Top 5 Reasons Sharp Photos Are Overrated

Impressionist photograph of a coastal beach resort.

5. Everybody does it.
And sameness is boring. The goal of most photographers is to produce as sharp of photograph as possible. Somewhere along the way this has become the mark of achievement within photography and what people think of when they think of what a photograph looks like. They want a mirror image of what they think they see with their own two eyes. But really our eyes don’t see the world as perfectly sharp from foreground to background. What we are focused on at the time may be sharp but the peripheral scene is blurry. The advantage of the human eye is that it can change focus quicker than an instant making us think everything is perfectly in focus all the time.

4. The subject becomes the focus.
With a sharp portrait, be it a person, animal, or object, the subject becomes the sole focus of the image. With an unsharp photo the image becomes more about a concept or emotion. With a sharp landscape photo there may not be a defined focal point and you need to evaluate the whole scene. With an unsharp landscape the image becomes more about color, light and lines. It isn’t so literal.

If the photo above had been in focus your eye would have been drawn to the people walking on the beach, and that’s what the image would have been about. Instead it becomes a painterly impressionist image that could be many different things to different people. It requires the viewers interpretation.

3. It’s all a ploy to make you spend more money.
The camera manufacturers would have you believe that you need to purchase lenses costing thousands of dollars in order to produce the sharpest images possible, and to be considered a professional. There’s all kinds of magazines and websites out there dedicated to technical specifications of what a lens can and can not do and how sharp it is, etc. etc. It’s all just hype designed to make photographers think they need to spend a lot of money. You can use the cheapest lenses you want to make unsharp photographs.

2. How do I interact with the photo?
With a sharp photo the image is what it is. It’s there in front of us and requires no interpretation. The unsharp image is able to create a story which the viewer will have to stop and think about. It requires their imagination to interpret the story or mood contained in the image. An imperfect photograph, much like the imperfections found in nature, is more challenging and interesting.

1. Sharpness is a bourgeois concept. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
If a person notices your image because of the sharpness and clarity it means they aren’t focusing on the mood or story of the image. I guess if you want to be in the business of teaching other photographers sharpness is a nice goal to strive for, but for the photographer who wants to be an artist you want people to talk about how an image makes them feel……what the image means to them, not the technical quality of it.

And before you run off at the fingers, I should probably warn you this post is a bit tongue in cheek. Although many of the ideas expressed do relate to my work personally, I know sharpness has it’s place in photography. I’ve even been known to use it occasionally myself! And I do own some of those lenses with the little red rings around them (but they were purchased for reasons other than their sharpness reputation). There are many photographers who produced wonderfully sharp and detailed images which are anything but boring that I admire greatly.

20 thoughts on “Top 5 Reasons Sharp Photos Are Overrated

  1. Had a debate with one of my tutors (at least 25-years younger than me) over the sharpness of one of my images last semester. I’m with you, sharpness can be overrate!

    1. I may be wrong but I think the whole sharpness issue lies with photographers of a certain experience level. I think there comes a point where a photographer can move past it and see the possibilities for expression using different techniques. It may not mean they embrace it fully and use blur or any other techniques in their work, but that they become more understanding and accepting of those methods in others work.

  2. Love that you’ve put so many of my exact thoughts into words. And – if I may add one more – sharp photos are just not as interesting as those that leave something to the imagination! Thank-you for this!

  3. It’s always encouraging and inspiring to read something like this. I use a number of techniques to achieve similar results, however they may be classified, and am often disheartened by the reaction from other photographers. Viewers are always very positive, but peers can be very rigid in their assessments. “If you want to paint, why don’t you just paint?” So it’s always great to learn about other people engaged in similar work. Your images are beautiful. Keep up the great work!

    1. Oh yeah……the attack of the fellow photographer. I get that too. But I’m not taking photographs to satisfy the fellow photographer. I’m taking photographs to #1) express myself, #2) tell a story, #3) touch other people. Don’t get trapped by the camera club mentality.

      BTW, I visited your site and was going to leave a comment but it’s not very comment friendly with having to log-in and/or authorize apps.

  4. Experience level ? I am wondering how you interpret the fact that the immense majority of the work shown in museums and art galleries consist of sharp images ?

    1. Are you asking my experience level? If so read my bio and cv.

      Do you know the history of how photography got accepted into the art world and galleries in the first place? There is a long and colorful history that answers your question about the type of photography most often seen in galleries today. I will save that conversation for a future blog post.

  5. “It is a too common occurrence with photographers to overlook the inadaptability of a scene to artistic treatment, merely because they think it lends itself to the facility, which their art possesses, of rendering, with wondrous truth, minutiae and unimportant details. To many this rendering of detail, and the obtaining of sharp pictures, is all that is considered necessary to constitute perfection; and the reason for this is, that they have no knowledge of, and therefore can take no interest in, the representation of nature as she presents herself to the eye of a well-trained painter, or of one who has studied her with reverence and love.” –Henry Peach Robinson

  6. This was a reference to your comment “I think the whole sharpness issue lies with photographers of a certain experience level.”. I thought it was interesting what the general choice of “experienced” curators and gallerists seem to be and what this might say about the nature of the medium. I’ll be very interested in reading your follow-up.

    I am not asking you about your personal experience level, as I am interested in discussing ideas, not people. But since you asked, I own several hundreds books of photography of all genres, I always make a point to read all the essays within, so I do have an above average knowledge of the history of the medium.

    1. I think you’ve misunderstood my comment. I didn’t mean that experienced photographers will embrace blur, motion, and other forms of unsharp images, but that they have a better understanding of the techniques. And it is my experience they are more open minded about other styles of photography in general. I also prefer to discuss ideas rather than getting personal, and I am not questioning your experience or career level. My question posed to you was not meant to be accusatory, and I apologize if that’s how it came across.

      I don’t ask anyone to agree with what I’ve written or that every photographer should adopt my theories. Far from it…..if everyone started doing what I’m doing it would just be another fad in a long line of photographic fads.

      Thanks for the good debate!

  7. Love this post Roberta. I might add that it can take the same amount of thought and skill to make a great “blurry” photograph (like the one you use in this post) and it does a sharp one. To me, a good photograph is a good photograph. There are no preconceptions that it needs to be sharp, colorful, etc, etc. Those are all secondary for me.

    1. Thanks Mark. Yes, I agree that details of whether it’s sharp, blurry, colorful, etc are all secondary to the impact or impression the image makes with me.

  8. Your writing and your photography are inspirational. I have begun to explore more possibilities with my own photography and processing and thrive on the work of people such as yourself. Thank you for sharing your work. I plan to spend some time here, soaking up more inspiration.

  9. This may be tongue in cheek but much of it is true. I’ve been admiring your work for a few months and thought I’d leave a comment. Really nice work!!!

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