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New Cameras and Lenses Are Ruining the Charm of Out-of-Focus Photographs

It seems like all photographers can talk about these days is how sharp this lens is versus that lens. I miss the days when blurry photographs were charming.  

Do you remember those days? If you are about my age, all anyone would let you use for photography was a disposable camera that you would take to the local drug store and in one hour, have processed and printed in duplicate for only $5 with the coupon you got off the seal from the prints envelope you got from your last roll. In those days, blurry, out-of-focus photographs were par for the course. Assuming they were not so blurry that you would ask yourself “what even was this supposed to be,” there could actually be an endearing quality to ever-so-slightly blurry images. Right? Perhaps it’s just me; however, I don’t think it is. 

People that shoot film today (like myself) should know what I’m talking about. There is a “magic” to film, right? What exactly do people think that “magic” is? I bet just about anyone who shoots film would choose one of a small number of attributes. "Every shot is so much more important when you are stuck with only 36 exposures per roll” and “there is a much more tactile feel to shooting film” are the two most common responses that I hear. For me, however, the charm of film comes from the photos that are perfectly imperfect. By that, I mean that there are photos that slightly miss the mark of being sharp or are framed the way you wanted, and it is from these shortcomings that you end up with something more reflective of the real world.  

All Joking Aside

I do love a nice and crisp photograph. Who doesn't? Even for most photographers shooting film, we often gravitate to 120 or even 4x5 for the added resolution. I would even go so far as to argue that for an 8x10 print, 645 negatives with Portra 400 can achieve an indistinguishable level of sharpness compared with digital work. That said, even with medium or large format, not every shot is perfectly in focus, and given the inability to see the image immediately after you take it, there is a non-zero chance of your image being just ever so slightly out of focus. I would argue that those are often still some of my favorite images. 

I am currently test driving the sample Sony a7 IV (review coming soon) as well as a sample Sony 70-200 f/2.8 Mark II, which achieve absolutely stunning levels of sharpness even shot wide open. In nearly every test I’ve performed, I've tried to push the limits of these two pieces of gear, and yet, the images are still superbly sharp. And it isn’t just the insane amounts of detail rendered by this combo. The focusing is insanely fast and nearly 100% accurate, which means that gone are the days of delightfully out-of-focus photographs. Such is life. I suppose there are always manual focus lenses for that!

What are your thoughts? Does near 100% accuracy in focusing start to make things feel a little boring? Are you too a fan of the occasional out-of-focus photograph?

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44 Comments

William Murray's picture

I one ran a comparison of the same scene between Rollieflex with velvia and the Nikon D300 with Ai-s glass. Both locked onto a tripod. The D300 absolutely spanked the Rollei; it wasn't even close.

Film has qualities that are hard to match. If you want something to look like film, then shoot film. If you simply want to shoot film then shoot film. But there is zero argument to be made about technical superiority of film.

Stuart C's picture

In fairness the D300 and ai-s lens are not new… I dare say those 2 products retain a certain charm that is completely lost on the latest offerings from manufacturers.

Your comparison is correct, but I’m not sure it can be used to argue against this guys thoughts.

William Murray's picture

Sure it can. I simply meant in terms of technical output; you put current generation glass and body in the mix, it just makes it much more perfect - I like the D300 and old glass example because anything else is technically better.

Stuart C's picture

Yeah but I think that’s the point, more perfect = more sterile/lifeless

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for sharpness (my gallery attests to this) but I’m also quite aware that my own images look very very digital, whereas other photographers are masters at creating a feeling in their shots, and that feeling is often not by using some robot lens that cuts like a razor.

William Murray's picture

My response was purely directed at the medium/large format resolution thing. It's straight up wrong; which is why people like Murray Fredricks and Joe Cornish now shoot digital.

Stuart C's picture

JC’s gallery is in my hometown and he shoots many of the same locations as me haha. Random name to pull out of the hat.

