Sharpness is Not Overrated and Why I Care About Image Quality
If you’ve been a long time reader of my blog you’ll know that I’m a bit of a stickler for image quality. A lot of what I’ve written has been about maximising image quality and how to get the best possible results. For some of you, this may seem like an obvious thing to care about, and yet, for some reason there seems to be this movement in the photography community out to demonise caring about image quality. I hate writing negative articles or pieces like this, but I’ve seen this too often and I just have to comment.
Every now and then someone trots out some article or blog post about how “sharpness is overrated” and how you shouldn’t care about getting sharp images, and how having technically accurate pictures somehow makes you gear obsessed and a bad photographer. Once such post was published recently by a well known blogger who has published a variation of this piece many times. But that's just one recent example of a much wider trend that I've noticed in some corners of the photographic blogging community.
Here’s the typical logic that seems to be implied in these articles. Some blurry photo was famous once, so all pictures should be blurry. Ok, I’m being a little trite here, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. You see, as with all things like this, it resonates with people, because there is a grain of truth masquerading as an absolute.
If you’re making art photos, or you are deliberately trying to create an artistic effect, then absolutely, sharpness is not important and blur can be used creatively. But suggesting that this applies to all types of photography in all fields is just irresponsible and wrong.
Another excuse that I often hear is that it is that it is the story is that is important in an image, not the quality. Again, a grain of truth, pretending to be an absolute. You see, the people who push this notion have it backwards. If the story is strong enough, or compelling enough, then you don’t need to have a shot pin sharp or technically perfect. But it’s not the other way around. It’s not a licence to not care. The chances are, the story in most images is just an average story, and not so great that it doesn’t matter that the subject is out of focus.
I really don’t understand why some people can’t see that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s possible to have an image sharp, properly exposed and still tell a good story, or have a good composition. A proficient photographer is able to control the technical aspects of an image without thinking about it. When you’ve been doing it for long enough, it becomes second nature. Just ignoring those aspects out of some weird ideology doesn’t make you a better photographer.
I started out in the field of photography working as an assistant to a professional photographer. I was also interested in becoming a designer, and this particular photographer wanted someone who could do both, and so that’s where I started. This was back in the 90’s when the word “multimedia” was the hottest buzzword of the time. One of my many jobs was scanning and managing film, both for this particular photographer and for other clients who would use us a service provider. One of the things that you learn pretty quickly when working with clients is that your opinion’s don’t matter. A client wants things done their way, and they want it of the best quality possible. At the time, digital was in its infancy and the majority of professional photography was still done on film, usually slide film.
When scanning a film for a client there was no room for error. I had to make sure that the film was calibrated, and when it was scanned, the scanner was focused properly and the scan was sharp and clean. I was using what was a high end dedicated film scanner at the time. If you don’t do a lot of film scanning you may not realise this, but the scanner itself can get out of focus.
(Incidentally, you can tell if it is the scanner or the original photo, because if it was the photo and not the scanner, the grain would be sharp, whereas if it was the scanner, the grain would be soft.)
I would then have to go through the scans and remove any dust and dirt, by hand in Photoshop. When preparing files for clients they had to be perfect. There was no margin for error.
When working with images that were going to end up in advertising or editorial, this was especially important, because clients would want to make sure that they were using the best version of an image. Even on film, photographers would often take several shots, sometimes bracketing to make sure that the shot was perfect. Negatives or transparencies would be examined on a light table using a loupe, and then the selected frames would be scanned. Even then, you would have to check the scans that the right one was good enough.
Yet somehow today, the “sharpness doesn’t matter” crowd are using the excuse that film is beautiful and film is soft, therefore you shouldn’t care about sharpness. But that’s just not true either, because properly shot and scanned film is sharp. Having worked with a lot of professionals in the early days of my career, they went through a lot of trouble to make sure that the film, and the scans were sharp. The notion that film is inherently soft, is just not true, especially with medium format. A properly shot image on transparency film, scanned on a dedicated scanner will hold it’s own against most digital cameras. It may not have the same resolution, but it shouldn’t be soft. If it is, then there’s something wrong somewhere in the workflow from processing to the final scan.
