Why Sharpness is Overrated in Street Photography

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1x1.trans Why Sharpness is Overrated in Street Photography

Copyright: Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos / SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. Inside the sliding doors of the bullfight arena

Sharpness is over-rated in street photography. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

I remember when I first saw one of HCB’s exhibitions in person in Paris, I was surprised by how soft most of his shots were. And many of his photos were significantly out of focus (thinking about the famous shot of the man in a bullfighter’s ring in Spain (above).

When I stated street photography, I was obsessed with sharpness. This of course, was due to all the nerds on gear forums who showed corner to corner sharpness tests on brick walls. I was suckered into thinking a sharp photo was a good photo.

However once I discovered the work or Daido Moriyama, I realized that a good photo didn’t need to be sharp. In-fact, a grainy, out of focus, and soft photo often had more mood, emotion, and soul than an uber-sharp photo:

1x1.trans Why Sharpness is Overrated in Street Photography

Copyright: Daido Moriyama

Even when I shoot digital, I try to get my digital shots to look like my film shots. I add grain and grittiness — and what I get in return is a less clinical image.

And of course when shooting film, I make an image that (to me) has more character and soul. I get physical light hitting a piece of paper, recording the light– rather than a computer recording a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.

So what does this mean practically in street photography?

Well, you don’t need a super high resolution camera or a super sharp lens. Don’t get me wrong, I love high detail (large format Richard Avedon images amaze me) and sharpness for the aesthetic, but that alone doesn’t make a good photograph.

1x1.trans Why Sharpness is Overrated in Street Photography

Copyright: Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

Some of my favorite photos are the ones that are gritty and imperfect. The work of Daido Moriyama, Anders Peterson, and Jacob Aue Sobol all speak to me on a deep level. With color photography, I love prefer the film work of Alex Webb, Steve McCurry, Martin Parr, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld.

Don’t be a slave of the camera. Make the camera your slave (what Araki said that Daido Moriyama did). Daido has been using a cheap film point and shoot Ricoh GR more or less his entire career — and made much more emotional shots than his peers with super slick Leicas or medium format cameras. He shot with his heart, soul, and gut. While I don’t like a lot of Daidos photos individually, I like the mood I get from his photos as a whole.

So don’t worry about gear, nerd sharpness tests, and lens chromatic abbreviation blah blah blah.

Who cares how sharp your lenses are? It is far more important to have a sharp eye and a loving heart.

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  • Howard J.

    By the way you preach, I imagine you’re still watching movies on VHS rather than DVD or Blu-ray.

    With today’s technology, if you’re still getting soft images, it’s because you need to become a better technically sound photographer. Don’t hide your poor focus under a style you made up. HC-B’s images were blurry and dingy because he was using equipment from the 40s-50s. Daido uses the cheapest of cheap cameras because he says doesn’t care about technical proficiency. Google image everyone else you mentioned. Their photographs are sharp and in focus to me …

    Your approach is exactly why photographers of other genres don’t respect street photography. Not even photojournalists. To them, we just swing our hipster cameras up at whatevers on the street, disregarding any form of intelligent composition or technical understanding of the instrument- or the art for that matter.

    • Elvin. L

      I don’t think it’s right to say that street photographers disregard any form of intelligent composition or technical understanding of the instrument. Remember you can’t produce a work of art without understanding and mastering the technical abilities first. Only then can you work within or exploit the boundaries on the craft of photography.

      • Giovanni M

        Agree, Elvin. Good street photography actually requires more mastery than most genres… The only thing is, there’s so many tons of mediocre stuff out there on the web that the entire genre gets a bad rep. Simply shooting random people walking in the street with no regard to composition light and everything is NOT Street: it’s throwing pixels away and filling wasted bandwidth…

        • Jorge

          Stand on a corner. Point camera. at strangers that I would not want to know or meet. Snap shutter. Call it art.
          Blah. Meh.

      • Jorge

        I’ve yet to see a street photographer who’s work I enjoy. Most of it is black and white crappy photos of people, and areas I don’t want to see and avoid. It’s probably me, I just don’t the attraction to photographing crap.

