The Truth About Sharpness

Close Focus - Jim Harmer

I remember the first time I saw a DVD.  I had heard people talking about how clear the picture looked on a DVD when compared to a VHS tape.  I remember sitting there during the movie thinking to myself that I couldn’t tell a difference in picture quality from a VHS and a DVD.  Years went by and DVD became the standard, so I eventually bought a DVD player for the compatibility.   Here’s the interesting part, and here’s the part that has to do with photography.  Six months after buying a DVD player, I put on a VHS movie one night and was horrified at the prehistoric video quality.

Strange, isn’t it?  I couldn’t even tell the difference between DVD and VHS picture quality on first blush.  VHS looked great because that was all I knew and DVD wasn’t really all that different.  The same is true with sharpness in photography.  I frequently receive questions from beginning photographers asking how to get sharper images.  Usually, they mean how to avoid blurry images.

Beginning photographers are always told that the more expensive lenses are sharper, but quite honestly, most beginning photographers think their images already ARE sharp most of the time.  That’s how I felt when I got my start in photography.  I would look at my images, inspect them closely, and assume that the image couldn’t be any sharper.  I couldn’t detect any problems.

Time went on and I eventually purchased high-quality professional lenses for my DSLR.  At first glance, the pictures didn’t look much sharper than my old lenses that cost one-tenth the cost.  However, with passage of time, photographers become used to a certain sharpness quality that is simply not possible on entry-level lenses.  Recently, I looked through my “Best shots” folder on my computer.  I removed 95% of the photos that I took before acquiring professional lenses.  Now it’s like going back to a VHS when I look at the images I took with my entry-level lenses and I just can’t stand the lack of sharpness.  Some of the compositions, lighting, and camera technique are perfect, but once you get a taste of what truly sharp looks like it will be difficult to go back.

All right.  If you’ve had the same experience, or you’ve wondered why professional photographers are so psychotic about sharpness, admit it in a comment below.  We can all heal together :-)

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. gary says

    I have seen images taken with expensive cameras and lenses and I can see there is a difference in quality that I know my equipment can never achieve but I know if I upgraded one lens then all my others would feel inferior and I would also have to find the money to upgrade them too.

    So for now I am happy with VHS as long as it is all I know!

  2. says

    I have 3 that I would consider fast glass” but that said learning to get the settings right are just as important. if ispend a lot of time messing up photos tryingt edit them to be as sharp as i want. My eye what my pocket book can’t have but I’m learning to cope with it now. I am all comsumed into a hoby I love and can’t aford LOL! some of the shots you shot with a rebel and kits lens show youknow how to ” to me they were good shots made sorry i stopped useing my cannon when i got the NIkon d 90 hoping to move up to a dx format this year but still not good at basic things learning and much better than before but still now where i want to be. thanks for this site Jim .

  3. Martin says

    Personally I dont think the extra sharpness of good glass warrants the huge increase in cost that is out of most peoples reach. I have just traded in my Nikon lenses and body and now use a bridge camera and a Fuji advanced F300EXR compact. To be honest there is not a huge difference in the quality of the picture. It depends what you do with your pictures I think.

  4. says

    I have the same feeling! I remember shooting with my Canon 350D with a kit lens (18-55MM NON-IS), and to begin with I thought it was amazingm later I acquired some better lenses, though not pro, my favourite was the 17-85mm IS USM from Canon which is a little bit more expensive than the kit lens, and I saw some staggering results.
    Now I have a 550D, and using the 70-200mm L lens from canon makes me speachless, I have no words. It is like you said, my first kit lens was like VHS compared to Blu-Ray!

  5. says

    For you, at the high end of the continuum, this is probably true. But for me, and the use that my photograghs are put too, the cost is absurd and the difference in quality of the finished product just isn’t worth it. For anybody but the professional, you need to improve your personal skills and your camera techniques way more than spend huge amounts of money on glass!

  6. says

    I am new to photograpy and I agree, I need to learn the basic before I invest in expensive lens. First off I dont understand the diffenent lens and what they mean 20mm-70mm etc but my only problem I want to learn everything right now and I know it is going to take time.There is so much to learn and I can only learn a little at a time and am enjoying it very much

    • Srhphotodesign says

      The best way to learn focal length is to use a stationary object. Take the different lenses you have and shoot that object at every possible length. What you will notice most of all is the compression with longer focal lengths. It will really help when trying to shoot a heavier person vs a skinny one. Depth, Character, and surface is what you can achieve once you know where the sweet spot is!

  7. says

    It’s worth mentioning that the 50mm prime can produce sharper photographs than extremely expensive lenses but for a fraction of the price.

    I’ve adapted the British Army’s sniper guidelines for sharper photography; it’s available on the Tutorials section of my site if you’re interested;

    http://www.englishphotographer.com

  8. says

    Sharpness of different lenses is pretty much irrelevant until you get on a tripod and use proper technique (mirror up and with remote release/timer). Now – that’s not a true statement for shots at 1/8000 – but for most shots shot slower than 1/200 (or faster for longer lengths) – you can get dramatic improvements in sharpness simply by using a good (not $30 wally-world special) tripod…

  9. says

    I went to a photo club once that was showing pictures of the previous weekend’s parade. The young techie who was manning the laptop had only one comment for the others’ pictures, “Not sharp.” What about composition, lighting, color, gesture, my friend?

  10. says

    I have been battling sharpness for years. I went to school for photography but concentrated much more on composition and ‘cool’ darkroom techniques. Then my old FM became obsolete and my Mamiya 645 I had recently acquired just became something that friends quietly smiled at when I took it out. Now I own a creative agency (www.36creative.com) and frequently am hired to do product shots, etc. Every time I start shooting I sweat a little and think, man…I should take a class! Here’s to admitting to our fears. Thanks much Jim…this website is pure gold.

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