The Sharpness Of Your Lens Probably Doesn’t Matter

Every once in a while I get an email asking me which lens is best for this or that, which isn’t odd in and of itself, but if you look at the world of photography these days I feel like we ought to be worried about something far more important than which lens is a fraction sharper than the other…  Like how to create a better photograph.  Now, macro/product photographers out there need to cover their eyes and move on.  If you make your living creating macro photographs then you’re probably one of the few photographers that may actually want to concern yourself with which lens is sharpest.  For the rest of us, the small difference in sharpness between one lens or the other is probably not having the impact on our photography that we think it is.

Let me put it to you this way, a sharp photograph of a boring subject is still a boring photograph.  Nobody says “man, that photograph is boring but you gotta hand it to him or her, it’s dang sharp”.  I’ve never heard of a photography contest where the judge comments “We picked this photograph because it is clearly the sharpest one”.  Get where I’m going with this?  On the flip side, it’s amazing what people can overlook if the subject matter is interesting or dare I say, moving.

Anyone who has shot with film can relate with this article, the story is everything (film is far from sharp by today’s standards).  Photo taken with the Leica M7.

The photograph at the top of this article is one of the more popular ones I uploaded to social media lately, even though it was shot at 1/12th of a second and suffers from some definite camera shake (perhaps I was over caffeinated).  Just a year ago this photo would have been relegated to dying a slow, lonesome death in my archives because it didn’t meet the “sharpness standard” that I felt photos needed to adhere to.  Ultimately, this caused me to consider the amount of time and money I spend choosing a lens and whether it was time/money well spent.  It is not.

So what has changed?  There are forums all over the internet dedicated to photographers arguing about whose lens is sharpest, what will they talk about now?  There are more photos than one can count being uploaded daily to sites like Instagram, Facebook, and whatever other hip photo sharing site I’m not aware of.  We are constantly being barraged with new photos every minute of every day.  Everything starts to look the same after a while.  There are literally spots in your city or town called “Instagram Spots” where photographers repeatedly visit to take and upload photos, probably with a moody filter slapped on for good effect.  To be honest, at this point, viewers don’t really care how sharp your image is…  They just want to see something that moves, or surprises them.  Something different.

My advice to anyone searching for their next best lens is standard, get the one you can afford and get out there and use it.  Spend less time scrutinizing the sharpness of your gear and more time using it to set yourself apart.  Create images that others are not.  Create images with stories that move viewers.  Just create.

Please don’t take this as carte blanche to run around with your camera, shooting from the hip, and not worrying about technical things like motion blur and focus.  Notice the title of the article mentions lens sharpness, the difference between lenses is generally small and hard to notice without pixel peeping.  If your images are soft because you used the wrong settings on your camera then you need to lock that up (fancy speak for you need to learn how to use the correct settings).

Finally, I’m aware that certain lenses react differently to various scenarios (like the angle of light or type of light source).  My Leica lenses that cost north of $3,000 can handle just about every type of light thrown at it.  This is good and bad.  Hear me out, I like a lens with character.  More specifically, I like a lens with unique characteristics because it helps me create unique images.  The image above was shot with a Leica lens, but I used a flawed lens hood to cause the light to flare in a very unique way.  This photograph would have been boring had the lens flare not occurred.  If you can only afford a lens that gives you a lens flare (or other unique characteristic) in difficult lighting simply embrace it (lucky for you, there are plenty of articles about how to add lens flare in post processing because it is so popular these days).

What Is A Photograph That Tells A Story?

I wanted to wrap up this article with a few words on what it takes to create an image with a story.  The smart-ass in me wants to show you a photograph of one of my sons story books but my wife tells me I’m telling too many dad jokes these days (but use your imagination because I still think it would have been funny).  A photograph that tells a story has depth, it’s more than a photograph of a cityscape, more than a photograph of a flower, it’s simply more than.

Take the photograph at the very top of this article, what is going on with that guy?  What an odd place to stop, right?  Why is he looking like he is about to break down.  Is he sick?  Does he have something in his shoe?  A photograph that tells a story is a photograph that asks questions of the viewer…  Begs questions of the user.  A story telling photograph is like an open-ended question.

Have I convinced you that your next lens does not have to be the sharpest lens in the world?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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5 replies on “The Sharpness Of Your Lens Probably Doesn’t Matter”
  1. says: Lewsh

    Being a senior citizen, I have acquired the wherewith all to purchase any glass I choose (finally). But now I have another monkey on my back which is the weight of a lens and its’ physical size. This has forced me to let go of highly corrected glass for something I can carry and still stand vertical at the end of the day. I don’t print (don’t yell at me, I’m only human) so I set up my photos for screen/TV presentations. I can tell you that Mr. Barbiaux is sitting quite well when he says that we all don’t ned the sharpest lens in the world. Subject matter leads the eye and mind far more than sharp glass.

  2. says: douglasgottlieb

    I enjoyed this article and the accompanying images. But I did miss the dad joke.

    I can’t help but feel that this is a little bit like people who chastise gear lusters like me with “Shoot what you have — that new x won’t make you a better photographer!” Lots of fellow photographers seem to believe that other photographers believe that they need a certain piece of kit to get better, but I’ve never heard a photographer actually say they do.

    Similarly, while I fully agree with you (and HCB) about sharpness being over rated, what’s wrong with seeking, and admiring the latest and greatest, as long as it doesn’t stop you? And again, I don’t know anyone who’s said, I can’t be happy without the sharpest lenses.

    Still, all good thought and images.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Thanks for the feedback and interesting take on the article. First, the dad joke: I was implying that a photograph that told a story would be a photograph of one of my sons story books… A picture of a book telling stories being my photo that told stories. You and my wife would probably get along quite well ;).

      Second, I’m sorry you felt the article was chastising you for wanting the best gear. That was not my intent. You are right, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting the latest and greatest. However, I do know people who have struggled with G.A.S. (check out Eric Kim’s blog) and have struggled with it myself. Those of us who have went through this have such a desire for the next best thing that our desire to photograph drops substantially until we get our hands on the next piece of equipment that will improve our skills… Crazy right!

      Again, I truly appreciate the feedback and apologize if it came off like I was chastising folks.

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