White teaching a recent workshop I joked that street photography was the only genre where people would buy £3k worth of cameras and lenses and then deliberately use them to make out of focus, grainy, imperfect images. This led to a pretty interesting discussion about the merits to imperfection, and I think some of those points are worth sharing here, as it really helped contextualise some of the students ideas about their work, and allowed them to shoot a little more freely, chasing down perfection in moments rather than technicalities.

I don’t think I could name a historical image that could be described to be as perfectly sharp as what’s possible to create today with even an entry-level camera and lens combination. Part of this is to do with photographic film being an inherently soft medium. Despite likely attracting vitriol from fervent film lovers I would have to argue that even the sharpest modern films; ILFORD Delta, Kodak T-Max, Fujifilm ACROS, will never out-resolve even an older digital sensor — I say this as a passionate film shooter and advocate.

Almost any iconic moment in history rendered on photographic film is softer than the average iPhone snapshot. Tiananmen Square, the V-J Day Kiss, Migrant Mother, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima — none of these would have “sharp” be the first word I associate with their characteristics. Ideas like haunting, dramatic, energetic would be closer to the mark on that one. 

In the greats of street photography, I think the photographer whose work exudes anything close to sharpness would be Fan Ho, and even that’s because he used a lot of high contrast elements and straight lines. Other artists like Moriyama, Guilden, and Winnogrand leaned more heavily into the intrinsic moment based pursuit of the genre, and the energy in their frames is undeniable.

We see something similar in classic movies. Hitchcock, Kubrick, Leone; none of them had access to lenses as sharp as we use today, and yet their films are not remembered for their technical sharpness, but for pretty much everything else. I think sharpness in cinema is sort of a different language, as we interpret things differently when movement is involved, but it still supports my argument. 

The cliche which summarises this point quite succinctly is that it is the idea which must be sharp – the moment must be understandable, communicated well, even if that means pixel peeping reveals a mess. The image as a whole must have clarity of concept. What the viewer will come away with from such an image is a feeling and memory of the gist of the moment, the essence. Not the grain, or the micro-contrast, or the pixels.

Above, candid portrait of a blind man. Fomapan 400 Action, rated at 200. Shot with a 210mm f/4 lens, in low-light. The shutter speed was around 1/15th second. Again, nothing is in focus, and there is noticeable motion blur. But I think it still works really well – perhaps better if it was perfectly sharp and perfectly exposed.

When I present an image I’m not presenting sharpness, or anything else. You don’t see a histogram, or EXIF data. You don’t see anything other than what I’ve chosen to present visually. In my opinion nothing else matters. It’s an image. If it’s sharp, if it’s soft, if it’s out of focus, accept it, and just look at the bigger picture – literally.

I don’t think that sharpness should be even one of the first ten things people think about when judging an image — especially in street/documentary. However, this does become different if there are client expectations. It’s all very well to pay Wing Shya for out of focus ambient images, but I wouldn’t go to him for corporate headshots. I think in portrait and fashion work there is a higher standard, and a photographer should always check with their employer to see what’s expected of them.

Then again, there have been some equally fantastic studio images which utilise motion blur, or out of focus elements to convey a mood. The intention or design to the process is significant here, as with any art. It comes down to the decision of the photographer. 

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When I present an image I am owning those decisions. I have weighed the merit of each of the perfect and imperfect aspects as they appear to my eye. If I then deleted every image someone commented “this is out of focus” on I wouldn’t have much of a portfolio left. With that same mindset when I see a “soft” image by another artist I normally assume that this was a decision, or permissible by their standards, and instead look to see whether it has worked, whether their image still communicates effectively.

It’s not something I would presume to advise about in terms of correction — unless I was specifically being asked for feedback, at which point we would have a discussion about the effectiveness of using these qualities as part of a larger technique rather than suppressing it entirely unless that is their intention.

