Image sharpness can get a bit “fuzzy”

We photographers have a love-hate relationship to the sharpness of a photograph. It’s not always a conclusion that sharper is always better. Truth be told, the whole subject is a lot more complicated than that.

When photography was in its earliest stages, it startled people for its clarity and sharpness compared to painting. There was no way a painter could produce the same level of detail as found in a contact print of an 8×10 negative, a common print size of the day. So the heritage of photography is tied to the idea of image sharpness, what scientists call a “metric” of photographic quality. That notion continues to this day.

As a result, photographers of all skill levels pay a lot of attention (too much so in some cases) to the quality of lenses and cameras and to the techniques needed to get the sharpest image. Lens manufacturers in particular pursue sharpness as their Holy Grail, and today’s optics are now close to the theoretical limits of light rays passing through optical glass.

There is a whole group of photography enthusiasts who get rather excited by the nuances of various lenses from various manufacturers. They get into heated discussions on various online forums about the merits of this lens or that, and it almost seems as if using lenses to take pictures is secondary. Working professionals, on the other hand, don’t have the time for, or interest in such debates, and will buy and use lenses that get the job done. Such was my attitude in the many years that I relied on taking pictures to make a living.

I intend no critique of amateurs who make lens comparisons a kind of hobby. It’s fun in its own way and I do it myself up to a point. However, I do question the point of it all when it comes to actually making photographs that people want to look at, or pay for.

For instance, I find it almost laughable that the same people who brag about owning their version of the “best of the best” cameras and lenses are taking photographs with a hand-held camera. Doing so will move the camera just enough at exposure to negate any advantage of that lens on an optical bench in a laboratory.

Another optical reality is that lenses reach their sharpest at three or four stops down from full aperture, a point called the diffraction limit, at which point stopping down further only softens the image slightly. At that limit, even simple lens designs of long ago will be quite sharp for practical shooting situations. The modern lens will only show its value because of its superior contrast, flare resistance, or sharpness when used at wide apertures.

I have a small collection of film cameras and using them all has convinced me of this: used carefully, with the lens stopped down a bit, I can’t tell the difference in the final print output up to about a 10X enlargement. The images off my 1950 Rollei Automat look just as sharp as the images off my Hasselblad with Zeiss glass. This is an actual picture-taking result, not a careful test on an optical bench.

Lenses today are generally excellent from a technical point of view. In fact, they are so good that I often find it necessary to “muddle them up” with a touch of diffusion because they can be too revealing of skin flaws, or product defects. There is great irony in seeing the crowds at trade shows gawking at gimmicky lenses designed to produce a blurred image on purpose, or cameras using pinholes or plastic lenses to produce a less-than-perfect image. Meanwhile the booths displaying those elite optics are, well, just so hum-hum.

I think it’s wonderful that we can now assume the general excellence of lens designs; image sharpness is now a given. Still, there is always the temptation to waste time on needless comparisons and debates when we should be out taking pictures.


The build quality of old cameras

I can’t be the only person, I know I’m not, who bemoans the “plasticization” of products today, cameras in particular. Perhaps because of my engineering background, I can tell the difference between a product built to a high standard, and one that is not, and the difference bothers me. It seems we have made a step backwards, in the name of cost savings, or profitability.


Here shown is a Kodak Retina IIIC film camera from the mid 1950’s. It was sold as the pinnacle of the amateur 35mm market and reflected the best of the German optical and precision tradition. The body is a solid chunk of metal and just holding the camera is a pleasure. The matte chrome finish just radiates quality, as does the leather case with its velvet lining and chrome trim accents. Not much plastic to be found anywhere.

Some time back I inherited a modern SLR, a film camera, and upon opening it up I discovered that the entire film channel was made of plastic. The hinges on the back were plastic, and parts that required precision were plastic; the whole camera was plastic except for the optical glass, and who knows, maybe that was plastic too. The irony of all this was that the camera featured exotic electronic exposure and focussing circuits, a tricked out viewfinder with all kinds of lights and whatnot, and was billed as a precision device for its time.

This has been going on for a long time. Even on a professional DSLR, it is not unusual to discover that the battery door is plastic, just waiting to snap off. Lens mounts are no longer machined out of brass, but are plastic too, and with that comes a focussing ring that sticks and lurches. Even expensive cameras lack a precise feel.

Contax G2

This Contax G2 has a body of titanium, thus the creamy matte tone. Fit and finish put to shame the most expensive DSLR; the camera radiates precision and instills confidence as a result. It was produced in Japan in the mid 1990’s and could not be sold today at anything approaching a reasonable price.

Contrast that to the film cameras in my collection. Once you leave the box camera category, the cameras for both amateur and professional use are mostly metal. The fit and finish of the parts is excellent, or at least designed with some regard for durability. These old film cameras do not feel like toys, which is the feeling you get from so much of the product sold today.

In saying this, I have the highest regard for parts of molded plastic along as they are used where they make sense. For example, I have a plastic slide holder for my scanner and it is a miracle of complexity that mounts slides in position. If this part had to be machined from metal the cost would have exceeded that of the scanner itself. It’s all a matter of the right material in the right place.

I have concluded that good product design comes out of the vision of its human designer. Steve Jobs proved this with the entire line of Apple products wherein no detail was left untouched and thought about. From a conventional view, such products, always more expensive, should be failures on the market. Apple’s success has proved otherwise. People will pay for something that looks right and feels right. If only our tools, the photographer’s tools, were all built to the same standard.

