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Do Photos Always Need to be Sharp?

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One of the first things a photographer learns is how to create sharp images. In fact, the vast majority of photographs that are exhibited for public view are sharp and in focus. Tripods, fast lenses, Vibration Reduction and Image Stabilisation technologies - all is meant to get maximum sharpness, and for a good reason. Does that mean, however, that if an image is not razor sharp, it is meant to be deleted? In other words, can a photograph with soft focus or some blur be interesting and worth keeping? The answer is yes! Let's have a closer look at some examples...

The classic and most obvious case is, of course, panning (for more on this technique see our previous post). The very idea of panning is to show motion in a still image, so no tripod is needed for it. Of course, when you slow down the shutter speed to 1/20 or 1/30 sec and move your camera along with the subject, not everything will be perfectly sharp. But does it really need to be? The resulting image is purposely blurred and produces a feeling of motion in a busy environment:

Notsharp1
f/20, 1/25 sec, ISO 100

In a different scenario, if you are photographing a moving subject, it may be interesting to slow the shutter speed down just a little. In the image below, the frame is filled with pigeons flapping their wings and fighting for food. If you wanted to completely "freeze" the pigeons, you would need to use a shutter speed of 1/200 sec or even faster. However, with a shutter speed of 1/40 sec, the movement is only partially stopped: some birds are sharp and detailed, while others are blurred. This creates a particular effect of chaotic movement, brings the feeling of being right in the middle of the birds, and creates an image that the naked eye does not usually get.  The resulting photo is more emotionally charged and interesting to look at. A similar effect may be achieved when photographing a crowd, for example, on a busy market day: some people would stop, while others will keep moving, thus enhancing the feeling of a randomly moving crowd.

Notsharp5
f/9, 1/40 sec, ISO 200

Have you ever found yourself walking around a city after the sun goes down, camera in hand, knowing that your tripod is resting safely at home? These situations can easily happen, especially when traveling. In low light it becomes more difficult to keep the camera steady for longer exposures, even if you take all the necessary steps with a high ISO, a wide open aperture (low f-number), and you are leaning against a sturdy post or wall... Nevertheless, some softness may happen in such cases and produce an interesting effect.

One night, as I was walking home, I noticed the unusually thick fog covering the bridges across the Seine river. The only camera I had on me was my old Minolta with an 800 ISO film in it and of course no tripod. I stopped to take some photos, and was happily surprised with the result: the softness of the focus and the fog created a dreamy feel, and made the Louis Philippe bridge, as well as the willow tree next to it, look even more special!

Notsharp3
f/2.8, 1/10 sec, ISO 800

Rainy days, and even nights, may be intimidating for some photographers, however, if you are brave enough to face the weather, it can be well worth it (read more on how to protect your gear on rainy weather). Photographing reflections and passers-by is just one of the creative ideas for rainy days. This often produces images that are not completely sharp and stimulates the creative photographer.  

I took the photo below in the Cour Carrée, one of the courtyards of the Louvre, on an extremely rainy evening. A passer-by who forgot his umbrella was running across the courtyard, trying to find a shelter from pouring rain. I tilted the camera downwards to get more of the reflections on the wet ground and pressed the release button as he was walking by the arch in the middle of the photo. Just like the previous image, this one is quite soft and one can hardly see any details of the man aside from his silhouette. Nevertheless, this image captures the eerie mood of a rainy evening quite well.

Notsharp4
f/2, 1/80 sec, ISO 4000

These are just a few examples of how soft focus or motion blur can create a certain mood and add a particular emotion to your images. Don't be afraid to experiment, break the rules from time to time and share your images with us!

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.