For starters, let's admit that a soft focus image is sometimes appropriate and effective. With subjects that are romantic and nostalgic, softness can convey a message of distance in time or of fond memories - - and almost always with people as subjects. On the practical side a light touch with the right soft focus filter (like a Nikon or Cokin #1) will zip away many a zit. and yet leave the sharpness almost untouched. Unfortunately judges are rarely sympathetic to any use of soft focus.
But when a photo isn't intended to be soft it should be really sharp. "Photographic clarity" sharp, and not somewhere in between. We see this in slide competitions where the judge occasionally calls for a focus check and flunks those that fail. Presumably, all the rest are sharp.
Are they really? I've been involved in many print shows, some with Ocean County Camera Club but most with other groups and I see a distressing lack of sharpness in a significant number of prints, even 8xlO's often don't make the grade. Why do so many photographers produce good slides but below par prints? Part of the reason lies with the fact that projected images fool the eye. I've found, through long observation, that a projected image needs only 1/2 to 1/4 the lines per millimeter resolution that an image intended for printing needs. For example I occasionally select a slide for competition but find I need it elsewhere. The solution? Make a dupe .I’ve tried various labs, made them myself, even used the best 1:1 macro lenses but could never get the sharpness of the dupes even close to the original. Oh sure, they look fine on the screen and some have been "slides of the month -- or year" but when checked with a 5x to 8x loupe the shortfall of quality is obvious. I would never print one of these dupes.
So I theorize that many beginning, and some advanced photo fans produce images in the "minimally acceptable for projection" range simply because they are unaware that their images could easily be a lot better.
Did I say easily? Darn right. A couple years ago I devoted a string of articles to an in-depth analysis of factors affecting sharpness and came to some useful conclusions. Simply stated, any image that is absolutely steady and in perfect focus will be outstandingly sharp. Forget the fancy name on the camera, almost any decent equipment will do. Last year three of my 16 x 20 color prints came from negatives that were taken on 35mm Fujicolor 400 in a 1966 Minoltina, which I found in a flea market for $25. The prints look sharp down to an inspection distance of 3 or 4 feet, and further improvement could have been made by using a slower and finer film. These were casually shot, handheld cover shots taken at 1/250 sec. This is generally the lowest speed that tests have shown to be consistently steady in the hands of experienced photographers (and remember that this minimum goes up with long lenses and down with short ones). Sure we've all heard someone brag how they shot their 5OOn-im tele at 1/15 sec. and "you could count every hair". It's even possible that it happened --- once, but more likely that's just one more of those images that squeak by when projected but fall apart when printed. The fast film also made it possible to stop down quite a bit, to near f I 1 and that would cover up any internal focusing error in the camera.
That's right, any focusing system may be inaccurate, even reflexes and view cameras. Test yours by focusing carefully on a midpoint between many nearer and further objects and check the resulting image with a high powered loupe. Be suspicious of error even if the chosen point looks good but some near of far points look better. In such a case adjustment at the nearest repair shop may be in order.
As a kid (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) I started off with a # 116 Brownie box camera. The results were pretty mushy, in fact you could clearly
e the shake which resulted from the single, low shutter speed,(about 1/40 sec.). I also was aware that aberrations limited the quality of the one element lens. For an experiment I shot a mountain landscape with the brownie on a big wooden tripod (amazing that the camera had a tripod socket), pulled out the "waterhouse stop" all the way to about f32--to limit the aberrations, taped an orange filter over the lens partly to further lower the shutter speed, and then snapped off an approximately 1/4 sec. exposure on "time". The resulting negative produced a sharp and snappy image that held pro quality up to about 5x7. A couple years later I learned another lesson. I was able to borrow and use a 35mm. folding camera named Weltur which had an f2.8 lens, probably a Xenar. 8xlOs from Plus-X negatives were not very sharp. Fortunately I was then working in a microfilm plant and was aware of the amazing detail a 35mm microfilm negative could hold. There were film scraps aplenty to experiment with so I coaxed the film to deliver "pictorial" contrast with watered down D-76 developer (an early version of Tech Pan in Technidol), again put the camera on a solid tripod and shot slow to cope with the pathetic ISO 6 film speed. The results were quite amazing, the first really sharp 8xlOs I had made to that time. From these early tinkerings it was clear to me that combining rock steadiness, sharp focus and fine film was the formula for producing really sharp images --- and I didn't even have a Leica.
Years later I acquired my first "serious" 35inm.SLR and it was a Miranda, not at the top of any pros list. Image quality was excellent but lens variety was very limited so when I needed a "Fisheye" wide angle I moved on to a Minolta, and later when I needed a 28mm.P.C. (perspective control) lens I moved on to the only supplier (at the time), Nikon. Comparing the images produced by these three cameras I can see no discernible difference in quality. Each has produced outstanding 16x2O's when a Kodachrome slide was the starting point and even the Miranda delivered lots of "pro" work that was published.
The point of all this is that the lack of a Leica, Hassleblad, Nikon, etc. is totally immaterial to your pursuit of a high quality image.
Speaking of focus, concepts like depth of field and hyperfocal distance can be serious traps for the unwary. Bear in mind that only the point of focus is at maximum sharpness while other points in the depth of field zone may have acceptable sharpness. Well, acceptable to whom, and to what degree of enlargement? That's right, since the requirements for sharpness increase as you blow the image up, the depth of field actually decreases. You should be dismayed by the fact that the standard of "acceptable" sharpness widely used by most manufacturers, will only produce an "acceptable" 6x9 Inch print. The worst use of depth-of-field or hyperfocal distance is to barely stretch depth to reach important foreground and background areas where there is very little (but sharply focused air) between them. Once that image goes beyond 6x9 inches the whole thing is unsharp --- and I think this may explain a few more of those mushy prints I've been seeing.
My own approach to the very real need for depth of field starts with a bit of good basic visual psychology. Determine which area is most important (and it's almost always the foreground) and focus sharply on it. This sharp point survives great enlargement and provides a satisfying anchor of quality. Then I stop down about two stops more than the depth of field scale shows (to make up for greater enlargement) to bring in the background. This may require using a tripod or acceptance of a less sharp background. Even In the latter case a print with some really sharp areas is far more satisfying than a print without them.