Do you think a lens can be too sharp?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by iversonwhite, Jun 6, 2012.

  1. Oscar winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zigmond taught a master class at my university last year. A local professional asked him which he thought was sharper-- primes or zooms? He answered that he didn't care because they were both usually too sharp for him. That's why he usually uses diffusion filters on the lens.
  2. Too sharp is never a problem that post production can't solve. The opposite isn't true.
  3. Some people like the soft diffused look, but there is nothing wrong with sharpness as long as you are not shooting portraits.
  4. Sorry but it sounds a pretty stupid answer to me. At least he can soften a sharp lens, I'm afraid he would find it hard to get hold of filters to sharpen a soft lens if needed.
  5. Hopefully Vilmos Zigmond will read this and learn conventional wisdom...
    Seriously, it's matter of personal preference. Obsession with lens sharpness is obviously the norm. A guy like Vilmos doesn't "need" infinite potential for his imagery. He's already decided on what he wants and doesn't want. Somewhere in the Adams books there's a story about Weston's lens, which AA thought to be obsolete, flarey etc. He offered Weston any of his own lenses, and EW turned him down. He knew what he wanted.
    A lens can be too sharp for a particular photographer's vision.
  6. Sounds like a pretty stupid question too. Hopefully there was some context that made it more sensible.
    Possibly for cinematography/video there's a little more need (at least historically) to get it the way you want it in camera, you won't want to post-process the entire shoot with the same type of attention you might give a single stills frame.
    Perhaps the answer to the question was also of reduced importance because of the medium -- the motion of camera and subjects and constantly changing focus mean that the level of critical sharpness we might admire in a still image isn't normally such an important factor and more difficult to obtain anyway -- such that that is no longer the most important factor in lens selection.
  7. I think you all make good points, but I disagree that his statement was stupid. You may not remember that it was/is still possible to buy soft focus lenses. You also have to remember that VZ was shooting motion pictures on film. Until recently if you wanted to manipulate the image in post-production you needed to use an optical printer and lose at least a generation. Lots of effects were done in camera.
    During the master class he was working with a state of the art HD camera and a Cooke zoom. He would try out different diffusion filters until he found the one he liked. I'm sure that if he started with a lens that was too soft to begin with he would switch to a sharper lens and then diffuse it if necessary.
    Shooting a motion picture scene is very much like shooting portraits if not exactly the same thing. Usually every actor has a key, fill, and hair, light for every position they move to. In the old days a cinematographer was often required to make female stars in particular look their best. They would minimize blemishes and imperfections.
  8. I agree with Louis. And there is something else. Unless I'm mistaken, with a few notable exceptions, digital cameras come with anti-aliasing filters, to keep the "sharpness," or spatial frequency, below the Nyquist/Kotelnikov/Shannon rate. Cameras without such filters can achieve greater sharpness for photographers willing to live with the aliasing effects. The filters in front of the digital sensors that most of us buy reduce the sharpness. Again, it's a matter of preference.
  9. Andrew, the context was that a master cinematographer was teaching a class to an informed group of local professionals and students. One got to ask him anything they wanted about cinematography, cameras, lenses, etc. Lots of people are disciples of either primes or zooms and they want to know if someone like VZ shares their opinion. It's an age old debate as to which is sharper.
    He did say that he preferred zooms for their ability to change framing quickly.
  10. It wasn't really clear in the OP that we're talking about film/video, here.
  11. Sharpness is a handy quality and can be used creatively for rendition of texture, etc. Super-sharpness is seldom if ever desirable for pictures of people, whether as still portraits or images in feature films, hence the efforts of lens makers through the ages, from the Petzval lens through to the Leitz Thambar, Rodenstock Imagon and beyond, to provide people photographers with a varying degree of diffusion. Don’t forget, too, that when Vilmos Zigmond says zoom lens, he doesn’t mean cheapo built-down-to-a-price kit lenses but super-expensive examples for professional cinematography.
  12. Agree 100% with Vilmos. I do the same process. At times, lens is too sharp....image does not look real and/or natural anymore.
  13. Matt, granted, but post did lead with: "Oscar winning cinematographer, Vilmos Zigmond..."
  14. If the goal of photography is the faithful depiction of reality, then no lens can ever be too sharp. But of course people like to present reality in different ways, so the camera can sometimes be made to lie.
  15. Reality is often much softer than a lot of "sharp" photos I see. It's often the most sharp lenses that are lying. And I don't mind photos lying, but the holy grail of sharpness, to me, seems often counterproductive. Too much sharpness often doesn't feel alive, and feels sterile.
  16. IMHO, at least some of the current concern about over-sharpened images is an entirely understandable reaction to the recent onslaught of over-sharpened images made by using unsharp masking and other post processing techniques on images that were initially too soft.
    FWIW, in the plane of best focus, lenses can't increase the contrast ratio across an edge, and can't decrease the (relative) width of an edge -- they can only decrease the contrast ratio and increase the (relative) width of the transition. Put differently, lenses can't over-sharpen the plane of best focus. So, to me, in general, I'd rather start with an optically sharp image and thereby not be tempted to over-apply PP sharpening rather than visa-versa. In this sense, for general use, I'd much rather have a sharp lens on my camera (assuming it doesn't produce nervous OOF backgrounds, have excessive CA, etc.).
    That being said, the previous comments about the incongruity of sharp images with certain subject matter, the photographer's vision, the logistics of editing thousands of frames of movie film, etc. are right on the mark. In fact, I've personally been moving in exactly this direction. For example, a few days ago, I started a thread discussing ways to better simulate optical soft focus effects, and have just unearthed my box of old soft-focus, fog and related optical filters and have just started experimenting with them on my current generation digital cameras.
