10 October, 2019

Even modestly priced modern digital cameras can produce amazing images, far better than cameras from even a few years ago. I was out shooting recently with my wife, who is also a photographer. Later, as we reviewed the days images on our laptops, she expressed frustration with the sharpness of her photos. This is a common frustration for many photographers, their images are just never sharp enough! As they browse their photos, they zoom into every image as far as possible to verify it is razor sharp down to the finest detail, only to become frustrated. 

This is something referred to as pixel peeping. We all do it but some more so than others. The relentless pursuit of the razor sharp image has been responsible for frustration in photographers and resulting in countless pieces of beautiful art going into the trash. 

Do we examine a fine painting at the brush stroke level? No of course not! We view the painting from a normal viewing distance so that we can appreciate it’s content as the artist intended. Viewing the painting at the brush stroke level may be useful for art authentication but not for art appreciation. Look at the work of some of the worlds greatest photographers. Were they tack sharp … heck no! What made their photographs amazing, was the content. In fact many of the worlds most famous photos were made with cameras that would be considered primitive by todays standard. Technical perfection was simply not possible and yet they did amazing work! As I write this post I have a book containing images of Henri Cartier Bresson sitting in front of me going back to the early and mid 1900's. These images are amazing! They are funny, moving, interesting, packed with emotion while showing daily life in another time and place. They are certainly not tack sharp, and yet they are considered world class art!

Now I’m not saying that focus doesn’t mater. We want our images to be sharp so they look good, but how sharp is sharp? If you are looking at your image full screen at a normal viewing distance and it looks clear and sharp, then call it good. Today when images are being circulated by social media such as Instagram and Facebook, even this level is far more than needed for an acceptably clear image. Your instagram or facebook followers are not going to be able to tell that the image is a little soft in the corners or that your subjects left ear is just slightly fuzzy. Unless you are planning to print a very large gallery print, these minor flaws will be imperceptible. Even those images posted on photo sharing services like Flickr, 500px or your own website have limits on the level of detail they can display. 

When reviewing our images, concentrate on the important aspects such as the story, feeling or message. Don’t discount an image just because it isn’t razor sharp at 400%. Our audience will be looking at the whole image so we should endeavour to enjoy our own images from the same perspective.

World renouned photographer Henri Cartier Bresson is well known for saying “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. He was simply stating that the content of the photo is so much more important than absolute technical perfection.

This is a portion of the image at the bottom of the page shown here zoomed to maximum

This is the actual image

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