Sharper Images in Photography

Is “sharpness” the Holy Grail of photography?

Ahhh sharpness. If you read a lot of product reviews and fan blogs, a beginning photographer can be lead to believe that sharpness is the holy grail of photography.

Not subject matter, not capturing beautiful light, beautiful composition or storytelling – no sharpness is perfection. Of course this is all nonsense as the subject is always going to be more important than sharpness.

Subject matter trumps sharpness every time.
Subject matter trumps sharpness every time. Robert Capa

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”
– Henri Cartier Bresson

In the early days of fine are photography, soft images were all the rage. The “pictorial” style purposely used soft lenses to a acheive a more painterly like result.  In these early days photographers wanted to achieve the look of painting.  Photography hadn’t existed long enough to support itself as a new medium among the art buying public so photographers tried to mimic painting.

Today all modern lenses are capable of  achieving a focal point at the point of focus.  No matter what the aperture opening or depth of field, there will be a point at which the lens is sharply focused.

But as fine art photographer Vincent Versace  points out, its not the ability of the lens to focus that is important, it is how the lens handles the out of focus areas that make the difference, because after all, 99% of your image is typically out of focus.

“For me, the prettiest aspect of an image is not so much in the areas of focus, but in where the lens ramps from in-focus to blur,” remarks Versace. “The ineffable quality of a lens is bokeh. Neutral bokeh is something that’s frequently achieved, but to go the step beyond to a beautiful bokeh—that is rare and precious. ”

Vincent talks about this in his talk entitled “The Lens is the Brush, The Camera is the Canvas, the File is the Sheet Music and the Print is the Symphony” –

So if sharpness isn’t the most important thing in photography why are there zillions of magazine pages and countless blog posts dedicated to reviewing, testing and rating cameras and camera lens for sharpness?

Because its easier to talk about photography in terms of test results, numbers, features, buttons and products than it is to talk about the art of photography – content, concept, composition, mood, feelings etc.

Art is subjective and can’t be tested or compared in a product shoot out.  Sharpness can be measured by nerds in a lab, art is a lot more difficult to measure.

People don’t like to talk about things they can’t measure. Opinions come into play when you don’t have concrete facts and measurements.  And when you offer an opinion, you need to justify it and be ready to defend it.  Its a braver stance to take when you put your opinion out there then when you present lab tests.

That’s why you don’t see a lot of subjective option but a lot of lab results.  But of course ultimately its not the quality of a lens or the equipment but what the photographer does with the equipment.

Zebra in the barn
Zebra in the barn