    Tom M
  17. It's not been mentioned but perceived sharpness plays hand in hand with the distance of the subject in relation to the amount of the frame the subject occupies. It's an optical trick though subtle.
    This is why tack sharp prints of landscapes look downright weird and unnatural while a close up portrait that fills the entire frame as in a close up shot in a movie should appear sharp because the viewer is looking at a subject much more up close. The projection of that close-up to the big screen is going to be somewhat softened as a result, but other pulled back shots indicating distance shouldn't be the same sharpness level. You can't have all scenes have the same level of sharpness.
    Another reason prints need special sharpness attention is that depending on size of the print the viewer is made aware that they are looking at a somewhat small 2D reflective surface at a certain distance usually at arm's length for an 8x10 or 4x6 as well as the scene itself adding its own distance. If it's too sharp it violates this awareness to the viewer. I see so many fine art prints over sharpened especially of landscapes that it ruins what would've been a beautiful capture. Print the same over sharpened landscape on a 3x4 foot and up substrate then it wouldn't appear as sharp due to viewing at a much farther distance.
    I believe VM prefers using diffusion filters because it creates distance as one viewing another world or parallel universe. We go to the movies to escape reality not relive it. OTOH the "Paranormal Activity" movies uses the somewhat sharpened appearance of HD video to make something fantastical as ghostly activity seem real (documentary style) by subconsciously associating it to the public's familiarity of that "look" established by their own home movies and what's posted on YouTube. At some point if the HD video was too sharp then that subconscious connection would be lost. Sharpening is used more so for emotional effect than for technical perfection reasons.
  18. Lens sharpness is for cinematographers with nothing interesting to say/show...
  19. Softening up a super sharp lens is not exclusive to cinematograhers. Before digital, the Rolls Royce of cameras for wedding and portrait photographers was the Hasselblad, with Hassy's line of cut-your-finger-and-make-it-bleed sharp Zeiss lenses. And what was the first thing the majority or portait photographer did after paying $3,000 for a Zeiss 150mm? Put a diffusion filter on it. The lenses were so sharp that they showed every pore, every wrinkle, every flaw of the portrait subject, to the point that the average person would object. The degree of diffusion ranged from knocking off just a touch of sharpness to "misties" that made brides look like they were floating in fog. Styles varied from year to year and photographer to photographer. In the movie world, shooting women with a diffusion filter over the lens to eliminate wrinkles and make an aging actress look younger has been common practice for decades. Men, on the other hand, were often shot "warts and all."
  20. My sheet film shooter and master silverprint maker friends sometimes debate the merits of lenses. None would sacrifice sharpness, I don't think. Their pics sometimes suffer from over-sharpness from their routine print-making habits where none is needed. This carries over to digital work too - "USM sliders to the right. Mahaaarch!" They may be over-sensitized to peer criticism - safer to be sharp than sorry: "See up there in the corner - that pine needle…?"
    The size of the print, PLUS more importantly, viewing conditions should dictate the degree of sharpness that looks best. Do I want to hold in my hand a picture meant to be seen from across a board room?
    How sharp can YOU get $$$? Yea, I know the movie guys rent everything.
  21. The goal of photography is almost never the faithful reproduction of reality, and when it is, it fails.
  22. If you do not have blurr with film/video you have jerky movement essential if not THE difference between shooting stills and movies. Why 1/50 shutter speed is the norm.
  23. Sorry but I still stand by my first response, you CAN make a sharp lens softer, you CANNOT make a soft lens sharper. If you want a particular soft effect then it makes sense to start with a lens that will give you the full gamut of sharpness available rather than one that is limited in what you can achieve. Back in the day, as many have pointed out, portrait photogs would maybe need to soften skin texture to give a more pleasing effect, I don't know of many, though, who would soften eyes, hair, accessories etc. Most of those would be kept as sharp as possible.
  24. A true soft-focus lens of the old type was soft because of aberrations, not just diffusion. It is true, I think, that the kind of softness you get from a diffusion filter can be created after the fact. Not so sure that it matters practically, but it could be harder to duplicate a real soft-focus effect.
    Similarly, you can mimic a polarizer in Photoshop, but it's a lot more work than just using a filter to start with.
    Filters and soft-focus lenses ain't dead yet! (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)​
  25. I have always looked at it mostly from a cost benefit perspective. When I was a Canon FD lens user I had a surging desire to own the Canon L 85mm 1.2 lens which sat in the used counter of my favorite now defunct camera emporium. It listed for about 550 or 660 dollars which seemed to be out of my (then) price range. I settled for Canon's lesser corrected 85mm FD1.8 lens, which went for around 125 dollars used mint as I recall. The difference was that wide open there was no comparison true, but with my usual down a stop or so shooting conditions I could not see a great difference in optical corrections. I finally borrowed the 1.8 L lens for a week from Canon and felt the point of focus was so crisp and narrow wide open that it was indeed " too sharp" for me. For people shots anyhow. At that time I was stretching black tulle in embroidery hoops for softening. Stretching the budget that is.
    And apropos of nothing special, glad to see that the sharp lens analogy is getting some elegant variations. More than the old' tack sharp' biz... If we ever have a contest, I submit "sharper than a samurai's sideburns." :)
  26. Sorry, but my Canon 100mm Macro is way too sharp for portraits. It is too sharp for a lot of subjects. Lucky for me I have other lenses I can use. Why would I use my Macro lens, then put some softening filter infront of it, then maybe go into Photoshop to make it look even more natural ? Suppose I have to go through 1000's of pictures ?

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