Is it Sharp Enough?

How important is sharpness? Recently I noticed, in my business, not so much. Of course, some shots, group portraits in particular, require a certain level of detail preservation edge to edge. Yet in most cases, at least for me, sharpness is second-place to aesthetics, and thus I will most often choose to photograph at the widest aperture I can.

Whenever we read a lens review, it almost seems as if the one thing a huge part of potential buyers care about the most is its “sharpness”. While that is quite understandable with older fixed focal length, and especially zoom, lenses, where the so called optimal apertures between f/4 and f/11 had to be used to resolve as much detail as possible, the way I see it, resolving power is slowly reaching its peak (a sort of a “speed limit”, if you like, when it doesn’t matter how much potential top speed or horse powers you car has, because the top speed allowed is quite enough), after which any kind of additional sharpness will most likely be meaningless. The reason is simple – these are not “f/8 and be there” days anymore. Modern lenses are just that good.

Using lenses wide open

I took the shot above using my 50mm f/1.4G wide open at f/1.4. Check the 100% crop – if you look past the low contrast B&W conversion and high amount of grain added during post processing, there’s plenty of sharpness there and the lines are well defined where they need to be, without looking over processed.

Using lenses wide open - crop

Of course, I don’t discard sharpness when it’s possible to obtain – that involves clever use of fast lenses and remembering certain rules – but in this particular image, I’m a lot more worried about the possibly too large amount of negative space on the left side of the image rather than the levels of detail I destroyed on purpose by adding grain in Lightroom 4.

UPDATE:

Here is the exact same image without the grain effect applied in Lighroom 4, just so that you can see what a modern 50mm f/1.4 lens can do at its widest aperture in a real life situation with the usual editing I apply to my images.

Using lenses wide open - no grain

Would that be enough for you? How important do you find sharpness is to you? Let us know in the comments section below!


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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. I agree with your point 100%. I think too many people worry about peripheral minutiae within the image and forget to see the image as a whole. I realise sharpness and clarity are important for certain types of work, and for printing large, but some of the most acclaimed photographs of the last century often had blurry subjects, but the story that the image perceptibly told far outweighed (and outlasted) any issues of the technical image quality. For me, aesthetics and story come first, even though I obviously try my best to acquire a reasonably sharp image :)

    I have plenty of experience with a 50mm prime too, the older F/1.4D version, and even its sharpness was exemplary for all kinds of subjects:

    http://www.slickpic.com/u/AlphaWhiskey/photoblog/post/Nikkor50mmF14AFD

    • 3
      ) Mark

      I really like your pictures. You must be a professional photographer, aren’t you?

      • Thank you Mark. Semi-pro! Shot just about every kind of subject but it’s a competitive industry! :)

      • Thanks Mark! Semi-pro. I’ve shot just about every type of subject but it’s a competitive industry! :)

        • 17
          ) Mark

          Especially the pictures from Prague and from Richmond Park, they are soo fantastic :) I was many time in Prague, its one of my favorite cities concerning beautiness, but I was never able to shoot myself such a splendid photo..

          • Thanks again Mark. Prague is indeed a beautiful city, but I didn’t find it particularly warm or friendly. In fact, the friendliest people I met there, as seems to be true of most of my travels, were American tourists! :)

            • 47
              ) Jorge Balarin

              That’s true. The people in Prague it is not friendly at all. I must say that they are not polite. However, the city is wonderful.

          • 20
            ) Mark

            hmmm, I see: you are afraid that someone might steal your pictures, so you dont even allow people to download your mini-picture…

            • 29
              ) babola

              He must be one of those friendly American types he speaks of ;)

            • Why would you need to download my images? ;)

              And @babola – I’m not an American, but protecting my images and copyright is hardly a determinant of friendliness. At least I’ve made my images available to view. What do you have to show for your comment?

            • 68
              ) Marc

              The reason for downloading is simple:

              So I have a good example in my collection how to fotograph Prague (or other cities) for the next time, and as a memory of my times in Prague.

              The pictue is so small, I guess I could not use it to sell it commercialy. And there is a watermark as well. Its a pity :) But of course its your right to decide what you do with your photos :) At least the picture looks nice in the internet. Nevertheless I will not make a bookmark in order to everytime when I want to see it I have to come back, thats too complicate.