        • Giovanni M

          Neither do I. But thankfully, not everyone produces crappy people shots. Look a bit harder. And start from the older masters….

        • http://danielteolijr.tumblr.com/ Daniel D. Teoli Jr

          Go make your own then. Shoot what appeals to you.

          All sort of tastes. Some people like birds, bugs, smoky water or star trails. I like social doc work. I like meeting people and documenting what I find.

          “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very sprung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living.” ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

          I’ve seen a lot of work over the years. Rui Palha has some of the nicest street work I’ve come across on the net.

          Sure street work is not pretty work, at least most of the time. It is not what sells at art and craft fairs. It is considered ‘ugly photography’ by many. But it is what we like to do. A great street photos is a beautiful as it gets to me.

          Best Regards,

          Dan

        • mscot

          Then why come to this web site? Just to complain?

    • http://islandinthenet.com/ Khürt L. Williams

      Street portraits — sharp in focus photos — I understand. The rest I just don’t get.

    • Paetroz

      VHS is the bomb. The analog tape just has so much better quality than Blu-ray. There’s just something about it. ;)

    • Jorge

      Well said. See my comment above.

    • EJPB

      I can’t agree. There’s a massive number of photographers out there that made of path of glory by being not so sharp. Bresson himself was not always spot on sharp, even contrary and that was not due to technical limitations only. Some people are even selecting older glass to get a more moody, unsharper picture. In movies, it is even very unnatural to pursue a real hard cut sharpness. But I agree with Jorge about street photography, it’s a bit too much of a hype. If I look at what the French social photographers like Atget, Bresson, Brassai, Ronis, Doisneau… were doing, they were having it in the fingers to nail the ‘decisive moment’ – a picture that is still marvelous to look at. Photography has become a commodity now and I doubt that will be the case with 99% of the street-shot stuff I’m seeing now, just a random capture of nothing special at all: no sharpness of mind at all (not as Bresson said, first look – then shoot), in my eyes – the rest doesn’t even matter.

    • http://danielteolijr.tumblr.com/ Daniel D. Teoli Jr

      A lot of the skill the old timers had with zone focusing is being lost with the young guns coming up in the photo world. The dumbed down cams they are making nowadays have no focus scales on the lenses and some have no easy to use manual focus. Leica simplified what was needed in a good doc cams eons ago…f stop, shutter speed and good manual lens that can be zone focused. Sadly one has to pay a fortune to get the basics.
      Best Regards,
      Dan

  • Giovanni M

    HI eric. Funny, but I just had an exchange about sharpness with Ming Thein over at his blog. I argued precisely your point: overly sharp images are too clinical to speak to the soul. Life (street is life) moves in a blur, and our perceptions are selective and imprecise; hence, overly sharp images are often perceived as ‘unreal’ and as such don’t covey the same emotion as softer oens. I am not arguing for sloppy picture taking, by all means. But some of the images (other people’s or even my own) that most speak to me are very far from sharp! Leave supersharp photography to some of the landscape masters or to product catalog illustartions…

    • Paetroz

      Lazy excuse to pardon poor skills or mistakes. I think that if it’s the photographers explicit intent to shoot out of focus for aesthetics of a particular composition then that’s great, I will even excuse a happy accident that winds up in an interesting capture, but I would dare to say that in capturing street portraiture the favored and most pleasing technique would be sharp focus. It doesn’t look unreal rather it’s an attempt to capture a memory or scene as best as possible and preserve that moment.

      • Jorge

        Hear! Hear!

    • Jorge

      Total BS. Sharp is sharp. Period. Clinical or not however you want to look at it. Ask Ming next time he’s shooting a timepiece to make it a blurry one. Or maybe ask him to teach the students he takes on his overpriced “workshop” tours.

  • http://islandinthenet.com/ Khürt L. Williams

    Ah. I love it. A purely subjective piece explaining why sharp photographs are irrelevant to street photography. My photo ignorant brother-in-law is quite correct when he made prints of his best photos including all the out of focus ones.

