Sharp or Soft?

Some thoughts on sharpening by Gary Smith

One thing that struck me listening to the judge for our recent Set Subject (Colour) Competition, was the number of images he criticised as being “not sharp”. We might expect the odd image, but surely not so many in these days of autofocus cameras and easy to use sharpening tools in Photoshop? So what’s going wrong?

Autofocus will sometimes  “focus” on a designated spot away from the main centre of interest in your image. So you need to know how your camera is set up for focus. Another common reason is camera shake/movement, particularly when the lens is at the long end of it’s zoom setting. The old standard rule is to use a shutter speed greater than the focal length of your lens; in other words use a shutter speed of at least  1/250th. if you are using a 200mm lens setting. Perhaps image stabilisation in many cameras reduces this risk – but maybe doesn’t eliminate it?

Always, always , always, sharpen your image in Photoshop before “saving” the finished version for presentation. Most images (I really mean ALL) need some sharpening no matter how good your camera is. Always view your image on screen at 100% magnification when sharpening – and you will see the image “crisp” into sharper focus as you apply Smart Sharpen or Unsharp Mask in Photoshop.

Exceptional content/subject matter can sometimes outweigh a “soft’ image, but generally sharpness is an absolute necessity for those who want to do well in competitions.

I grappled with focus challenges last week, using a manual focus 90mm lens to capture faces in a crowd. Manual focus and bustling people were a real challenge. For example this image looks OK at first glance.

But look carefully at a 100% crop (before it’s sharpened) and see the “softness” particularly in the face.

Then look carefully at this sharpened version of the same crop (I used Smart Sharpen in Photoshop), comparing it with the unsharpened version above.

The weave of the material on the shoulder is much crisper, but you can see that the face, the main centre of interest in the image, is still  soft.  My manual focus point should have been on his eyes, but I wasn’t quick enough and the focus was on his shoulder. For competitions, this is not good enough.

Contrast it it with another face in crowd. This time, after sharpening in Photoshop, the face and beard are much sharper. Still not a great image but at least it’s fairly sharp!

So getting back to the judge’s comments in our competition, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, particularly if one of his “unsharp” images was yours?


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