I see the word crisp used a lot to describe photographs, but I'm not sure what it means. Sometimes it seems synonymous with sharp, but as often it's used along with sharp seemingly to indicate something else. Does it imply high contrast? Definition? Color vividness or saturation? Shallow DoF? Cool autumn days? I can't tell.

Here are a few examples of photo.SE questions that use the word and seem to relate to sharp focus:

But I'm not so sure sharp focus is exactly the point here:

And here are a couple web pages full of "crisp" photos that don't seem to have a lot in common:

So, does crisp have a specific meaning in photography, or is it just a loose synonym for sharp?

  • 5
    It is just a loose synonym for sharp. – Matt Grum Nov 13 '14 at 16:34
  • 6
    I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist. Crisp photos. – Philip Kendall Nov 13 '14 at 16:38
  • That's funny, @PhilipKendall. I also found quite a few photography businesses that use "crisp" in their name, so it's a word that seems to resonate with photographers, or at least with clients. – Caleb Nov 13 '14 at 16:47
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Sharpness and "crispness" are related, but they're not identical (at least in the language of critique).

Sharpness is an evaluation of how well the detail in the image is recorded; crispness is about how well that detail is conveyed to the viewer. A crisp image will be sharp (mostly, that is, where sharpness counts), but it will also necessarily have a degree of contrast (at several levels) that allows the viewer to notice that it's sharp.

Straight out of camera, the difference between merely sharp and crisp could come down to a simple difference in lighting, with all other factors (lens, overall exposure, aperture, focus distance, focus accuracy, etc.) being the same — a picture taken under very flat light will not have nearly the same ability to convey apparent detail, texture and shape as an otherwise identical picture taken under slightly contrastier lighting conditions. Put both pictures on screen at a ridiculously high magnification, though, and you will see that the same size of details are recorded in both.

A beginning or casual photographer is at a distinct disadvantage here. Their camera will produce absolutely stunning images sometimes, and, well, duds at other times, using the exact same settings (where, admittedly, "the exact same settings" may simply mean "it was on 'P' for 'Professional'" or some other automated setting, with the same JPEG/rendering preset selected). Without some appreciation of lighting (both quality and direction) and some basic understanding of how to finish the picture (whether that means post-processing or simply selecting a different picture style on the camera, one that's more appropriate to the conditions), the photographer is at the mercy of circumstance, and the camera takes both the credit for successes and the blame for failures.

Provided that the camera and lens (and tripod, where applicable) are capable of rendering sharp images, the photographer can create crisp images. Or not.

The adjective crisp simply refers to the sharpness of a photo. It is commonly used in a chain of adjectives to convey additional emphasis.

Depending on the audience and regional dialects, you may also find that it can mean something completely different even in a photography context. I believe this ties into your comment that the term resonates with clients. As can be found in urban dictionary:

Stemming from its Greco-Roman origin "cri", which means "absolute greatness", it is used to describe anything that would be considered cool, awesome, hot or really fucking legit.

Naturally someone with a username as sophisticated as William Shakespeare would ask a question relating to the poetry of photography.

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