Why Sharpness is Overrated

Apr 3, 2017

Eric Kim

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Why Sharpness is Overrated

Apr 3, 2017

Eric Kim

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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“Sharpness is a bourgeois (rich person) concept.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

1. Softer lenses often have more soul

I remember when I started digital photography; the sharper the photo, the better.

In reality, a sharper photo is not a better photo. Often, a softer photograph gives you a more pleasing, soft, warm, and emotional aesthetic.

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For example, I love the photos of Junku Nishimura, who shoots with a 35mm-film camera, with an old 50mm f/2.8 lens. The photos are softer; and evoke a more dreamy, nostalgic feel. His photos would not feel the same if he shot with a high-end digital camera, with a very sharp lens.

Also, the softer aesthetic of film looks aesthetically nicer, than overly sharp digital photos. This is why I see a lot of digital photographers flocking to film.

Often digital photos feel too perfect. Too sharp. Too clinical, too much like a surgeon.

Rather, film photos feel imperfect — which feel more nostalgic, and reminiscent of our childhoods.

I know that I prefer the nostalgic film photos that my mom shot of me as a kid; than any modern super-sharp photo I get today on my smartphone.

2. Art doesn’t care about sharpness

A lot of us photographers who get started in photography, are gadget-nerds or geeks. I myself have always been obsessed with technology. Photography was a perfect marriage between my interest in technology and art.

So of course, we are going to get fascinated with the technology (gear) behind photography.

First of all, I think the biggest misguidance from the internet is ‘sharpness tests.’ The problem is that a lot of us nerdy photographers come from sciences, engineering, or computer-programming. We think we can quantify the ‘quality’ or the ‘goodness’ of a photograph by the technical settings– the sharpness or resolution of an image.

3. Is painting ‘sharp’?

Good art is often un-sharp.

Consider the impressionists. They didn’t seek to make picture-perfect images of reality. Rather, they used dreamy and imperfect brush-strokes to evoke a mood; to evoke a feeling.

They realized that the importance of a picture or an image wasn’t whether it reflected reality or not. The more important thing: whether it reflected their personal mood, or view of the world.

4. Blurry photos often have more emotion

Also, out-of-focus, and blurry photos often have more emotion and mood. We feel more movement in a blurry photograph, rather than a perfectly tack-sharp image.

So often, blurry is good. It just depends on what kind of emotion you’re trying to evoke in an image.

5. Nobody can really tell a difference on the sharpness of your lenses on a screen

I’ve shot with all different cameras over the years. Canon Powershot SD 600, Canon Rebel XT (350D), Canon 5D (original), Leica M9, Ricoh GR II, film Leica, etc. Also, I’ve shot with expensive Leica Summicron f/2 ASPH lens ($3000 USD) and the integrated Ricoh GR II (28mm equivalent) lens.

I cannot tell a difference between any of my photos, shot on what camera, with what lens.

Only a nerd would look at all their photos at 100% resolution and ‘pixel peep.’ Or even worse– can you imagine someone going to a photographer’s exhibition, and commenting on how sharp (or unsharp) their photos are?

6. Are you shooting brick walls?

Please please please, avoid these websites where people do sharpness tests on brick walls. Do you plan on photographing brick walls for your entire life; or to photograph the soul of your subjects?

7. Is your viewer going to see your photo on a smartphone?

If you are printing your photos super-large; having sharper photos might be better.

But in reality, if you’re just uploading your photos to social media, or Instagram– 99% of people are going to see your photos from a 5-inch smartphone. You can’t even tell how sharp a photo is.

8. Buy books, not gear

Instead of dropping tons of money on lenses, use that money on inspirational photo books, traveling, attending workshops, or on something educational.

Instead of spending $500 on that new lens, maybe use that money to attend a weekend workshop. Or use the money to travel locally. Or to buy 10 good $50 photo books.

Instead of spending $1000 on that new lens, use that money to go on an international trip somewhere. Or buy (even more) photo books.