Some artists I know deliberately take steps to make their images softer, to take the edge off that digital severity. This can be done technically through raising ISO, lowering shutter speeds, or deliberately missing focus very slightly. Other options could be to use something like a Pro Mist Filter, or even just vaseline on a UV filter, which can lead to lovely dreamy looks.

I doubt the contention of this article is really going to be news to anyone who’s been shooting for any serious amount of time. One of the key guiding forces for me when I started shooting on film was websites like this one, and I’m not very happy to be able to participate in the discussion around the medium through my own writing.

If I’m able to use my experiences to put newcomers more at ease with making images that have wonderful energy and emotion, bringing the attention away from the technical elements which usually serve to make people feel inadequate about their gear more than anything, then I’ll feel that this article has served its purpose. 

When it comes to my own photography I don’t believe in sharp, only sharp enough. This mentality has allowed me to experiment more freely with techniques like panning, or the atmospheric use of out of focus subjects. It means I feel more at peace when curating, as I’m not applying arbitrary technical decisions after the fact in my cull. I’m looking for everything that worked, not anything that didn’t.

This also means I’m much happier using lenses that many would overlook for being too soft. The sharpest lenses I use are Leica, Zeiss, and Nikon, but on film they are much of a muchness in terms of sharpness — the film will make more of a difference than the lens. The softest lens I own is the 7artisans 50mm f/1.1, and even the softest image from this will be on parity with the sharpest Leica if rendered on something like Fomapan 400. 

Sharpness isn’t something I allow my students to discuss during the critical review segment of my workshops. It isn’t something I really notice unless I’m looking for it specifically. If I’m looking at a picture then I’m looking at it first as a whole, then at the finer details, and then after this, I might think about how things were achieved technically — how the depth of field contributes, or how a film format may have been used effectively. Not dismissing things from the of just because a nose or ear is in critical focus rather than an eye. It simply doesn’t matter to me. I don’t think that any image that ever mattered because of its sharpness.

Thanks for taking the time to read this! If you want to see more of my work please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

~ Simon

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About the author

Simon King

Simon is a London based photographer and photojournalist. He is currently working on long term personal projects, and has been shooting on 35mm film since late 2016. You can follow his work on Instagram, or read his personal blog, both linked below.

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  1. While I accept your position, in general, it is your opinion. As the photographer, you should be able to show the work that you like, without feeling forced to do the same thing everyone else is doing. However, both sides of this viewpoint would have more than enough previous work by highly credible photographers to support their position. So to each their own.

    I would only question one point. Most street/documentary work unfolds so quickly before us, so how do you have time to make so many snap decisions? I would be interested to hear you develop this statement more fully from your article.

    “When I present an image I am owning those decisions. I have weighed the merit of each of the perfect and imperfect aspects as they appear to my eye.”

    Not from am antagonistic pov, but rather, to learn your thought process in making such snap decisions in the heat of the moment.

  2. This was great, thanks! The point about fashion photography being an exception reminded me of a documentary / interview on William Klein that I just watched (it’s great btw and avail on Youtube). In his “day job” shooting for Vogue he pushed a lot of boundaries, with plenty of grain and grit and blur when it felt right.

  3. While I mainly agree with everything you said, I think that you’re wrong about one detail: by today’s standards, is technically impossible for digital to outperform film, even less other analogue processes. Microfilms like adox cms 20 have an acutance and a resolution that are impossible to reach with digital sensors of the same size. Large format or ultralarge format slides or color exposures can laugh all day long about resolution comparing with digital. And if you truly want resolution, a daguerreotype is, by far, the champion here.

  4. Wonderful article. Thanks for posting. Although I agree with you that sharpness is not always critical, I do believe that subject being in focus absolutely is, especially when it is a human being. Thank you.

