Is sharpness overrated?

Started May 9, 2012 | Discussions
Chuck Lantz
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Is sharpness overrated?
May 9, 2012

I've been going through some older film photos today, taken by pros and used in books, magazines and ads a few years ago, pre-digital. One thing I noticed was that many of the shots, including famous racing shots, lacked sharpness. What was accepted then would be heavily criticized today, or, worse yet, would be over-sharpened in PS to the point of zero realism.

Here's a shot being used now in a national Volvo cars ad. I know that the agency had many to choose from, some much sharper than the one selected, yet they went with this one. The only reason I became interested is because I'll be shooting their car this weekend at Laguna Seca. But the soft focus of the ad shot caught my attention, and I wanted to get some input from the group here.

(Sorry about the "hero" in the title of the photo. That was included by the agency, and does not refer to me)

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"If they're not screaming at you to get out of the way, you're not close enough" - I thought this was original, but it's very close to what someone else said. Oh, well.

"Not to compete whole-heartedly, with a will to win, degrades the sport and insults the competition" - anonymous Olympic long-distance runner

"Mongo not know ... Mongo just pawn in game of life." - Mongo

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colinbm
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 9, 2012

Only that it mimics what a Bayer camera can do
Col

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cinefeel
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to colinbm, May 9, 2012

This is why I leave sharpening at -2.0 and use Sigmas.

Only foveon cameras can give clarity without digital 'sharpness'.

I think the popularity of sharpness comes from the wave of photo viewing on screens.

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epsilon sigma taph
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Personally as a wedding and portrait photographer l prefer a softer look to my images. That's why l love to appy Sigma's unique negative fill as an effect sometimes. I think sharpening can work as an effect if required but sharpening to make all images look as sharp as possible is just an ignorant use of that tool.

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Gesture
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to epsilon sigma taph, May 10, 2012

"Only foveon cameras can give clarity without digital 'sharpness'. " You got it.

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Ronald Marvin
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept"

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Mostly Lurking
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It depends upon the subject. Weddings and portraits,
In reply to epsilon sigma taph, May 10, 2012

I agree, should have minimal sharpening. However, how much sharpening is appropriate depends upon the subject, intent, and intended audience. I think those that chose the car shot Chuck provided liked it because to them it suggested the car was traveling at high speed.
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William Wilgus

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VadymA
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

I would say sharpness is definitely overrated but only in certain circles, like among DPR members for example. And if we zoom in even closer we can find that Foveon look, for example, seems to be quite overrated in one particular DPR forum. That's why I like taking some fresh air outside DPR's "gear contaminated" environment which helps stay focused on photography, not on hardware. So I would argue that if one begins feeling that sharpness is super important in photography, he or she is probably spending too much time on gear forums.

To me personally, sharpness is just one characteristic of a camera (not a photographer), same a colour, dynamic range, aperture, etc. They are like different musical instruments in an orchestra. It is up to a "composer" to decide how to use them. One composer may decide using instrument called "sharpness" as a leading instrument while another may prefer the "sound" of something else for expressing his/her ideas (like softer sound of "Bayer sensor" for example). Both composers can produce masterpieces. And like certain genres in music require presence of certain instruments, some genres in photography require certain degree (presence) of sharpness. For me, when I photograph my kids I want more sharpness then when I photograph landscapes. So it really depends on the feel that I what to convey, which was probably the reason for selecting that image you've posted as well - blur makes it more dynamic while also making the large sharp statement at the top corner of the page to stand out and grab attention of the readers which was probably the main objective of the editor in the first place.

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DMillier
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

I went to see a gallery of large format black and white landscape photographs at the weekend. These were small prints (some contact prints) from 5x4, 5x7 and 10x8 film.

It was very interesting how soft the prints were. Packed with fine detail as you would expect but very gentle acutance/micro-contrast. The feeling was of an "easy, organic feel" rather than "cut-glass/etched". A very relaxing look.

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Chuck Lantz
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to DMillier, May 10, 2012

DMillier wrote:

I went to see a gallery of large format black and white landscape photographs at the weekend. These were small prints (some contact prints) from 5x4, 5x7 and 10x8 film.

It was very interesting how soft the prints were. Packed with fine detail as you would expect but very gentle acutance/micro-contrast. The feeling was of an "easy, organic feel" rather than "cut-glass/etched". A very relaxing look.

"A very relaxing look", ... That's an excellent way to describe a good, less than razor-sharp image. Some shots we see today are so overly-sharp, and sharp in all the wrong places, that they appear very jarring and almost like a slap in the face.

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D Cox
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

In the case of a fast-moving car, a bit of blur gives an impression of speed. Otherwise the car may as well be parked. Go through a Bug Bunny movie frame by frame and see how often blur is used for fast movement.

In the case of portraits, the main structures of the face are usually more important than fine skin texture, especially if the lighting is good. But I have also seen portraits of young people where the (Foveon) skin texture added a great deal. It all depends on the composition and lighting.

In the case of recording works of art, maps, documents, etc or digitising film originals, you want as much sharpness as you can get. A 36 Megapixel Foveon would be good.

You want to have extreme sharpness and resolution available for when it is needed, but you do not need it all the time.

