A Matter of softness and sharpness-Blaming Rembrandt

A Matter of softness and sharpness-Blaming Rembrandt

Morning, Waikaretu. Sony Alpha 900, CZ 24-70/2.8

Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other peoples pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny but that carry with them a reminder of community. – Robert Adams

Craft forms, and Art informs. -TB

Kia ora tatou:

In a way I blame Rembrandt van Rijn for setting me off down this road.

And DS (you know who you are)…

The latter sent me a link to an article which discusses the Great Master’s use of soft and sharp to direct the eye in a photograph. It was so intriguing that I found a large copy of his Descent from The Cross, and looked again. Then I began to see it.

As photographers we are used to dealing with depth-of-field. The camera is quite mechanical in the way it handles DOF. We choose a focal point and thereby establish our plane of focus. Everything along that line is, generally speaking, in sharp focus. The aperture we select will determine how much is in focus in front of and behind that plane. A large aperture, depending on the focal length of the lens and the distance from the subject will render everything in front of that line and behind it to a distance, determined by those three factors, in sharp focus. A small aperture will render a greater amount in sharp focus, again depending on the influence of aperture, focal length and distance from the subject.

OK. That was boring. But stay with me.

The thing is, there are three planes if you like: the plane of focus; the plane forming the front edge of the zone of sharpness, and another forming the back edge. Everything between those two outer planes is in sharp focus.


No exceptions.


That is photography and one of the things which separates photography from other media, such as painting.

Photography’s singular feature is that it renders everything in that zone is in sharp focus, whether we want it or not. We take it for granted. We expect it. It is one of the key markers which distinguishes photography from other visual media. We may be perfectly happy to accept it, or we may see it as a tyranny.

If we ever think about it.

But painters do.

Back to Rembrandt.

I was looking at Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross, when it became obvious that he was not contained by the tyranny of DOF. How could he be, when photography had not been invented?

As a side note, consider the works of painters like Canaletto, whose paintings seem to conform to this idea of zones of focus, possibly because he is said to have used the camera obscura to draw the outlines for his paintings of Venice.

If you look at Rembrandt’s Descent, it becomes clear that he manipulates the zones of focus to lead the viewer’s eye around the painting. Note that he also uses lighting to effect to shape our voyage around the work. That which is lit is sharp, that which lies in shadow is softer. Note too that he places people who are shadowed and soft squarely within the plane of focus, where, photographically speaking, they should not be. Traditional photography (that is, the film aesthetic carried across to digital), does not allow this. Everything along the line must be sharp in a photograph and, depending upon the choice of aperture, sharpness will extend forwards and backwards to a predetermined degree.

If we stay true to the photographic tradition of DOF, then nothing further is possible. A few tweaks, a little global sharpening and it is done. The photograph captured in camera.

What then, if we opt to explore this and manipulate the zone of focus, to use the tools at our disposal to have a greater influence upon the viewer’s response to the image? We now have all the tools we could possibly want. Tools such as Topaz Labs Infocus and all manner of softening tools (I like the Glamour Glow option in Nik Software’s Color Efex). We can now play with  the way our eye is directed around an image.

Sharp/soft; light/dark.

Let the fun begin.

Painters have much to teach us, if we have eyes to see.

The header image has sat in the archives for nearly a year now. At the time I made the photograph, I knew it had potential, but not what direction it wanted to go. Now, a year later, that direction has become apparent.

It was one of those lovely mornings in the South Waikato, when a southerly has passed and scrubbed the air clean. The light was drifting in from Stage left, and lighting up the valley. It was impossible to get it all in in one go, since my eye was flitting from the mounds before me to the trees in the background, following the fenceline, stopping briefly at the woolshed,  then off again. The points of interest were all over the place. I made a number of exposures and we continued on.

A couple of weeks ago, I was coming back to this work and the ideas in it. I remembered the New Zealand painter, John Gully, and looked at his works. Sure enough, he was doing it too. Sharp interspersed with soft.

It all came together when I was teaching a workshop on sharpness. To understand sharpness, we need to know exactly what that is, and then how to use the tools at our disposal. I explained some of my thinking, and the fact that Gully was an influence. I made the work in front of them. I hope it was of use.

This is such an interesting idea that I imagine I will be following it for some time and I am keen to share these ideas. I will certainly be making it a feature of the Winterlight workshops in Wedderburn this year. Sharpening/Softening is a workshop in itself!

Nga mihi ki a katoa

5 Responses

  1. Roger says:


    Thank you mate!
    It is something I have been doing in portraits but not in, for instance, landscape. You have crystallized another idea and skill for the photographic toolkit. Love the image, particularly as your subconscious forces you to dwell on it’s nuances. Would love to make another Winterlight!

  2. Annemarie says:

    Thanks for this! Summarises everything very nice after the workshop! Btw thank you very much for a great week of learning in January!

  3. Shona says:

    Tony you are so right – I had never looked at a painting and “analysed” it in terms of it’s sharpness or DOF before. It has not seemed relevant somehow. Now I do see a problem looming – with those photographers who insist that a good landscape must be tack sharp from front to back – But I guess they need to be educated 🙂

    As you know I have done both Winterlight and Masterlight – both were a really fantasitc experience – so much so that I am considering doing them both again – perhaps not both in the same year though! The attraction is – what I learn from the Master, 🙂 being in an area with truly magnificent landscapes, the opportunity to make some great images and the fun and friendship with the others who attend.

  4. […] at the front and along the mountain ridge, selective elsewhere…  I’m thinking of Tony Bridge’s blog where he […]

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