    I can’t stand blurry photos. Reminds me too much of what my vision was like before I had cataract surgery.

  • Kevin Allen

    One of your best and most relevant posts. Sharp photos are really saying more about the technical capability of the equipment one is using, as is the much vaunted blurry backgrounds aka Bokeh. While the photos might arrest the attention for a split second longer, they don’t actually “say” any more (other than Hey! look at how much I’ve spent on my gear and imagine what my crop potential is), nor are they more aesthetically pleasing nor artistically are they any more valid… except to the casual observer, the novice or to the uninitiated. Where high definition photos do arrest attention one might go so far as to enquire what kit was involved and reflect on the awesome amount some people regularly spend on their hobbies to distinguish them from others: “entry-level”, “enthusiast”, “semi-pro”, “pro”… labels that are themselves products of marketing departments and shop salesmen in suits. While I am not against technological advancement digital photography has just really become a gimmick with gear-heads the marketing mavens of electronics corporations. [BTW Eric, when you’ve finished with your Leica-M Monochrom, I know somewhere I can find a new home for it ;) ]

    • Paetroz

      Screw it. Let’s go back to the days of blurry passport photos and drivers licenses, who cares about sharp focus, doesn’t matter! Ridiculous! I bet HCB would want that shot sharp and in focus if he could chimp and have a do over.

      • ericklein

        hahaha right on

      • Jorge

        Hear! Hear!
        Totally agree! Just because the “masters” botched it, doesn’t mean we have to.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Haha thanks for the comment Kevin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for sharp photos, but I think that technical proficiency misses the point. And I have a Leica mp, not monochrom :)

  • fred

    Rule # 1. There are no rules. Make your own. Does a painting have to be a perfect life like reproduction of a scene to be a good painting? No. Photographic literacy is still in the dark ages.

    • Jorge

      One of the reasons we are still in the “photographic dark ages” is because we try to make something out of nothing. Blur/soft is just that. It’s trash. Period. Tell me how many of the ‘masters” if they were shooting digital would have even dared show that blurry/soft mess we now call priceless art and by which many are judged. I bet many of the masters are rolling in their graves wondering what is wrong with us as we continue to hold on a pedestal their lousy images that they would probably have deleted had they been able to chimp

      • Tim

        Jorge I hope you aint serious. If you are indeed serious you need to get your head checked. If you are a “Troll” please get a life.

        • Paetroz

          I think Jorge is being a bit overzealous with “blur/soft” being “trash”. Sure there are fantastic photos that are not technically sharp as they could be, but those photos entrance us none-the-less. I would agree that his assertion that the “masters” might have benefitted from today’s technology, film or digital, and they might not have had to settle with some of the works many of us now deem classics. I don’t think a lot of us are being honest when we heap praise on every celebrated shot a “master” has made, we just assume it’s good because of someone else’s opinion or because of the stature of the photographer.

  • http://www.HofmanPhotos.com JH

    This is a tough one for an OCD photographer (like me). The only time I would consider keeping a soft focus image is if the composition / subject matter was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. Otherwise I toss all soft focus images. My camera has a focus ring for a reason.

  • Paetroz

    With regard to this “Master’s” example of the bullfight arena doorkeeper, just why is it that this photo is so lauded and held up as some masterpiece of photography? HCB was no doubt a great photographer but really, what’s in this shot that is so commanding anyway? Meh.

