Lens Sharpness

Yoshinkan Aikido sacrifice throw, taken on Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom with slow sync flash edited using Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals

Currently in photography there are several sacred cows and you’d think that from the amount of chatter these subjects generated that they were the be all and end all of photography. Thankfully for the actual art form of photography they are mostly irrelevant. These sacred cows are:

  • megapixels
  • dynamic range
  • sensor size
  • lens sharpness

My feeling is that these topics are so hotly debated is because now in this digital age it is easy to quantify these values numerically and the bigger the number the better. There is no doubt about it a great big  spreadsheet of impressive looking numbers must be right after all. This is why the website http://www.dxomark.com has become a sacred text among the denizens of the internet fora and its proclamations and pronouncements can lift a camera or lens to photographic nirvana or condemn it to the lowest reaches of hell. Well having ruffled a few feathers with the piece on sensor size and depth of field this weeks entry is going to cause the DXO fundamentalists to really froth at the mouth in holy indignation.

Ura Tai Otoshi, a Yoshinkan Aikido technique. Shot using an Olympus C-720 Ultra using slow sync flash. Edited using Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals

Lens sharpness  is something to be coveted. After all Leica, Zeiss, Schneider, Rodenstock, Canon and Nikon have made an art form of it. Those who worship at the high altar of lens sharpness are prepared to spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation on the lenses that have the highest DXO score. The Carl Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 Nikon has a DXO score of 45 while the lowly Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II only has a rating of 25.  So the Otus is nearly twice as good as the plastic fantastic Canon. Phwoaaaaarrrrr forum domination and photographic greatness here I come,  I’ll go out and buy one straight away. The Australian list price for the Zeiss is $4474 while the Canon is $135, so the Zeiss must be 33 times better. Er no. To quote DXO “The DxOMark Score shows the performance of a lens, mounted on a given camera body, for its optimal focal length/aperture combination and for defined exposure conditions.” So the lens has been mounted to a camera on an optical bench shooting a 2D lens chart at an aperture that is guaranteed to give the best results in carefully controlled lighting. So in other words it does not reflect real world usage unless your photographic interests lie in shooting charts or brick walls with a camera on a heavy tripod so you can orgasm over how sharp the image is at the edges. Shoot a complex 3D object in rapidly changing light conditions at sub optimal aperture settings and these ratings really don’t mean anything.

A sacrifice throw from Yoshinkan Aikido. Taken using an Olympus OM 4 with a Zuiko 35-105 lens on Fujichrome 400 pushed to 800 ISO. Scanned using an Olympus ES-10 scanner and edited using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals.

There is no doubt that lenses have become a lot sharper over recent years, but I find it amusing to see that they have become so sharp that they are now unflattering for portraiture as they show every blemish and pore. So much so that photographers are now spending time and money on lessening the sharpness (blurring if you will) on portraits. Don’t you think that is ironic? I’ll spend a fortune on a very sharp lens that is so clinically sharp that no-one likes the results so I’ll spend some more money on a Photoshop plugin to blur it.

 “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

A famous quote and often mis-quoted as nobody can really tell you the context in which Cartier-Bresson said it.  If we forget the Marxist definition of bourgeois and just concentrate on the dictionary definition we get:

 “belonging to or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes: a rich, bored, bourgeois family | these views will shock the bourgeois critics.”

I would hazard a guess that dear old Henri was string a bit when he said it and meant something along the lines that sharpness in a photograph is a very conventional and staid way of judging it and doesn’t look at its other qualities. How can I be sure, well I can’t but he also said:

 “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera, they are made with the eye, heart & head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

 So I think it is more than likely to assume that Cartier-Bresson felt that there is a lot more to photography than technical perfection.

The Japanese art of sword drawing. Taken with an Olympus OM 4 with a Tamron 28 mm lens, using Ifford Delta 3200. Scanned using an Olypus ES-10 scanner and edited using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 and Genuine Fractuals.

So by now you’ll have read this and seen some photos I made years ago of some people practicing Aikido and Iado, both Japanese martial arts. You’ll also have noticed that there is a lot of blurred movement and very little sharpness. The reason why is that I wanted to capture the beauty of the flowing energy that is involved in them and I felt that while static shots might capture the technical aspects of the techniques being demonstrated they don’t capture the nature of the philosophy behind them nor the dynamism. I like to feel that these are photos “made with the eye, heart & head” rather than the clinical gaze of the optically perfect lens. This is for me where the beauty of any art lies, not in technique but in the expression of ideas and emotions. None of the equipment used in the making of those photographs warrants a mention on DXOMark so I guess that gives them a score of zero. The equipment HCB used also isn’t on the DXO charts, and guess what quite a few of his pictures are blurred because he often relied on zone focusing and didn’t get it right, but I’d sooner have one of his pictures on my wall than a lens test chart any day.

Behind the Gare St. Lazare. By Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris 1932. © 2014 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris

If you are not familiar with work of Cartier-Bresson try this:

If those video clips have whetted your appetite then might I recommend Henri Cartier-Bresson  – the man, the image & the world. A retrospective. Published by Thames & Hudson.