In Search of Sharp Photos

This page is intended as a way to share test results with those who have participated in some very helpful discussions on the Olympus SLR forum at It assumes the reader is familiar with topics that are widely discussed on these forums. Much of the information on this page is specific to Olympus E-10 and E-20 cameras.

One frustration I have encountered with my E-20 is the fact that some of my photos did not have the sharpness that I desired, while others were extremely sharp. For a long time, I believed what I was seeing was caused by some issue with the camera's ability to auto-focus correctly. In response to a question I posted concerning Depth of Field I received many very helpful suggestions.

Based on these discussions I have concluded that:

  • Our perception of sharpness depends heavily on color and contrast as well as on focus.
  • Increasing the f stop beyond some point actually causes sharpness to decrease. In these tests the best results were achieved at an f stop near f 4.5 or 5.0.
  • All digital capture inherently produces images that are soft, and must be sharpened by software.
  • Software sharpening is accomplishing by increasing the contrast at key points in the image.
  • Cameras that produce files that need no sharpening, employ sharpening by software in the camera.
  • While the settings in the E-10 and E-20 don't affect the RAW files directly, they are stored and can be applied automatically in some conversion programs.
  • Different conversion programs and settings can create vastly different results. The results I obtained in these tests are probably NOT be the best that can be achieved with the programs I used.
  • The composition of the picture itself can add to the perception of sharpness. A distant scene with no high contrast objects will not appear as sharp as a similar scene with a large structure in the distance or something in the foreground that is sharp.
  • Subtle differences in air quality and lighting that we may not notice (unless we are looking for them) can easily impact the sharpness of our pictures more than we expect.

    Test Image Comparisons

    The thumbnail images on this page have been reduced to 200x150 pixels. The "larger versions" will each open in a new window so you can more easily switch from one to another to compare them. The larger versions are 800x600 pixels with selected clips at full resolution. If you want to see the full resolution versions of these files badly enough to wait "forever" for them to download, you can click on "Get Full Resolution Version" on the larger version page for each image. (Or you could right click on "Get Full Resolution Version" and select "Save Target As..." to download the full version.)

    PROBLEM: "Soft" Image

  • This image appears too soft when printed at 13" x 19".
  • The colors contain too much red.
  • This photo was taken with an Olympus E20 zoom to 36mm at f 7.1.
  • It was stored in RAW format, converted from RAW using ORFSuite.

  • Click below for larger versions

    Different conversion produced better results.

  • Image converted from the same RAW file
  • Converted using option 2 of the Olympus RAW plug-in for Photoshop
  • Curves and USM applied after the convert

  • Click below for larger versions

    Better results by re-shooting with different settings

  • I re-shot from the same location on a day when the air was unusually clear.
  • I used auto-focus with the focus target aimed at the two rows of taller weeds in the center of the picture.
  • I took shots at different f stops, then chose the best. This shot was f 4.5.
  • The camera was set for WB 5500, Sharpness Hard, Contrast High.
  • I converted with Option 3 of Olympus plug-in for Photoshop.
  • Option 3 applies camera WB, Sharpness, and Contrast settings when converting.
  • USM of 100 was applied after convert.

  • Click below for larger versions

    Photo Composition can add a sense of Sharpness.

  • The impression of sharpness can be enhanced by including high contrast objects.
  • The bridge in this picture makes this photo appear sharper than photos without it appear.
  • I used auto-focus with the focus target aimed at the trunk of the tree in the center of the picture.
  • This shot was f 5.0, all other settings were the same as in previous picture.
  • Note the excellent DOF from tree in foreground to bridge 1 mile away.
  • The grain elevator and water tower about 3 miles away don't appear as sharp because they don't have the sharp lines of the bridge, they are smaller in the photo, and the effects of the air (even on an extra clear day) are greater at 3 miles than at 1 mile.

  • Click below for larger versions

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    J. Phil Arnold
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    Revised -- 10/20/01