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.

Time For A Change

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome by Loudon Dodd

 

I am holed up in the command centre of the vast global entity that is Paul Amyes Photography taking shelter from the heat of the Aussie sun and pondering what 2014 will bring while my minions work hard to bring about my plans for global domination.  Actually the end of the year and the beginning of the next are very good for such musings, so good that the Romans actually had a god of transitions, beginnings and endings, he was called Janus and January was named after him. He is depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and the other looking to the future. This has led to the whole idea of making New Year’s resolutions whereby a person makes a promise to make an act of self-improvement commencing on the start of the New Year.

 “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

Mark Twain

 

Photography is a very broad church and people do it for all sorts of reasons and one of the attractions is that equipment has a fetishistic appeal. There is something about cameras and lenses that makes us lust after them, day-dream incessantly, continuously peruse websites looking to put together the ultimate camera system. The term fetish means “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit” and camera equipment is certainly worshipped, which implies a religion, which explains the virulent brand wars that flare up on online forums such as dpreview.com. It is probably just as well that this is online for if the protagonists were ever to meet in actual life ethnic cleansing based upon camera brand would surely be the result. Then look at the magical powers that are imbued by certain lenses. Oh if only you had a Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95, a Canon 85mm f1.2 L or a Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G IF ED VR then you could truly ascend to the astounding heights of photographic greatness as you’d never ever take a bad picture again.*

 “Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

Oscar Wilde

 

Three bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, flash meter, filters, cables, flash triggers, and reflectors. It is a hernia inducing load.

From reading the forums it seems that a lot of people spend the equivalent of a small third world nations GDP in trying to get the ultimate image quality only never to see those images ever displayed larger than a low res web image or to never to take the equipment out because it is too heavy and cumbersome. I often wonder at how many millions of dollars worth of photographic equipment lies in the back of cupboards unused.** Before the mob assembles and proclaims me a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, smug, pietistic, moralizing, unctuous, mealy-mouthed, hypocritical prig and lynches me I would like to say that I am guilty of all the above (except for the bit of fantasying about a Nikkor – ugh!). Now at the grand old age of 50 and after nearly 30 of them practicing photography in one form or other I now realise that no one piece of equipment that I’ve bought has made me a better photographer.***

 

“The old year has gone. Let the dead past bury its own dead. The New Year has taken possession of the clock of time. All hail the duties and possibilities of the coming twelve months!”

E. P. Powell

 Getting back to our two faced friend Janus and looking back over 2013 I can see that going out and taking photos, working on projects and showing them has made me feel photographically satisfied. So if like me you’re sitting at home wondering what 2014 will bring might I suggest a modest proposal? Instead of buying gear and hanging out on gear forums use your photography budget to travel somewhere photographically interesting, or hire some models, or devise a project and do an exhibition or publish a book. Set goals that are realistic, I’ve been wishing National Geographic and Magnum will come knocking for years now to no avail, and write them down. Then break down those those goals into their key components and then work out a time frame in which you can complete them. Looking forward to 2014 I have an idea of where I want to go and a rough idea of how to get there. It gives me something to look forward to, something to work towards and will give me a sense of accomplishment when I achieve it.

 

“Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

Proverbs 29:18

Yours truly working happily on Frenchman Peak.

 

* I bought a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L several years ago and I’m still taking rubbish. Can I get my money back?

** There’s no way I’m admitting to what lies in the darkest recesses of my cupboards, nor its financial cost. My wife sometimes reads this blog and there’s no way I will incriminate myself.

*** Actually one item did make me a better photographer, it was a tripod.