Ok, I do understand that many of the photographers whoa re new to shooting film today are probably either scanning it on a flatbed or getting scans done at the lab, both of which do produce soft and less than perfect results, so that could lead you to believe that film is inherently soft, but it’s not. If scanned properly it won’t be.
When I was scanning film for clients, it was drilled into me that the quality was of paramount importance. If one of my clients was using an image for an ad or a magazine, their client wouldn’t take “well, real photographers don’t care about sharpness” as an excuse. This is probably one of the hardest things for newcomers today to grasp. If you want to be a professional, then your ideology when it comes to photography doesn’t matter. People read a post from someone, who might be a good blogger or have a large social following on the internet, saying that something is the case, and they take it as gospel, when in reality it’s just that persons opinion.
I went on from that job to work in television, primarily as a motion graphic designer. Working in television thought me a lot of things that apply across both fields, but one of the most important lessons was that quality is important. When working for broadcast television, there are technical standards that have to be met. It’s not optional. If you don’t meet those standards, your work will be rejected by the broadcaster, and you’ll have to fix it. While the specifications for broadcast television have nothing to do with photography, it did teach me to have standards when shooting images. In particular, to get things in focus, and have the exposure right and the images sharp and artifact free. For me, this isn’t something that I think about any more, I just do it. It’s been part of my professional approach for nearly two decades, and it’s something I do by default. My pictures may not be great, or award winning, but I control the things I can and I’m constantly trying to work on everything else. If I’m doing something in a professional capacity, and it’s going to a client or a third party, it has to be of a certain technical quality, and I wouldn’t even think of letting it out if it wasn’t.
If you’re producing a cover of a magazine, or an architectural image for a client, or a landscape shot, or, well pretty much any kind of photo that you’re going to be paid for, then, I’m sorry to tell you, unless there’s a specific reason for it not to be, getting it sharp and exposed properly won’t be a suggestion. If you’re just shooting art pieces or posting to Instagram and twitter then sure it doesn’t matter, and you may not quite get the importance of image quality, but the working professional understands it all too well. It’s kind of important to a lot of clients, and hence future employment. When is the last time you saw a National Geographic article full of out of focus blurry photos? Do you think a photographer could go to the editor and try to explain him or herself in that situation, and say, “but it’s more artistic this way, and some photography blogger said I shouldn’t care about my images being sharp.”
The problem is that this lack of consideration for technical quality is unfortunately leaking into the rest of the world. I recently saw a new locally made food magazine in my local newsagent which touted its “independent” photography, whatever that means. All of the images in the magazine were soft and mostly out of focus. I knew what the photographer had done as soon as I saw it. A while ago I remember seeing a piece of terrible advice on the internet, which was that if you wanted to make your images look professional, then you should always shoot wide open. This is clearly what this person had done. So all the images had a razor thin area of focus, but it was shot with a cheap lens, so even the out of focus part was soft. It didn’t look artistic, or special. I didn’t think, “wow this photographer must be great because all the images are soft, but they tell the story of a really nice beef dish.” Nope, it just looked cheap and amateurish. That magazine was short lived and no longer in print.
What I find so frustrating about this is that learning to shoot technically accurately is not hard. Getting exposure correct, and having sharp, in focus images is relatively easy. Once you learn them and do them enough times, it’s like riding a bike, you just do it. Other things like good composition, and story telling will take a lot longer, but the technical aspects are actually pretty simple to learn, so I don’t understand why some people complain that caring about this takes away from other aspects of photography, when it’s really not that difficult to do.
As I pointed out earlier, a certain segment of the photographic community, who were probably never taught technical skills in the first place, might be pretty good at shouting their opinions out loud on the internet, they are just that, opinions. I’m reminded of the TV show “The Good Wife” where one of the judges in the court room constantly had to remind the lawyers to add the phrase “In my opinion” to their arguments. The same is true here. So before you read too much credence into opinion posts like these, remember that this is just someone’s opinion, even if they try to present it as hard fact. And in this case it’s just wrong.
That’s my opinion.