Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” – Henri Cartier Bresson

In the modern age of photography, everyone seems to have an unhealthy obsession with how sharp lenses are, how much bokeh they produce, and how “3d” they can make their images appear.

Ignore these statements. Anyone who talks at excessive length about any of these topics are misled into thinking that what makes a great photograph are the effects that expensive lenses can give you.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Don’t get me wrong, it is important to have a camera that can give you good image quality. However when it comes to street photograph, image quality isn’t important. If anything, having a raw and grittier image is more favorable.

Frankly speaking nowadays all the cameras out there have phenomenal image quality, amazing high-iso capabilities, and good rendering.

I recently watched an interview with a national geographer who gave a piece of advice: “Take useful photos, not good photos.” I also wrote about the topic in a past article titled, “Why Street Photographers Need to Take Themselves More Seriously“.

When is the last time you looked at a great photograph and said, “Wow that is one sharp image” or, “Wow that photo has great bokeh”. I doubt if you look at any of work of any of the great street photographers (including Henri Cartier-Bresson) you will make that statement. Most of their work has been done with relatively deep depth-of-field and very few (if any) of them are shot wide-open.

Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the things I love most about street photography is that you don’t need a fancy or expensive camera. Any camera out there can shoot great street photographs (including iPhones). If you want some great examples that the camera you use doesn’t matter (in terms of image quality), check out the iPhone street photography of AikBengChia or the Mobile Photo Group.

Gear and equipment are important in street photography, but I think the conversation needs to be changed. Rather than concerning of the image quality of a camera or a lens, think about how it handles and shoots on the street. Does it have an optical viewfinder that allows you to shoot during the day? Is it small and compact and light so you can carry it with you everywhere you go? Does it fit comfortably in your hand? Does it focus quickly enough to capture the decisive moment?

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The reason I like to shoot with a Leica is that it is good for my style of street photography. I like having an optical viewfinder to frame my scene, and I never shoot from the hip (thus I don’t need a swiveling LCD screen). I like to zone focus manually (and don’t like using autofocus). I shoot with a f-stop of f/8-f/16 so I don’t need fast glass (recently traded my 35mm summilux for a summicron for the smaller size and lighter weight). Nowadays for my personal work I am in no rush to get my images instantly, so I prefer shooting in film.

Everyone’s street photography style and technique is different. Some prefer to use autofocus and others don’t. Some prefer using optical viewfinders and others like LCD screens. Some prefer shooting wide while others like a more normal focal length.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Therefore my statement is when it comes to cameras or lenses (at least for street photography) let’s not talk about sharpness or aesthetic quality. A great photograph is a great photograph, without any visual gimmicks. Think if the photograph you take has a statement about society or humanity (rather than if it has nice bokeh or “rendering”. Strive to take photographs that challenge people to see the world in a different way.

Find a camera that you are comfortable with and responds well. It is good to experiment to see which camera fits your shooting style, but once you find a camera that works reasonably well (80% of your expectation) and stick with it. Changing cameras, lenses, and gear is an unhealthy habit that has no end.

I will conclude this article with the following statements:

– Bokeh is a Bourgeoise Concept

– Rendering is a Bourgeoise Concept

– Obsession over Gear is a Bourgeoise Concept

What are your thoughts about sharpness, rendering, or bokeh in street photography? Leave your thoughts (if you agree or disagree) in the comments below and tell us why!