              Some photographers have so much paranoia that they make a huge watermark across the full pictures. Such sites i just click away instantly ^^

              But again, its a really beautiful picture of Prague. “At least I’ve made my images available to view.” I guess you get a lot of compliments for it, which is probably the reason why you publish it.

    • Thank you! You have some amazing work there :)

    • 38
      ) kevin

      I like your photos. Hey, how come your photos look so colorful.did you use filters?

      • Thank you Kevin. I use polarising filters sometimes to deepen blues and reds, and sometimes tweak the colours in post. :)

        • 48
          ) Jorge Balarin

          Hi Alpha !

          Your photos are very nice. I have a question. Recently I bought my first polarizer, a Zeiss one, and I did some photos using my Nikon 24-70mm. The photos looked great on my camera, but later on the screen of my computer I saw a sort of dark lines across the sky. I asked a friend and he told me that some polarizers could have that kind of problems, because they not polarize in the same way all the light. Also I thought that perhaps my polarizer was not clean, but it was the first time I use it and it was new. Do you have an idea ?

          • Hi Jorge,

            It may be due to the angle at which the light hits the polariser. Polarisers usually have a laminated surface with horizontal or vertical stripes, so perhaps these are visible depending on how the light hit them. Also, you may get issues if the polariser is stacked on top of another filter.
            I would try it again at a different time of day and see what kind of results you get. If the same issue occurs then maybe exchange it for another one? I have not experienced this problem personally. :)

            • 62
              ) Jorge Balarin

              Thank you Alpha, Indeed once by mistake I stacked the polarizer over an UV filter, but the first time I didn’t do that. I think I will buy an Hoya HD polarizer. I red that they are thinner than the Zeiss, they have some finger prints repelent, and they are easier to clean. The fact is that if you touch once the Zeiss polarizer and you don’t have a complete cleaning kit with you, you are done. The Zeiss polarizer is difficult to clean. Good luck and go ahead. Your photos are great.

  2. 2
    ) Mark

    Nice.

    I would like to see your picture and the crop without the grain, to compare and to see, if the version with added grain pleases me better (too).

    • I believe it’s a matter of taste, I like both – with and without the grain – but feel that grain adds a little bit of liveliness to it. I’m a big fan of film, you see :)

      I will update the post with a grainless crop.

      • 69
        ) Marc

        Roman,

        Thanks for the effort, its so nice. But …. you posted the grainless crop.

        Could you add the grainless PICTURE. That would be really great. Then I can judge the picture with and without grain.

        I’m looking forward to compare the two and find out for myself, which one I would prefere.

        Greetings Marc

        • 70
          ) Marc

          p.s. excuse me, I see now that I also asked for the crop. but I find now in practice, that the crop is not helping in comparing the pictures. One whole picture original without grain, one after the post processing with grain, this would be far better. — Just when you find your time. But it would be great :)

  3. 4
    ) Moshe ben-Shahar

    Couldn’t agree more. While I do endeavour to get my photos as sharp as possible (and why I use the best possible lenses), getting the picture is the important thing, and sharpnness is very much second. I use the fastest lenses I can, and use them wide open. For example – I do a lot of portraiture at events, with a 70-200/2.8 VR on a D700, often with a 1.4x or a 2x converter attached, auto ISO to 6,400 hand held in whatever light is available (often very little indeed) and without flash. Yes, I do get complaints occasionally, but never regarding the quality of the pictures!

    • Nice to know you’re focusing on the image rather than technicalities :)

  4. 7
    ) BenCK

    People want sharp lenses because it makes good photos that much better. I don’t think anyone would argue that sharpness is more important than aesthetics or good composition. The reason it comes up in lens reviews all the time is because it’s a very measureable quality to a lens and with digital sensors in DSLR’s now at 36MP it becomes even more important if you plan on using as much of that 36MP as you can. It also completely depends on the work you do and how large you display your images. If you’re a landscape photographer I doubt you care about bokeh at all and you probably care a whole lot about sharpness. If you’re a portrait photographer, then it’s completely different. Portraits are sometimes made artificially soft just for the look. So it completely depends on your uses.

