Why Sharpness is a Bourgeoise Concept in Street Photography

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! 

71 thoughts on “Why Sharpness is a Bourgeoise Concept in Street Photography”

  1. Well Said. Especially for street photography. Does the image make me think? Does the image create an emotion in me? That is what I expect of a good image. I look at a good street image and often create a story in my head about it. That is a good image. I think we (photographers) spend way too much time technically disecting an image. Let it wash over you, interact with you. Then you can analyze the image. I rarely pixel peek an image. Some images i don’t get and probably never will. But I never assume it is because of a technical flaw or they didn’t use the right lens. HCB’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare Does nothing for me but Rue Mouffetard always brings a smile. The thing is not how clever you are, but how you express a part of yourself.

  2. My first impression of an image has little to do with photographic technique and everything to do with content. If I examine it longer a story begins to build in my mind. As some point I might examine the image more closely and note various details in it like reflections, or shadows or patterns. Maybe something as simple as a dropped glove. I think only in the end would I notice photographic technique or actually dissect how the image was taken. And if I do.. that is because I like it so much.. I want to learn the method’s behind why that particular photo works. How would it not work if grain or blur or shadows or whatever were not a part of it.

    And you always make me smile Eric when you mention that gear does not matter. GAS actually stifles creativity… it does not lend to it. :)

  3. Sharpness has its place as well as bokeh and any other photographic technique.

    Either way it comes down to… Does the picture matter to you? Did it move you?

    I take lots of pictures that are god awful… It’s the ones that make me feel something that I hold on to.

    I don’t care care how an interesting or emotive image is made….. Just let me see it.

  4. I think there is a major difference between unsharp and out of focus. The last one (to me anyway) is a no go. I like this picture which for the greater part is unsharp but it’s not out of focus.

  5. Björn Bechstein

    You are so right Eric, but a great photograph is a great photograph!
    If its a great photograph with bokeh, sharpness, framing and good contrast and grading it makes it even more better or not? Or is it a worse photograph because of a good photographic technique?

    “…you don’t need a fancy or expensive camera.” -Why do you use a 10000 USD Equipment?


    1. Yeah, I have to admit I find the “gear doesn’t matter” posts more compelling when they come from folks like Thomas Leuthard who’s shot great stuff (and plenty sharp) with a basic micro 4/3 camera (Panasonic Lumix GF1 with 2omm pancake lens).

    2. Choosing the right camera for you and being gear obsessed are two different things. If you want a rangefinder because working with one suits you and your workflow better then that’s a valid reason to choose one. It’s like an artist choosing paint over pencil..

      Unfortunately digital rangefinders are expensive, but that doesn’t mean people choose them because their “fancy or expensive”…

      BTW I doubt Eric pays full price on his Leica stuff (he is somehow connected to them it seems) and he can probably write it off as a cost in his business anyway.

  6. For the context of this article – I agree with what you state. However, gear “may” limit one’s creative nuance – but this is so subjective and backed by gobs of $$ as evidenced by marketing trends (and retrospective history).

    On the matter of sharpness – I agree with ya bro; especially for techniques related to street shooting. I recently have been going through some material by [alias] Johnny Stiletto and he places a spin on the presented photo by accompanying a little back-story {Shots from the Hip; and Vintage 80s}. The Gestalt is that the package “works” – quite refreshing! But looking at the pictures alone – I’m sure many would argue the shots are out of focus or lend other harsher critique.

    The process must include finding one’s style via the experience of shooting and interacting, if warranted. Life is short – just get out there and do it!

  7. Shoot first then ask questions later.
    Sharpness is not bourgeois but rather related to photographer’s response to what’s happening in front of his/her eyes. Obsession over gear is consumer concept. I rather better my practice than dream of a better tool for it. They don’t manufacture better eyes than mine anyway.

    Cheers and happy shooting

  8. I most definitely agree, Eric. In fact, I’d take it a step further. Obsession over sharpness can hinder you sometimes. A lot of great photos are blurry or slightly out of focus. Sometimes the imperfection lends itself to the impact of the image.

    You should know the capability of your equipment and strive for technical excellence, but not be afraid to share something that isn’t crisp, “3D” as you say, and well polished. I think of Daido Moriyama, a guy who made a name for himself partly because he mucked around in the land of the unsharp and improperly composed. I can only imagine him submitting some of his stuff to keep or ditch flickr groups.

    By the way, what do you think of the various street groups on flickr? What are your alternatives (as I don’t see you posting much)?

  9. The subject sharpness is very important otherwise you lose the theme but nowaday most average camera and lens does a good job, even for a phone camera as you mentioned. I won’t laugh if someone use a fully auto compact DC to shot the street. I hate people showing off with their very expansive gears and telling me that the lens is sharp, resolution is great, . . . things like that.

