Focus and sharp images are always at the top of the photographer's priority list. But you shouldn't just toss out a photo because it's not pin-sharp exactly where you want it to be. In fact, there are many reasons why you should covet that soft shot over the others.
There's so much pressure on new photographers to get everything spot-on, from camera settings to composition, technical jargon, and especially focusing. While I agree that the majority of your shots will probably need to be sharp, there are plenty of reasons why you could or should live with soft shots. Whether you've accidentally missed the focus point or have a blurry moving subject, here are my justifications for capturing shots that are a little on the softer side.
Say you're at a family get-together and you've brought along your camera to capture the day's activities. Relatives and friends have come from afar and it might be some time if you all make it back together again. Even then, everyone will be older and look different. So, imagine this: you get home to look at the shots on your computer and a bunch of images of Uncle Roger is super soft. It looks like you've missed the focus point and instead selected Auntie Helen in the background. Don't hit delete just yet, because as you scroll through the other photographs from the card, you do indeed have other shots of Rog but only the back of his head. No matter how blurry those other photos are, they may be the only stills of him together with family. Keep them not just for you but for posterity so that others in the family can look back and reflect. Who knows, maybe grandkids or great-grandkids may not have even met him.
There's something to be said for capturing something atmospheric in stills photography. For countless decades, photographers have oohed and aahed their way over myriad lenses due to their different optical qualities, many of which have been adorned with high praise due to their unique blend of sharpness and softness in images. Even though modern technology means our lenses are getting sharper than ever before, a bit like audiophiles likes to sit down to a warm, soft-sounding vinyl record, so too do photographers like to opt for lenses with softer edges that produce more intimate photos. It's more about the feeling we create through our imagery than how technically proficient that imagery really is. At this point, we're speaking a little more artistically than scientifically here, interspersing the creative aspects of other arts like painting and drawing, but the general idea is the same: it's to evoke an emotion using photography.
How often have you chimped at the camera and zoomed into 100% to check where the focus was? Or perhaps you've opened up Lightroom and gone right into pixel-level to check how each eyelash has rendered? This pixel-peeping, although legitimately useful for many purposes, has led many to be disconnected from their subjects. Instead of talking to your friends as you capture their portrait or noticing how the light falls across the landscape at a beautiful vista, many of us are guilty of stepping to the right spot, immediately bringing the camera up to get a snap and then analyzing the result. This may lead to many missed opportunities, especially when something happens in a fleeting moment such as a yellow taxi whizzing past a person in a yellow coat walking the opposite direction. Coincidence and luck can make a dull scene extraordinary, so if you're spending more time pixel-peeping than capturing, you may have sharp shots of nothing rather than softer shots of something incredible.
You may not want to worry about the sharpness of images when intentionally blurring your photos, whether that's with intentional camera movement and a long shutter speed or by using a longer exposure to get moving subjects blurred. Not everything has to be sharp all the time. Occasionally, in specific genres of photography (such as party, events, or weddings), there may be an opportunity to capture the most out-of-focus, intentionally blurred shot of your subjects, which will tell the viewer much more than if you'd got the focus point spot-on and used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.
Ultimately, how sharp you require photographs to depend largely on what they're going to be used for. If you're shooting the latest fashion brand and it's going to be printed and stuck upon an advertisement billboard, then yes, you probably want to make sure your main subject is tack sharp. Clients will be looking for that kind of detail to sell their product or event. However, a 6x4 print that sits on your parents' mantelpiece probably doesn't need to be as sharp. In fact, even if it was quite out of focus, it may not matter. Picture this: grandma puts your graduation portraits in a little frame next to the TV, which sits a few meters across the room. She wears glasses and has trouble seeing at the best of times. Is she really going to notice that your nose is sharp but your eyes aren't? Sharpness is relative to the intended purpose of your shot.
Overall then, there are many reasons why you might not require super-sharp shots. Although I still try to capture images as sharply as possible, so as to give me the option of adding blur later, I don't fret too much if it's not a paid gig. Feeling, posterity, and intended use factor quite heavily in how sharp those photographs really have to be. Certainly, if there is creative reasoning for missing focus or intentionally blurring your subject, then you shouldn't lose sleep over the fact a shot isn't sharp. So, instead of binning every unsharp shot, maybe have a think and save it from the trash can.