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Understanding Sharpness

Understanding Sharpness

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Published by c_LaRa

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Published by: c_LaRa on Nov 01, 2008
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Understanding Sharpness
© 1995-2004 Michael ReichmannWhat Are We Talking About?Photographers as a group are pretty hung-up on sharpness. I'm no exception. Unfortunately for someseeking the holy grail of ultimate image sharpness becomes a substitute for creating interesting andworthwhile photographs. Since the concept of sharpness is a
, not an end it itself, I thought itworthwhile to look at what is meant by the word
as used in photography.It actually consists of two separate concepts — 
.With this article I hope to explain these two concepts and the role each plays in our perception of whatis sharp.What You Get May Not Be What You SeeThe traditional measure of image sharpness is stated in line pairs per millimeter — abbreviated as
. In other words the ability of the human eye to discerned the number of high-contrast pairs of lines appearing in the space of a single millimeter.You may have read that some very high resolution B&W films can reach over 150 lp/mm.
. Some really terrific lenses can actually resolve somewhat over 100 lp/mm.
.But are you also aware that even the very best colour printing papers can reproduce little better than 75lp/mm?
. Are you also aware that the human eye isn't able to resolve any more than between 5— 10 lp/mm under the most optimum conditions?
Say what?
Forgive me, but I'm having a bit of fun with you by my editorial comments because so many photographers get hung-up on theory and specs rather than what they actually can perceive with their own eyes.Think about the variables standing between a scene in front of the camera and a print hanging on thewall. A large number of factors determine whether or not the print will be sharp.
the lens' resolution capabilities
the film's resolution capabilities
camera and/or subject motion
aperture used and consequent depth of field as well as use of optimum aperture
film flatness — is the pressure-plate doing its job properly?
film thickness — are all layers in the film (colour) bringing the image into focus
film grain — sometimes grain makes images look sharper — sometimes the opposite!
enlarger parallelism — many aren't, and sharpness suffers
negative carrier precision and film flatness
enlarging lens quality and aperture used-resolution of the printing paper usedOf course digital post-processing has its own issues, including...-the film flatness capabilities of the scanner's carrie-the native resolution of the scanner chip and firmware-the Sharpening level applied in post-processing-the native resolution of the printe-the resolution of the printing paper usedFor digital cameras many of the same issues as for film cameras apply, as well as those for digitalimage processing.Remarkably, in the face of this adversity we usually end up with crisp prints that we're happy to showto others and hang on display.Resolution & Acutance1
is the most familiar of the two perceptual factors contributing to sharpness. We've alreadylooked at how much resolution is needed. You may start at 100 lp/mm (
though typically not more than50 lp/mm
) but along the way if you end up with 10 lp/mm on a print you'll have a very crisp imageindeed, and even 5lp/mm on a print is considered critically sharp by many observers. (
To be scientifically accurate you actually should have somewhat more resolution than this (maybe 30 lp/mm)on a low contrast image because of acutance effects
is the less understood characteristic of sharpness. Acutance isn't about resolving detail, it'sabout the transition between edges. In other words when an edge changes from one brightness level toanother. This is what
in digital parlance is all about. Scanning and digital capture softensacutance and so we apply a (
) process called an
Unsharp Mask 
to increase edge sharpness back to what it should be. Remember, this has
to do with resolution, the other aspect of sharpness. Unfortunately some anti-digital Luddites still confuse the two.Theory & PracticeKeep in mind that 35mm and medium format cameras have a very hard time producing the resolutionneeded for absolutely ideal sharpness. Only 4X5" or larger can really put down on paper an image thatapproaches the ideal. Assuming that about 25 lp/mm is what's needed for a typical moderate acutanceimage with lots of fine detail, then you would theoretically need a 200 lp/mm image on film to makethis possible. ( This is equivalent to an 8X enlargement, or about an 8X10" print). I know of no lens /film combination that can achieve this.Medium format cameras have a lower magnification hurdle, but only the finest lenses have resolutioncapability comparable to top 35mm lenses. But only with the best lenses, the highest resolution filmsand the finest enlarging or digital image processing techniques can this be achieved. (
So, instead of acombined 200 lp/mm needed for 35mm you'd "only" need 100 lp/mm from a 6X6cm system — a 4X ratio
.)GrainOur perception of sharpness depends to a large extent on how much detail an image contains.Frequently an image with moderately coarse but sharp grain (
or crisp digital noise
) can appear as sharpor even sharper than a fine-grained image. This is why high-acutance film developers such as
have historically been preferred by some. They made grain somewhat bigger, but gave it higher acutance and therefore aided in creating the appearance of a sharper image.Conversely an image with fine but soft grain (
 for whatever reason
) will drag down the generalappearance of sharpness that a given image might otherwise have.Interestingly, completely grain-free images can appear to be less sharp than the resolution numbersmight lead one to believe. This is the case with the old
films. They are sograin-free than they can appear less than critically sharp
the image doesn't
contain a lot of fine detail.Along the same lines, in the digital realm it's my experience that the
Canon D30
at 100 ISO is so freeof digital noise (
the equivalent of grain
) that in some images it can almost appear to be less sharp than a400 ISO frame from the same camera.Inkjet PrintsThere are some folks who haven't yet seen well-made high quality inkjet prints, and who thereforemistakenly believe that these somehow can't equal traditional chemical prints in terms of sharpness. It'sworth noting that a 6 colour 1440 dpi inkjet printer (
like the Epson 1270 / 1280 / 2000P Photo printers
)when fed a 360 dpi output file, is capable of about 16 pixel per millimeter. This translates to 8 lp/mm — right in the high-end of the ballpark for meeting the limits of human vision's ability to discernmaximum sharpness.This also explains why the latest generation of printers speced at 2880 dpi (like theEpson 1280/1290
)don't make prints that look any sharper to the naked eye. Under a loupe, yes, but not unaided. The2

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