    Asking how important sharpness is to all photographers is like asking why photographers ever need more than 12MP sensors. It all depends on what you shoot and what look you need for it.

    • 11
      ) Stefan

      I agree with you.
      Although the creative idea and composition are the most important I would like to have as sharp image I can get. And I’m saying that, because I don’t shoot only one type of photography, where I need soft or sharp images, but different. So I prefer if my lens is sharp enough to give me the best results I need it.
      I can always make things softer in post-processing, but can’t do the opposite.
      Last week I compared the 50mm 1.4G and the 60mm 2.8G on my D800.
      I have to tell you there is a huge difference in sharpness between the two. The 60mm is way sharper – quite visible even in the center.
      Well, the 50mm is giving you 2 extra stops of light, and in many cases I prefer to shoot with it, no matter how sharp it is.
      So in general I think it is good to have sharp lenses, so they fit for all your needs. But again – everybody knows their needs. If you don’t print large, you definitely shouldn’t worry about sharpness these days.

    • If the image is not good to start with, I think no amount of sharpness will ever make it even a little better. I never said sharpness isn’t needed, nor did I say it was meaningless to ALL the photographers – what I did talk about was my business, and then ask what our readers thought about the subject, and that modern lenses are indeed very, very good in this department.

      I prefer not to overrate sharpness, but that’s me. I’m glad there are different opinions to mine – that’s why discussing them is interesting :) Thanks, Ben, for your input.

      • Hi Roman,

        I agree you on this part ‘not to overrate sharpness’. But as you said It varies from situation to situation

      • 44
        ) BenCK

        I guess I didn’t realize there were people who thought a bad picture would be made better if it was sharper. I just see sharpness as a key element to certain photos just like proper exposure or not having lens distortion. All things being equal, a sharper photo is better than a less sharp photo unless the photographer was deliberately trying to make a soft photo (which is the case sometimes of course).

        • You may have misunderstood me. Like I said before, Ben, “If the image is not good to start with, I think no amount of sharpness will ever make it even a little better”, meaning sharpness is not going so save a crappy shot. :)

  5. 8
    ) Bruce Randall

    Hi Roman,I like your articles,but I have to agree with BenCK. I think he said it exactly correct – it depends on what type of picture you are shooting. I do all kinds of photography and I agree that when you do landscape,especially large photos,maybe larger than 16×20,you have to be concerned about sharpness as being important.

    • But it makes perfect sense, Bruce! I never said sharpness wasn’t important, I said it wasn’t that important for my subjects because, firstly, of the way I shoot, and secondly, because most modern lenses are supremely sharp at the aperture settings you would use for that particular subject. I also wanted to see what our readers had to say, because, naturally, priorities will vary. :)

      Thank you, Bruce!

  6. 9
    ) R Ko

    I agree with posters 7 and 8. However, if sharpness is not that important, why do so many of us wear eyeglasses? Sharp just looks better in most circumstances.

    • I wear glasses :) It’s not nearly the same case, however, comparing eyesight and photography.

  7. 10
    ) Ralph Carlo Villaver

    Sharpness is overrated.

    • 12
      ) Stefan

      Yes and no!
      Depends on what you’re shooting and the effect you want to achieve.
      Imagine you shoot a portrait and although it is nice to have it sharp, some softness is always welcomed.
      Now imagine you shoot trees – I bet you’ll need the sharpest lens out there – no one likes “mushy” leaves and smudged bark. At least I don’t!

      • 16
        ) Ralph Carlo Villaver

        Yah, you’re right :)

        Sometimes too sharp is too much on a person’s eye. I really don’t like a portrait with the face too sharp. I don’t know why but I like soft and not vivid colors on portraits. Maybe it depend on the taste of a person.

        I think the example above is excellent, combining sharp and and b&w color is nice to my taste.

  8. 13
    ) elliot madriss

    It depends on the shoot. if your intention is a sharp eye in a portrait or a very sharp landscape with lots of depth of field and your images have not achieved the desired sharpness, your photo has failed.
    i shoot professionally and have spend a lot of time and money getting my equipment calibrated for accurate auto focusing. my opinion is that the auto focusing modules of Canon and Nikon cameras suck, especially when shooting fast moving subjects in low light and low contrast conditions. this is the Achilles heal of photography at the moment as well as high iso noise – the camera companies would be better served as well as their customers if the major camera companies spent more time and R and D on these areas rather than participating in the losing arena of the mega pixel wars.