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D Cox
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Chuck Lantz wrote:

"A very relaxing look", ... That's an excellent way to describe a good, less than razor-sharp image. Some shots we see today are so overly-sharp, and sharp in all the wrong places, that they appear very jarring and almost like a slap in the face.

Like a sound recording with too much top.

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joaquin100
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Gesture, May 10, 2012

Gesture wrote:

"Only foveon cameras can give clarity without digital 'sharpness'. " You got it.

+1

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billt1970
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Art vs. Engineering
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Thanks for starting this thread, Chuck. My head has been spinning thinking of the implications of the dialogue. The simple bottom line to me is:

CAMERAS are ENGINEERED.

PHOTOGRAPHY is ART!!

Let's keep those issues separate. The fact that digital sensors can produce sharper images is simply another tool in our artist's palette. Let's never forget to use that tool creatively. When an image is not perfectly sharp, that CAN be about ART, and not about ENGINEERING.

Best Regards,

BT

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carlos roncatti
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Absolutely...perfect observation....

Chuck Lantz wrote:

I've been going through some older film photos today, taken by pros and used in books, magazines and ads a few years ago, pre-digital. One thing I noticed was that many of the shots, including famous racing shots, lacked sharpness. What was accepted then would be heavily criticized today, or, worse yet, would be over-sharpened in PS to the point of zero realism.

-- hide signature --

"If they're not screaming at you to get out of the way, you're not close enough" - I thought this was original, but it's very close to what someone else said. Oh, well.

"Not to compete whole-heartedly, with a will to win, degrades the sport and insults the competition" - anonymous Olympic long-distance runner

"Mongo not know ... Mongo just pawn in game of life." - Mongo

http://www.ChuckLantz.com

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To understand photography, you must understand that the experience must be much more important than the result ....
Carlos Roncatti Bomfim
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because men and women are different and we humans are the same.

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carlos roncatti
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to DMillier, May 10, 2012

I went to see a Kertesz exhibition here in a museum (SPaulo)...all known and best photos were there....even some color prints....all at 8X10 at most...none has this sharpness some are obsessed with...wonderful photos, by a true artist...on a Steve Mccurry one, most of the big prints had grain (with the excepetion of some, very few, digital photos)...the film ones with grain, looked more pleasent than the digital ones...

DMillier wrote:

I went to see a gallery of large format black and white landscape photographs at the weekend. These were small prints (some contact prints) from 5x4, 5x7 and 10x8 film.

It was very interesting how soft the prints were. Packed with fine detail as you would expect but very gentle acutance/micro-contrast. The feeling was of an "easy, organic feel" rather than "cut-glass/etched". A very relaxing look.

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To understand photography, you must understand that the experience must be much more important than the result ....
Carlos Roncatti Bomfim
http://weweh.com/
because men and women are different and we humans are the same.

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cptrios
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to carlos roncatti, May 10, 2012

I think sharpness is overrated as a criterion for judging all images. If I'm shooting portraits, candids, or anything that needs a bit of shallow DoF, then sharpness becomes pretty unimportant. If I'm shooting landscapes or anything else that I want to print large, though? Very important! I like to make very big prints, and a lens that can't deliver fine detail makes that pretty much impossible.

One typical complaint about sharpness that I do not find particularly overrated: soft borders. I don't need every lens I use to be pin-sharp, but if I print a shot at 12x18 and the corners/edges are noticeably softer than the center at normal viewing distances, that's hugely annoying. For me, at least!

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Helge Hafting
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Chuck Lantz, May 10, 2012

Chuck Lantz wrote:

I've been going through some older film photos today, taken by pros and used in books, magazines and ads a few years ago, pre-digital. One thing I noticed was that many of the shots, including famous racing shots, lacked sharpness. What was accepted then would be heavily criticized today, or, worse yet, would be over-sharpened in PS to the point of zero realism.

Sharpness is nice, but the need depends on size and resolution of the print. Critizism happens, because unsharpness is easy to see on a large screen - and then the amateurs know 'it could be better'. Conveniently overlooking that the shot may have been difficult to get, that there may not have been a second chance.

Pictures in old books and magazines are often smaller than a computer screen, so sharpness matters less. Newspapers and some magazines don't have very high resolution, so sharpness matters less. If the blur is not much worse than the offset printing raster . . .

For a magazine there are other criteria. Is the picture what they want to show? Dramatic? And most important of all - available before the deadline.

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DMillier
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to cptrios, May 10, 2012

For me there is a difference between satisfactory detail and "sharpness". Sharpness is not detail, its about the contrast between edges. It is possible to have a very high resolution capture that looks much worse than a lower resolution but higher acutance image.

I think the trick is to balance the amount of detail and the acutance such that all the detail is revealed without necessarily striving for a cut glass sharp look.

You can easily go wrong eg with older low resolution sensors where the micro-contrast/acutance has been boosted beyond reason in a misguided attempt to cover up the lack of detail.

The result is obvious and not too pleasing.

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DMillier
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Re: Is sharpness overrated?
In reply to Gesture, May 10, 2012

Downsize a Bayer image to 50% and it is perfectly sharp without the need for special sharpening. I think your statement is simply prejudice.

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