Sharpness isn't everything

Posted on 11 August 2007, 16:56

Heh! That’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it?

After all, we all obsess about getting the maximum amount of sharpness in our pictures, and about the only question we ever ask about a lens is “is it sharp, then?

So how can I make such a stupid statement?

Well I’m not suggesting that we all simply forget about sharpness. I get as big a kick as anyone from a comment about a picture of mine looking sharp. I like sharp pictures, and I freely admit that the first thing that will get an image of mine binned is softness.

But I honestly believe that it only really matters to us – the photographers.

We positively gush about those pictures where you can see every barb of every feather. But ask yourself this: does the Man In The Street even notice such things?

Not in my experience.

I’ve tested this little theory many times on friends and work colleagues, and without exception the thing that doesn’t get noticed is sharpness: composition is noted, colours are commented on, the subject matter is appreciated: but sharpness is lost on everyone apart from other photographers.

This suggests to me that assuming he has the basics sorted, the average photographer will make a bigger improvement to his pictures by improving his compositional skills than by buying a sharper lens (and of course, there’s a whole other article there) and learning a bit about how to make a picture “pop” with post processing.

That’s something I’m still getting to grips with myself, because I’ve always been a bit timid about pushing up contrast and saturation levels, but I’m getting more confident about that now – not least because of how Geoff Simpson approaches colour and contrast, which has influenced me a great deal.

I’ll come back to Geoff’s work shortly.

Returning to sharpness: isn’t it a bit sad when you see a picture which – while it might be very sharp – has little or nothing else to recommend it?

You see lots of pictures like that on Birdforum where the photographer is clearly thrilled about the eye-popping sharpness and has completely forgotten to put any thought into the aesthetics.

So you see crooked horizons and tilted water surfaces (pet hates of mine); ugly backgrounds; unappealing “props” (I can’t be doing with pictures of birds on feeders, for example) and otherwise charmless cropping and composition.

The sharpest lens in the world won’t fix those problems…

None of the really good photographers out there ignore composition, and my point is that we mere mortals shouldn’t either – you can see a lot of good pictures that aren’t amazingly sharp, and you can see an awful lot that are amazingly sharp and still not very good.

It’s simply not enough for a picture to have only sharpness to its credit…

To go back to Geoff’s work, his images are all sharp – that’s a given – but they’re not about sharpness.

The fact that they are sharp is incidental to the overall effect and they have what I refer to as natural sharpness: the kind of “own eyes” level of sharpness that simply is without jumping out at the viewer as if the photographer was trying to make a point about sharpness.

But what does get your attention with Geoff’s pictures is the care taken with composition, and – especially – the richness and intensity of his colours.

This is one of my favourite of Geoff’s images. Of course it’s sharp, but in not in a way that makes you think “SHARP!!”.

It simply looks right.

This is actually something I was first turned on to by Nigel Pye, a photographer based in Norfolk: his pictures always have that kind of natural sharpness, and I enjoy his work immensely.

Of course, you don’t get images like Geoff’s or Nigel’s by strapping a milk bottle to your camera. But most (no, I’ll say all) of the long lenses Canon produce are capable of all the sharpness we need.

I see a lot of commentary on the net to the effect that the 100-400mm Is lens isn’t “as good” as (say) the 400mm f/5.6 prime because it is – apparently – not as sharp.

My point here is that they’re all more than sharp enough to produce images which make people go Wow!!

I’m pleased (and surprised!) to say that I get that reaction sometimes – not because my pictures are amazingly sharp (they’re sharp enough) but because I try hard to get something else out of the picture, and so I put effort into composition and aesthetics.

This is a reasonable example of what I’m on about, I think. It isn’t my sharpest picture by any stretch of the imagination – the bird was a way off and the picture needed some cropping – but it still works well overall because of the composition.

The pose of the bird is interesting (they don’t usually perch on large sloping rocks like this); the diagonal line of the rock to the bottom left corner of the frame works well; the seaweed and baby barnacles on the rock add interest and texture; the rock itself is colourful; and the clean background is pretty nice too.

These were all observations made by other people, incidentally.

The Rule Of Thirds has been loosely applied here too.

All in all I’m very pleased with this picture, and other people seem to like it too: yet isn’t that sharp really, and judged on that basis alone it would fall short.

But it works anyway, because as I say right at the start of this – sharpness isn’t everything.

Of course, the best of all possible worlds is an image which is impressively sharp and aesthetically pleasing: but if I could have just one of those, I’d want the latter every time.

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