I do agree with you on that point though.

William Murray's picture

I discovered him about 5 minutes after I discovered Ansel Adams. Dude was my photographic hero for a long time.

If you are unfamiliar with Fredricks, do yourself the favour and check out his Salt series.

Stuart C's picture

I think I may have seen his work but I’m useless with names, I’ll definitely check him out though… I only remember Joe because he is a local legend and I used to ride my bike past the gallery on my paper round:)

Basically all the shots you see him taking are all places I either photograph or spent my childhood at. Brimham Rocks (his latest project) is one of my favourite places but I’ve not shot it myself yet.

Verity Milligan is a top Landscape photographer over here now, her shots are brilliant.

William Murray's picture

I just checked her website, yeah, she's awesome :)

Stuart C's picture

What I’d call a ‘proper’ photographer

Joephy Bloephe's picture

First we were treated to “film is becoming less accessible to me personally, based on increased costs and lower supply. Film is therefore dead because my personal participation is waning and I am a (Real™️) Film Photographer™️”

And now we are wowed by “I prefer a healthy portion of my consumed photos to be blurry. All of these Other Photographers’ in-focus photos lack Magic® and are boooooring”

Like… is this just me? Is everyone else really eating this stuff up? What’s going on in that cantaloupe of yours, bud?

Good grief. “Photos these days are too in-focus”… what on earth is this guy talking about..

William Murray's picture

There is something to be said for the aesthetic qualities of film. Conversely, technical perfection on its own is clinical, and indeed often is (often not always) boring.

I would put vintage glass on a digital camera for the same reasons I would shoot film. And there is nothing which does what film through pinhole, or wetplate does. I would include a diffusion filter in this framing.

In the end, these are artistic choices, and all should be respected within that context.

Joephy Bloephe's picture

What are you talking about? Did you even read the comment you replied to?
My comment was clearly aimed at the thesis of this article:

*The author is complaining that too many photos “these days” are in focus.*

In. Focus.

He’s complaining that t.o.o m.a.n.y p.h.o.t.o.s a.r.e i.n f.o.c.u.s

Why are you going off on a complete tangent talking about film and adapting vintage lenses and pinhole cameras and technical perfection being clinical? A photo being in focus is too “clinical” these days? He’s complaining that because of autofocus not enough photos are out of focus enough for his taste.

William Murray's picture

Aren't you just a little ray of sunshine...

Yeah, I read your comment.

Joephy Bloephe's picture

Care to engage with what I actually wrote? My baffled tirade over an article complaining - get this - that not enough photography is accidentally out of focus. And that this is a bad thing, for some reason.

The mind-numbing reality that someone wrote an article complaining about photographs being in-focus.

And the undercurrent that such people can’t see past their own nose to realize there is much more to photography than their narrow personal tastes and experiences. For example: all fashion, sports, wildlife, landscape, commercial product, astro, etc, etc - photography.

And then folks who might read my comment and decide they’d much rather just have a conversation with themselves about something tangential and have chosen me as a place to do it.

William Murray's picture

No, not really.

It is clear from the fact that you have taken such a deeply considered nuanced position, coupled with the fact you have adopted a pseudonym, that you must be a photographic artist of the caliber of Jeff Wall, Fan Ho, or Ansel Adams.

Ultimately, I must defer to someone who is clearly superior in every way.

Joephy Bloephe's picture

Now I know what women mean when they tell stories about how they were making weekend plans with their coworkers and then Will from accounts receivable randomly butts in and starts talking about the things he likes about the third season of Westworld.

William Murray's picture

Alright, let me rephrase in a way that you can grasp.

These are actually complex and nuanced questions, which are intrinsically subjective.

Instead of saying something like 'Sorry, I strictly read the article this way, can you explain what you are saying?', you decided to be derisively condescending.

Congratulations, you demonstrated you're an asshole, who is capable of thought which is about as deep as an oil slick.

