When a Lens Is Too Sharp

Nice piece by Michael Johnston at The Online Photographer about portrait lenses.

I will admit I obsess over sharpness (and nervousness in bokeh, but that’s different issue), but this line really resonated with me:

What’s a portrait but a sympathetic presentation of a person’s appearance?

In 1989, I bought a used Nikkor 105 mm f/2.5 AI-s lens and it still sits on my shelf, sharp as it ever was. That lens renders light and skin in such a marvelous way. It was maybe a little shorter than I’d like for headshots, but it made a lot of people happy and made me a lot of money over the years. I never thought of it as clinical, analytical or forensic, I just thought it made people look good.

It was also not an imposing lens – compact, narrow diameter, never threatening. I’ve owned some other fast, short teles that … well, let’s just say I never want to be on the other side of my own Canon 85 mm f/1.2 L or maybe even the Nikkor 105 mm f/1.8 I owned briefly.

Maybe, maybe, Henri Cartier-Bresson was right in saying that sharpness is a bourgeois concept. Maybe appropriate sharpness is in the eye of the viewer.

Mark E. Johnson

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