    • Jorge

      Because it’s “blurry”

  • ericklein

    conclusion: soft shots don’t necessarily mean they’re bad, and sharp shots do not necessarily mean they’re good. when people argue, they seem so extreme and silly, so i try not to generalize. but let’s think about it. soft shots are usually caused by not fast enough shutter speed and inappropriate focus. and it usually happens in shooting those fleeting moments. there’s just no time to stop, think, adjust, readjust and shoot. sometimes content turns out to be more important than format. sometimes surprisingly, i mean sometimes not always, the softness can provoke curiosity. if time allows, unless you wanna do out of focus kind of thing on purpose, you’ve got to make it sharp. For me, blurry images are just painful to look at. they make my eyes feel they’re bad and need eye drops. lol

    • http://danielteolijr.tumblr.com/ Daniel D. Teoli Jr

      Yes, you sum it up. There is more needed than composition, sharpness and exposure to make a photo iconic. If that was not the case, all we have to do is take a well exposed, well composed photo of anything and it will be a masterpiece. And with street work many times we have no time to do a damn thing other than press the button and then the shot is gone.
      Best Regards,
      Dan

  • Kevin Allen

    Eric, this debate is interesting if only because it is a re-run of the mid-C19th debate over the schools of Realism and Modernism. Once again at the persuasion of those who own the means of generating wealth, society’s appreciation of what stands as art is assumed to be demonstrated by “technical competence” and skill in rendering “reality” as the eye of the man-in-the-street perceives it. However, once everyone has 24+ megapixels, sharp autofocus and full frame capability in their latest eyeball controlled Google Glass, we might suppose photographers (who will they be?) will shift their argument to the aesthetic.

  • Marco Silva

    great post! full agree with you!

  • http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/ Gonzalo

    I recently attended my first photography workshop ever, about street photography (I wrote an article full of pictures about it in my blog) and that is precisely one of the rules I learnt: content, timing and idea should always come first, and depth of field should be as deep as possible, but sharpness is not that important, as long as the image is clear!

    • Jorge

      Get your money back.

      • kick-ass

        jorge you are sooooooooooo boring. i can imagine your shoots just by reading your posts.

  • Brian Barbieri

    The geeks who check corner sharpness and babble on about distortion have little to nothing to say about what makes a photo speak to us. Indeed,they focus solely on technical prowess, which as you correctly point out, does nothing in and of itself. In fact, it often detracts from the photo; IMHO, images from modern DLSRs often look “plasticy” to me. They look like animation of some sort or a photoshop or collage.

    • Jorge

      bull crap. Learn how to shoot. I could care less about all the technical BS however, my photos are well composed, and Oh. Wait. Sharp.

      • Brian Barbieri

        By saying “learn how to shoot,” you are making an assumption that someone who doesn’t care for the look produced by a computer with lens attached does not know the basics of composition, exposure and focus. Of course I know how to shoot, I prefer aesthetics to pixel counts.

      • 1androiddreaming

        It’s awesome to read how great your photos are!

        I (and many others here) would love to see your well-composed, sharp photos.

        Please post links to your work so we can see for ourselves. Thanks.

      • kick-ass

        boring

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  • Jorge

    Sharpness is definitely NOT overrated. Sorry. Yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before about the great “masters” who’s iconic images are not sharp but yet powerful, blah blah blah. Not today. Sorry. Please. No excuses. If it isn’t sharp, somewhere in the pipeline you screwed up. Period. It happens. It’s ok. But, please don’t make excuses for blurry or soft images. I’m sick if hearing this crap.

    • kick-ass

      its the image. everything else is for people who dont get the image. every technical mistake doesnt matter if the image is an image. who cares if its sharp. you ? really ? you will delte great images when the are not sharp ?

  • D

    cartier bresson image is not soft. he is in focus on the first man on the right, so, shooting f8, using a 50mm, it will be soft at 5 meters or more if the man is at 1meter or less (the head is big in the frame : distance is 1 meter or less). he made a choice. cartier bresson work is not soft image, it is also due to the film devellopement he used. it was soft and grainy sometimes, due to technical reasons, but he used a the maximum depth of field at 1/125s (so if it is in spring-summer; it is f8-f11-f16…).
    about grain : grain is sometimes better to get really sharp edges. not huge grain but some grain. without grain, it can be really sharp but without edges and more “flat” (very smooth transitions between black and whites). that’s why film is the best : the grain is making better looking transitions between black and white.

  • natalia

    Jorge, aren’t you tired of being so excited about this article and about not agreeing with it and of commenting everyone’s comments?