So why the hell would anyone want to engage with you?

Joephy Bloephe's picture

You’re arguing with a guy that goes by “Joephy Blophe’” using what is at this point clearly your only strategy: intellectualism. I think you need to re-evaluate some of your choices, lol.

Here, let me speak your language for a moment: for the sake of everyone who knows you (or encounters you), at least learn not to blunder into active “discussions”, be they online or not, and just completely override things with whatever random topic you’ve deemed more interesting or important to proselytize on. If you have something completely and utterly separate and unrelated to say, be it some great insight or hard-won wisdom, find somewhere appropriate to put it. Begin your own reply thread. Don’t have your own off-topic conversation at somebody. Especially if they have such an obviously fraught purpose as someone calling themselves “Joephy Blophe’” likely has.

You’re the one who slid into my replies with some weird tangent. Surprise! It didn’t go as planned now did it? 😂

Edit: forgot I changed my name to a variation of “Joe Blow”

William Murray's picture

QED

Mark Smith's picture

This article does not resonate with me at all either, but I don't feel the need to go into a heated rant to attempt to put somebody down and show how smart I am in comparison. I simply scroll on. I agree with William Murray: you're an arrogant asshole.

Stuart C's picture

My guess is it’s a new account set up by one of the recently banned trolls.

Bliss Monroe's picture

I agree that the current obsession with sharpness has not led to better or more emotionally powerful photography, in general. It is one of a few recent trends of this Ilk.

David Anderson's picture

I don’t shoot film, but I have some sympathy for your argument. Of the 900+ pictures I took last Friday (I couldn’t afford that much film!), one of my favorites was woefully out of focus. I’ll admit it was an accident, but I think the overall image looks better than if it had been “properly” focused. I also took a number of candid portraits with a manual focus only lens. In other words, nobody was holding still while I nailed focus. Yes, the eye was not always in perfect focus, but the pictures look great anyway—maybe better, not being so clinical? With so much emphasis seemingly on sharp, this, perfect eye focus that, etc., I do have to resist the impulse to delete some shots when culling because somebody else might be critical of my photography skills. Nobody yet has complained about the blurry ones I delivered. :-)

David Pavlich's picture

Soft focus has its place, that's for sure. Portrait work is a great example. I wouldn't say it belong in the wildlife genre. I would never post a shot of a bird or some other critter that was lacking focus. Same for landscape. But that's just me.

William Murray's picture

If I were shooting portraiture, I would only shoot film. I don't understand obtaining a hyper sharp image, and then turning the skin to plastic in post.

Geoffrey Clowes's picture

I would certainly agree with your headline about new cameras and lenses ruining the "charm" of film. While I make my living shooting sharp concert images, my tree time is spent shooting with any number of vintage Pentax analog bodies.

For me, there are many attributes to shooting film, aside from what you mentioned I love the action of advancing the film. The noise and the feel of it cannot be beat. I love the out of focus image as it shows the imperfections of man and camera. I error, my eyes misjudge, it's all part of the analog experience.

Cameron Hanks's picture

This is one of the reasons I still use the old film lenses ive collected over the years on my mirrorless, The charms and individuality that they show might not be noticed by many, but those who know will know. from the swirly bokeh from the Helios 44 to the radioactive purple theorem element of the Super Takumar. I love the little quirks and dare i say "imperfections" but that's what makes them so special.

zeissiez lee's picture

Robert Capa’s iconic D Day landing photo was great because it had lots of motion blur

Rich Umfleet's picture

You should be happy that everyone else is shooting sharper pics because that makes your artisticly out of focus photos that much more artistic.

Jody Sands's picture

I try my best not to read garbage articles from FStoppers! They continually write negative articles on the photography industry which clearly puts these thoughts in new photographers. So new cameras and lenses is ruining photography because today’s equipment is to good. Well there is a setting on most cameras called Manual Focus or Manual Focus over-ride. You can achieve soft focus by using these settings. The idea is to show and illustrate how good photography can be, not continually stating certain manufacturers or equipment is garbage . Let’s be a little more responsible on what is written in articles and take a second look on what’s going to be posted.

