Can You Do It? How Sharp is Sharp Enough??? And the Pen Test for Sharpness… « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Can You Do It? How Sharp is Sharp Enough??? And the Pen Test for Sharpness...

What’s Up?

I got lots of work done on Thursday when this blog post was prepared. I enjoyed a nice swim in the community pool at my Mom’s place and got back to doing my core exercises, at least some of them ๐Ÿ™‚

The Streak

Todayโ€™s blog post marks a totally insane, absurd, completely ridiculous, unfathomable, silly, incomprehensible, what’s wrong with this guy?, makes-no-sense, 261 days in a row with a new educational blog post. And I still have dozens of new topics to cover; there should be no end in sight until my big South America trip next fall. As always-โ€“and folks have been doing a really great job recentlyโ€“-please remember to use our B&H links for your major gear purchases. For best results use one of our many product-specific links; after clicking on one of those you can continue shopping with all subsequent purchases invisibly tracked to BAA. Your doing so is always greatly appreciated. Please remember: web orders only. AND Please remember also that if you are shopping for items that we carry in the new BAA Online Store (as noted in red at the close of this post below) we would appreciate your business.


This image was created in San Diego last February with the Induro GIT 304L/Mongoose M3.6-mounted Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens, the Canon Extender EF 2X III, and the mega mega-pixel Canon EOS 5DS R. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +2/3 stops as framed: 1/125 sec. at f/8. AWB.

Center AF point (by necessity)/AI Servo Expand/Rear Focus AF as framed was active at the moment of exposure; the selected AF point fell on the side of the bird’s neck just rear of the base of its bill. Click here to see the latest version of the Rear Focus Tutorial. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Double-crested Cormorant with white crests raised

Those White Crests

Eastern birds of this species have crests in breeding plumage, but they are–for the most part–black. Each year when I visit San Diego we manage to find a killer bird or two in full breeding plumage with the white crests.

Can You Do It?

Can you judge critical sharpness from this JPEG? How about the exposure? I would love to hear your thoughts? As presented, it looks pretty good to me.

How Sharp is Sharp Enough???

If you are into making huge prints, say 60 inches wide by 40 inches tall, critical sharpness and impeccable fine feather detail are critically important. For many other usages, it is not…

The Pen Test for Sharpness…

Back in the day when it was possible to actually sell a few images, I often spoke about the “Pen Test” for sharpness. If the guy buying the image signed the check, it was sharp enough.


San Diego offers a wealth of very attractive natural history subjects. With annual visits spanning more than three decades I have lot of experience there….

2017 San Diego 4 1/2-DAY BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT) JAN 11 thru and including the morning session on JAN 15: 4 1/2 days: $1999.

(Limit: 10/openings 8)

Meet and Greet at 7:00pm on the evening before the IPT begins; Tuesday 1/10/17.

Join me in San Diego to photograph the spectacular breeding plumage Brown Pelicans with their fire-engine red and olive green bill pouches; Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants; breeding plumage Wood and Ring-necked Duck; other duck species possible including Lesser Scaup, Redhead, and Surf Scoter; a variety of gulls including Western, California, and the gorgeous Heerman’s, all in full breeding plumage; shorebirds including Marbled Godwit, Willet, Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover; many others possible including Least, Western, and Spotted Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Black and Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Plover, and Surfbird; Harbor Seals (depending on the current regulations) and California Sea Lions; and Bird of Paradise flowers. And as you can see by studying the two IPT cards there are some nice bird-scape and landscape opportunities as well.

With gorgeous subjects just sitting there waiting to have their pictures taken, photographing the pelicans on the cliffs is about as easy as nature photography gets. With the winds from the east almost every morning there is usually some excellent flight photography. And the pelicans are almost always doing something interesting: preening, scratching, bill pouch cleaning, or squabbling. And then there are those crazy head throws that are thought to be a form of intra-flock communication.

Did I mention that there are wealth of great birds and natural history subjects in San Diego in winter?


Though the pelicans will be the stars of the show on this IPT there will be many other handsome and captivating subjects in wonderful settings.

The San Diego Details

This IPT will include five 3 1/2 hour morning photo sessions, four 2 1/2 hour afternoon photo sessions, four lunches, and after-lunch image review and Photoshop sessions. To ensure early starts, breakfasts will be your responsibility.

