A release from sharpness
Old 02-10-2008   #1
Steve Williams
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A release from sharpness

For many years I rigorously pursued images exhibiting tack sharpness, fine grain, etc., etc, and etc. It eventually led me to the use of a Zone VI 8x10 camera and a regimen of contact printing for the ultimate high. As with most highs comes an irrational obsessive tendency that derails or short circuits normal development.

I began shooting with the Leica over ten years ago as a deliberate move to release myself from the tryanny of method and sharpness. And to be able to keep up with my wife who had become a subject of my work and she would have no parts of the long boring posing that went along with the view camera.

I have continued to let go of a lot of the "rules" that I operated within, one of them being focus and sharpness. Slowly I have become more liberated in the release of the shutter including routinely slow shutter speed, handheld use of the M6. The attached image was made late in the day last week at 1/4 wide open with a 35mm Non ASPH Summilux 1.4.

As I look at it I shift between pleasure at seeing part of our garden in the dying light in a smooth fuzziness that mimics my aging eyesight in low light and a horror at not using a tripod to gain the maximum possible sharpness.

I'm curious how those of you who make personal images cope with the sharpness factor. I keep telling myself I am freeing myself from a narrow frame of working. Someday I may even free myself from the notion that everything has to be full frame...

Other pictures from the past week appear on my blog HERE.
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Old 02-10-2008   #2
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I prefer sharp lenses, but at the same time, I don't dislike photos taken with softer lenses.

I am a stickler for focus though. In my opinion a portrait of a person must have the eyes in focus. If I take a shot and the cheek is in focus but the eyes are not, I consider it a bad shot and don't use it. Others wouldn't I guess but I dunno. Obviously if you are doing something specific like showing the lips or the hands or something then sure the focus should be there.

I'm probably harder on myself in that respect than on others photos, though in the back of my mind I am still thinking to myself, would have been a great shot, BUT....

I think I'm just annoying.
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Old 02-10-2008   #3
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i don't care that much about sharpness when the content is good enough. but i can barely shoot at 1/15, so...
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Old 02-10-2008   #4
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Heh, is it bad that I find using Leica gear to 'release myself from the tryanny of method and sharpness.' a bit funny?

Regardless, strict adherence to any one aspect of imagery over others is bad, and learning to find balance is good.
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Old 02-10-2008   #5
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steve, thanks for posting a very interesting question. i'm following in your footsteps with 4x5 printed to 8x10 for sharpness. however, the organic nature of your image (and images of mine that are similar in execution) seems more important than how sharp it is. but here's the problem. prints. at moderate sizes, maybe 16x20 to 11x14, a lack of sharpness mis-directs the eye away from the intended subject. things that work on the computer or at 5x7 or even 8x10, look like mistakes at 11x14 and up. i have seen large images in hotels and the like (30x40) and am always off put by the lack of sharpness in what must be mass produced posters from low res scans. sharpness is also an issue with me and my 6mp camera at 8x12 print sizes. i feel at this moment, that as long as part of the subject has tack sharpness, i can accept the softness of DOF or motion blur. but not having anything in focus makes the image feel unfinished to me.
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Old 02-10-2008   #6
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Are we talking about sharpness like resolving ability of a lens or sharpness like no camera motion?

I really like Mike's shots here, especially the first one with the X-ray. It isn't the sharpest thing in the world because of the slow shutter speed, but he got the focus on and it looks great! I can imagine sitting on that bus or train bouncing around trying to look at the X-ray's!!
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Old 02-10-2008   #7
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Sistemistic maybe only likes f4-5.6 zooms, the ones that ensure proper focus within a deep range, who knows.

As opposed to his point of view, I think sharpness is just a reason to show bad pictures of sharp subjects, tests, brickwalls and blabla. As a PJ himself, he should take a look at the 2008 worldpress winners and see what softness is all about and learn a little bit more about subject Versus sharpness. And lets reminisce Robert Capa,s famous shot while were at it.

I personally think that as soon as one gets over the sharpness craze, the sharpness a-tout-prix philosophy, one finally starts understanding the essence of an image, of a feeling.

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Old 02-10-2008   #8
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Sharpness (as in clinical sharpness, trying to maximize lpm) is over-rated, emotional content is always more important. One of the pictures with the best emotional content, in my view, is Robert Capa's haunting images of the Normandy landings, the ghostly silohuettes of the marines in the water. He did not need the latest multicoated Asph lens to make those pictures.

