Soft Pleasures – Why Lens Sharpness Is Overrated

I confess I’m a sucker for a searingly sharp close up of a flower or decaying texture against a soft dreamy background.

But the sharpness is only part of the appeal.

In truth, it’s the textures of the background that allure me most. 

Here are some of my favourite photographs where sharpness was not paramount – or in some cases barely in evidence at all.

Sony NEX 3N, Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro BBAR MC (17A), LightRoom preset

The Tamron 35-70/3.5 creates surprisingly painterly bokeh, whilst hinting just enough sharpness of definition to counterbalance it.

Yashica FX-3, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

The Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35/2.4 is one of the sharpest, if not the sharpest lens I have ever experienced. But sometimes its not needed, and the bokeh it produces takes centre stage.

Minolta 7000, Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7 lens, Jessops Diamond Everyday 200 expired film

The sharpness of the Minolta AF is close to redundant here, with the disappearing wire mesh becoming the central subject.

Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto Multi Coating 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

As I recently talked about, one of the great appeals of the Pentacon 50/1.8 is that stopped down it can be very sharp, but at larger apertures its increasing softness can be highly endearing. Especially with this much sunlight streaming through.

Contax 137MA, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia Reala 100 expired film

Up close the central stalks are pretty sharp – and the ML 50/1.7 is an excellent performer. But they’re overcome by the background. I couldn’t resist all those dewdrops one early sunny morning.

Pentax PC-330 with 26mm lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

This cheap flimsy pocketable Pentax is plastic even down to the lens, and could never be described as anything approaching razor sharp. But its vignetting and flare created the kind of image that would have come out very bland with a high quality lens on an SLR.

Minolta X-700, MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

This must have been shot close to wide open with the large fast 58/1.4 Minolta, as nothing is sharp, just varying degrees of dissolving light.

Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Truprint FG+ 200 expired film

The Yashica ML here produced the kind of swirl a Helios 44-2 would have been proud of.

Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

Along with its Zeiss stablemate the Flektogon 35/2.4, the Pancolar 50/1.8 is as sharp as anything I’ve used. But here that wasn’t required, instead its background rendering was put to use.

Looking back through the last year or so of my photographs to write this post has been a great reality check, and amusing to see how many images I make that don’t need any kind of sharpness from the lens.

And yet I’ve spent so much time chasing the most sharp, precise lens I could, especially in the 50mm focal length. What was I thinking?

Soft is the new sharp!

How highly do you value the sharpness of your lens(es)? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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