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The Story Behind That Picture:
"What is Sharpness in Photography?"

By: Thorsten Overgaard. March 18, 2019. Edited April 25, 2020.


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This article is an excerpt from my book "Composition in Photography - The Photographer as Storyteller". If you look online in camera reviews, you will see that there's a great deal of attention on how to get sharpness, or how to get a lens to take sharp pictures.

But what is sharpness?

Well, sharpness actually does not depend on the megapixels of your camera, and it does not depend on how sharp your lens is. So, what is it?

Sharpness is a perceived thing, meaning it has a lot to do with the light contrast of the photos you take. I have a great example of a photo that I took of former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.


Hans Blix, Leica Digilux 2, 28-70 mm Summicron f/2.0. © Thorsten Overgaard.


Usually, people look at this photo and say, "Wow! It's so sharp and detailed".

You would think that Hans Blix photos was taken with a 60 megapixel Hasselblad medium format camera or something like that.

The truth is that it was taken with a Leica Digilux 2, a camera model from 2004, that features a five-megapixel sensor.

So, this “amazingly sharp and detailed” photo is a 5-megapixel photo, a fact that might make you study it in detail again. If you do so, you will see that you actually don't see that many details.

The details you perceive are not actually well-defined in the minutest detail. It just appears that way when you look at the overall photograph.


Hans Blix. © Thorsten Overgaard.


This 5-megapixels photo has enough sharpness and detail to impress, because nobody ‘zooms in’ on a picture on the wall or in a magazine.

It's simply the light that creates the appearance of details, and in this case it's very soft light coming in from a large panorama window on the side – which is almost the definition of ideal light for a portrait: A large soft light source from the side or front.

When you have this type of ‘magic light’ it’s soft and relatively low light without high contrast. As such it requires very small dynamic range to capture every detail in both the highlight and the shadows, and that’s how you get all the details that make up the impression of a detailed and sharp photo.

It's very easy for the camera to pick it up, and cameras, anyway, always increase the contrast, compared to what the eye sees.

What looks soft and dull for the eye, the camera records as rich in details and contrast.

That's why you can have photographs that look really sharp, and when you zoom in they're actually not that sharp. On the other hand, you can have photos that are really technically sharp when you zoom in. When you zoom out, there's nothing for the eye to grab onto that makes it look sharp or crisp. No edge light on the hair nor any of the other details. 

A lot of sharpness is simply a perception – almost often a deception – and not an actual thing you can measure or zoom into.


Leica M10-P with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron f/2.0. © Thorsten Overgaard.


People look at pictures from normal viewing distance, and that’s when we perceive that these are detailed.

Normal viewing distance to a smartphone screen is about 50 cm, a computer screen is 70-80 cm, and normal viewing distance to a print on a wall is about 120 cm or more. The normal viewing distance to a billboard on a building is 50 meters or more.


Perth, Australia, Leica 50mm APO-Summicron f/2.0. © Thorsten Overgaard.
Perth, Australia, Leica 50mm APO-Summicron f/2.0. © Thorsten Overgaard.


If you think about it, a photo has the same size in your viewing field whether you see it on your screen on the back of the camera or on a billboard. You actually never get as close to viewing a photo as the poor photographer who zooms into the minor details of his own photos on the computer screen.

That is what gives sharpness such a bad name and why people have become so obsessed with getting sharpness: Apparently, it is very embarrassing if you cannot zoom in on 1/100th of a picture and see every detail. 



Retina screens and sharpness

To see pictures the ideal way on a screen, you must set the screen to a resolution of 72 dpi. If you use a MacBook Pro and set the screen to maximum inventory; which is where the letters and all is the smallest. This may be hard to read, but in terms of image delivery it's the optimum.

Any other resolution is "digital zoom", which means that the images are enlarged beyond their resolution. This is for browsing on the internet using Safari.

The actual pixels   Enlarged beyond 72 dpi - blurry and pixelated

Thing is that the internet is 72 dpi resolution. All graphics and images on the internet is 72dpi, so when you blow up the size in a browser, you are looking at an enlarged low resolution picture. That is why the text is sharp while the pictures can appear blurry.

Here is an article that tells more about this phenomen: "About Proper Image Delivery on the web"






Quality Optics

I'm a big fan of Leica lenses, and one of the reasons is that they make really good lenses. The best lenses in the world for still photography.

But what do I mean by a good lens?

There is a thing called the ‘Leica look’, and usually what that is understood to be is that you have details, but they’re not razor sharp, almost like a little bit of a soft picture.

The Leica look is “soft, but detailed”.

Leica makes cinema lenses again now, under the brand name Leitz Cine, and the quality of those cinema lenses is that they're very detailed, very alive and realistic –  but they're not razor sharp.

How does that happen? It's a technology and it's also a philosophy of how to make lenses and design lenses.


Leitz Cine lens photo taken with a Leica 100mm Summicron-C f/2.0 cine lens. This is a big lens, and it covers the area of an APS-C size sensor. In other words, they gave it all they had. © Thorsten Overgaard.


If you had a computer designing lenses, which is used a lot these days to figure out how a lens should be made and optimized, then the computer can figure out the optimum lens design so you're going to have razor sharp edges, and you'll pick up each detail with razor sharp edges.

