Why Sharpness is Overrated

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

Copyright: Daido Moriyama
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.

Copyright: Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos
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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