A $599 non-refundable deposit is required to hold your slot for this IPT. You can send a check (made out to “Arthur Morris) to us at BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL, 33855. Or call Jim or Jennifer at the office with a credit card at 863-692-0906. Your balance, payable only by check, will be due on 9/11//2016. If we do not receive your check for the balance on or before the due date we will try to fill your spot from the waiting list. Please print, complete, and sign the form that is linked to here and shoot it to us along with your deposit check. If you register by phone, please print, complete and sign the form as noted above and either mail it to us or e-mail the scan. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via e-mail.

Please Remember to use my Affiliate Links and to Visit the New BAA Online Store ๐Ÿ™‚

To show your appreciation for my continuing efforts here, we ask, as always, that you get in the habit of using my B&H affiliate links on the right side of the blog for all of your photo and electronics purchases. Please check the availability of all photographic accessories in the New BIRDS AS ART Online Store, especially the Mongoose M3.6 tripod head, Wimberley lens plates, Delkin flash cards and accessories, and LensCoat stuff.

As always, we sell only what I have used, have tested, and can depend on. We will not sell you junk. We know what you need to make creating great images easy and fun. And we are always glad to answer your gear questions via e-mail.

I would of course appreciate your using our B&H affiliate links for all of your major gear, video, and electronic purchases. For the photographic stuff mentioned in the paragraph above we, and for everything else in the new store, we, meaning BAA, would of course greatly appreciate your business. Here is a huge thank you to the many who have been using our links on a regular basis and those who will be visiting the New BIRDS AS ART Online Store as well.


Be sure to like and follow BAA on Facebook by clicking on the logo link upper right. Tanks a stack!


In all blog posts and Bulletins, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors. Just be right ๐Ÿ™‚

21 comments to Can You Do It? How Sharp is Sharp Enough??? And the Pen Test for Sharpness…

  • avatar Nikon Jim

    I had to switch from my old Mac Book to my IPad with Retna Display to be able to zoom in on the beak. First the picture is beautiful! I wish or hope to someday be able to take such a great photo. The eye of the bird is very sharp as it should be. But if you wanted to know if we think the beak is sharp it is a little soft. I am not criticizing just telling the way it is.

  • Very nice image, the exposure looks perfect, it looks to be very sharp, and most likely would work at A3.

  • avatar Scott Borowy

    Hi Artie,

    I am going to say this image is 9.5/10 “amazingly sharp” where it counts (the eye) based on the image you presented and the factors of my viewing environment (your export size and my screen resolution).

    David Policansky planted a seed in my head one day about how he judges sharpness and it took root almost immediately. He looks well into the eye at the catch light and if there is any distortion within that, it is not considered sharp enough or there was operator error freezing motion.

    With the image you have presented, I see one very sharp light source with no motion blur in the eye.

    Regarding exposure, it almost appears that the white crests are blown out, but I can still discern definition within them. I’d say you’re between 235-245, or, right where you like to be.


  • avatar Moe

    Every time I look at one of your images Arthur, they seem to jump off the screen with detail, color, sharpness, tonal balance, and there’s always something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. This is what makes you good at what you do. You have an eye for creating pleasing images.

    Is this image critically sharp. Yes, relatively speaking. In terms of the size, and the fact it is a jpeg, I would say it is critically sharp for its intended audience. The eye of the bird is critically sharp when compared to the rest of the image, and hence it’s relativity. This plays on what Doug West mentioned. A less than critically sharp raw file can turn into a critically sharp jpeg file, when reduced and properly post-processed.

    You also asked if we can judge exposure based on this jpeg image. I would say no. Based on your style of processing, you like to keep highlights within a certain range so that they are not blown out. Images with good highlights can easily look blown out when post processed to smaller jpeg’s, as you tend to lose detail and separation. Even sharpening affects exposure. So I would say no to judging exposure, it can be deceiving.

    Just my thoughts, whether right or wrong…. but it’s always a learning experience when reading your blogs and thinking through your questions.


  • avatar Jon

    The bill does not look sharp to me the feathers look good.
    Is it sharp enough for a 1200px image? Yes with a slight reservation over the bill.
    Is it sharp enough for an A3 print? Probably not I would have to see the raw file at 1:1 or a printed image itself would be the acid test.