The better you are, the fewer pictures you take

When photography required an investment in film and processing, you were always aware of the costs, which acted as a break on shooting wildly in the hopes that “something” would come out. Now that digital photography is the norm, it is far too easy to shoot willy-nilly, bracketing all over the place, in the hope that something will look OK, or perhaps memorable.

This point was made crystal clear to me when I attended a local group that went out on photo expeditions to do landscapes with their digital cameras. One person, the leader of the group, set up her camera on a five-exposure burst for every picture she took, and she took a lot of pictures. I calculated that in the space of a few minutes, she had sent over hundreds of pictures to her memory card. How many of them were suitable for hanging on a wall was another matter.

CanonP-snowI took just two views of this winter scene on my deck, and the image is presented uncropped. It has a quiet feeling, and is a natural subject for black-and-white film. I used a vintage Canon P rangefinder on 35mm Kodak Tmax 100 film.

I think it must be a natural tendency to blast away, especially in the digital age. It’s the old story of trying to make up in quantity what you lack in quality. But as your personal vision becomes attuned, as years of experience tell you what works and doesn’t work photographically, the number of pictures you need to take goes down, often by a lot. I have gotten to the point that I know in advance of clicking the shutter whether a picture has a chance at greatness. The editing process takes place before I snap the shutter, not later at a computer monitor filled with hundreds of pictures. In short, years of film photography have trained my eyes to see photographs ahead of time.

I wonder if the ability to pre-visualize has been lost in this age of instant viewing on the camera screen. The instant preview cuts out the thought process that goes into making a photograph. Instead of thinking about the end result, you can just keep changing something at random and hope that something wonderful pops out after dozens of exposures. Regrettably, I am seeing this pattern in photographers who call themselves professionals.

Backlighting as metaphor

leavesOn a late Fall day, backlit light from the sun poured through a few of the leaves, while others fell into shade. The resulting brilliance and saturation of color contrasted against the dreary background, giving this photograph its visual interest. Taken on Kodak Ektar 120 film with my vintage Wardflex twin lens reflex camera.

Backlighting, or light coming into the camera from behind an object, is usually done badly. When I taught photography at a trade school, the students thought it was the coolest thing to turn off the lights in front of a portrait subject and blast out light from behind. The result was dark and muddy faces and an explosion of light around the face. This was taken as an “edgy” break from the rules, which was the students’ goal in the first place. Only as the year wore on did the students realize that backlighting, per se, was not a shortcut to a beautiful (or edgy) image.

Why mention this? Because the story demonstrates how lighting is what allows a photograph to have the same impact as seeing something with our own eyes in real time. Lighting corrects for the difference between a photograph and actual perception. Or put another way, for the difference between photons falling on a sensor, in two dimensions, and photons falling on two eyes and then processed by a human brain.

Photographers learn this over decades of practice and hard-earned experience. It is part science and part art and part learning to see; the latter what Kodak called “visual literacy”. It is these three components of a good photograph that take so long to master, and for which there are no shortcuts, no list of ten tips, no tricky lens or camera that can help you. I’ll have more to say about all of this in future postings.

When blur conveys speed

bike race

The photographers at this bicycle race cranked up shutter speeds in an attempt to freeze movement. I decided to go in the other direction, slowing down my shutter to 1/15 second and panning with the riders. I used a 300mm telephoto lens on a Contax 645, which threw the background completely out of focus and blurred it to a complete abstraction. The end result is an image without background distractions, and a strong sense of speed. It now appears on the International site of the camera’s digital back manufacturer.

The Mystery of early-morning fog

Every once in a while, a powerful fog rolls over the golf course near my house, usually in the early morning hours. On one such occasion, I decided to capture its effects, using my ancient view camera and sheet film. I got two rather special photographs which now adorn the walls of my house.

In this age of “gun and run” digital shooting, there is something to be said for the whole experience of using a film camera, mounted on a tripod, and staring into the upside-down image on a 4 by 5 inch ground glass. Everything about taking a picture slows down, which has its creative advantages in my humble opinion.
golf course fog1Technical details: Zone VI view camera, 150mm lens, Kodak Ektar 100 color negative film. I metered the light with a spot meter, and exposed the film for 1/8 second at f/16.

This second photograph looks down the fairway. The thick fog produces an effect that really cannot be duplicated with lens filters, or later in Photoshop. The level of detail decreases with distance, as does the contrast. This image has an almost monochrome look to it, and a certain moodiness. Both pictures contain a huge amount of fine detail, the result of shooting on a large piece of film, and would reproduce clearly in murals of almost any size.

golf course fog2

Soft focus filters, demystified

loomI used a #3 diffusion filter on this still life of a loom. To give the feeling of late afternoon sunlight, I lit the scene with a low-angle Fresnel spotlight with a strong amber gel and then blew in some smoke from the right. This is another shot using a view camera and Ektar 100 sheet film. Note the glow surrounding the brightest parts of the image.

Diffusion, fog and soft focus filters: How do they differ?

Today’s cameras, lenses and sensors have gotten so good that images can now appear too sharp, almost too perfect. As a result, photographers have sought out ways to achieve softer, more evocative images.

This being the age of digital photography, there has been a shift to software solutions for softening effects, and there is no end of third-party programs and Photoshop techniques to break down an overly-sharp image. Nonetheless, there is an argument to be made for shooting digitally with lens filters from the get-go, because let’s face it, who wants to spend more time in front of a computer screen if you can get the same result, or an even better result, from a filter placed over the camera lens. Continue reading “Soft focus filters, demystified”