That might not be a pleasant picture to look at, so that's why the Leica philosophy is that they use computers, but they also use a history of 150 years of optics (from back in the days when they started making optics for microscopes; the lenses for cameras came a little later, in the 1920’s).


The detail of what the lens captures, look at the grill in the shadow and how natural it is captured; while the sun blasts into the lens from other areas.


Somewhere along the process of designing a lens, when they look at computer calculations of how it should be done, they also make decisions, and say "No, if we change this, that's going to give a nicer look". It might mean that the optimum sharpness figured out by the computer now drops, but the picture is going to look better.

They are really nerds at Leica. When you and I look at a picture, we look at the picture. When they look at a lens’ performance, they look at graphs that show the “Modulation Transfer Function” of a lens.



The lens designers at Leitz Cine performing quality control on a lens before final adjustments and shipping.
Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4.
© Thorsten Overgaard.


They use these strange measurements of the lens’ performance: “We look at the MTF and then we imagine how the photo will look”, the chief lens designer Peter Karbe told me.

That’s how they do it. Of course, they also take photos later in the development process, but for a large part of the design process they look at graphics of performance – computer printouts of lens performance measurements.

When you photograph in colors, you’re photographing with red, green, and blue. A lens is always constructed to pick up red, green, and blue light from the environment and those rays of light have to go from the real world through the lens to the sensor.




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One of the things that makes lens design exciting is that red always travels a little bit differently and strays off from the path. This is one of the things they correct for so that the three colors hit the same place, and it looks right.

Einstein talked about ‘speed of light’ as if all light was the same speed, but in the case of red light, it travels slightly faster.

If you zoom in on a Leica photo, you will see that, for example, the skin of a face looks really alive and it’s almost like you can touch it.


Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH f/1.4
. © Thorsten Overgaard.


You look at the photo and you sense the skin. If you compare that to, for example, a Zeiss lens, the Zeiss lens might actually be sharper, but then you zoom out a little bit, and you will see that the Leica looks more alive and the Zeiss lens looks colder, less alive, less realistic, less real. Those are the small details that the lens designers have to deal with.

You don’t want sharp skin, you want skin that looks realistic and alive.


Percieved Sharpness

The problem we have when we photograph is that we have computer screens on which we judge the photos as we edit them.

Instead of just looking at a print on a table, at a distance, like you normally would, and saying, "Wow, that looks really nice", we zoom in on the computer and study details nobody else would care to study.



Mendez Boxing. Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4
. © Thorsten Overgaard.


If we check, for example, this picture that I took in a boxing place in New York, it looks fine.

Everybody who's going to look at this is not going to comment on whether it is sharp or not. But the moment you zoom in on it on a computer, you can get the “actual print size in full resolution", and her face is not actually in focus:


Mendez Boxing. Leica 28mm Summilux f/1.4
. © Thorsten Overgaard.


But does it matter? No it doesn’t, because the picture you're supposed to look at is the entire picture, not a close-up of a detail.

What is the general impression? Well, it is that it’s a sharp enough picture. Sharp enough that nobody would think it should be differently.

Of course it's light. The light does a lot to it.

That's not the point. Your eyes are actually not able to pick up those details unless you zoom in, and it’s only on computers that you can do that.

There we have one of the problems of today: What can you measure in a picture? How do you qualify the quality of a picture?

© Thorsten Overgaard.


It's really hard to measure what the artistic quality is. What is the emotional quality?

You may find it artistic and you may feel emotions looking at it, but how are you going to measure it?

What is easy to measure is that you can zoom in and see how sharp it is, how detailed it is. How sharp is that hair? But who really cares? What you should look at is the overall picture. It might be that we have the idea you can actually see every hair on his head, and maybe you can if you zoom in. Or, maybe not. It doesn't matter.

What do you perceive? That's the interesting thing about sharpness.

You simply just look at the picture. Use your eyes.

Then you also have an interesting, different perspective. It's how sharp can a picture get? How sharp should it be so you can actually perceive it?

If you look at film, as we used to do in the old days, those equal around 18-20 megapixels.

We now have 24, 37, 100 and 150 megapixel sensors in cameras, and it's kind of overkilling, because what are we going to do with that level of sharpness – or ‘detail level’ might be a better expression?

If we make a print, and we look at it, we're not going to see these kinds of details.

Of course, we can have special scenarios. You want to work in a studio, you want to make photos where you can crop them, maybe just take 10% of a photo, then of course, it's good to have 60 or 100 megapixels so you have something to work with.

But generally, you don't need such a level of detail or sharpness.


© Thorsten Overgaard.


More to come...

I hope you enjoyed today's Story Behind That Picture. As always, feel free to email me with questions, ideas and suggestions.



Thorsten Overgaard


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Leica 21mm Super-Angulon-M f/3.4   Leica R10 [cancelled]
Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4   Leica R4 35mm film SLR
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Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f//1.4   Leica 19mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 35mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leitz 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 "rigid" Series II   Leica 50mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4   Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit f/2.8
Leica 75mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 80mm Summilux-F f/1.4
Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 90mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 90mm Summarit-M f/2.5   Leica 180mm R lenses
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Photo: Sheikh Khalid Al-Thani.
Photo: Sheikh Khalid Al-Thani.

Thorsten Overgaard is a Danish born photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing for magazines and teaching workshops which cater to Leica enthusiasts. You can follow him at his television channel





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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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