  5. While I don’t disagree with the premise of Simon’s article, I do believe it lacks any historical perspective. Besson’s photos adequately reflect the technological aspects of the period, which are totally inferior, compared to today’s standards. Those who strived for sharpness used larger format cameras, lenses, and film. That group called themselves f64. Even then, results can be easily bested today. My point is that different styles, or subjects, benefit from sharpness to a greater, or lesser extent. Street photography benefits less than landscape, for example. Prints need higher resolution than an image meant for electronic display. And we have not even spoken of zone focus, depth of field, or computer manipulation of multiple images, as in focus stacking! I believe the level of sharpness needed matches the previsualization of what the photographer is trying to achieve, no more, or less. If you disagree, this is why they make Fords and Chevies. We don’t all have to have the same tastes, or priorities.

  6. Hi Simon,
    Loved the posting. A good read on a hot & humid New England Day.

    I’ve always liked Aleksandr Rodchenko’s “Girl with a Leica.” Mind you, I always saw it reproduced in books or magazines. One day, I was in MoMA and it was on display. Yes! An original print! I was taken aback by the quality. Not out of focus, but ‘fuzzy’ sharp. The print was dull and flat. Imagine my surprise upon seeing the original.

    A few years later I was with a friend and we saw a large exhibit of H C-B’s work (I think it was at the MET.) The exhibit spanned many years of his work. Again, the prints displayed weren’t tack sharp. If a student brought in a print looking like some on display, you’d point out focus problems, printing problems, etc.

    The surviving images of D-Day by Robert Capa are a technical failure. However, he captured the feeling, the emotion, the confusion and the horrific toll of war in those few frames.

    The strength of all these images lie in the power of the composition or the historical significance, not the technical rendering.

    Stay safe & healthy.

  7. As a case in point and one I’m sure we all know. Capa’s photographs from the D Day landings may or may not have been sharp, we’ll never know because the negatives were melted in the darkroom and yet the pictures will still knock you off your chair.
    It’s an aside but his memoir was titled ‘Slightly out of focus’.
    Good article. Thank you.

  8. Well said! And in fairness to HCB, it is he who said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”.

  9. As you say Simon if ultimate sharpness is your main aim when taking pictures film is probably not the best medium ,it would have to be digital in that .I use both film and digital cameras and from my own limited experience if i wanted ultimate sharpness it almost certainly use one of my digital cameras even thought they’re not top end models.

  10. As you say it’s not about ultimate sharpness it ‘s about visual impact and whether the picture has meaning. That’s what defines a truly good/great picture for me.

  11. I’ll let McLuhan from Annie Hall, speak for Bresson:
    “You know nothing of my work.
    You mean my whole fallacy is wrong.
    How you ever got to teach a course in anything is
    totally amazing.”

    How you ever arrived to the idea that film lacks behind in resolution, can only be because you think scans are the ground truth.
    And most likely scans from a mediocre to bad consumer scanner.
    Anticipating a straw man, like you attempt above, is not a way to negate criticism or counters. Especially not to such an ill informed idea.

    Take TMax or Ektar, use a top notch lens, the camera on a tripod and then scan with a really good scanner, like a macro setup.
    You’ll be able to get meaningful detail out up to about 80MP.
    Specialty films double that.

    1. If your takeaway from this article is an idea that film inherently cannot be sharp, then it is you who have misunderstood my intent. My argument is more along the lines that sharpness is irrelevant; more a critique on photographers attitudes towards it than towards film as a medium.

  12. You’re right, of course. Street photography is a singular genre. And too there is an argument to be made for keeping movies at a frame rate of 24/s. It’s what we’ve come to expect and it’s part of the expression. The argument about what is artifact and what is artifice always resides in this area.

    Photographers always want to talk about gear and how to use it. Musicians are much the same, at least I’ve noted it in guitarists 😉 Yet photography is unique in that the result is static and can be studied, thus it is studied and sharpness becomes an issue. It’s undeniable that choosing what part of the image is sharply focused is part of the language of photography. It’s inextricable. It’s just a good idea not to fall down the rabbit hole of grain, you’ll loose the ability to speak with it!