However, if images are blurred for no reason except for camera or subject movement, if they are focused wrongly, etc. then all it shows is what could or should have been.

I particularly dislike frozen sports pictures, to me motion blur is absolutely essential to show the dynamic of a sport. They are sportsmen in action, not chess players! But SLR's in sports modes are primed to shoot at the highest shutter speed possible, freezing everything. Similarly, frozen concert pictures, etc lose their dynamism, besides giving the subjects very weird expressions.
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Old 02-10-2008   #9
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Old 02-10-2008   #10
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Steve,
For another approach to sharpness, also very well suited to LF cameras, what are your thoughts about pinhole photography?

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Old 02-10-2008   #11
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Pictures should have sufficient sharpness to serve the content, and no more. Modern lenses make that quite hard! Fortunately, there are oceans of older M and LTM lenses available. I prefer the single-coated Leitz wonders from the '60s. Plus, some motion blur and flare can work wonders.
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Old 02-11-2008   #12
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Almost entirely free of bourgeois sharpness (just a bit at lower left) but there's something about it... what do you think?
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Old 02-11-2008   #13
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I believe in the use of sharpness which appears natural to the hunan eye - so almost anything is permitted, as long as it does not start to wear you - at times we like to open our eyes wide, without focusing, at times we focus strongly on one subject disregarding the rest of the visible field, other times we pretty much keep everything in a sharp plane. I tend to like sharpness, at least in some part of a photo, but exceptions happen sometimes:
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Old 02-11-2008   #14
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Taken by my wife with little mastery over the finer points of focussing a 50mm zuiko on an OM1...

But it is me lying there with my son and I do not own a more beautiful photograph

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Old 02-11-2008   #15
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My favourite lens has become my least sharp one ... well wide open anyway. The Canon f1.2 50mm has been criticised for it's lack of sharpness wide open which is what actually attracted me to it. This pic with the lens's rather strange, at times, bokeh and a lot of motion blur appealed to me straight away for some reason!

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Old 02-11-2008   #16
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I have hi-resolution lenses, low-resolution lenses, high-contrast lenses, low-contrast lenses, fast lenses, slow lenses, highly corrected lenses, uncorrected lenses, calcium fluorite lenses, and others that are just strange

Depends on the subject for which is best suited. I've had some of my best pictures with a 50/1.9 Schneider Xenon for the Retina IIIS, picked up for $10.
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Old 02-11-2008   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NB23
Me and you think alike, its incroyable!

This is also the reason why me and you dont like photos shot with the 85L, 50 1.2L, Canon50 1.0, 135 L and 200 f2.

Cheers!
Ned - I don't understand your point here. Sorry to have missed your point....

Back on topic - it seems some (especially RF) photographers will accept a degree of, as I see it, technical incompetency as having more "soul" or something, whereas they should just be looking at the pictures and thinking "that's not actually very good"

Conversely I do like the difference in values to be found in RFF compared to certain other forums that only seem to shoot brick walls and newspapers.....
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Old 02-11-2008   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by waileong
I particularly dislike frozen sports pictures, to me motion blur is absolutely essential to show the dynamic of a sport. They are sportsmen in action, not chess players! But SLR's in sports modes are primed to shoot at the highest shutter speed possible, freezing everything.
Not to be contentious, but the people who buy my field sports pictures prefer the sharp isolation of the subject to the panned look, hands down. It's down to taste or the cult of the individual or just a desire to make an important moment appear to freeze in time, I don't know. But it is the clear preference by a very large majority.

I don't think the people who buy such photos or read SI confuse sports figures with chess players at all. Sports photos aren't "primed" to shoot at high shutter speeds, either. Much more the case that sportsshooters use wider apertures to isolate the subject, leading to fast s/s. Not always, but most of the time, depending on the shot.
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Old 02-11-2008   #19
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Unsharp is teh lose

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Old 02-11-2008   #20
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Who was it who said "I don't mind fuzzy photos, I mind fuzzy concepts"?

That's where I stand, by and large.
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Old 02-11-2008   #21
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Nah Alkis, it's spot on: no point taking photo if it's no bleeding sharp

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Old 02-11-2008   #22
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Highly personal opinion:

Lack of sharpness/focus is OK if it is applied by someone who knows what they are doing - and WHY they are doing it, and WHEN to apply it. Those people are kind of rare. You should learn the rules if you want to break them.

