Steve McCurry Sharp
One of the fun and quite frankly, thrilling things that digital imaging has been able to deliver that film never did, is the ability to give you truly razor sharp images. Yeah, we had sharp images in the film days, but not like what we can get now. With the digital cameras ability to grab detail and photoshop’s many techniques in sharpening, we have surpassed film by miles. Over the past two Lumen Dei workshops we developed an expression that might be taken disrespectful toward the Guru of travel and world photographers, Steve McCurry. The expression is, “Steve McCurry sharp”. It is not meant to be disrespectful. Let me explain and give Mr McCurry his truly just dues. First, Steve McCurry is outstanding and has set the bar for all of us to reach for in our photography. But once you visit an exhibit of his you will notice something odd. Many of his images are slightly soft. Some of the focus is soft, others there is slight movement. You can’t say this is bad, when the man defines “excellence”. Prior to digital images, one would never had noticed these things. When we shot film we were never we able to get the sharpness we are used to now. But something else is happening. Let me illustrate it here.
Here is a shot that all my readers will know. It is of a little Gujjar girl in Kashmir. One of the fun things about this image is it is so very, very sharp. Here is the EXIF data from the image:
Camera: Canon 5D
Exposure Time: 1/500 sec
Exposure Program: Aperture Priority
ISO Speed Rating: 400
Exposure Bias: -1 EV
Metering Mode: Pattern
Focal Length: 85.00 mm
I was, if I recall correctly, I was a good 6 to 10 feet from her. Below you will see that this image is so sharp, you can see a whole other scene reflected in her eyes. This is no trick, it is really reflected in her eyes.
So what is all this about? Why a blog post on how sharp digital images are? We all know they are sharp. Is it because this makes me better than Steve McCurry? Ha! If only that were true! No, it is because I bet you have started doing something that I have found myself doing – tossing away images that are not razor sharp. Any slight softness, slight movement and out it goes. I found I get so obsessed with sharpness that I loose sight of the beauty and impact of an image. I don’t see the moment in the image for the slight blur. For an image to work it doesn’t have to be this sharp. Maybe even sometime it shouldn’t be. Let me show you some images that I almost tossed, but I have now changed my mine and feel they are worth keeping even though they are not pin sharp. I will compare a two image shot at the same place soft or even blurred but a different “moment”.
Here is a shot of a man clutching his Qu’ran. It is a nice image. Sharp. Yes, there is glare in his glasses. But, even without the glare there is emotion missing here. It is not a bad image and technically it is perfect.
Here is the same man a few seconds earlier. His head is bowed and he is not looking at the camera. But the look give much more emotion, a since of thoughtfulness, or contemplation. You don’t get that in the previous image. The soft focus or movement as it is here, work to make this a stronger image. Let’s look at an even more stark example.
Here is a similar shot. A Ladakhi woman sitting looking off to the left of the frame. A nice shot, right? But look at what the much softer shot below communicates.
Here she is holding the beads to her head and there is real emotion here. Yet, this image is soft by all account. Not with movement, just soft focus. Now I admit, I should have been better at nailing the focus, and I think this might have been a better image had it been in focus. But does this make this image unusable? Not in the least! In fact this image is fast becoming one of my favorites.
I want to make sure you understand me. I am not talking about accepting sloppy camera work. But none of us get it right 100% of the time. I have known I am capable at getting razor sharp images like above, so I have not even looked at some of my more emotional images if they are soft. Of if I did, I cursed under my breath at my bad luck and tossed the image out.
All I am saying is we need to not forget what is good art. I cannot continue to throwout soft images just because I know I can get razor sharpness and didn’t get it. You cannot say that McCurry’s images are any less impressive or beautiful because of the softness of film or camera movement. So, if it is good enough for a Master like McCurry, I think I need to stop and realize technology has, dare I say, blurred my vision. I am missing the art for the mechanics and in danger of trashing some real jewels.