    In any event I think it is a really super image and I like it very much, the eye is drawn to the plumage more than the bill.

  • avatar David Policansky

    Hi, Artie. What a glorious image. It looks more than sharp enough for anything I might want to do with it. Can I tell from a JPEG whether it’s sharp enough for a huge print? Probably not, but there’s something about very sharp and detail-rich files that seems to come through even on my computer monitor. This one looks perfect to me.

    • avatar David Policansky

      ps It’s always been a sorrow for me that our double-crested cormorants and brown pelicans here in the east are less colorful than the ones in California.

  • avatar Leonard Malkin

    I love sharpness. In fact, I have the new mirrorless Hasselblad on order (for landscapes). However, for bird photography, sharpness takes a back seat to composition and color. The sharpness of feathers is low on my list. Some of my most pleasing (to me) bird photos were taken with a low megapixel 40D (which also produces less noise).

    Here’s an axiom that I’m wondering whether you agree with it or not.
    Noise results in a degraded image. When you denoise, you get a degraded image with less noise.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      The 40D was a great body and the 50D was not bad either.

      I might agree with your “axiom” if it were not for NoiseNinja (applied properly) as per the Post Processing Guide here.


  • avatar Barry Ekstrand

    Outstanding composition, one I would love to have. We get lots of cormorants in the Houston area but I’ve never seen one with such plumage, it is a striking pose.

    To your question – while the image is definitely ‘sharp enough’ as presented I think it probably doesn’t quite qualify for ‘critically sharp’ as a RAW file. To my (admittedly not calibrated!) eyes the feather detail doesn’t look quite as sharp as I believe it could have.

    Whether right or wrong, I’ll say it again – this is a great shot that I wish was mine!


  • avatar Jim Brown

    As sharp as it gets. Fabulous.

  • avatar Leslie :)

    Hi Arthur, wow what a great image! For me this is a ‘sharp’ image. Definitely sharp enough – if I had taken an image like this I would be jumping up and down in excitement! As another poster noted, the beak could be a tad sharper, but I don’t think that detracts from the image. Thank you so much for all your blog posts – always enlightening and educational!

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks for your kind words Leslie. Stay tuned on the critical sharpness issue ๐Ÿ™‚


  • avatar Ruthie

    I have the impression that sometimes “normal” people like me don’t even see these details until you point them out. The bird has great presence, and that is what counts.

  • avatar Jeff Friedhoffer

    Not sure what you mean by critical sharpness. To my eye the image is certainly sharp, as viewed on an iPad and passes the pen test.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Good point. What I am trying to ask is “Can you determine if the RAW file is/was critically sharp from viewing a 1200 wide JPEG at < 395kb?" a

  • avatar Bob Allen

    Incredible image. This bird is so common here in so Cali that most don’t spend time looking at its beauty and details. This image really makes one take notice.
    Most of the image is sharp where it counts. The bill tip is a tad soft but for most uses, totally acceptable. Perhaps you were too close for f/8 and needed a touch more DOF or the bill was in motion and needed a touch faster shutter speed. But man, the pose is spot-on.
    BTW – its caption has some duplicate text. It begins, “This image was created This image was created in San Diego…”

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hey Bob, Great to see you here. Thanks for your comments. And thanks for catching the duplicate text. You have done that and more before ๐Ÿ™‚ It has been corrected.

      later and love, artie

  • I have a sharpness question.

    My rule is, if the raw image isn’t sharp, I’ll ‘usually’ delete it. I say usually, cause I might save it if only my eyes are going to see it. But on BPN somebody might say they applied X amount of sharpening, but the next response might be to apply more. To me at least, if the image needs that amount of care, it
    should probably trashed. I guess my thinking is, if the image isn’t sharp in raw, its never going to be sharp enough after post.

    Do you judge the sharpness from what you see in your raw file, or what it could possibly look like after some post-processing?

    Does that make any sense?


    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hey Doug, It all makes sense. What you might be missing is that there are degrees of sharpness ranging from “totally out of focus” to “a bit soft” to “almost sharp” to “sharp” to “amazingly sharp…” Depending on the content and impact of an image I might optimize an image from any of those groups but the first one (but only rarely from the “a bit soft” category).

      The question here is “How sharp does today’s featured image look to you, based on viewing the enlarged JPEG?”