If you’ve ever spent any time at all reading reviews of various lenses online, or even worse seen some forum discussions on the subject, you will see the word “sharp,” or grammatical variants thereof, time and time again. One lens is sharp, another isn’t. One is sharp in the center, one stays sharp all the way to the corners. Some are even considered too sharp (“clinically sharp” appears to be the favored term for this), but this is pretty rare. For most people involved in these exchanges, it would seem that one of the main factors in judging a lens is its sharpness, and the results of that judgement can usually be simplified down to “sharp=good, not sharp=bad”.
I have come to another conclusion: most people are really boring. For those of you who are fully paid-up members of the sharpness club, before you get yourself into a lather and start yelling at me through cyberspace, ask yourself a simple question: Sharpness is good, right? WHY?
That’s right, why? What is it about sharp images that makes the lenses that produced them so far superior to images that are a little soft in the corners, or that don’t quite measure up in terms of absolute resolution? Is the difference between 50 and 60lp/mm (that’s line pairs per millimeter, for those who haven’t drunk the sharpness Kool-aid) so great that you’d pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for that extra 10lp/mm? Would a great shot be rendered utterly awful because of the loss of some microscopic details? Is a very sharp lens capable of transmuting a boring scene into a fantastic photograph all by itself?
The worst offenders are the ones who do the least with their cameras and their photos. How many times have you had to hear all about someone’s great new camera or lens as they walk you through four hundred pictures very sharp photos of little Jimmy’s last soccer practice? And what are people doing with all these wonderfully sharp photos? Are any of them being printed? How big? No, chances are they’ll make it as far as Facebook and that’s about it. (Yes, I realize that none of these people are likely to read this, as they have no real interest in photographic equipment except for bragging purposes. Camera companies and retailers love them; I don’t.)
Let me put it another way: ultrasharp crappy pictures are still crappy pictures. Now, this is not to say that everybody should throw away their expensive equipment and pick up Holgas like an army of hipsters run amuck. But there’s a great big expanse of lens options in virtually every mounting system ever made that fall into the category of perfectly adequate sharpness for the vast majority of photographic endeavors. There’s lots more to consider, of course, but finding a lens that’s sharp enough is not difficult unless you’re enlarging on a massive scale or conducting an entomological study that requires photographic detail of fire ant testicles.
And not for nothing, but sharpness is not exactly desirable in all cases. I’ll provide an example from the video side to illustrate the point: back when HD video was first becoming more widely available, I read an article in a business newspaper that indicated that adult video producers were terrified that HD would ruin them. Why? Too much fine detail. Fashion photos are routinely airbrushed and edited to hide tiny imperfections. Is it really necessary to see every last cellular structure or be able to pick out individual atoms? No, and sometimes it’s actually detrimental.
Rather than taking out a second mortgage so you can afford the latest sharpest lens on the market, go out and work on being less boring. Take some pictures while you’re doing it. There’s a whole big unsharp world out there to be photographed.