Is sharpness a bourgeois concept?

Often repeated on internet forums (generally by contrarians) is a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

What is meant by a “bourgeois concept” in the first place? I think that the meaning of “bourgeois” has changed quite a bit since Karl Marx used the term in the 1800s. I think of people who have a modest amount of affluence and career success, but are not members of the true upper class. They are not the CEO’s, but the people with six-figure jobs in middle management or sales. “Bourgeois” implies affluence without the refined taste or understatement of the true upper class. The bourgeois show off their affluence by driving unnecessarily expensive cars like Mercedes, living in McMansions, etc. It’s conspicuous but not sophisticated consumption.

In photography, we can imagine the fellow who can afford to buy a really sharp lens (like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 which I recently reviewed), but lacks, the skill, creativity, vision, etc, to take any photos worthy of such a lens. Yes that would be me, however the worst case of the bourgeois photographer would be the guy who thinks that because he’s using a really expensive camera and lens, he must be taking great photos, when in reality his photos are cr*p. I am aware that I’m not worthy of the lens.

This quote originally appeared in Newsweek. Cartier-Bresson was in his 90s when he said it in conversation with photographer Helmut Newtron, and it’s helpful to understand the context of the quote:

“He had his little Leica,” Newton remembers, “and he simply would point and shoot.” Since Cartier-Bresson’s hand isn’t as steady as it used to be, some of the pictures were a bit fuzzy. “Sharpness,” he told Newton, “is a bourgeois concept.” Newton sits back and laughs: “I thought that was just divine.”

The message is not to let gear or sharpness stand in the way of your photography. I think that Cartier-Bresson would approve of people using their iPhones to take photos. Cartier-Bresson was shooting 35mm back when nearly all serious photographers were shooting larger formats. 35mm was the iPhone of the pre-war era. Most of those old street photography photos, the kind for which Cartier-Bresson is famous, are unsharp and grainy by modern standards.

A new filter for my new lens

I picked up a filter to protect my new 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. That big front element looked very unprotected. (Read the review conclusion here.)

Filters are a strangely controversial topic on gearhead forums. Many gearheads go crazy at the idea of putting a filter in front of their lens.

I have found these B+W Digital MRC Nano XS-Pro filters to be the best at not causing any ghost reflections when there are bright lights in the frame.

Why do the marketing people put the word “Digital” in the name? Are they not allowed to be used with film cameras?

Nature photographs are not considered real art

Looking for an interesting read? Check out Niall Benvie’s article in which he complains that nature photographs aren’t considered to be real art.

Yes, he’s right about that. I would rate animal photographs as the most kitsch genre of photography, with nature and landscapes coming in second.

One of the author’s points is that a painting of the same subject would be considered worthy of display in an art gallery but not a photograph, but I would point out that, even in the medium of painting, animals and then landscapes are considered the least worthy of being considered real art. If you visit any serious museum of contemporary art, you won’t see any paintings of animals or landscapes. Although yes, the genre is still popular in certain types of art galleries because there will always be rich people who like looking at landscape scenes on their walls (objectively, a landscape is a lot more pleasant to look out every day than the vast majority of what’s being pushed as contemporary art), and a painting is a more sophisticated way of showing off a landscape than a photograph. But at the more edgy and serious art galleries you would find in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, or the Lower East Side, you won’t find landscape paintings there either.

The golden age of landscape painting was in the late 1800s when guys like Albert Bierstadt showed off huge canvases of scenes from out West where few would have the opportunity to travel by themselves. Before airplanes, before motor vehicles, before there were very many roads of any sort, you had to get to those places on horseback. While Albert Bierstadt’s paintings are on display in the most prestigious museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, if you painted like him today, it would not be considered museum-worthy. The curators at the Whitney Museum would laugh at you. (Although Bierstadt-quality paintings would definitely sell for decent money at art galleries that deal in that genre.)

Is an $800 Olympus lens superior to a $1650 Leica lens?

