The Illusion of Sharpness

Obsessions can be destructive things, but I’m happy to be obsessive about getting tack sharp captures every time I go shooting. Other things like color, exposure and framing are important too, but I’m especially careful about sharpness because sharpness is the one thing that can’t be meaningfully corrected in an editor later on. Let me say that again: You need to concentrate on the things that rob our photos of sharpness during capture, because none of the so-called sharpening tools can do anything to fix an image that was captured un-sharp.

Don’t get me wrong. I “sharpen” almost every image I use*, but until editing programs are able to know what the camera SHOULD have captured, all of our so-called sharpening tools create an optical illusion designed to trick the eye into thinking that our capture was sharper than it really was. Here’s how it works: An edge consists of dark pixels next to light pixels. The sharpening tools work by first detecting those edges, and then by darkening the dark pixels and lightening the light ones. Each tool may use a slightly different path to get there, but other than that, they all work the same way.

We’ll cover these in other sessions, but for now note that there are three things that can rob our images of sharpness: Motion blurring, focus blurring, and noise. Each one is caused by something different, and therefore each one has its own remedy (or remedies). The first step in solving a blurring problem therefore, is to determine which of the three is the culprit. Learn to zoom on your images in the review screen all the way to check for sharpness, and to not let your subject leave until you’re sure you’ve been successful!

*My preferred sharpening method is Photoshop’s High Pass filter technique  (to be covered in another session soon)

Should I Edit My Pictures?

It might surprise you to learn that some photographers believe that it’s wrong to edit pictures at all.  They believe that the camera captures what’s there, and that modifying that in any way is somehow cheating.  If that describes you, then forgive me, but I think that’s silly.  Our cameras capture a small fraction of the light reflecting from the subject through the lens – even with the best equipment, and when shooting in raw (the unprocessed version of an image that we’ll discuss later).

“Should I edit my pictures?”  Yes.  “Should I spend hundreds for an editing program?”  No, not necessarily.  I use two of Adobe’s products (Photoshop and Lightroom) nearly every day, but there are alternatives that are much cheaper or even free.  Check a product called Affinity for robust editing at a very low one-time price.  At very least, with practice you should be able to diagnose and when needed make the following edits to every image you capture.  We’ll discuss each in detail in other sessions:

  1.  Rotate & Crop
  2.  Levels adjustment for contrast
  3.  Color Correction

If you’re wise you’ll embrace photo-editing not only for improved pictures, but also for the lessons it teaches you about how to get better captures in the first place.  You’ll learn how easy it is to fix some mistakes, but also how hard it is to fix others!  Eventually you’ll see that it’s wonderful to be able to fix badly shot images, but it’s even better to instead enhance images that were shot well.