This is not the same as saying a sharp brick is better than an out-of-focus portrait. A good photo cannot be reduced to sharpness. But I can't say that Capa's photos
would be worse if they were "sharper". I do however feel that Ansel Adams photos would be "worse" if they were fuzzy.
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Old 02-11-2008   #23
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I think if you look at a lot of venerated work that lacks we would describe as critical focus, Capa's fallen Spanish civil war soldier being a case in point, you would have to say that they were not deliberately misfocussed to eschew the tyranny of the 8x10 camera, but rather they where as sharp as the photographer could make them at the time, given their equipment and the conditions they were working under. To somehow cite them as some kind of precursor to the current trend of shooting wide open in broad daylight is to deliberately misinterpret the photographer's intention. I know that HCB came out with all that stuff about sharpness being a bourgeois concept but if he shot in good light he tended to produce sharp pictures with good depth of field.
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Old 02-11-2008   #24
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This took me back.
Way back into the 80's, when I was using my Dad's Pentax with the 135 telephoto, and 2415 with extended tonal range Petersen developer (blue looking stuff), shot with the whites at ASA 8 (pushed to ~25 on the gray card).

Got an ad-hoc portrait at a ski hill with the eyes in focus, but with the nose and ears out of focus. The eyes were razor sharp.

Then moved into 4x5.

Fine grain and sharp is addictive.

But motion, wind, etc are the bane of slow speed.
Low f# is the bane of DOF.
Film size is the bane of weight.
View camera goes against convenience.

I wish I could find that peterseon stuff - was from around Sun Valley (the Valley- So Cal)

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Old 02-11-2008   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RdEoSg
Are we talking about sharpness like resolving ability of a lens or sharpness like no camera motion?
When I posted this thread I was referring to camera motion induced by very slow shutters speeds. Nothing to do with any inherent characteristics of the lens.

I carry the Leica with me everywhere from the time I get up until I go to bed. Or at least it is within reach. And much of the day the light is low and I have the choice to either use a flash, a tripod, or shoot at whatever speed is indicated handheld.

It is the last piece ---handheld at slow speeds---that I was referring to. There was a time I would not shoot a picture if I knew from the outset was going to be soft. Now I make the exposure and wrestle with the softness later. A mental wrestling for me.

As someone indicated earlier in the thread this softness can be judged as laziness on the part of the photographer. A lack of committment, an introduction of a formal quality for it's own sake rather than an important part of the image. It was those factors that kept my finger off the shutter release button.

The fact that I will now make a 2 second exposure handheld is at least the beginning of the release from the sharpness god. But I remained haunted at times by the old whisperings of what may not matter...
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Old 02-11-2008   #26
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Smile

In general I prefer sharp images - landscapes, cityscapes, etc. For portraits though a small amount of softness works very well - there is a reason after all, that they introduced soft focus lenses:-)

There are also situations where the mood of the picture comes out better (warmer) when the picture is not tack sharp and then of course there is the concept of movements and chaos that one wants to convey to the observer.

I took the attached picture at Cibola NWR - there were hundreds, if not thousand blackbirds in these huge flocks and we spent a couple of hours together. Nothing is really sharp in that picture and yet it is one of my favorites from that series.
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Old 02-11-2008   #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul Jenkin
I suppose I'm saying that I don't believe there's a universal 'right and wrong'. Ultimately, I wouldn't want to feel released from the tyrrany of sharpness only to be captured by the tyrrany of blur.
Paul -- I think you have summed up my fear. What I wish is that I can remain aware of what I am doing and that blur becomes the result of a conscious decision just as focus, depth of field, and exposure are.

It seems like a simple thing but it strikes at the foundation of my work both personally and professionally.
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Old 02-11-2008   #28
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Not sharp, I like this picture anyway.

Canon 50/1.2 on the Bessa R2, wide-open at 1/15th, hand-held.



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Old 02-11-2008   #29
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One of my fav shots was this one taken with an XA in light rainshower. The light was dim and I thought I was shooting with a Stylus Epic and forgot to focus:



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Old 02-11-2008   #30
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Sharpness is a bourgeois concept and sooo 2007!!

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Old 02-11-2008   #31
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Softness is another word for bokey, softness is a continuation of bokey. In a portrait the amount of bokey equals the amount of soul or putting that way it is the deformation of the world through the soul. If softness encourages picturaly the revelation of the spirit that is present in the scene, then it's good! Otherwise if you want something to be sharp for any reason, softness is really only an error in the process. Eugene your photo of the angel is gorgeous!
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Old 02-11-2008   #32
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Quote:
Not sharp, I like this picture anyway.

