Is It Absolutely Vital to Have Tack Sharp Images?

Is It Absolutely Vital to Have Tack Sharp Images?

After a photo shoot, most photographers cull through their images on their favorite software. During this process, images that stand out are kept for post-processing, and rejects are thrown away. But what exactly constitutes an image worthy of making the cut?

90 percent of photographers are willing to admit that not all of their images come out tack sharp; the other 10 percent are likely being dishonest. When culling through a test shoot from this past weekend, an image really stood out to me, though it was a smidgen out of focus. This photo had me thinking: "What exactly qualifies as a 'keeper' image?" Does it have to be 100% razor-sharp? Or does overall composition, lighting, and expression hold more value than sharpness?


The example shown above begs the question: if you saw that the eyes were slightly out of focus, would this be a winner or a throwaway? As you can see towards the edges of the image, the photo is back-focused slightly; we're talking millimeters here. Now, probably due to my own error, I must have inched forward just enough when the focus was locked down, and you can also tell I was shooting at a wide aperture. 

I'm an advocate of the idea that sharpness is crucial to an image’s quality or lack thereof. I would say the majority of my final images are indeed sharp; especially in the eyes. But in some cases, is it acceptable to have an image that may be slightly out of focus make the cut? I believe that as long as an image’s composition, lighting, and expression is strong enough, it is acceptable to use that photo.


Ultimately, I decided to go forward with processing the image and I am satisfied with the outcome. The model, Hannah, pulled off a wonderful expression that was very strong. I was more than content with the expression, lighting, and composition. If I were to nitpick, I would have liked the forehead and maybe even the nose to have more texture, but since the focus slipped and I was using a wide aperture, that is not the case.  

That being said, I would like to ask you: What criteria do you look for when selecting your images? Does the image have to be 100 percent sharp? Or, is it a combination of composition, lighting, etc.? 

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Previous comments
Chris Ferreira's picture

I think its beautiful, definitely a keeper for me. It has almost an silky-like texture to it, reminiscent of old minolta lenses. More of these and it could turn into an interesting series "almost sharp portraits".

Jozef Povazan's picture

Sharpness is not always necessary. There is more into it in image and that is why some special portrait lenses exist! In case the portrait is more simple in terms of composition and lighting such the one you showed I would expect the eyes to be sharp since my eyes went straight to the cheek area in the first image without even looking at what was properly in focus in close zoomed up version bellow. And I love my 58f1.4 wide open but when I miss my mark and there is nothing emotional or special in the shot it simply does not make a cut for me, even if I wanted to find and excuse for myself not being precise during shooting :) just my 50 cents how I see my work...

Larry Sanders's picture

why is a picture worth a thousand words? Because it tells a story that the viewer can relate to. For me its about composition, only photographers are going to be concerned about how sharp the eyes are. Most of the photographers today would not consider posting an image from 50 years ago, because its not "tack sharp". Tell the story, leave your mark on humanity other than the eyes were "tack sharp".

David Moore's picture

Sharpness is not top of my list, but it is there. The other day I did a shoot with my normal lens, my old Canon 70-200 2.8nonIS. Its not going to win any chart shooting awards, but I am always happy enough with what I get from it. I had my Canon macro 100mm 2.8 (normal, nonL) and took some images with that int he middle of the shoot. I know in my head, this lens is sharper, but sheesh its a big difference when I am zoomed in doing d&b. NOW... in the final result, does it REALLY matter... HMMM not really. BUT, if ALL other things were equal (and they never are...) I would choose the sharper lens.

Now, am I going to sell my 70-200mm nonIS for the new 70-200mm 2.8 IS II because it is so much sharper? Probably not.

Dennis Titov's picture

agree with 70-200 IS first generation. Also switching for IS II

Expression is paramount. Lack of sharpness is a price paid for shallow DOF. I often shoot at f4 just to get that extra bit of safety. As I usually use strobe, motion is not an issue.
Still, I get images that are a bit soft periodically.

Eric Pare's picture

it's part of my life... I mostly do one-second light-painting. My pictures will never be as sharp as most of the others. I see a huge difference in sharpness when I compare with my non-lightpainting images. How many negative comments I had about sharpness so far? zero.

Miles Trevelyan-Johnson's picture

The Canon 50mmf1.2L (never in focus ever) or the Sigma 50mmf1.4 (tack sharp) I prefer the Canon 50L....the rendering of skin tones and highlights, the bokeh, the way the raw files respond in post. The Canon 50L is like a 60's Neve tube microphone pre amp. The Sigma is like a modern MAudio microphone preamp.

