Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

"Sharp as a Razor"

Few of the pictures featured on TDJ's pages this month would exist if it weren't for the little 35mm camera that can go almost anywhere, and do almost anything.

But, sometimes I wonder if there is something to be gained by using a larger camera, perhaps something in the "sharpness" department. This is probably a hangover from the days long ago when the local AP photographer told me my old Zeiss Contax was only good as a concealed camera for courtroom shots. Nonetheless, just like his Speed Graphic, it produced some sharp shots and some fuzzy ones. There seemed to be more at play than negative size.

Out of curiosity, I ran some tests and reviewed a lot of old pictures (I looked at prints, not reproductions) trying to determine the factors that went into a "sharp" photograph, especially with smaller cameras.

Guess what. The most obvious factor was the film you used. The bigger, the better, when you used a conventional 400 speed black and white film--120 was better than 35; 4x5 was better than 120; 8x10 blew everything out of the water. The surprising results came when you dropped to a slower speed film.

When you used one of the new medium-speed films like TMax 100 or Delta 100, the quality gain from large format sheet film was minimal. Indeed, in our tests, when you used the cameras in a way to maximize quality, people could not say whether 4x5 Tri-X Pro or 35mm TMax 100 were "sharper."

Of course, the fudge factor in this statement is "used the cameras in a way to maximize quality."  That means you not only have to use a medium-speed film, but you have to use the camera in a way that is often incompatible with covering the news: (1) high shutter speeds or a tripod and, perhaps, pre-releasing the mirror on an SLR, (2) an optimum aperture, and (3) filling the frame so the final print is from an uncropped negative.

Using a tripod and "filling the frame" are common with larger cameras. It turns out that this is an exceptionally important part of producing "sharp" pictures with any camera.

Tripod or high shutter speed? Filling the frame? What a pain in the butt. Nonetheless, the results can be so spectacular that it seems worthwhile to pursue them on the occasions you can. Often the more illustrative work that has replaced the "real stuff" can easily be handled in this way. Every once in a while, the "real stuff" can be handled in the same way.

The only tricky part of this is knowing the optimum aperture of your lens. For most high quality 50mm lenses, it is around f/5.6. It's a smaller aperture for longer lenses; larger for conventional wide-angles.  Zooms, extreme wide-angles and retrofocus lenses can be all over the lot.  Most important, it is incorrect to think that most lenses are at their best at small apertures; don't stop down too much.

We haven't talked about color films, and there's the rub. The sharpest of the color films, like Kodachrome and Fuji Velvia, don't have the format-equalizing power of black and white. Now, we know why ads and movie posters are shot on roll and sheet film. But, the 35mm photojournalist can take consolation in the fact that all of this finicky format stuff is absolutely inconsequential when you have an image that is a real butt kicker. Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade.

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