  • Bob Tilton

    We live in a world where our viewing options are RPX, Real 3D, Ultra HD, etc. Sharpness is king. Everything else…not so much.

  • Tina

    Okay, why was my comment not approved?

  • sloflyfishguy

    As someone once said:

    “Is it your concept that Van Gogh was such a great artist because he had a really good brush?”

  • Paul Donohoe

    Sharp eye and a warm heart. Almost all there is to say

  • David

    I think if you consider jazz music, of which is often regarded as technically imperfect and even distasteful to the trained ear of, say, a classical musician, it is still a means of expression that touches upon many of the same aspects of our human condition. However, just because jazz doesn’t hold the same status quo as classical music in terms of technical excellence, that doesn’t necessitate its position as a sub-standard form of music that can’t exist in tandem with the more “refined” music. I can also extend this example to illustrate what Henri Cartier-Bresson may have meant when he stated that “Sharpness is a bourgeouis concept”: if the definition of photography can ultimately be addressed as a means of “objective documentation” (to which I personally believe is impossible to achieve) than of expression and interpretation, then there realistically isn’t a way for everyone who wishes to practice photography to get their hands on the latest and greatest technology that allows them to do so. Additionally, I don’t think jazz was created by those who could get their hands on the finest European instruments, and much less so by those who could receive the training in a high-end institution where they taught the traditional form of what was considered “good music” back then. Rather, much in the same way that jazz got its distinctive flavor, I could argue then that photographers who value expression and interpretation knowingly overlook technical limitations and instead shoot with the strength of the concept in mind, of which is not all considerate of “sharpness” as a main factor. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t technically-literate jazz musicians, just as there still exist photographers who like having their photographs to an agreed-upon standard of sharpness. Rather, sharpness just doesn’t mean all too much unless the photographer determines that the “level of sharpness” interferes with the strength of the message or idea relayed in a photograph. I hope I made this point clear, but if not, feel free to add your counter-opinion.

    Lastly, I want to address how resentful I felt about many of the comments left on this post. To label an opinion as “crap” and “bullshit” does nothing to promote a respectful dialogue about this issue. While it is more than fair to state your own opinion on the matter, doing so at the expense of one’s own sense of dignity and conviction in an idea is questionable, I think.

    • David

      I missed out on this point originally, so I wanted to say it here before I leave this post for good: as long as a photographer has a sense of consistency to personal belief or ideology, sharpness is just one of many factors that can be manipulated to the vision of an artist. Therefore, I don’t quite see why this should have been a major point to dedicate an entire blog-post to, though I do see how much of a common issue it continues to be among many other photographers.

    • GrandMinnow

      Great jazz musicians are not technically deficient. Indeed, the technical demands of jazz are daunting and many jazz musicians have extended technical achievement on their instruments beyond the expectations of even classical music.

      • David

        Sorry if that point led to a misunderstanding. What I meant was that to the standards of a classically-trained musician, jazz musicians are generally regarded as “less refined” in the means by which they carry out a piece. This is not to say that jazz musicians are technically deficient, as I was instead trying to use this point in the manner that you described to illustrate that sharpness and softness are two separate concepts that don’t exist purely as a binary as many of the other people on this blog are commenting. In that way, I was indeed trying to express what you had said in your reply to my original post: that jazz has its own unique innovations that shouldn’t be held strictly in comparison to another standard like classical music. Hope that clarifies my point for you.

        • GrandMinnow

          I don’t know that it’s true that, in general, classically trained musicians regard jazz musicians as less refined. (Also, many jazz musicians are themselves classically trained.) But I don’t disagree with the point that jazz has its own special techniques that aren’t best evaluated out of context.

      • Paetroz

        Much better assessment GM. Some people are naturally technically proficient and some work hard to be. Once that high level of skill is developed it’s natural for an artist or musician to push the boundaries of what is technically acceptable to create new artforms. Some people “paint” with a camera and blur the lines so to speak, but you can usually tell if it’s purposeful.

