The Truth About Sharpness

In Photo Basics by Jim Harmer

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 🙂

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on