Sharpness is a Bougeois Concept

Pinhole image of my Mini Cooper

Henri Cartier-Bresson said, "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." I'm certain what he meant was that it is often an unrealistic desired result and that it doesn't make or break the image itself. The content, composition and the emotion it conveys are all much more important results than having crisp images.

Legendary Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog commented during an interview that he found it very ironic, as a photographer obsessed with sharpness in his images throughout his career, the one for which he is most famous, is one that was slightly out of focus.

In this day and age of incredibly sharp lenses, HDR, and an ever increasing number of pixels available to us, it seems the obsession with sharpness consumes us all. Even our televisions and computer monitors are becoming more detailed than life itself, it seems. Still, throughout the history of photography, a vast number of the most iconic images are not sharp. I'd like to add that those same images would likely not have the impact they do, had they been sharpened by computer software or if they'd been shot in HDR.

The above image was a simple one I'd made while playing around with a small 6X6 pinhole camera. For those not familiar with pinhole cameras, they are really just a box with a very small hole which is opened to expose the film. Pinhole cameras, by the very nature of the lensless platform, are renowed for a large depth of field but are never really sharp. These were the very first camera obscuras before lenses were attached to Daguerreotype cameras. The lack of sharpness offers a dreamy quality to pinhole images, one that is often sought after by even digital photographers who place a pinhole adapter to their high resolution digital cameras.

But, I digress. This discussion on sharpness has little to do with medium and more to do with the resulting images. A slight lack of sharpness, especially when photographing in film, can be a very pleasing, forgiving quality to portraiture.

Even when viewing these images on a large screen or as a large print, the lack of sharpness is inconsequential and may even be viewed as a pleasing quality. I like to remind myself that, most often these days, people generally view my images on a relatively small computer screen or, increasingly, on a smart phone.

Now, there are those of you who may say "sure that's fine for portraits but what about landscape, reportage or architecture?" Again, I'd like to point out that it depends on the image itself. Certainly, having crisp, large prints of landscapes may be very desirable but not always. There are times, I think, when the lack of sharpness actually enhances the mood and character of an image.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm pleased as punch when I edit and view one of my large format portraits and it is crisp and clean, with razor sharp eyes and softened skin. I have to remind myself that people rarely view these images even as large as the negative themselves (4X5) and that most people are more interested in the subject, mood and composition, which makes me more happy. After all, my desire when photographing a subject, especially portraiture, is conveying an emotional connection, using my light wisely, and composing the images in a positive way. The sharpness of my images is rarely a thought while making the photograph outside of the quick focus, which, when shooting large format, wouldn't be possible for me and my poor eyesight if not for a magnification loupe.

I guess what I'm really trying to convey here is simply this: forget the gear reviews, don't obsess about viewing your images at 100% in PS or Lightroom, and don't discard an image simply because it isn't sharp enough. Instead focus your attention on those other, more important qualities of your images.

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© 2016 Tony Holtkamp.