The Ongoing Obsession with Lens Sharpness

From the beginning of photographic time, enthusiasts have been obsessed with lens sharpness. And this quest has caused many to bypass optics with great character and creative potential.

I have my own history with scrutinizing lab tests. As a kid, I was hooked on photography magazines. I would go to the newsstand and peruse the latest copies of Modern Photography, Shutterbug, and Popular Photography. Most months I could only afford one, and the winner was determined by the gear it reviewed.

New cameras were fun to read about, but the real juice was found in the detailed lens reviews. I studied the text and charts to determine how sharp the optic was wide open, its ideal aperture setting, and its ranking among the competition. Yes, there were also references to mechanical design and color rendition. Those didn’t interest me as much.

Today, my priorities have changed.

I didn’t start to question the sharpness litmus test until the digital age. Objectively, all modern lenses are magnificent. You can cage-match a $2,000 Zeiss optic against a $200 no-name and get good results from each. Their renderings may be different, but the pictures are still beautiful.

In terms of experimenting with different optics, mirrorless cameras led the parade down a new path. They made it easy to adapt vintage lenses to modern digital bodies. You could buy an adapter for $25 and go on a second-hand lens shopping spree that cost a fraction of just one brand name prime.

And the resulting pictures with the bargain lenses were good — sometimes, very good.

These experiences led me to a moment of truth. A lens should not be judged solely on optical bench sharpness. And photographers who free themselves of this pixel-peeping restriction open a new world of creative possibilities.

When I started writing this piece, I decided to test my theory once again. I adapted a vintage Yashica 50mm f/1.9 lens ($25) to a mirrorless Olympus E-M10 Mark II and made a portrait of my cat sunning herself by the window. I set the aperture wide open to f/1.9.

As you look at the photo, do you care about how sharp the picture is? Probably not. You’re thinking about how it makes you feel. Do you like it, or not?

Yes, there are situations when you would need the best optics money can buy, but general creative photography isn’t one of them.

Lenses are the paint brushes of our art. Their color qualities and rendering vary, and those differences can be used to create a more expressive image. Personally, I actually get bored with overly sharp digital pictures that lack character.

Portraits are a good example. Yes, we want the eyes sharp. But how much texture do you really want in the skin? (Ask you mom that question then stand back.) And we usually want the edges and background soft anyway, right?

I will use any portrait lens that has good center sharpness. I could care less about its edge performance. Thousands of those are currently available for less than $100 on the second-hand market.

I have many lenses in my collection. Some of them are true optical stars. Many of them you’ve never heard of. And I doubt that you could tell the difference between them by looking at my pictures.

Photographer, writer, podcaster- Tune in at www.thedigitalstory.com

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