Can an image be too sharp, are soft lenses sometimes better?

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Jeremy Gray

posted Thursday, December 23, 2021 at 10:45 AM EST



‘I’m sorry, but modern cameras are far too sharp,’ opens photographer Steve O’Nions in his latest video. Steve O’Nions loves film photography. His YouTube channel is full of great videos, including many on-location shoots. When many photographers are looking for a new camera or lens, they put sharpness near the top of their list of considerations. I certainly love sharp lenses. O’Nions prioritizes ‘character’ instead.

Rather than opt for sharp lenses, O’Nions’ hunt for character finds him more frequently choosing ‘soft’ and ‘fuzzy’ lenses. His subject in his new video is an 800-year-old castle. While some photographers may see the jagged edges and fine detail and want a sharp lens to bring it all out, O’Nions wants a soft lens to give his photos an old, antique feel. When picking a lens for a specific subject, O’Nions doesn’t only care about focal length and aperture. He also cares about the lens’s character and the ‘feel’ it evokes. For him, a ‘worse’ lens, by traditional standards, can be a better lens for a specific photo.

It’s an interesting topic to consider. When is ‘worse’ better? Even if you are using a digital camera, plenty of lenses you can use have ‘character’ and lack the critical sharpness of expensive optics. With the plethora of adapters available, you can easily attach old film lenses to modern digital cameras to interesting effect. While O’Nions is shooting with a Holga film camera in the above video, the principles he discusses apply to many different cameras.

I think that we as photographers can sometimes care too much about image sensor performance and lens quality. After all, when we share our photos, at least when we share them with non-photographers, the viewer rarely cares about the equipment used. They care about how an image makes them feel. Cameras and lenses are tools at the end of the day, and different tools work well for different tasks. You don’t always need the sharpest lens to capture the best photo.

(Via Steve O’Nions)