For me, education and books are always the best bang-for-the-buck. The experiences you have, and the education you learn will always stay with you.

A lens is just a lens, and will not improve your photography.

So when in doubt, buy books, not gear.

9. Buy a camera with a non-interchangeable lens

I am a huge fan of cameras with non-interchangeable lenses (like the Ricoh GR II, the Fujifilm X100T, or the Fujifilm x70). These non-interchangeable lenses are generally very compact, thin, light, and very sharp. And not only that, you don’t get stressed out about what lens to use (or not to use). You only have one lens, and you’re stuck with it. That is a ‘creative constraint‘ which forces you to be more creative.

10. Use whatever camera you have

To conclude; just use whatever camera you have. If your camera or lens is very soft, or not sharp– use it to your advantage.

I generally find monochrome photos to be more aesthetically-pleasing than soft color photos. But then again, photographers like Todd Hido have used soft color photos and made them beautiful.

Avoid gear review sites, sharpness tests, and all those nerdy places. Be satisfied with the gear you (already have), and remember what photography is all about: making meaning in your life; not making photos.

About the Author

Eric Kim is a street photographer and photography teacher currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam.  His life’s mission is to produce as much “Open Source Photography” to make photography education accessible to all.  You can see more of his work on his website, and find him on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission.


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8 responses to “Why Sharpness is Overrated”

  1. B.L. Blazy Avatar
    B.L. Blazy


  2. Haf Tone Avatar
    Haf Tone

    I’ve been shooting with a hand made lens or lensbaby for years…. agree that sharpness is overrated!

  3. Vale Avatar

    If only these were the guidelines for stock photo selection, I’d had many not rejected by major agencies, I’d be making a living out of it and be able to also do art the way I’d like.

    Unfortunately I had to quit photography as a major activity if I didn’t want to go bankrupt not having any income from it but only major expenses (money and time too).
    It looks like the “natural selection” in the field is either conforming to total sharpness at 100% magnification (not even 50% which is what really the human eye can perceive) or die… I died :)

  4. JustChristoph Avatar

    @Vale – you have underlined Eric’s point. Sharpness is for the absolutism of marketing (and, obviously, shooting brick walls). Art is about sensing. You cannot generally expect the viewer to sense the moment if you apply absolutism to your image. Otherwise you’d be able to buy impressionist paintings at car boot sales.

    1. Vale Avatar

      Ok let’s talk about it… seriously! We aren’t anymore at the beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays a photographer can at least get paid part of his expensive hobby (or semi-pro wannabe professional career) by selling his work via stock agencies.
      Now, let me make a real world example: shutterstock. If I submit a landscape photo done at f/22 to get maximum possible DOF (old freaking school way to do it with hyper focal distance calculation), the incredible smartass evaluating my submission will look at it at 100% magnification. Guess what? Of course it’s not gonna be UBER-freaking-sharp, there is gonna be a little of diffraction due to having used such a small aperture. I freaking print the landscape photo on an A2 piece of paper: it’s fantastically sharp to the eye. That’s because the human eye can only really perceive sharpness on a print as the image were at 50% magnification on a computer screen.
      All the rest, “so called art”, it’s just a subjective matter. I am being objective regarding a potential economical damage these idiots doing those evaluations are making to both, the stock agencies and the photographers.
      End of the rant, shaving my mustache :=/ LoL.

  5. Michael Groah Avatar
    Michael Groah

    The more I am in photography the more I think that it’s not so much overrated as it is overused.

  6. CharSchru Avatar

    Thank you again, Eric, for another great article about how to make photography meaningful and purposeful! I find it’s easy to get distracted by the newest gear and highest rated lenses. Your articles really help me remember why I love taking pictures – to capture that fleeting moment of a feeling or essence of something beautiful, and I don’t need the most expensive gear or lots of post-processing to do it!

  7. Donald M. Falls Avatar
    Donald M. Falls

    Some folks might have heard of me. I always shoot with classic lenses because super sharp gets boring.