Essay

Sharpness Doesn't Matter.

Sharpness doesn’t matter.

Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be the most important question.

Full disclosure:

I'm a functional illiterate when it comes to finite technical details in photography; but I have the basic visual faculties to see what’s in front of me. Every time I trawl any forum where lenses are discussed, evaluated and ranked, the discussion always drifts to “how sharp is it? Or which lens is sharpest?” I used to read these threads, get invested, argue, and fiend over finding the “right” equipment. With limited exception, I’ve given up caring much about sharpness. Sharpness is a dumb concern, most of the time, and rarely matters much for most photographers in practice.

The first question I always ask when talking about sharpness, resolution or negative size, is “how big are you printing or displaying?” Like my complaint in my “your cellphone is all the point and shoot you need article” I’m going to repeat it here, again, “are you really posting or presenting your work anywhere aside from Instagram, on a 6.5” at the largest?” and the answer is usually a flat “no.” So what’s the purpose of caring or getting caught up in how sharp or “correct” a lens is?

Failing the need question on the basis of print size, let’s move on to content. How often does one really consider or need a ultra-highly resolved image down to the finest details? Or how often does ultrafine detail play into your imaging? If you’re a commercial photographer, or you work a lot with finite texture, and need to render images a specific, highly controlled way, this is understandable. However, how many people do you know who work with film, or really even digital, that are working on subjects like this? There’s a handful, sure, but do you? Is that really what you care about in photography?

Some lenses are just duds. They are bad, they make inferior pictures, with little upside like amazing bokeh or some other unintended but amazing effect. Likewise, there are some magic lenses, but they’re becoming exorbitantly expensive. Outside the maybe fifty odd “vintage” lenses that are “legendary,” it doesn’t matter, provided you don’t get a dud; A 50mm, is a 50 is a 50; some have better maximum apertures, and their renditions may vary, but they all essentially take the same photo. I feel like the lenses that prove the rule for me, are modern autofocus lenses, which have no discernable character, and have profiles in Lightroom that can fix base defects in seconds, you can essentially “fix” any two cameras and lenses to look next to identical in seconds.

I do not understand the need for sharpness or why the need for scientific accuracy is so dominant, film or digital. If I might offer up alternatives to “is it sharp” -- “will this lens do what I need it to?” “does the lens’s rendering actively compliment the aesthetics and subjects I’m trying to get?” “will it fit the arcane or special/specific need I need to render my vision?” -- rather than ask the bland, superficial, and ultimately pointless question of “how sharp is this lens?” My concluding questions, are “Is sharpness important?” and “why is sharpness important to you?”

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed this essay, or any of the content on my website, consider buying a zine in the shop.

Your Phone is All the Point-and-Shoot You Need.

Shooting or taking pictures daily, or very frequently, is an essential habit for photographers of all stripes. Many of us who shoot film carry a dedicated film camera on us all the time, in addition to the camera that every living person carries: their cellphone. I believe that your phone camera is an equally useful, or better, point-and-shoot than any other stand-alone point-and-shoot camera (a compact film or digital program camera) for most uses, and that buying a true point-and-shoot is pointless.

Most point and shoot cameras were aimed at the average person who wanted to shoot photos wherever without having to worry too much, and take their camera with them easily. Likewise the premium point and shoots were supposed to enable pro photographers on the go to shoot a nice camera anywhere without having to lug their normal gear. The iPhone destroyed the camera market, and digital point and shoot sales aimed at the average person have largely been completely cannibalized by cellphone camera market.

On the premium end of the spectrum we have the Contaxes, Fuji’s, and Olympus Mju’s on the film side, and the Rx1 and assorted fixed lens Leicas/Panasonics. I could definitely understand if you didn’t want to take your studio camera, you’d take a lighter smaller camera with you for day-to-day shooting. Most film shooters, take their “premium” point-and-shoots with them in addition to some other interchangeable lens camera. Unless you’re lugging a medium format camera, or something else equivalently heavy, it all seems a bit redundant.

Realistically, how many of us regularly shoot or share for print? Even if one did print regularly how often would you really want to print a 35mm negative bigger than 11x14, (about 12 megapixels)? I know that 99% of what I shoot day-to-day on 35mm, goes to a 5.5-6” screen, max. I can’t imagine being far from the norm here. If one absolutely needs grain or a particular film look, you can fix that in 30 seconds or less, in VSCO.

The main argument, that I would accept is that: you know what focal length you want, the point and shoot camera provides a look and feel, that’s satisfactory to you, and it’s part of your artistic goals or statement, or you find that shooting a dedicated camera gives better results than taking your time with a phone, more power to you. But for those of you that use that camera in addition to a Leica or a Contax g2, or basically any 35mm SLR, why? It seems like pure collectorism, especially with the insane (and still rising) prices, and the diminishing or flat out non-existent ability to repair these cameras.

My phone is one of my favorite cameras. It does exactly what I need it to, which is take pictures that I don’t have to think too much about, or offhand as a reminder to go back and shoot something, or when I can’t be bothered to take a regular camera with me, which I’d argue is the whole point of a premium point and shoot, it’s supposed to be simple and quick for social use, which is exactly what modern technology has provided with in-phone cameras, and software.

Why Film?

Why Film?

I learned photography on film, and I’m probably one of the last people to learn on film rather than digital. I’m sure I played around with my parents’ digital point and shoot cameras when I was a little younger, but when I actually really dug into photography for the first time, it was on my grandfather’s Minolta XG-M. I use film in my personal work because it plays to my core skills and lets me sidestep a lot of the stuff I don’t really like spending my time on.

I shoot film out of familiarity. Most of the cameras I shoot on are manual only cameras, or manual first, with a built in meter. This is how I learned to shoot, and it’s what I tend to think in terms of. I know how to work the internal meter, and focus using a normal SLR and rangefinder, and get completely reproducible results.

Next to familiarity is comfort and ease of use. Having learned photography fully manual, I find it much easier to manually set my exposure (and it’s compensation) and focus, rather than having to sit there and chimp my rear display to figure out why the highlights are blown or the evaluative metering is acting weird (given, it’s really really good on modern cameras). At any rate, without a lot of the extra automation, it strips back what the camera does for me, and allows me to focus more on composing and shooting.

Time is the ultimate factor for me. When I shoot film in a hybrid process (scanning the negatives and retouching), the amount of time that I have to spend sitting in front of a computer editing my scans is a tenth of what it is with digital files. I place a high premium on spending my time shooting rather than editing. I don’t like waiting or playing games with a computer to get the images I’m finishing to be like I saw them in my head and doing scans myself, or having a lab do them when they do the development. This usually gets the images I capture 99% of the way there without me having to sit there and play with them too much.

The home-dev color crew will be quick to argue that lab scans don’t leave much up to to the photographer, but I’d honestly argue that’s a difference in priorities more than some kind of moral imperative. The lab would really have to really take poetic license, or overcorrect the scans to some absurd degree for me to say they’re the ones calling the shots, especially after you factor in composition, film choice, exposure compensation or deliberate re-rating of film.

I shoot film because it allows me to shoot more clear-headedly, with little regard for post processing or getting the gadgetry to work fully in my favor. I realize the incremental costs are higher, and based on the amount that I shoot, probably much more expensive in the long run.  The time I get back from shooting, metering, and choosing the correct film for my application, is all time saved that I don’t have to spend re-envisioning photos I’ve already taken, is well worth the money.

Film is not sacred. Film is not magic. Film is simply the most convenient means to my ends.