by Harry Flashman
Are your photos sharp or soft?
Two common words in photography are ‘sharp’ and ‘soft’, and photographically
speaking there is an enormous difference between them. Those terms are the
ones reserved for describing whether the final image is well focused. We
speak about ‘sharp’ focus and ‘soft’ focus and everyone knows what is meant.
While ‘soft’ focus is not all that difficult to end up with, and you can buy
after-market filters to do this, ‘sharp’ focus is a lot more difficult to
attain, so I thought it might be worthwhile looking at what you have to do
to get pin-sharp photographs.
Forgetting all about Auto-Focus (AF) problems and camera shake for the
moment, the deciding factor on whether or not you get sharp pictures will
depend upon the quality of the optics in the lenses you use. Unfortunately
quality costs money - like most consumer items. “You get what you pay for”
works in photography just the same as it does anywhere else!
I came across this fundamental truth when I was becoming despondent with the
sharpness of my final prints many years ago. Even putting the camera on a
tripod had not helped. Asking around in my photographer acquaintances led to
my being loaned a very battered and well used journalist’s Nikon FM2N, with
I took the “old” camera away and shot a roll of film. Off to the darkroom
and guess what? Every one as sharp as a tack. I had learned an important
lesson and went out and purchased some second hand Nikon equipment, and have
never regretted it since. In fact, old FM2N Nikons were still part of my
camera equipment till very recently.
So what was the difference? Well, the end result will always rely on super
sharp optics in the lens department. If they are not spot on, neither will
your photos be spot on. The actual exposures are close enough for just about
any camera these days with the latitude in the electronics being so wide, so
the other differences now will come down to ease of use, or user
friendliness. Simple mechanical cameras, like the FM2, have simple
operations too. These new electronic cameras with their “menus” and other
operations I do not consider to be as user friendly. It is easier to push a
lever, surely. However, perhaps it might just be that I am resistant to
The important lesson from all that is that to get good results you need a
camera that has good optics. There are plenty on the market these days, and
although the Nikon brand may be my favorite, there are other manufacturers
which have equally as good quality glass at the front. Unfortunately, the
results from these great cameras can become poor if you put a cheap “after
market” lens on it. Good lenses are expensive, but the end result is always
Having mentioned AF problems earlier, a few words on this again. While AF is
now almost 100 percent universal, it still is not 100 percent foolproof. One
of the reasons for this is quite simple. The camera’s magic eye doesn’t know
exactly what subject(s) you want to be in focus and picked the wrong one!
The focusing area for the AF system is a small circle or square in the
middle of the viewfinder, so if you are taking a picture of two people two
meters away, the camera may just focus on the trees in the far distance that
it can see between your two subjects. Those trees are two km away, so you
get back a print with the background sharp and the two people in the
foreground as soft fuzzy blobs. The fix is to focus on one person, use the
‘focus lock’ and recompose the picture.
Finally - camera shake. Cameras are supposed to be operated with two hands,
not one. The practice of holding the camera in one hand and raising one, two
and three fingers on the other can only lead to camera shake. Don’t do it.
If you must tell your subjects that you are about to trip the shutter, do it
by saying the words “one, two, three” - not by waving your fingers in the
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