artifacts. Going on the Internet it gets worse, there being plenty of pictures where sharpness reaches unhealthy levels.

Salt used to be a valuable ware to trade, but today we have more salt available to use than we need. In the film days, sharpness was determined by lens, film and shot technique. Unsharp masking was involved and nothing like the techniques we have today. Digital is, by its nature, sharp. Pictures come out of the camera sharpened (raw developers sharpen by default). We have a large number of tools to apply sharpness easily. So I'd say that we live in an abundance of sharpness and we use it accordingly.

But is this a big issue? In my mind no. It's a big issue on Internet forums and, unfortunately, persuades many manufacturers to only pursue lens designs of high sharpness (also high speed) rather than offering greater variety. But there are plenty of people for who sharpness is not the primary aim and there's still plenty of interesting work being done where the prevailing preference for sharpness is ignored.

Thanks for the recommendation Mike. I bought the book immediately after reading this post and I think that it is incredibly powerful, albeit I’ve only taken my first quick scan through it.

I have to agree with you though; I think some of the images are rather over-sharpened. Almost as if the printers made a mistake.

No criticisms of the content though. Impactful and eye-opening.

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