Saturday, December 3, 2011

Is Sharpness Over Rated?

Who hasn’t admired photos with incredible sharpness? Tack sharp, from the foreground to the background. Just as the magnificent masters of landscape photography capture. Photographers spend a lot of money to buy the highest quality lenses, lug around heavy tripods, and spend a lot of time studying up on the latest tips all in effort to capture the sharpest possible image. But is it all worth it? Or is sharpness over rated?

Photography is art, and like all art & beauty, tastes vary greatly. Most photographers try to achieve ultimate sharpness in their images, attempting to capture images with the most details. That is often a good thing and works for many different subjects from portraits to landscapes. But as usual, I would like to offer an alternative point of view.

I love soft and dreamy imagery where the viewer can feel the mood and atmosphere. Yes, many of my images are sharp. Either all the way from foreground to background, or sometimes with just a sliver of sharpness as in my shallow depth of field floral images. But occasionally I’ll experiment with creating images that have more blur than sharpness. Sometimes I’ll even deliberately capture images that are a total blur. A Simplified, impressionistic interpretation of a world over saturated with distracting details can make for an interesting image.

Most photographers start out trying to capture the sharpest, most detailed photographs possible. But as time goes by and we get deeper into the craft, many of us start to appreciate creative blur. Creative blur is not for everyone, some people never appreciate that type of imagery. And then there are the many that do enjoy viewing those images, but have no interest in creating them. And that’s OK, just because you can appreciate a style of art doesn't mean you need to incorporate it into your own work. Diversity is a wonderful thing.

For those of you interested in creating images with creative blur read on.

Know The Rules
In order to create deliberate & creative blur in your images, a good solid base knowledge of knowing how to create tack sharp photographs is necessary. Know the rules and then figure out how to break them to present a whole new interpretation of your world.

Use of a telephoto lens at its widest aperture
 while working at a closedistance to these leaves
rendered a beautifully painterly style photograph.

Shallow Depth Of Field

My most used technique for creative blur. Using the widest aperture your lens offers is a good place to start with creative blur. I love images with shallow depth of field, where only a small part of the image is in focus and the rest of the image is in varying degrees of softness.

Depth of field is a term to describe how much of an image is focus from the near to the far planes of an image. As objects are different distances away from the camera, you may be unable to have all parts of a scene be in sharp focus all at once.

I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion about depth of field here but here are a few tips on rendering images with shallow depth of field. Use a wide open aperture. When using wide apertures such as F2, often only a small plane of focus will appear sharp. How large this plane of focus will be depends on how close you are to your subject and how far apart the elements in your scene are. The closer you are to your subject, the less depth of field you will have. What lens you are using will also play a factor in depth of field. Use of long telephoto lenses usually renders less depth of field than use of wide angle lenses does.

To sum it up: Using a telephoto lens, shot wide open, and working close to your subject will render the softest, shallowest depth of field that your lens has to offer. I especially like this effect for flower subjects. But I also use it when photographing details in nature. I love when the background appears almost like a painted backdrop acting as a supporting role to highlight some feature in nature that I chose to single out such as some berries, or a branch filled with beautiful leaves. It is a technique that has become part of my signature style.

I used my Lensbaby 2.0 and a wide aperture to
render a soft image with some detail in the center
of the flower.

I love my Lensbaby! This cute lens that resembles more of a toy than a serious photographic tool has added a whole new layer of style to my own imagery. I will dedicate an upcoming entire blog post just to this unusual len but here I will quickly say that this lens is a wonderful tool for images that have creative blur. Those of you that are unfamiliar with this lens should check out their complete lineup at:

Basically it’s a lens with a flexible lens barrel which allows you to bend and tilt the optic resulting in creative blur. It is a simple lens which offers a shallow depth of field. It is my go to lens when I am seeking the shallowest depth of field and when I want to create impressionistic, "painterly" style images.

A combination of camera and subject movement
here made for an interesting photograph of a
professional wrestling match.

Camera Movement

Moving the camera during a long exposure, such as 1/10 shutter speed or slower, will "paint" an image. Move the camera up and down, side to side, swirly style, etc. Experiment with movement.

Panning is another type of camera movement. Using a relatively slow shutter speed, you press the shutter button and follow a moving subject. A 1/20 shutter speed is a good starting point. Works great for moving subjects such as horses, race cars, runners, bicyclists, and many other types of action.



Another time honored technique is to use your zoom lens, press the shutter button and zoom your lens at the same time while using a slower speed. A 1/10 shutter speed is a good starting point to render a nice zoom effect.


Sharp / Blur Combo

This technique works best when using a tripod. A scene that contains both static and moving features make for ideal subjects for this type of photograph. A long time favorite technique of landscape photographers when photographing waterfalls, rivers, and wind blown foliage. The still parts of the image will be sharp while the moving parts (water) will be creatively blurred. This technique works well with many subjects. Experimentation with different shutter speeds is key, 1/20 second is a good starting point.


Focus? What’s That?!

Sometimes an image looks just fine with no focus at all. A good way to experiment with this technique to is to manually focus your camera and watch the image in your viewfinder. When you see an abstract image that pleases you it is time to press the shutter button.

In Photoshop I combined a photograph of a
cloudy sky and some flowers that I took. I then
added a bit of lens flare and enhanced the color
a bit.

You can use a variety of computer programs to selectively add softness and blur. This option does offer the most control as you can choose to capture a sharp image and then later decide which parts to selectively blur and by how much. I prefer to do it in camera, it is more fun and saves you computer time later. But software is another option for those that either want more control, or want to add softness after the image has been captured sharply. I don’t think software realistically renders softness the same way the camera does, but sometimes it does work and there are a lot of new programs out there that now do a good job with mimicking various softness effects.


Optical Filters

Good old fashioned optical lens filters. Yes, they still have their place in this digital age, especially if you are like me and enjoy getting effects done in camera. Fun filters to experiment with include: soft focus, soft focus with clear spot, zoom/motion effect, mist & fog, and more. Another technique that is fun to experiment with is using a clear filter smeared with petroleum jelly.


"Found" Filters

Photographing behind objects such as textured glass, fishnet, screens, translucent fabrics, colored plastic, and just about any other semi-translucent material will work to capture images with unusual patterns, abstractness, and softness.
I used a telephoto lens shot at its widest aperture to render the
pleasant out of focus background which helped to make the
subject pop in this image.
I hope these tips will get you started on your creative journey.

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