Sharpness – a dying art?

Recently, I’ve become very aware that many photos obviously lacking sharpness or which are out of focus are often posted both on social media sites and also on photographic sites such as Flickr. This is particularly true of close up and macro photographs.

I’m referring to photos which are taken by photographers and which are almost certainly intended to be sharp but aren’t. I’m not referring to photos which have an intentional lack of sharpness or to photographs taken by those who would not claim to be photographers.

The following two photos were both shot at the same time with exactly the same settings. At this size they look very similar where sharpness is concerned.

Leaves 1 Full Frame
Leaves 2 Full Frame

But… the devil is in the detail! Here they are again but this time with only a section of each image at full size. (Click to enlarge.)

Leaves 1 Detail
Leaves 2 Detail

As you can see the image on the right is much sharper.

I can think of a variety of reasons why some photos lack sharpness.

Lack of photographic technique

There are many ways to achieve unsharp photos. Here are just a few:

  • holding the camera incorrectly
  • being unsteady while the shot is taken
  • using shutter speeds that are too slow to hand hold especially where there is subject movement
  • forgetting that you switched off image stabilisation
  • inaccurate focusing
  • using apertures that are too large to ensure the desired area is in focus
  • too much noise reduction when a photo is taken with high ISO settings

One of the flowers in the next pair of images is an example of poor technique – but which is it?

Flower 1 Full Frame
Flower 2 Full Frame

When we look at a section at full size, it’s very easy to tell! (Click to enlarge.)

Flower 1 Full Frame
Flower 2 Full Frame
The picture on the left was focused on the nearest part of the flower and the aperture wasn’t small enough to pull it all into focus.

Google searches will offer screeds of good advice on technique. The solutions for all of these issues are very easy to find even though they may be less easy to implement consistently.

Poor equipment

I think this is unlikely given the quality of today’s cameras and lenses. Having said that, I have a relatively cheap ultra-wide lens which has manual focussing and no image stabilisation. As I’ve discovered, it’s very easy to take unsharp photos with this lens.

Laziness

I know that I can be lazy sometimes. I might be well aware that the subject and the available light really require a tripod but somehow it remains firmly in its bag. I’ve lost a great many photos due to lack of sharpness because of this!

Lack of awareness that photographs are unsharp

Some photos are so fuzzy that it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be unaware of this. Yet there they are posted publicly for all to see. I know some people are obviously aware as some photos have been horrendously over-sharpened in an attempt to compensate.

A belief that it’s acceptable for photographs to be less than sharp.

A number of people have said to me, “It’ll only ever be seen in a small format on a screen so it doesn’t matter.” I will admit to having had similar thoughts on occasion. While the first part may be perfectly true, I think it DOES matter. Are we really OK with photography being dumbed down simply because sites like Facebook and Flickr don’t let us see images at full resolution? If we are, then why do we spend thousands of pounds on cutting edge technology which is capable of taking near-perfect technical photographs?

I’m not having a go at anyone here. I’ve been guilty of poor technique and laziness at one time or another. But it does devalue the feedback received when a truly blurry image can get more favourable responses than a perfectly sharp shot. If blurry photos can get responses like ‘Amazing!”, “Wow!” and , then where is the motivation to do better?

I know I always strive to do better and I get satisfaction from taking photographs which are focused accurately and are sharp where they are intended to be. Equally I am often disappointed when this is not the case. This is particularly true when it’s a decent composition of a good subject.

Disappointed

Blurry Terns

Disappointed

Autumn Leaves

Satisfied

Lindisfarne Boat Texture

Satisfied

I am often guilty of poor technique and sometimes of laziness and both of these have contributed to my many failures. But I have an excellent camera and some great lenses so I can’t blame that. I am NEVER guilty of a lack of awareness that a photograph isn’t sharp or of finding unsharp photos acceptable!

2 Comments

  1. I’ve always tried to make my photographs as sharp as I could, always trying to learn from my mistakes, improve my skills, and now and then my equipment. When I first started taking digital photography seriously I hated publishing unsharp photos, but at the camera’s full pixel peeping resolution they were always a bit fuzzy. I developed a technique of downsizing the images until they were sharp at pixel level, and using that as a measure of my improving skill. My very best attempts would only require downsizing to 6MP to become satisfactorily sharp. That was with a 10MP camera, so a downsizing of 60%.

    I don’t by the way, necessarily always want everything to be sharp, sometimes just the main subject, and sometimes sharpness is inappropriate.

    Now I have a 24MP camera, some better lenses, and better skills. It’s now much easier to produce sharp 6MP images, but on the other hand more difficult to produce sharp images at 60% of 24MP (14.4MP). I’ve also stopped bothering with my original downsizing-to-sharpness fetish.

    I do, however, sometimes post photographs on Facebook, which is limited to a maximum long image side of 2048 pixels, i.e., with usual aspect ratios about a 3MP image. Some of my disappointingly noisy and fuzzy 24MP images can look quite crisply sharp when downsized to Facebook’s 3MP. I can run around snapping things on auto with my least sharp (biggest zoom range) lens and can often downsize to crisp Facebook images.

    Yet I notice photographers with 48MP full frame cameras admiring the crisp sharpness of another photographer’s 3MP Facebook image, asking what amazing lens it was which produced such sharpness, and then going and buying it! The disappointed purchaser then starts posting unsharp images on Facebook and asking whether the new lens is faulty and should be returned.

    I don’t think sharp photography is a dying skill. It requires a certain amount of technical book learning, and acquiring skills which require practice and the ability to use experiment to diagnose failures. Most people can’t be bothered doing that. Cameras used to require some basic technical skills and understanding to get anything better than a blurry postcard out of them. That filtered out the laziest and least technically minded people from the ranks of photographers.

    Today’s smart cameras require much less skill and understanding to get good images from, so there are more people considering themselves photographers, even in some cases earning a living from photography, who can’t be bothered with technical details.

    So I don’t think sharpness is a dying skill. It’s just that the increasing skills of modern smart cameras have diluted the proportion of technically minded people in the ranks of those considering themselves photographers.

  2. Thanks for such a detailed reply, Chris. Some really interesting points there. I think my main thought was that many photographers seem to accept less than sharp images because they know they’ll only be publishing them on social media sites and the small size of the images means that they can get away with a lack of sharpness. I’ve done this myself on occasions of course. But I never find it satisfying when I know I could have produced a better result. I’m just a bit concerned that social media can result down in a general dumbing down and lowering the bar at which people find their own photos acceptable. I produce fairly big prints from time to time an anything less than sharp enough just won’t do!

    I enjoyed having a good rake through your own website and Flickr!!

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