On Sharpness

I talked a few posts ago about our perceptions of image sharpness. I illustrated that post with an example of extreme sharpness – showing the amazing level of detail available even hand-held from my Olympus OMD-EM10 and its tiny and cheap kit lens.

A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 "high grain with pin-hole" scene mode.
A view of Skiddaw shot using the Olympus OMD-EM10 “high grain with pin-hole” scene mode.

This time I want to go to the other extreme. The shot above was a result of constraining myself to shoot JPEG only on a day of uninspiring bright sunshine. In real life this was not an attractive scene. A water pipeline is being layed and the project has created an ugly scar on the landscape. The light is flat and uninteresting. However the shapes are strong. The S-shaped curve of the pipes and track leading up to the mountain range and with the aircraft contrails fanning out at the top.

I used the Olympus’ “High Grain” scene mode, with the addition of “pin-hole effect” which has created a strong vignette. I find the results work quite well, though quite different to my normal style. Here’s another shot taken a short while later. The scene is more my usual thing but the light and haze made it a boring conventional shot.

Using Olympus High Grain scene mode
Using Olympus High Grain scene mode

The point of this post, though, is that the effects have removed much of the technical sharpness from the shot. Looking at it at 100% magnification gives the authentic impression of poor quality film shot through a poor quality lens from a hundred years ago. However this becomes irrelevant because of the strong subject and composition. If anything, sharpness and technical quality might have distracted. As it is, it becomes easier for the viewer to see the strong abstract shapes but still keeping the atmosphere of the landscape.

I was speaking about this subject to someone recently and they said that when you’re concerned about the lack of sharpness in your picture it’s because there’s nothing to hold your attention in the subject and composition. I agree. Probably all modern cameras are capable of giving good quality results. If you’re worrying whether your camera or lens are sharp enough then pay more attention to the fundamentals – subject, composition and light.

Try something different

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I did a walk on wednesday starting at Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in the Lake District. The weather was perfect for walking – blue skies and sunshine – but completely uninspiring for photography, especially with hazy air. I gave up any idea of taking good shots so thought I’d try something different. I set the camera to record JPEG only and tried a variety of art effects that the Olympus provides. The idea was to constrain my choices and live with the results, good or bad.

There’s a long tradition of this in art and photography. Sometimes when you have complete freedom to do whatever you want it’s difficult to decide what you want. Giving yourself constraints can free you up. In photography perhaps we have too much freedom with digital cameras and zoom lenses. Take a film camera and a fixed prime lens and choose a particular film type. If this is all you have with you then you’re forced to work within these constraints.

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I didn’t go this far, of course. My Olympus OMD-EM10 has a zoom lens (I don’t own a prime lens for it) and you can’t leave all of its options at home. So you need a little self-discipline to put it on JPEG and leave it there.

The two art effects I found most interesting were soft-focus and high-grain black and white. The soft-focus option has an added “star effect” option, and the high-grain has an extra “pin-hole” option.

The big benefit of the electronic viewfinder, of course, is that you see all these effects in the viewfinder as you compose the scene.

At the moment it’s peak time for bluebells and wild garlic. I was lucky enough to find a beautiful clump of wild garlic raised up high next to a driveway, so that the flowers were on eye-level. When you see a carpet of wildflowers you might be tempted simply to point the camera and shoot but the results may be disappointing. You still need to find a strong subject and composition to make the most of the scene.

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I thought I’d get some good shots but was nervous about using JPEG and these scene effects. If the results didn’t work I wouldn’t be able to fix them. But the soft-focus effect I saw through the viewfinder gave me some creative energy. I might not have been so inspired to look for the shots if I had stuck to shooting raw.

Later on I found some nice areas of bluebells in the woods. The strong sunshine coming through created a high-contrast scene which I would normally have turned my nose up at. Having the camera on JPEG/soft-focus made it seem less like serious photography and freed me up to take the shots anyway. The results are far from perfect, with plenty of blown-out highlights that would normally make me reject the results, but I just don’t care and I like the results.

On Image Sharpness

It is my view that there are no magic secrets to getting a good photograph and that subject matter and composition always trump technical perfection. However I commonly get clients saying they’re disappointed with the pictures from their expensive cameras and in particular they’re disappointed with the sharpness (or lack of).

I thought I’d write some posts on the subject of image sharpness, which I think is more about perception than actuality. Hopefully these will be coming over the coming days and weeks.

But never let me be accused of consistency because I was taken just now with the fantastic sharpness I got in this picture from my lovely wee M.Zuiko 14-42mm kit lens on my Olympus OMD-EM10.

This picture was taken hand-held, with the subject moving slightly in a medium breeze. I’m not just amazed by the sharpness of the lens but also the accuracy of the focus and the great image stabilisation. This was taken at 42mm (84mm in full-frame equivalent) and 1/125 second. I’ve processed in Lightroom and added my usual amount of sharpening but nothing special.

Here’s the shot, followed by a 100% crop of the centre section.

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and the 100% crop. I hope WordPress doesn’t mangle it after upload.

 

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A little bit of snow

By coincidence I exchanged comments a day or so ago with a reader from Helsinki who had posted a YouTube link showing his driving in snow. I responded that with so much snow Britain would grind to a halt. Today we had about an inch of snow and there was chaos on the roads and trains cancelled. My wife’s one hour journey to work turned into three hours. Britain doesn’t understand snow. Continue reading

More Cheshire Autumn

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This has been a great autumn and it isn’t over yet. I went back to the woods at Alderley Edge and found them full of colour and with the perfect overcast sky.

There’s a legend about these woods. About a wizard. You can see how these woods could produce such a legend, they’re full of character. There are beautiful individual trees, both mature and sapling. I found myself strolling very slowly, waiting for compositions to arrange themselves. A good sign.


The Olympus OMD-EM10 is perfect for this type of shooting. Using a tripod, the day is dull enough that the rear screen is easily seen and composing on a large, high-resolution screen is really nice. It also lets me compose using my crop of choice – 1:1 or 16:9 or the native 4:3.

 

Trefriw

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I took a couple of shots earlier this year that have had a big influence on me. They were both shots of narrow, tree-lined lanes. Since then I’ve been taking lots of photos of lanes and going out of my way to find such places. I don’t know if it’s a passing fad or something longer term but I’ve been very pleased to find inspiration in the less obvious.

These shots were taken a few weeks ago near the village of Trefriw, in the Conwy valley in Snowdonia. From the village you can wander into the hills towards the lakes of Crafnant and Gerionydd. You go into steep-sided, thickly wooded valleys with some wonderful views. Despite the loveliness I was surprised at how few shots I took.

Lingmoor Fell

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I did a lovely round of Lingmoor Fell and Little and Great Langdales last week. Lots of autumn colour. As you’ll see this small hill has great views of some of the best known Lake District mountains and right now must be one of the best times to be there.

The route is quite simple, with a clear path all the way until you get to Side Pike. There’s a difficulty there, especially if you’re plus-sized. There’s a cleft in the rock that you have to squeeze through and even a skinny person like me needs to take my rucsac off to do it. Right after that there’s a nice bit of scrambling as an option.

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The autumn colours are really good this year, I hope to get lots more shots over the next few weeks.