    • We’ve seen a jump in megapixels and dynamic range recently. I have high hopes we will see one in other areas as well with the next generation of cameras.

      Thank you, Elliot :)

  9. 14
    ) Paul Corsa

    Ever hear of Charles Lewis? The Grand Rapids, MI Photographer famous for his large family portraits. He usually worked at dawn or dusk, the times of “sweet light’, with medium format or 4×5 camera and tripod. After carefully posing the group he would “string” the distance from camera lens to each subject and adjust his camera position until everyone fell within the1/3 forward 2/3 backward of the actual point of focus. Of course his intention(and he succeded) was to sell nothing smaller than a 20×30 canvas frammed portrait, with 30×40 being the norm. His seminars on sucessful portrait techniques and business tips ran for many years. He knew exactly how in focus each subject would be, what their pose would be, how their outfit would coordinate and left little to chance. The advancements in lens technology do not replace technique by the photographer IMHO.

    • 15
      ) Ralph Carlo Villaver

      That’s true, no lens and camera can beat the skills of a photographer. Most of us, especially beginners, thought that having an expensive lens means enhancing their skills. Their skills should depend not on the camera and lens but on the techniques and knowledge they know about photography.

      Even using a cheap lens and camera can produce a nice shot or even a professional look shot.

  10. I like this post!
    Even I have the same opinion. What I feel is, if your image has creativity and drama in it, sharpness becomes a second priority. These days, photographers are using various effects on our photographs in which they intentionally add blur to create that drama. So I don’t think that sharpness is of that much importance in this era of fast glass!

  11. 28
    ) Joginder

    Yes, I too agree, sharpness is important but the most important thing is expression if it is portrait..

    Joginder

  12. 30
    ) Michael

    Any tips on how to use the grain filter? I have never experimented with it myself.

    • Will get to that in one of my Mastering Lightroom tutorials :)

  13. 34
    ) Kim

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to speak against the general consensus here.

    It’s my opinion that ultimate sharpness is not just important, but critical. It is as important as a wide dynamic range, exemplary high ISO performance, low distortion and exceptionally low chromatic aberration.

    The reason I feel this way is simple: if you have all of these things then you can CHOOSE to remove some of them to achieve a desired end result. If you do not, then you are hampered in your ability to realise your final vision.

    I’m not a fan of imposing limitations on photographic competence, nor of limiting a photographers ability to produce the work they hold in their minds eye.

    Certainly it is possible to ‘make do’ with less sharpness in a lens or less dynamic range in a sensor. But why settle for something that is merely good enough, something that will limit you?

    A craftsman’s tools should not be the limiting factor to the work produced – the craftsman’s own artistic ability should be the only limitation.

    • I believe one shouldn’t blame the tool – one should blame himself. Whether a tool is to be blamed for a failure or the artist – it’s a matter of personal opinion.

      My point was – most modern lenses are good enough. And we only need them to be good enough on most occasions. But then, that’s my opinion – I tend to focus on the general picture rather than tiny details, and prefer to hone my skills rather than worry my gear isn’t good enough. Gear is easy to replace. :)

      Thank you for your input, Kim, very well put. I’m glad there are many varying opinions on this subject!

  14. 35
    ) Vasan

    First, Nice shot! Basically, the main idea of sharpness is to enables the viewer to see clearly. In short,
    “Details”. But the question is, what you want to show the viewer?

    Take the example of your own picture. If we just forget this whole article text and just view the 3 photos that you have posted here. When I see the first photo – I just get the whole scene – a beautiful woman getting her make up done, waiting in patience and the other person is applying on her. The closed eyes, holding posture of the make up brush, curly hair – All that just brings out that moment in front of me.

    But, when I see the second/third one – the cropped image, I am forced to look into the details… the clarity and sharpness. I look at the bristles of the make up brush, the eyelashes, her eye brows, etc. So, that makes me see the person, more than the scene of make up being applied.

