John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

On Being Sharp

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I was talking with a friend in the library. During a pause in the conversation, he took off his glasses and put them down on the table. Thinking it would be an interesting experiment, I asked him if I could try them on. I anticipated seeing the world in some weird distorted way, like being underwater or looking into a funhouse mirror. Instead, when I placed them on my nose, my jaw dropped. Things weren’t fuzzy or warped at all. Everything was crisp and sharp! “Oh my god,” I said to him. “Is this how you see? It’s so CLEAR!”

My friend raised one eyebrow. “John, I think you need glasses.”

Sure enough, I did – and although, being a teenager, I didn’t particularly like the idea of becoming a four-eyes, I sure did like being able to see 20/20.

Who wouldn’t? Everyone wants to see the world as clearly as possible. People function better that way. We appreciate the details of things. We believe we’re more in touch with the way things truly are. We feel like we see reality more accurately.

Why we like sharp

The same attitude applies to photography. In a precisely sharpened image, we notice and appreciate the details of a scene. We may marvel at how closely it depicts reality. Often this is what a precisely sharpened image is all about: how close to reality is it, at least how reality appears to people with 20/20 vision. And if we turn up the sharpness just a bit more than that, the viewer might be captivated by an image that seems to enhance reality beyond the range of normal vision. It's the eye of an eagle. It's Superman vision.

Some people love that aspect of photography. Some may even become obsessed with it. They strive for more and more clarity. They experiment with a whole variety of sharpening techniques – unsharp mask, lab color sharpening, luminosity sharpening, high pass filter sharpening, Photoshop “smart” sharpening, input and output sharpening, to name a few – in order to obtain perfection, or as close to it as possible. These kinds of people tend to love the technical aspects of digital photography. Some of them may even be the type of person who likes to approach and represent the world in a straightforward, rational, pragmatic, precise way.

Technically speaking, since we’re on that subject, image sharpness involves two different factors: the resolution of the image, which determines how much detail it captures, and “acutance,” which is how well defined the edges are. A high resolution image may not necessarily have high acutance, while an image with high acutance may not necessarily have high resolution. Michael Reichmann explains this nicely on his web page.

Think of all the expressions that indicate the admirable quality of sharpness. A sharp mind, dresser, eye, shooter. In many ways, sharp is good. It indicates precision, clarity, discernment, a no nonsense take on things. You notice the details. You’ve got the edge. You get to the point.

The beauty of blur

Of course, good photography doesn’t always mean that images have to be sharp. Wonderful images may be something less than sharp, and sometimes downright blurry. Their beauty rests in the fact that they have a different psychological impact on the viewer than the sharp image. They may be more soft, smooth, liquidy, tender, and dreamy, suggestive of fantasy and distant or fading memories. They can make us feel dizzy, disoriented, like we’re floating, gliding, spinning, or drunk. Many artistic photographers, especially those who enjoy imaginative and altered states of consciousness, love smoothness, blending, and blur. Maybe nature does too. As the poet A.R. Ammons once said, “In nature, there are few sharp lines." Impressionistic and non-representational artists of many types would add that the way they portray the world really is how the world looks in the spontaneous moment of first perception. I'll throw in my two cents and say that if you have "bad" eyesight, a blurry image might feel exactly right.

Super sharp

One popular technique in photography is to super-sharpen an image, like the one at the top of the vertical diptych on this page. The human eye - in fact the eyes of many animals - are instinctively drawn to high contrasts and edges, so such images immediately grab one’s attention. Things look super-precise, super-real. The lines and textures are so crisp that they shout at us. We are drawn right in, even if it’s a bit painful, maybe because it’s a bit painful. Think of the other expressions we associate with sharpness. A sharp wit. A sharp tongue. A sharp remark. The super-sharp image can have a harsh, aggressive, cutting edge that pierces and penetrates one’s consciousness.

By contrast, look at the image below the super-sharpened version. I think it shows how dramatically different an image - and in particular, a portrait - can look when a super-sharpening technique is applied as opposed to a soft focus. His whole personality seems to change. Notice in particular the change in his eyes. In the sharp version, he seems stern and analytical. In the soft version, friendly and gentle.

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