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How sharp?


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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How sharp?

26 Jun 2020 10:16AM   Views : 494 Unique : 324


Do you worry about sharpness? I know I do, and always have done. As soon as I had more than one lens, I started comparing results, to see which was sharper.

I also worried about focus and my inability to get it precisely where I wanted it. This is possibly a more worthwhile thing to worry about, because there are numerous things that you can do to improve your technique, and thus make your focussing more accurate.

In particular, I’ve agonised over sharpness in lenses, and I’ve often quoted the late Barry Thornton, who wrote ‘Edge of Darkness’ entirely about achieving the maximum sharpness in pictures – ‘No zoom lens is sharp enough for fine art photography’. This isn’t strictly true.


But… If you are making a picture in which ultimate quality contributes to the artistic effect, you will probably want to use a modern fixed focal length lens, not a consumer kit zoom. If resolving every twig against the sky is essential, you’ll be looking at the Sigma Art range and the relatively-few optics of comparable quality. Or, in the end, you may find that large format film is actually the only way to achieve what you want – contact prints from sheet film negatives exhibit stunning sharpness.


The big questions, though, are whether your image depends on sharpness to look good; and how much the sharpness shows in your given medium for presentation. Many images actually depend more on unsharpness for effect – either how the sharpness fades away from a point of interest, or the quality of the unsharp areas, the Bokeh.

And if something hasn’t quite worked, please consider a bit of processing. Now I’m not suggesting that you wang up the sharpness and clarity, because that often produces a bizarre and rather unpleasant ‘look at me, I’m showing off’ sort of a look. It may be worth going for a bit of a retro box camera look with something like the Nik Efex filter collection.

The olive tree shot has been frustrating me for five years – the image I wanted needed more than 16mp to resolve individual leaves (on reflection, opening up a couple of stops might have reduced diffraction and helped), but the catamaran ferry has sufficient detail anyway. I cropped to remove the uninteresting sky, used the Polaroid Transfer filter, then adjusted colour and reduced clarity to get a dreamy and blurry olive grove.


Of course, there’s a delight in shooting images with a camera and lens that makes every detail razor-sharp, just as it’s delightful to drive a car which can out-accelerate everything on the road, or to wield a hammer that’s perfectly balanced and knocks nails in straight every time.

But there’s also great happiness to be found in making creative images that are sharp enough with that kit zoom, keeping up with the traffic in a car that demands plenty of strategic gear-changing, or flattening an errant nail in a park bench with a small rock.

Rock on!


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chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.5k 682 England
26 Jun 2020 11:03AM

Quote:Do you worry about sharpness?

Oh yes, all the time it really is a 'thing' of mine that I just cannot get away from, I have tried many times Sad
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
26 Jun 2020 12:30PM
All I can say, Janet, is 'Lensbaby' - that could be the cure. (If it doesn't kill you with frustration.)

Or an Alpha 7R IV and either a G-Master or Sigma Art lens. Really sharp!
GGAB Avatar
GGAB 7 31 1 United States
26 Jun 2020 12:34PM
"Do you worry about sharpness"?
Yes all the time as well. Unfortunately I do not achieve the results I want as often as I would like.
I have the Canon "L" Primes as well as "L" zooms so the gear is not the issue.
Improvement of technique is part of the journey that I am still on.
I am happy, however, that at 64 I am still on a journey. Grin
Alfie_P Avatar
Alfie_P 16 927 2 United Kingdom
26 Jun 2020 3:34PM
A very interesting blog post John. 'The human being is a very complicated animal. A camera and it's lens only adds to the complication' 😊😊😊😊😊

© Alfie_ P 😎

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
26 Jun 2020 7:59PM
Canon's L lenses are a starting place: but mostly are now behind the curve, I believe. Talking quality in a camera shop (and one where they know what they're talking about) I understand that owners of a 5D R needed to buy Sigma glass to exploit their 50mp sensors.

That was a couple of years ago, and Canon have released new lenses since - but not too many of them so far. My own experience of Canon cameras and lenses is very limited - I have owned an 85mm f/1.8, and while the AF was very rapid, the quality didn't match my 1977 Planar or 2000 Minolta 85/1.4, though it was not at all bad.

However, if you achieve the results some of the time, it suggests that refining technique will increase the hit rate.

And that's an important point: we can all argue the merits and deficiencies of every lens made, but once you have equipment above the basic consumer level, you'll be very unlucky to have an equipment problem causing unsharpness... For me, one of the aims for any outfit is to get to a quality that means that deficiencies are about technique, not gear. It's not hard to achieve, other than with Lomography!
GGAB Avatar
GGAB 7 31 1 United States
26 Jun 2020 11:52PM
I see the results of Pro's that use the same gear, Lens and Camera, that I use and realize it is not the gear.
I micro focus adjust when necessary.
Every now and then, I get things right and the image rocks. At least from a sharpness perspective.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I still put in my 60 hours a week working for someone else. This takes time out of practicing what I really want to do.
I should not complain, I am at the back end of a great career that unfortunately did not have me taking pictures when I was in my 20's.
I shoot with all Canon:

EF 24-105 L
EF 100 Macro L
EF 70-200 L III
EF 100-400 L II
EF 300 f/2.8 IS
EF 300 f/4 IS
Tamron 150-600 G2
Canon Extender 1.4 III
Canon Extender 2x III
EFM 55-200
EFM 18-55
JJGEE Avatar
JJGEE 18 8.1k 18 England
27 Jun 2020 6:12AM
I think I have become more obsessed with sharpening issues since moving over to digital cameras.

But is it due to the lenses or my inability to use the relevant tools in software, sharpening, clarity, structure ?
As I use several Zeiss Batis lenses I doubt the issue is with them !

Or maybe, just poor focussing giving the impression of lack of sharpness Sad
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
27 Jun 2020 2:46PM
I can speak with considerable assurance about your kit, Jeff, because I use Alpha 7s, though I haven't run to a Mark IV so far. But I know that the 7R bodies are good enough that they bring the resolution of any but the very, very best lenses into question.

Looking at your portfolio, within the context of the website, I think some of your pictures are the sharpest images I've seen here, without being oversharpened. Where the sharpness is less (the picture of the Spitfire, for instance), there are real questions about technique: I've tried aerial photography, and you need to practice the panning and stuff, a lot. With the crashing waves, I'd question using f/36 as being likely to introduce significant diffraction softening, and there may be stuff round the stability of your tripod, or even the stones it's standing on...

George's images are not quite as sharp, to my eye - but his Canon cameras are working at half the number of megapixels, so that's sort of OK. The best are, again, right up to standard for the site, especially for things like motorsport.

It may be worth both of you posting an image that dissatisfies you in the Critique Gallery, and annotating it carefully with the circumstances, including details of tripods, focus modes and so on. The Critique Team as a whole has a breadth of technical expertise that I can't match, and there are Canon users among them, as well as people well-versed in wildlife work.

I'm guessing, from the equipment you have and the size of your portfolios that you are both experienced photographers, and have refined your working system a lot already - so maybe you are both worrying unnecessarily, most of the time...

And we all have off days!
JJGEE Avatar
JJGEE 18 8.1k 18 England
29 Jun 2020 8:47AM
Thank You John for your observations, much appreciated and taken note of Smile

regarding f36, attempting to get a slow shutter speed for the smoothing / blurry effect as I do not have any off those " stopper " ND filters
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
29 Jun 2020 9:21PM
SRB in Luton sell good, cheap stoppers: I've had one for a couple of years. Though I admit that I don't use it a lot.

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