The Myth of Sharpness.

Sharpness, Focus, DOF and the Mind’s eye.

How often have you heard the comment, generally the first, of your photo: “Ooh, that’s sharp”?  Beware if this is the first thing you hear because it means your intended subject/meaning hasn’t been seen and your story/impact hasn’t been felt. All they’ve seen and focused on is the technical aspect of your camera or lens. And you shouldn’t focus (sorry) on that aspect either. Why?

Clarity instead of “sharpness”

Fashion and product photos have crisp images to emphasise qualities of a product, generally in an unreal way, to bored and insatiable customers. We’ve grown accustomed to this and therefore when the mass public were handed digital cameras, we thought that all our photos should have crisp edges and edgy content, but in the real world, such clarity doesn’t exist. We don’t have crispy vision because edges and crispness don’t exist unless it has a high contrast edge of something. eg. a piece of engraved metal, or an edge of a black table against a white background or vice versa. You get my drift.

Some clarifications:

Technical bit – First – the difference between sharpness and focus.

  1. Sharpness is dependent on camera/sensor/lens ability.
  2. Focus is the area in focus and will be clearer than the rest of the scene/subject. Duh, but read on.
  3. Also, surfaces aren’t sharp but sharpening processes can texturise them.

The world’s most famous photos are not “sharp” at all. Why? Content and naturalness.

Brainy bit – Our brain can’t see everything in front of us in focus at the same time. Try this – hold your hand up and keep your eyes in focus on your hand. Now keeping your eyes on your hand, notice with your peripheral vision that everything other than your hand is out of focus, in front and behind. Welcome to the real world. So a photo where all is in focus is therefore “unreal”. (This is important for later)

Technical bit – Cameras take it all in when using a small aperture (f22), or select one point with a large aperture. (0.95ish) So why not take everything at F22 so it’s all in focus? Because, as noted above,  that’s not how our brain works or wants to work, it’s an overload. Where would we look first.


Bluebird of Happiness by Adrian Lowe

Important bit – You want to be in control of the viewer’s attention and “make” them look where you want them to. You want to hold their attention, not have them wander all over your real estate and make up their own mind as to what they’re looking at. (More on that soon)

Second: Edges – Brainy bit – Our eyes don’t see sharp edges in general scenes unless we look very closely at something that has an actual acute edge. Surface areas aren’t sharp but they may have structure, yet we obsess about making every element what we think is sharp. A knife edge should be sharp. A person’s face doesn’t. Their eyelashes would if it’s a close up but not from afar.

Technical bit – Cameras have a “circle of confusion” element (much like our own confusion in everyday life) and the same can be said for our optical nerves. Again, have a look at a distant chair or person and see what, if anything has sharp edges and content to you. What you’ll see is a clear object with a blurry background – that blurry background delineates the object. (More on that in the DOF/Isolation topic)

Third – Technical bit – Sharpening effects/plugins have edge sharpening to overcome limitations of sensor/camera hardware, but there is a fine balance between correcting for this and sliding into razor sharp, unnatural edges and clarity. So be careful of sharpening techniques that do overall edge sharpening. Structure enhancement of “internal” areas may be better.

Brainy bit – Well, anything that ain’t natural to our brain or nervous system (more on that soon) disrupts our subconscious and makes us uneasy, but you may not know it consciously. That can be bad or good, depending on what you want to achieve for example you might want to stir up a viewer. But at least be conscious of what you want to achieve.


Body ardornment by Adrian Lowe

In the above photo, the body art was so surreal on such a young person’s face that the very soft treatment emphasised its unreal concept.

Generally, only the important parts of the subject need to be in focus unless the desired effect is for softness.  Where you want an important “landing point”, make sure you have one stand out point that people can reference to and return to when they’ve finished wandering. Brainy bit – That’s also part of our inner psyche – to pick what we want to look at then look around to feel safe in one’s domain. But obsessing about sharpness will detract you from the meaning/point of the image.

Summary – Sharpened, all in focus scenes look unnatural, because that ain’t what our eyes see so the brain doesn’t quite accept the notion.  (some general scapes might be an exception but it depends on what your point of attention is and the subconscious prefers a point of attention) Making the image fit in with the brain and move the heart is what it’s all about.

Any critique mentioning sharpness instead of relevant focus is a comment on camera elements and not the image’s focusing. And we don’t all have expensive medium/large format cameras and house price lenses. And as you’ve just learnt, save your money unless you need magazine/product images and even then, something unique beats razor edges any time.

So, what now? – before shooting, think why/what’s the purpose of the subject, what’s the main point and how do I highlight it with focus, appropriate sharpness, light, angle, composition, colour, viewpoint etc etc. (read the SMART thinking process here)

Challenge/Homework – Don’t just take my word for it. Look at any subject and work out what and why you like aspect/s of it, then take a shot taking particular note of the point of focus and how to use that and the surrounds to highlight what you like about the subject/point. Try an overall pin sharp photo, then an in focus “natural” shot, and compare for yourself what suits the purpose you want from it.

Then – Add your work below with Subject/Adjective/Title with your image, and include your reasoning. (Titles article here)

Footnote: (Focus/Sharpness depends on the following topic so I need to refer to it broadly)

Remember there are 5 types (purposes) of photos:  1. Practice shots, 2. Memories, 3. Opportune/”snap” shots, (not snapshots) 4. Purpose built, and 5. Creative/unique. (Article coming soon)

  1. Practice – play, assess, retry, perfect – don’t show them unless you say you need constructive critique.
  2. Memories – You and others you tie down look at travel/kids/pets….., but they’re boring unless they’re unique or relevant to the viewer for some reason.
  3. Opportune shots – Jourrnalistic and any opportune “caught ’em in the act” moments, are attention grabbers because they’re unique.
  4. Commercial shots are the purposeful type. Some photographers (not viewers) drool over how sharp they are but shouldn’t be jealous – horses for courses – and most shots are boring anyway unless they’re unique in some way. (Article on Portraits coming soon).
  5. Creative – Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary fits here, and really should be all of them. Viewers want to be impressed or moved, so think thrice, shoot once.

So think about the reason/purpose, shoot accordingly and show accordingly. Make it unique in some way. (got the point yet?)

This article should be taken into account with the rest of the series for it to be in yer head properly. Understanding concepts of the subconscious brain at work, will make you a better photographer and better observer of life, and techniques will become second nature.

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