I recently purchased the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens for $800 (on sale right now) and discovered that it was sharp all the way to the corners, at all focal lengths, and free from purple fringing. See my conclusion here.

I looked through the sample photos at dpreview.com for the Leica Vario-Elmar-T 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 which is the normal zoom for its T and TL series of APS-C cameras, and sells for a very expensive $1650.

Looking at some of the sample photos, I saw corners that were mushy and had purple fringing. Unlike the sharper and purple-fringe-free corners of the Olympus zoom.

Furthermore, the Olympus zoom is a constant f/2.8, and although that’s equivalent to a constant f/3.7 on an APS-C camera with a 1.5 focal-length modifier, it’s still a faster lens than the Leica zoom.

Furthermore, the Olympus zooms out to a slightly wider field of view.

The only advantage of the Leica lens is that it weighs less, approximately 9 ounces vs 13.5 ounces. But the Olympus lens is faster, and faster glass is heavier, that’s just the way it is.

Despite Leica’s reputation for making the “best” lenses, it seems to me that the Olympus lens is superior to the Leica lens. And that’s before we even bring price into it.

There’s no mode dial on a Leica TL2

Olympus and Panasonic both experimented with cameras without mode dials. There were several Panasonic “GF” models without mode dials, and Olympus made the E-PM1 and E-PM2 without a mode dial.

The lack of a mode dial was unanimously cited in reviews as a bad thing. Because, the reasoning went, not having a mode dial made it harder to change modes. Both Olympus and Panasonic gave up on the idea of making cameras without mode dials. Olympus abandoned its cheap “E-PMx” line, and Panasonic included a mode dial with the GF7 and all subsequent “GF” models.

But now we have Leica selling $2000 “TL” cameras without mode dials, and instead of receiving the same hate as Panasonic and Olympus, Leica is praised for making the camera “simple” and more like an iPhone.

Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, review conclusion

12-40mm @ 12mm, demonstrating the value of wide angle when shooting in cities

I find this lens to be as good as advertised! Highly recommended.

Pros:

  • Sharp corners, even at widest focal length where most lesser zooms have soft corners.
  • Sharp fully zoomed in, where most lesser zooms become softer.
  • Sharp when used wide open, at all focal lengths.
  • No purple fringing.
  • No field curvature (that I’ve noticed; I only tested for field curvature at the wide end).
  • Less expensive than buying a bunch of prime lenses. (This week, the 12-40mm is selling for the same price as just the 12mm f/2.0 by itself.)

Cons:

  • Lateral chromatic aberration.
  • Lens blocks built-in pop-up flash on some Micro Four Thirds cameras.
  • Lens hood is cheaply made.
  • Big and heavy for a Micro Four Thirds lens (although quite a bit smaller and lighter than the comparable Canon 24-70mm f/4.0 full-frame lens).

What this lens is best at:

  • Event photography (I would expect that this is the number one lens for wedding photographers who shoot Olympus)
  • Landscape and cityscape
  • Travel photography (if you don’t mind the weight)
  • General purpose photography (the most versatile lens to have if you have no idea what you want to take pictures of)

What this lens is NOT best at:

  • Portraiture (generally you should use a prime lens for better bokeh, however the 12-40mm is excellent for a type of wide-angle portraiture where you don’t want a blurred background)
  • Street photography (too big to be inconspicuous)
  • Photos that have no purpose except to show off extreme bokeh (and there are lots of these types of photos on Flickr)
  • Any use that require focal lengths wider than 12mm or longer than 40mm

I have written a whole series of blog posts about this lens before writing this conclusion. Read the details:

G.A.S. attack (Olympus 12-40mm lens)
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 “PRO” lens, first impression
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 second impression: this lens is ginormous!
12-40mm F/2.8 vs. 17mm f/1.8 extreme corner(with test photos)
12-40mm f/2.8 vs. Ricoh GR (with test photos)
Olympus lens test: 12-40mm vs. 9-18mm extreme corner (with test photos)
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 vs. three primes (with test photos)