Totally depends on final usage... If it is just for me, or if the client likes it I will use a slightly out of focus image, but if I am entering it into competition it will never fly...

Dennis Titov's picture

For me it depends on the type of shooting. For model tests/portraits and street it's OK to be slightly out of focus.

But for beauty, which is a 80% of my shootings, it's "no go". I'll dump face expression for sharp focus on makeup. Yes sometimes it's a really hard decision.

Daris Fox's picture

It's the story, I once had a family shoot where the family had a touching moment with his baby daughter. It's not something that could be redone and the focus was slightly out but the image stood on it's own because of the connection between father and daughter. Plus to be fair, most people don't look at a image and say that's sharp they just it to be a great image of themselves.

If you're doing a client fashion or product shots, not the artistic concept shoots, then sharpness and detail is everything but for many portrait situations a little softness can be kinder to clients skin.

Dave Kavanagh's picture

I'd probably struggle with this myself but ultimately I probably wouldn't have used it. If it was purely for social media use then it would likely be fine as the lower resolution would hide the missed focus. If it was for a client I'd be worried about the possibility of it being printed and the lack of sharpness becoming more apparent.

Its probably delving into another topic entirely but this reminds me why I'm often reluctant to show a client, model etc shots on the back of my camera as I'm shooting. I was in a situation a few years back where I was shooting with a model who had hired me to get some updated portfolio shots. She was very eager to see the shots on the back of the camera. As a result of showing her she picked out 2 or 3 shots that she loved and insisted these be in the final selection. Of course her favourite of them was not in focus (I was shooting with a 5D mkII at the time so I should have known better) and it resulted in a mini drama where she still wanted the shot included. I included it as I'm not in the habit of declining paying clients requests, but that's a shot that a client has with my name attached that I really couldn't stand by, which is far from ideal.

Reading through the comments, I'm reminded that so many family portrait clients say my photos are "clear", not "sharp". I always find this amusing.

Josiah Moore's picture

I often cheat when it comes to this. I will take sharp eyes from another scene and 'shop it onto the composition I like the best. Works most of the time :)

I shoot MF film and portraits/fashion/doc...I used to care about sharpness, but now i like slightly out of focus images or blurry ones. pick up any magazine with meisel or roversi in the last 20 years. content content content wins.

frank nazario's picture

For personal non-commercial use maybe... for commercial, portfolio, web publication ... no go.

Justin Haugen's picture

move the clarity slider +100... jk

Jeff Colburn's picture

Composition and lighting always have to be correct. Sharpness depends on the subject and the "look" you're going for. When I used to shoot film, and models, I often used a soft focus filter, so being a little out of focus would be like using the filter.

Have Fun,

Sean Horton's picture

For me this is a pretty easy (nonetheless frustrating to have to make) decision when culling. If I missed my focus it means just that, I "missed", and I didn't capture what I was intending to capture in the way I intended, and I throw it out.

And yes, I've had several moments of heartbreak when I have a photo that's been wonderfully composed and lit but the focus just didn't cut it, but it's still a deal breaker for me.

All that being said, I think there are photos (such as this one) that are still "passable" depending on where the final image will ultimately live.

Nick Pecori's picture

I agree, I pretty much cull that way 99% of the time. Just rare occurrences (like this photo) I tend to be more lenient, especially if it's just a test shoot.

Jack Alexander's picture

Brave of you to post this. It's certainly something we're all guilty of.

to me this one is a keeper for sure

great expresion or actitud is more important to the over all feeling of the image than a bit of blur that most of the people won't even notice.

i think that it is not vital, it does make for a better picture however; most people that cant even tell the diff. the regular joe never zooms 100% heck most of these days your pics are viewed on a tiny screen anyway. now if the picture is a close up and you get the wrong thing in focus that will totally destroy your image.

Sharpness it's not equal to "in focus"...

Sharpness and focus < Color Shape Impact

Dan Montecalvo's picture

From the tip of the nose to the last eyelash must be sharp. Most portraits show a vibe from the subject, and the depth-of-field I mentioned is key in the translation. In the darkroom days, I would step-up the paper contrast and soften the overall scene to add an additional 'feel' - but the in-focus area still busted through to grab the viewer.