Steve McCurry Sharp

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.

Gujjar Child, Kashmir, India 2007

Gujjar Child, Kashmir, India 2007

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
F-Number: f/3.5
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.

The details.

The details.


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”.

A sharp clear image.


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.

Not as sharp but more of an emotional image.

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.

A Ladakhi woman.


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.

Much less sharp, but more emotion and thus more powerful.


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.

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  1. Prashant Khapane

    hi Matt,
    Exact thoughts going on my mind yesterday evening. I got an opportunity to do a day trek in the Alps after about a year and the trip was productive. The best image according to me isn’t really the sharpest, however it reflects the best light in the mountains, how quickly it changes.

  2. Ron Carroll

    Hey Matt. Great post. The purpose of any good art is too convey emotion, so we should be looking for an emotional connection in our photos rather than scanning them looking at the technical details. In fact, I think that should be Step 1 in post. I’ve never heard anyone mention the size of the brush strokes in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; folks just notice the expression on her face. Same thing goes for photographs.

    I’ve had similar thoughts regarding DOF. Rather than always using a shallow DOF to isolate the subject in a portrait, it’s often very helpful to go deeper so we can see him/her in their environment. Their environment is often a big piece of the story, of who they are.

    Thanks for the nice insight. Hope you’re doing well…

  3. Ron Carroll

    Be sure to let us know if you hear from Mr. McCurry…

  4. Matt Brandon

    Yeah I will and I will let you know when the pigs start to fly as well. 😉

  5. Jo

    I have long thought this, but in defense of my crappy focusing probably. Now having seen both and producing both, I am a huge fan that emotion trumps technical issues any day of the week. We’re telling a story, not making a blueprint. People are often a mosiac of beautiful mistakes… and so are photographs. 🙂

  6. Ron Carroll

    Jo- “…a mosaic of beautiful mistakes…” Can I use that in my next book? Very nice.

  7. Ian

    Hi Matt,
    I wasn’t taking photos until digital came along but I have started to do the same “Soft, reject” thing with my own work. For me, it came about because I tried to up the ante a bit and make my images commercially viable for stock and ended up with nothing but soft rejections for stuff I thought was fine.

    Perhaps that’s therefore another thing to consider and it’s not so much film/digital alone that changes the perspective, but an increase in the demands of the industry we supply which is currently looking for a kind of clinical perfection rather than pure art? Subconsciously, we end up adopting the same criteria when judging things ourselves.

  8. Matt Brandon

    Ian, I think you are on to something. I understand there are demands placed on Stock images that are just not there for fine art or any other type of photography. But I think we, the photographers, have to understand this and need to give the client what they need and still not trash the other if it fits our vision!

  9. Jo

    Ron – yes, you can use it in your book. I’m BIG on beautiful mistakes. 🙂

    And Matt… our vision – well it’s ALL ABOUT our vision and I agree – get the clients what they want but don’t ever lose your vision! I have kinda done the “shoot for an hour for the client and try to fuse my vision” and then shoot for an hour ONLY in my vision and often enough, it’s the latter that they like… go figure.

    No one knows what they want. LOL

  10. JadeGreenImage

    A camera only records what the photographer sees in eye and mind. A slightly soft focus cannot detract from any created/captured beauty.

    Nothing we see with our eyes remains in focus for more than a few seconds and photography is an unreality. Razor sharp definitely does not mean better.



  1. Just whose images is this? | The Digital Trekker Blog - [...] McCurry search? I can only assume it has to do with an old post I did back in 2008…

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