  • Bm

    It takes a gifted artist to acquire a unique personal vision through a medium. One look at a certain brushstroke and you recognize an artist etc. I say whatever gets you to that unique vision is fine with me. Sometimes blurry photo can evoke feelings that a sharp photo can’t. Look at a turner painting and you get a different feeling than a photorealistic rendition of the same scene. There are no absolutes in artwork. What it boils down to is this. If your photo stands on its own, nothing else matters. If your photo sucks…..it sucks.

  • http://www.ellynpeirson.com ellyn peirson

    very helpful, inspiring and change-of-concept-makiing – thank you!

  • Dominique_R

    Let us put things back into perspective. It’s mostly people with inadequate equipment (read: low-speed AF) and/or inadequate photo skills who claim that sharpness doesn’t matter, because they repeatedly fail to achieve it. When they discover that quote from HCB, they are of course delighted as they can use it as an excuse for their shortcomings. They obviously ignore, or choose to forget, that HCB said it as a joke, as a witty reply to a comment about, precisely, the lack of sharpness of some of his photos.

    The truth is, HCB was not always completely skilled at focusing, and the way he usually held his Leica sometimes tended to cause the side of his hand to brush against the focusing ring inadvertently. More significantly, cameras in those days obviously had no AF (today’s Leicas still don’t) and it was much more excusable to have photos out of focus that it can be today, unless of curse one should choose to defocus a lens for creative purposes.

    Let’s rest assured that HCB, except maybe for the occasional creative effect as mentioned above, would have preferred to have at his disposal more efficient means of ensuring accurate focus each and every time, and that he only made do with out-of-focus pictures from time to time because he had no other option! Today, we have no excuses to end up with poorly focused photographs (unless we still use a Leica, hé hé), and no reason to resort to second-degree, ironic snobbery to try and justify mistakes.

  • RJS

    As Jay Maisel says (slightly paraphrasing): “photographers seem to be more concerned with the quality of their pixels than the quality of their pictures”

  • jjdaley

    A soft photo can be good. But photography is a technical as well as a creative craft. All things being equal, a sharp image is the better image. Here’s more of my take on this… http://daleyblog.co/post/92275755179/is-sharpness-overrated-in-street-photography

  • Ippei Mine

    eric, why do you give a label to daido as a street tog? he spends his lifetime wandering and shooting around shinjuku or any other cities in the world. it doesnt mean he is a “street tog”.

    most of sobol’s project are documenting his own life. the most famous one is documenting his ex, sabrina. most of them were taken at the object’s house. some of his photos were taken on the street of moscow or bejing. it doesn’t mean he is a “street tog”.

    and also martin parr. he’s documenting how people affected by the recent capitalism culture. many of his photos were taken on the street. it doesn’t mean he is a “street tog”.

    i’d rather called them as a great visual artist of our time with their own visions. camera is just their tool. street is just their arena.

    please be careful with your street tog label, eric. at the end of the day, label just decreasing the whole meaning.

    you are a mentor to many people. please be wiser. thanks

    ps: your “only in america” series is more personal documentary project than “street photography”.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Understood!

  • Thinkinginpictures

    All of this matters and none of this matters- that’s why they call it photography. Street photography is also a crowded space of amateurs and hipster wanna-be’s. It gets a bad rap but it’s a hard dicipline. You can’t stage your photos in a studio with perfect lighting and planned action. Your confined to the moment and must work around it.

    I started with zooms, I moved to high end expensive primes and full frame. I then ending up with medium format film and digital. I then moved slightly back down to micro four thirds. I started using a combination of zooms and primes. I’ve learned as I stated before- it all matters and none of it matters all at the same time. It depends on the context and what your application is. Most importantly, interpreting someones “art” is subject to the photographers intent. What was their vision and what did they consider “good enough?” There is so many factors until you center each photo within the context and intent of the producer.
    We always assume it’s the audience that matters but it’s truly the photographers vision. All else is simply reader interpretation and will always be subject to bias.

  • Guest

    Someone else brought up jazz and it’s a good point. Old jazz was good and original. New jazz stinks. Same for “street photography.”