    1. Just enjoy the moment you dont have to record ….. I suddenly realised in China 5000 people make one photo each and there is more time recorded than time itself ….. get yourself a project then observe then shoot …. feckin digital wankers use that shite technic of continual shooting ….they use cameras like vacumn cleaners … KC

  10. “when it comes to street photograph, image quality isn’t important”…..
    What a load of crap.

    If you had any idea, you’d just shut up Eric.

    You know nothing. You just steal quotes from “successful” shooters to pretend to be important.

    Nothing original, nothing new, nothing.

    1. David K.K. Hansen

      Well, he may have nothing, but he’s at least not a coward that hides behind internet anonymity.

      Eric, I’ve been following your blog for some time now and even when I don’t agree with your views and opinions, I greatly appreciate all the work and hours you’re putting into this site. I hope you keep up the good work!

      1. Thanks David! That is good- I don’t want everyone to agree with my thoughts/opinions. I try to keep this blog as an online forum on street photography – to discuss different viewpoints. Take what you want from the blog, and feel free to leave the rest of it! :)

    2. Please ignore trolls like that! I may not always agree with your views, but I enjoy reading your thoughtful pieces. Had a great time at your exhibition in Singapore.

  11. Bokeh is a QUALITY of a lens, not a concept. It describes the out of focus QUALITY of a lens. Ignorant people and novices think it is the out of focus areas, the light out of focus… but it is either good or bad bokeh. And it tells you whether a lens is good or bad. If the lights have hard edges the lens exhibits “BAD” bokeh, smooth, “GOOD” bokeh. You could teach your students this and make me very happy.

      1. Agree about the face touchup Eric mentioned. But to me, the sharp circles work here as a contrast to the circular buttons on the coat. So I would not call this bokeh bad here. Just me.

  12. 50 % agree, 50 % don’t

    I still think peoples are too much talking about … useless things instead of ….

    Shooting ….

    Share is important, yes, but trying to bring something out of OUR OWN WORK is something else

    “make usefull photo, not good photo”

    i agree 50 %

    “Make the photo you want ! “

  13. Even when I see point in many things in this article, I can’t agree with conclusion. Can’t understand why any technique should be called “Burgeoise”. For instance Bokeh, is just tool. Your camera movement can be tool. Your camera is tool. And in the end of day, it’s your eye and brain, with this tools, that creates pictures. So I can’t understand, why using one of these tools should be seen as wrong. Even more this sound little bit hypocriticall from you, because you shoot with most prominent gear available.

    1. Thanks for the critique Lenny.

      I think I should clarify my statement: any (over) obsession with bokeh, sharpness, gear, etc is unhealthy. There is nothing inherently wrong with them – but nowadays photography seems to be too focused on these attributes.

      And yes, there are times I too myself fall victim to obsessing too much about gear and other (unimportant) things in photography. But I always try to remind myself to think otherwise!

  14. I LOVE street photography. Always have, always will. I don’t necessarily always agree with what is posted here in the blog or comments, but it is so refreshing to have a forum of our own far away from the goth-children, nude obsessors, etc.

    I began my shooting in the ancient days of film and did my own film and print developing. I shot with an M4 and M6 and a complete range of lenses for them. Don’t ask me exactly which ones, I can’t remember their Leica names – besides using names like status symbols is …… well, bourgeois.

    I was very good shooter, and a fine DR printer – had many solo shows of my work, published many times over.

    I am looking forward to the Fuji X-Pro 1 when it is available – hopefully it will pass muster and be the camera on which I can use my much loved leica glass. The M9 sucks.

    Now, as for sharpness: I try, it’s always better to be sharp rather than not. But I have some images that, except for the lack of sharpness, are powerful and moving. I took risks with them. Post processed as well as I could and posted them on my 500px gallery ( http://500px.com/GeneLowinger ) Ahem! The response I have gotten back from those shots has always been quite surprising. Comments like ‘doesn’t matter’, ‘but the image is so powerful’, ‘if someone really cares, let them look at a different shot’, etc, etc. So I post away because I want to touch peoples’ hearts and feelings with my images. If someone criticizes an image of mine because it’s not sharp, then I say ‘Your right, it’s not. I’m a bad boy.’ No point in explaining to them why it’s an important image. They wouldn’t understand. If, however, someone says, ‘I really like this shot, but it looks a little blurry.’ That’s a whole different story.

    Now, as for film, if you like it, shoot it. I was thrilled when I gave up my wet darkroom. No more stink, no more coughing my guts up the next day, no more mess, no more expense. I have my kitchen back! And I can do as much and considerably more with digital technology than I ever could in my darkroom. I can work for a little while on an image, answer the phone, go food shopping, and come back to continue working on an image for as long as I want until I’ve created the emotional impact I want to make. Never could do that in a wet darkroom.

