WHEN SHARP IS DULL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE CONCEPT OF SHARPNESS IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS AS OLD as photography itself, and remains one of the most sought-after qualities in lens performance. For many, it is the measure of the quality of a recorded image.But just because an idea is old doesn’t make it true. And so sharpness, at least to me, is just like any other element in a well-made picture. That is, it’s negotiable, not absolute.
At photography’s birth, sharpness made a strong argument for the mechanical accuracy of cameras. It was the main reason to trust a machine over the human eye, to choose recording reality with a mysterious box instead of rendering it with a paint brush. Many early lenses were, in fact, fairly soft, and so the “goal” of eventually perfecting sharpness became the impetus to develop better optics and to create a perpetual market for new advances among consumers. Built-in obsolescence.
But lenses are not merely recording devices, like seismographs or thermometers. They are tools, which, in the hands of vastly different users, can and should render vastly different results. Certainly it was always easy for manufacturers to sell users on the idea that sharpness, all by itself, was the thing that made a lens “good”, and to train those same users to want to upgrade constantly in some pursuit of precision. But at some point sharpness became optimized even in the cheapest lenses, with most cameras making images extremely crisp even at huge sizes and certainly as sharp or sharper than the acuity of even the healthiest human eye. Thing is, as this race for precision was afoot for over a century or more, some photographers also wanted to use that same precise gear to create things whose lack of ultra-sharpness was their appeal, their most effective means of communication. Movements in every culture began to emerge in which razor-keen focus was not the most desirable element, nor even, in some cases, a consideration at all. For these shooters, then and now, sharp was dull.
Only you can decide whether your pictures gain or lose by a traditional adherence to sharpness, just as all musicians do not play the same sheet music at the same uniform volume. Like anything else in your bag of tricks, focal faithfulness is a guideline, not a commandment. I know many who would reject the image seen at left as far too ill-defined, while others would embrace its deliberate softness as far more warm and intimate than a tack-sharp shot. Thing is, they are both correct under the appropriate circumstances. There are technical limits and better/poorer regions in even the best lens, and trying to completely eradicate softness from end to end of the frame is like looking for the perfect man/woman to spend your life with. Every piece of your equipment has things it does marvelously well and things it can never do. Know that information, and work it to get what you want. But don’t for a moment think the perfect lens is “out there somewhere”, just waiting for you to buy it and fix all the problems with your photography. We love shooting with these little boxes, but only when we think outside them do we really start making pictures that matter.