After a joint projection session during the planning stages of an expedition, a seasoned Arctic explorer asked me, "Why are your pictures so much sharper than mine?" He explained that he owned a top-of-the-line camera and shot only the finest-grained films, but from the look of my pictures, I must be using special cameras and films not available to the general public.
He so earnestly believed the differences he saw were due to equipment that I doubted he would hear the most basic truth: his original Kodachromes were actually "sharper" than the duplicate slides I had shown. I began by saying that what appears to be sharpness on a projection screen or a magazine page is a complex holistic quality that goes far beyond the measured resolving power of fine lenses and films. It depends on a combination of factors that aspiring photographers must learn to control by conscious choices.
Top outdoor photographers aren't born with special vision or given special goodies that others can't buy. They simply learn more tricks of the trade and religiously apply them even when a landscape subject seems absurdly obvious or when the action seems too fast paced for anything more than a grab shot. On the other hand, when a situation seems clearly beyond the range of all known tricks, the best photographers don't try to force rigid, preconceived ideas. They assess what kind of photographs they can make in the particular conditions they've been handed.
For example, a photographer who arrives in the Grand Tetons during a long storm with a firm goal of shooting broad landscapes over the classic bend of the Snake River has four basic choices:
(1) Shoot a lousy, unpublishable landscape.
(2) Sit in a hotel and wait for the rain to stop.
(3) Go home.
(4) Creatively modify that original goal.
Number four is the only option that can produce viable results in the existing weather. It makes no difference if you shoot 35mm or an 8 x 10 view camera in heavy falling rain; distant landscapes are going to turn out distinctly unsharp. Yet a person who tries lots of experiments under such conditions may well return with a few images that evoke more visual attention and sense of mystery than any shot of the classic view on a clear day. A typical success might be a tight shot of wet flowers or leaves with the peaks barely visible in the mist. Images like this do not "come out" by chance. Any distant subject will appear murky through the rain, but sharply-focused close objects with strong edge definition create a distinct impression of sharpness.
Imagine a fall rainstorm with a foreground of green, yellow, and red aspen leaves in front of the Tetons. Although the green leaves do appear far sharper than the murky Tetons, one's attention is most powerfully drawn to the even sharper-looking edges of the yellow and red leaves. These are not only more attractive colors, but also edges that have technically sharper resolution in the context of how our visual system views the world. We have a distinctly higher visual acuity for red and yellow edges because the cones on our retinas are more sensitive to these wavelengths than to those at the blue end of the spectrum. Even where the measured resolution of a film image may be identical, yellow or red edges will always appear sharper than blue or green edges. Similarly, high saturation films that produce stronger warm tones in poor lighting also look sharper.
Just as a camera's auto-focus system searches for edges and fails without them, the human visual system thrives on clear edges to make sense of the world. Any photograph appears somewhat muddy and unsharp when subjects are distant in bluish light due to overcast or midday light, such as the Glacier Park scene rescued with a fill-flashed foreground that is reproduced here. An equally important factor is having a broad range of edges in focus. When foreground edges are blurred, we are likely to see the entire image as somewhat unsharp (except if a prominent subject stands out in one plane of focus elsewhere). When great depth of field is achieved at apertures of f16 or f22, a 35mm image takes on the look of large-format photography. Doing this naturally forces you to slow down, put the camera on a tripod, and carefully frame and focus, just like the guys with those big cameras. They retain the advantage only in tighter film grain, while 35mm offers far greater creative choices of ultra-wide to extreme telephoto lenses with other options, such as balanced fill-flash. Some of these choices, however, are guaranteed to create atmospheric problems similar to those of pictures shot in bad weather.
Extreme telephoto lenses magnify hazy air in the shade as assuredly as they enlarge chosen subjects. In the resulting cooler, softer light, even the highest resolution photograph of a wild animal with a 600mm lens may be too dull and blue to catch an editor's eye. In these situations, push-processing ISO 100 Lumiere or Provia slide films a full stop to ISO 200 will produce much sharper appearing photographs than using an actual 200 ISO film. By altering development for a higher speed, push-processing of these two films induces added contrast and warmer colors that would appear garish in close portraits shot with full sunlight, yet are ideal compensating factors in flat light when shooting with long telephotos or with normal lenses thousands of feet above the landscape, as in aerial photography.
I equip all my lenses longer than 200mm with 81A warming filters, which are double the strength of the standard skylight filters that I use on shorter focal lengths. This tends to give my telephoto shots a more natural balance of warm and cool tones without adding visible red to the blue shadows.
Owning a fast f1.4 lens that a photojournalist would covet is another potential 35mm trap that tempts a person to hand-hold substandard nature images that hold only one narrow range of focus. A photographer using a far slower, cheaper, and lighter lens is more likely to make captivating images in the same situations by being forced to use a tripod.
When I choose to travel light without a tripod, I often improvise. On wilderness trail runs I've sometimes found great landscapes in low light that I've been able to render tack-sharp from two feet to infinity with my camera and wide-angle lens propped on rocks or logs. On urban walks I've even resorted to stacking my camera on a couple of beer cans to get perfect long exposures.
Although I could fill a book with many more common-sense solutions to sharper-appearing images, my overall message should be clearly in focus by now: Sharpness is as much a quality of mind as of film or optics.