    I guess that’s the difference. Basically, it all depends on what you want to show the viewer – the scene or the detail. Sometimes, they both go well together – a photo can sell the scene as well as be sharp. However, achieving such a photo needs meticulous planning and work and time, which might not have during most of the real life situation.

    I think it is up to the photographer’s decision on the trade-off… As far as I have seen, in most of the cases, it is the whole photo if you want to show the scene (make up), where as it is the sharpness if you want to show something specific/closeup (her).

  15. 39
    ) Daniel

    I tend to scroll through the sharpness parts of lens reviews until they get to the widest-aperture sharpness. This is important to me as a portrait photographer shooting usually at the widest aperture to get pleasing blurry effects, and there are still new lenses out there that are disappointing wide open (usually 3rd party lenses). I could care less about sharpness at apertures smaller than f/4, but generally speaking, if a lens is sharp wide open, then it will be even better stopped down.

  16. 40
    ) Kim

    Roman,

    Yes, that was my point entirely – the tools are just that: tools. But a carpenter wouldn’t use a blunt chisel to create a beautiful and intricate piece of scroll work on a lovely piece of maple – he/she would use the best tool available, purely because it removes any fault of the tool if the final item isn’t as the vision intended.

    I like my tools to be perfect so that I have nothing to concentrate on but creating the precise image I want (and nothing to blame but myself if I don’t capture the moment perfectly!).

    Modern lenses are particularly amazing in the clarity and sharpness that they offer – but I find an even bigger improvement in modern glass is in their contrast index – and their acutance. When I first began the study of photography as an art form, the finest lenses would deliver a very well modulated contrast index as well as a nicely delineated acutance – Japanese glass from Nikon was known for having a very high contrast index and their acutance was a little chopped. Canon was closer to the look of European glass – Zeiss, Sinar et al, but you still had a hard time getting the same ‘creamy’ look from the Canon as you could from a Leica or a TLR Rollie (flex, not cord).

    Now days it seems that Nikon, Canon, Fuji (who make some stunning broadcast lenses as well as some exceptional digital camera lenses) all make glass that produces the old-school European look. I think this was lead by Fuji making lenses for Hasselblad, but could be mistaken.

    The point is – Japanese lens technology has come a long way in a short(ish) timeframe and pretty much every pro-level lens now made utterly spanks anything from years gone by, so it’s hard to get something that wouldn’t meet standard!

    It certainly is an exciting time to be a photographer – especially with people like yourself so willing to share your skill, passion, knowledge and drive. Keep up the great work and thank you for your blog.

    • I guess I never really think all that much about why I like a lens – I either like it or not, and there is no one argument for either feeling. But I found your thoughts to be very interesting, Kim, thank you so much.

  17. 41
    ) kevin

    I think sharpness is kind overrate at sometimes, however, id like to have sharp glass with all that money i paid for. For certain situation i need that sharpness. For example : taking photo of my father’s oil painting and sell it on the internet. I do need them to be as sharp as possible with my 36MP nikon d800.

  18. 43
    ) Max

    Thanks for the article. Finally some other thoughts about sharpness and noise!

    Of course sharpness doesn’t mean anything on its own. Very “clean” pictures often look very dead.

    Photography is about content, creativity and aesthetics. A softer picture often looks more pleasing to our eyes and can give more atmosphere. Noise or grain is what photographers wanted in the film age and still can give your photographs a “soil”. Instead of complaining they used the noise!

    Noise fobian, sharpness freaks are mostly photographers of the “Google generation”, just talking what they read from others (camera sellers or sponsored websites?) but without an own artistic vision.

    I studied a lot of pictures in the web of the new Nikon D800. The amount of details is amazing but the photographs look most of the times unnatural sharp and not beautifull at all from an easthetic point of view.

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Max!

      As for the D800, it’s an amazing camera, I’m sure. Whether the result is good or not is up to the photographer. It’s nice to remember not to focus on the wrong things when you shoot, I have a D700 and never think about noise or resolution – it would be the same with D800 or D4 :)

      • 60
        ) Max

        Thanks Roman,

        You are right, but fot me the only reason to buy a D800 is that clients want the high resolution (sells better).