    To each his own. Sharpness is important, but it’s overrated.

    1. Just out of curiosity, what about the M9 sucks (apart from the price)? And you know the x-pro has a 1.5x crop factor (meaning your lovely 50 will be an awkward mini-tele at 75mm etc..) and that for manual focusing you have to use the evf (meaning the rangefinder feel of the camera, that was so appealing in the first place, is all gone).

      1. Some negatives:

        – High-ISO performance could be a bit better (considering it is full-frame)
        – Battery life (if you don’t turn off LCD review, you need around 2 batteries to last you a day)
        – LCD Screen (I don’t mind- but the resolution on High-ISO shots are inaccurate)

        Other than that it is a fantastic camera- the best digital camera out there for street photography imho. The XPRO1 looks awesome- but havent shot with one so not sure yet!

        1. Thanks. True, I’ve heard about the iso. I hardly ever use the screen so the two next one wont be that big an issue if I ever get to upgrade to digital rangefinders it seems :)

  15. I enjoyed the post but I disagree with this comment…
    “If anything, having a raw and grittier image is more favorable.”

    Raw and gritty is simply a look… and it is a look that IMHO far too many street photographers adopt. When I look through all the gritty black and white images posted on this blog from the community, I am constantly struck by the similarities they all share. It reminds me of all the musicians that were using auto tune for awhile.

    This obsession with do’s and don’t, Bresson, and statements like “If anything, having a raw and grittier image is more favorable.”… are all a bit dangerous to an individual’s creativity.

    It would be nice if there was less of a focus on rules, and famous street photographers… and more of a focus on helping each other come up with fresh approaches to this time honored style of photography so that it can move FORWARD, rather than dwelling on the techniques and tools of the past.

    Maybe instead of celebrating the grain and the grit… people should be encouraged to use the current technology that we are now blessed with to take street photography in new directions!

    1. One way that I’d love to see Street Photography move forward is to not focus so much on urban environments. The blandness of most ‘global’ cities can lead to a picture looking similar whether shot in London, NYC, Singapore, or LA. I’d love to see more street photography on the streets of small towns and rural communities around the world.

    2. I agree. I love high quality, grainless, noiseless details. I personally don’t care for life being gritty. To be it is supremely beautiful and I want to paint it as that.

      Flawed, yes. That’s beautiful. But for me, Gritty is not beautiful.

  16. I don’t agree with you Eric, of course the image itself has to be powerful and interesting, but, personally, i like it when it is sharp and i love the bokeh effect.
    i think that H.C.Bresson didn’t have all the choice in the cameras that we have today, and didn’t choose the “blurry effect” in all his photos.

    but hey, that’s just me, i’m at the beginning and i’m enjoying when i can get a nice sharp image that stand out of the bunch for what it says…. they are not so many, but hey… “if i knew how to take good pictures, i would take them every time ”

    TO LOL. hey man, great example of bad education. Even if you don’t agree with what Eric says, you can express yourself in a different way. At the end of the day, he is trying to better the photography of all the people reading this website. What did you do in this sense recently ??

  17. I actually agree with Eric, and I love the discussion. Eric you seem to be a great facilitator, or lightning rod? :]

    When I have emotional responses from photos they tend to be subjects that are exposed and lit in a pleasing mannor, whether or not the image is tack sharp or if you used all the focus point in the camera to take it does not matter. And conversely I tend to ignore photos where the photographer was concentrating on non-contributing factors. Now if we were to discus fine art photos… this discussion would evolve.

  18. The cynic in me often thinks people with Leicas say sharpness isn’t important because they have auto focus.

    I agree that people get too obsessed with technical issues. Photographs generally grab people’s attention because they have something interesting to say about the world, not because of technique. But that doesn’t mean that technique doesn’t matter.

    The eye is naturally drawn to sharper/brighter parts of an image. So if you want to learn to guide the viewer to the important points in your photograph you need to learn to focus/compose for brightness/sharpness appropriately.

    Eric: If you are into film now does that you’ve largely ditched the M9?

  19. I don’t care if it is bourgeois. I don’t care if someone considers me bourgeois.

    I like high quality. I like bokeh and small depth of field. I like rendering. I have no need to obsess over gear as my Leica is all I want.

    I shoot street photography. I like wide apertures sometimes. I shoot for optimal quality. i prefer ISO 160 so will shoot wide open if necessary. I shoot from the hip if it means I get a shot that is more natural.

    No more rules. Do what you want. Care less for what people think and care more for your own pictures.

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  21. Patrick Delaney

    Oh my, there are some angry people – abuse instead of thought. Perhaps therapy could help?

  22. Wow, that’s very funny. -.-
    You are jealous and that’s obvious. Keep trolling and we will keep shooting with any gear. Leica or not. Let’s see who’ll be happier at the end.

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