What Is Sharp

I love my equipment. I love my lenses. I have my favorites and to tell the truth I cannot fully articulate why they are my favorites. A long time ago I thought that they were the best lenses in terms of some quantifiable number. Sometimes they let me down but other times they made images that sang to me like no other.

Consider this post a placeholder so that I don't forget to actually write a follow-up that contains all of my thoughts and findings on this topic.

Here is the bottom line - what you choose to focus on, how well you do that, and the way the light falls on the scene trumps every single technical lens specification period. I know this to be true. The problem is trying to demonstrate this in some sort of fair manner. I decided to do it in a completely unfair way. Unfair in that I will offer no comparison but only try to show what the hell I am talking about in circumstances with one image that is made under conditions that are horrible from a technical point of view.

I found a few dozen rolls of Kodak TRI-X that were about a dozen years out of date in a box that had been moved three times with no consideration at all in their accommodations. I shot a roll just to see what condition it was in. The results proved that it was fogged, lost speed, lost contrast, and was generally garbage from what one would consider in terms of image quality. I decided to experiment with how I could use this crap and if it would be worthwhile. One of my experiments was to aggravate the awfulness even more.

I will leave this post with a few facts as well as a huge 40x magnification JPEG for further discussion…

  1. This film is crap it has lost most of it's resolving power for lots of reasons that I will discuss if anyone is interested.
  2. I shot this hand held at 1/60 second with a Nikon F3 and a 50mm f 1.4 that is as old as I am. Translation = single coated and not really all that great technically when shot wide open.
  3. I chose the point of focus deliberately. I didn't do it for this demonstration, I did it instinctively based on what I know about how "sharpness" works.
  4. The scan is sub-optimal in that I can assure you that the film is not flat nor is the scan head focused on the focus point exactly as I did not pay any attention to this when I scanned the roll. I set it to batch scan.
  5. Nothing was sharpened or enhanced in any way. Nothing. No curves, no levels, NOTHING, nada. It did visit Photoshop to desaturate the warm cast of the color scan and for the resize which I specifically selected bicubic (w/o sharper). I also used the crop tool for the 40x magnification.

I think we could probably all agree that the point of sharpest focus is f'ing sharp. As in crazy sharp. Ask yourself why this is when using a technically inferior film - even in it's best state with an inferior lens (50mm Nikkor-S Non-AI f 1.4) under the worst possible conditions handheld at a relatively slow shutter speed wide open, shitty scanner, no "recover the sharpness" sharpening, etc, etc, etc. I do mean to discuss this further. Excuse the placeholder but if I don't put it here I will forget as about a million things cross my mind that never see the light of day.


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