        Personally I like the resuls of my old Fuji S5 pro with its organic (relative) softness, good looking noise and beautifull colors the most. Never had a problem with big prints.

  19. 46
    ) Andrew

    To my opinion, image sharpness is impotent component like bokeh, micro-contrast and tonals lines. Detals is important, without sharpness impressions is down.
    In my children’s photos I’m try to Stand with compromise in all component’s and sharpness is not a last:)
    Exampless:
    http://fotkidepo.ru/?id=photo:691419
    http://fotkidepo.ru/?id=photo:693853

  20. 50
    ) Srini

    Very nice Roman!

    Sharpness is relative to the objective of the shoot.

  21. 61
    ) Jenny

    I care mostly about focus. Sharpness isn’t really an issue for me ’cause I’m no professional but I do like to be able to make out my photo’s pretty well. Slight blur won’t kill me, or anyone else :P

  22. 63
    ) gregorylent

    i LOVE sharpness, detail, focus … because i am shooting my highly textured art, large surfaces, and all i have left after it is gone, is a photo … which might be used years from now, in the era of retina screens, or, printed in large formats …

    so, sharper the better, out of the camera … not a fan of digital sharpening, it quickly looks fake.

  23. 64
    ) Jay

    Ofcourse, it’s the photographers eye for art that makes a picture bad, decent, good or great. I totally and utterly agree with that.

    But.

    Always that boring but.

    I also think that it depend on the style of photography. A landscape photo, in my eyes, needs to be as sharp as it can be, whereas a portrait can me less sharp, just like your (great) picture. The not-so-knife-edge sharp image fits the style of the post-production style.

    Second, if you paid attention to the section above, I said my eyes. It’s subjective. Like every type of art.

    And third, it’s easier to make an image less sharp than sharper in post-production.

    Just my two (three, four?) cents.

  24. 65
    ) Kip

    I like sharp. I like knife edge sharp. Then I can do whatever I want with it in post processing but you are never going to make it sharper after the fact if it wasn’t sharp to begin with. That option is gone.

  25. 66
    ) Am-Expat

    Sharpness is to photographers what horsepower is for bar stool racers, a source of fret and argument that means nothing to the users results.
    Sharpness is a subject for concern and argument by photographers but of little concern for viewers of photos. If viewed at normal distances, viewers judge an image or any art by how it effects them. I live in a city where art is all around and even kids visit galleries on their own and I have yet to see a viewer criticize a Rembrandt for using too thick of bristles or getting out a hand microscope for pigment peeping. Tourists view up close, mainly to view the placard describing it, art viewers step back to take in the image as a whole. Its subjective value is on everything except small scale resolution or smaller than human scale detail.

    The perception of sharpness has little to do with resolution and resolving power of glass or a sensor but more on the contrast, color gradients, and focus and is pretty much a non-issue for anyone other than gear-oriented photographers. Picking or making the optimum light trumps lens optics any time.
    I got a D800 6 weeks ago and it is surely a fine camera, the best I have used which means better for raw imaging than D3x or other top performers. It is also the easiest camera to use well so there is little reason to fret over technical characteristics of a image. I’ve been taking better images primarily due to not thinking or needing to be distracted by technical considerations and being left with time and concentration on the content, which is and always has been the hardest part of making a compelling, interesting, communicative image. To that end, my frame rate has dropped dramatically back to the same level as in the film days, where every shot means something. For example I went to an event where I would normally expose 1000 frames during the night but returned with 86 using the D800 but all were more interesting, and expressive and none had technical faults with focus, exposure, color, or noise. Slowing down and thinking through a shot as if each one is important will probably improve keeper ratios more than fretting over sharpness or lens specs.
    There really is a major difference between what audiences appreciate and what photographers concentrate on.
    All that said, I still like pro glass and collect it because it feels good and instills a level of confidence that is pleasing. The images at the beginning of the blog article is a good example, resolution and micro detail is intentionally limited to help the viewer take it in as a whole, and when it is, the message, or expression is understood. In fact, an overly detailed image is distracting and less expressive usually.

  26. 67
    ) David

    Amateurs worry about sharpness. Professionals worry about getting paid. Artists worry about light.

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