William Murray's picture

I am reminded of the novel Maestro, about a pianist who was technically perfect, but who ended up teaching piano to high school students, because he just didn't have that intangible extra thing - heart, soul, feeling, etc.

John Nixon's picture

Just buy a Sigma FP. I have one and it’s lovely but the chances of it getting anything absolutely in focus are pretty slim! 😆

Paul C's picture

Come on James -- there is a big difference between FOCUS and RESOLUTION !

The resolution needed for an A4 size print at 300 ppi (pixels per inch) is only 2480 × 3508 pixels.

Measuring lens resolving power is a game that can continue ad infinitum.....for example the resolution of a lens will change with the wavelength (colour) of light.

Failure to nail focus can be a stand-out issue for some images - but for others it is a matter of taste. The arrival of so many F0.95 to F1.1 lenses means that lots of portraits now appear where you will never get the facial features and the eyes in focus together. For some reason this degree of bokeh is considered the sign of a "professional" !

I have just been photographing Gerbils - for them the tip of the nose is never in focus even when the eyes are 100% sharp. For ages I thought my DoF calculations for my lens were wrong until I realised that they move their nostrils and whiskers all the time and you need near enough 1/500th or a flash burst to stop that motion!

Jason Frels's picture

I suppose you could always just turn the focus ring a little before taking the photo. Voila! Out-of-focus photo.

Michelle Maani's picture

If autofocus is too sharp, put it on manual focus and then tweak it for your ideal out-of-focus look. Or buy a Lensbaby lens, blur galore.

Adil Alsuhaim's picture

They're not. You can simply use manual focus to do what you want. The overwhelming majority of photographers want sharp, in-focus images, and the technology makes that easier.

Now, I can get off your lawn!

winzehnt gates's picture

There's an easy option to get this level of imperfection today: use a smartphone.

Yves Danis's picture

People crave megapixels and sharpness, and drool on shooting at f1.2 or f1.4. Puzzling !

David Pavlich's picture

Not puzzling at all. It would be boring if everyone shot the same way and used the same gear. I shoot the way I enjoy shooting, you shoot the way you enjoy shooting. No right or wrong answer. We like what we like.

charles hoffman's picture

Phony nostalgia
If you want out-of-focus pictures, you can get them very easily, even with the most sophisticated camera

The better the camera, the easier it is to control the output

Ian Spencer's picture

This is just reliving the debate hi-fi buffs have about vinyl vs. digital and the arguments are quite parallel.

In the early days, digital was flawed, you didn't get quite the same qualities, there were rough edges, nasty artifacts to be hunted out.

Now the technologies have matured, digital can surpass the technical abilities of vinyl or film. So the argument becomes different: the ear and the eye doesn't always prefer perfection. Indeed, if you had a technically perfect flat response hi-fi, most buffs would boot it out (they do exist, they are studio monitors, designed to be accurate in a sonically treated studio environment, not listened to in a comfy sitting room). Valve amps are not preferred for their accuracy, they are preferred because they sound nicer, which is not the same. Vinyl is preferred by some because it has friendly distortions.

In the recording world, digital recording can do both, as you can apply effects that recreate the subtle distortion of tape saturation or the colouration of an old analog compressor, and have as much or as little as you want.

It is very little different from messing with grain in Lightroom, or colour grading to distort colours from the most perfect possible - or dare we say it, sky replacement?

The advantage of digital is you have a choice, you can start with perfection and then introduce controlled effects, blur what you want, how much you want. It is the equivalent of the mixing and mastering process in sound recording... which also makes a joke out of hi-fi buffs seeking perfection when the sound engineer has already done so much to alter the original recorded sound which has been compressed, eq'd, reverbed, and treated with effects.