The Sharpness Myth

"The story is always king."  That one sentence changed so many things in my perspective on photography.  It was a quick statement in a video by Casey Neistat regarding the need for high-end equipment, but it hit me like a truck.  Why?  Because the message extends FAR beyond the quality of camera you're shooting, it extends to almost every element of photography and video.  So today I'm going to talk about how sharpness really doesn't matter as much as you probably think.

A triathlete swimming during a triathlon held in lac Leamy in Gatineau, Quebec.  An example of one of our "Peak of Action" test requirements.

A triathlete swimming during a triathlon held in lac Leamy in Gatineau, Quebec.  An example of one of our "Peak of Action" test requirements.

When the Canadian Forces trains an Imagery Technician (photographer) we receive around two years' worth of photographic and video classroom education, formalized testing, and on the job training.  The training is pretty good, and if you really apply yourself, you can come out with a great foundation.  But one thing always got me: the whole system was entirely too consumed with how sharp photos were.

We had to submit photos regularly to a section that graded our imagery by a series of qualifiers, things like exposure, composition, effective control of depth of field, etc., all of which were assessed within a reasonable range, but one thing was simply pass or fail: sharpness.  You could be granted some amnesty for missing the rule of thirds by a hint, or for using a higher ISO than you probably needed, but if your subject wasn't, "tack sharp" from front to back the photo would unequivocally fail.

I don't even know where to begin on how backwards that logic can be.  Sure, I understand and respect that there is an absolute need for sharpness in some contexts, technical engineering shots, crime scene photography, a number of valid examples come to mind.  I also recognize that standards need to be set, and that with rare artistic exception sharpness is absolutely the goal.  But is it a critical factor?  Nope.

A soldier from 3 PPCLI taking a smoke after an all-night offensive against a fortified location.  Is it sharp?  Not a chance.

Story will trump sharpness in a great many situations.  Take this photo of a soldier smoking after an attack.  I don't need to give a backstory for people to get what I intended when I got into position and snapped this shot.   The lighting is great, the colours really bring out the human element and showcase the grit of the subject, and the nondescript background allows the viewer to superimpose the character into any environment their imagination can muster up.  In setting this shot up this way I give the story to the viewer; I call upon them to fill in the blanks and create a story that speaks to them. 

Feel free to click on the photo to make it full screen, because that photo is not sharp. More importantly, that photo doesn't NEED to be sharp.  It's sharp enough to tell the story, and that's absolutely enough.

Sure, you could argue that technically parts of the photo are sharp, but all the wrong ones.  The subject's face is soft and his vest is actually sharper than his eyes, but that doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter because if I had put that photo into any other blog post nobody would likely have noticed.  You can say that it does, that someone with a keen eye would have assessed it and pulled it apart for that, and yes they might, but would that change anything?  The photo is a story of a man, more importantly the humanity of the man, worn and flawed, perhaps the shortcomings in focus are simply an element that add to the humanity of the shot.

Don't believe me? Then ask Joe McNally, who wrote about it in his book The Life Guide to Digital Photography:

The successful shots might be a touch out of focus and might not conform to the classic rules of composition.

He has a lot of great things to say, particularly in that "Shoot it Loose!" section, a section that really applies to those of us who shoot photojournalistically (I may be making that word up...)  or any 'from the hip' styles of shooting.

My point is simply that there's room for shots that aren't sharp.  Don't discount and discard shots just because they didn't meet some arbitrary sharpness qualifier and you think that the story is lost.  Give them a fair chance.  If you don't know how to get sharp shots, read this blog post.  However, if you're stuck with a soft photo, try resolving the issue with something like an unsharp mask or any of the hundred other techniques to mask soft focus.  Or better yet, use the photo to prove that soft photos have value.  Check out this photo I took of a LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle) traveling down a dirt road:


A Canadian Forces LAV rolling down a dirt road en route to secure a landing zone for parachute insertion.


Is it sharp?  Nope.  Zoomed in the vehicle is soft.  I used an unsharp mask and selective luminance layer sharpening techniques to get it just sharp enough for the sizes you're likely to view or print it at.  Despite the fact that it's not sharp it, still managed to tie for Honourable Mention (fourth place) in the Canadian Forces photo contest last fall.  See?  There is a value in photos that aren't sharp.  Keep that in mind when you're deciding what does and doesn't make the cut, and feel free to share this book as evidence to any sharpness snobs who turn their noses up at the idea.