Canon 50/1.2 on the Bessa R2, wide-open at 1/15th, hand-held.
It works. Looks painterly.

I took the liberty of working on it a bit, I hope you don't mind.

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Old 02-11-2008   #33
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When the moment presents itself take the picture. The moment will never return! Later, on the editing table, squinting through a loupe, is the time to evaluate how effective the photo really is.
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Old 02-11-2008   #34
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Ah, the last thing in the world I thought of was field sports.
I won't argue with you there but that's a different world then what I'm in.

Quote:
Originally Posted by MCTuomey
Not to be contentious, but the people who buy my field sports pictures prefer the sharp isolation of the subject to the panned look, hands down. It's down to taste or the cult of the individual or just a desire to make an important moment appear to freeze in time, I don't know. But it is the clear preference by a very large majority.

I don't think the people who buy such photos or read SI confuse sports figures with chess players at all. Sports photos aren't "primed" to shoot at high shutter speeds, either. Much more the case that sportsshooters use wider apertures to isolate the subject, leading to fast s/s. Not always, but most of the time, depending on the shot.
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Old 02-11-2008   #35
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interesting subject. I love bluriness much as other things as flare, coma, vignetting.
Steve Williams has posted the best piece of all shown here to illustrate the topic. Lovely image, Steve! I sense the mood there.

I got Konica 90/2.8 recently. Some said that it is one of sharpest 2.8 90mm lenses. I got focussing problem the first time I did take this out. Though many design flaws, images came out interesting. Not because those are sharp or so but on the contratry it turned out be blurry images which seem to work well from artistic aspect



The last image was misfocused by mistake but it is quite luck that it got that misfocused otherwise I should try to focus again and I might never thought about what it looks like a misfocused shot of same composition. So that image learned me to think again that I shouldn't think about any damn rules. Just follow own instincts. If you like Alfred Stieglitz images, there's no discussion between us (you and me).

And, those for fun. Blurry or not?



Erikfive, this image looks like an oil painting portrait Great portrait!
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Old 02-11-2008   #36
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I suddenly realised the surreal juxtaposition in this thread...

Steve is shooting with a Leica M, and trying for atmospheric softness. I, on the other hand, reading his post, started doing (dodgy) "photography" rather than (extremely dodgy) "snapshots" when I started playing with a No2 Box Brownie I bought for a beer. Here I am looking for ultimate sharpness (easier than you might think, even at 1/30th, when you have an f30 Waterhouse stop) with possibly the cheapest piece of kit available, and people who could have bought hundreds of Brownies for the price they paid for their kit are trying to get less sharp!

I guess that just goes to show what a wide spectrum photography encompasses!

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Old 02-11-2008   #37
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Or, as Lance Armstrong said, "It's not about the bike."

So many amateurs in all fields like photography, music, etc believe that if they own the best equipment it will somehow make them better artists. It doesn't. It may be nice to own such beautiful equipment and the feel of it in one's hands but it will not replace the need for an eye for composition, a point of view and all the rest.

I'm a musician and I play with some of the world's leading orchetsras and conductors, and I play a beautiful instrument, but if that instrument was smashed before a concert and I had to play a really inexpensive instrument made by Yamaha, I would still have my insight into the piece and my hands would be able to coax out the best tone possible. Would even the most rabid music fan know the difference? Maybe one in ten thousand would notice...

I bought a Leica because of the feel in my hands, the smoothness of operation, the utter joy from using a completely mechanical and analog machine. Does it make me a better photographer or make better pictures? No, it doesn't...it's up to the artist to decide what will be on film and how he wants to represent it. The tool is secondary.
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Old 02-11-2008   #38
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A photograph either creates a response from the audience or it doesnt. There are a 100 million tack sharp photographs that nobody will ever look twice at. And then people fiend over HCB's work, much of which is very soft. Concentrate on taking a good photo, any monkey can take a sharp one...
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Old 02-11-2008   #39
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James and I mostly use Leicas because we like nice sharp pictures. That's him in the background with his M8. I shot this with a Bess L and 15mm Heliar. I find that just having a toy monkey close by is all it takes to get nice sharp pictures.
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Old 02-11-2008   #40
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Photography has never been about sharpness. It is about light.

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"The market wants a Leica to be a Leica: the inheritor of tradition, the subject of lore, and indisputably a mark of status to own."
Mike Johnston
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