I bought an SLR, a Nikon D70, several years ago with the intension of eventually reproducing the smooth but crisp effect I had seen from my favorite portrait shots like this one from Declan McCullagh: http://www.mccullagh.org/image/10d-2/steve-bellovin-1.html

Unfortunately I've never really achieved my goal. I have to admit that my dedication to this has varied over the years but in recent days it's picked up again after seeing photos from Moshe Zusman's wedding photography business: http://moshezusman.com/

So, my question is, what steps would you take to reproduce the smooth but crisp effect of these portraits? Also, what are the top factors based on their impact to the quality of the photograph in the end?

My experiences thus far suggest that lighting and tripod may make the biggest difference when taking the shot and a handful of postprocessing steps such as sharpening and selective blurring/denoising may make the biggest difference after taking the shot. But like I said, I'm still not getting the results I'm striving for so I may be mistaken, maybe I'm not using the right approach, or maybe I just don't have the specific technique down.

Are you able to produce these characteristics? If so, how?

Thanks for your suggestions and advice!


I have a hard time explaining why these photos have a similar effect on me. I think there are some underlying qualities that they share, other than solid composition and interesting subjects, but I may be wrong. High local contrast maybe. I'm actually not trying to reproduce fashion photography. I'm trying to concentrate more on the smooth and crisp part. I put fashion into the question because the wedding shots reminded me of well staged magazine shots. Thanks again for your ideas.

  • Here's another example of what I see as smooth and crisp: pbase.com/compuminus/image/28657593
    – jlpp
    Jan 11, 2011 at 2:33
  • 1
    Here's one suggestion I got from Sean at cambridgeincolour.com regarding crispness: "Good micro or local contrast requires nearly zero lens flare. Make sure to use a lens hood, and a prime lens or high-end zoom to achieve good local contrast."
    – jlpp
    Jan 11, 2011 at 2:36
  • 2
    Here's another apropos article that just happened to come out today: theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/… (Moral of the story: it isn't the camera!)
    – mattdm
    Jan 11, 2011 at 4:12
  • 1
    @mattdm - Yep, the answer is practice and lots of it!
    – Joanne C
    Jan 11, 2011 at 4:17
  • 1
    Can you post any more examples, the first one isn't exactly what I'd call "crisp fashion photography". The wedding photos are good but again they're not studio shots so I'm not sure what you're after... the first shot of Steve Bellovin is nothing like the Sardinia one!
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 11, 2011 at 7:59

4 Answers 4


Smoothness often comes from a large lightsource (i.e. a softbox or umbrella) The first link you posted isn't what I'd call crisp fashion photography so I'm not entirely sure what you're after.

Crispness comes from the lens, and from post processing. The balance switches as you reduce the image size. Don't be swayed by sharp looking but tiny images! For images downsized or the web e.g. 600x400px you can take an out of focus 16 megapixel image and make it look tack sharp!

edit 3

Looking at the NYE photos it seems you're after high contrast high key images. I was immediately reminded of this shoot:

All you need for this is a bright source approximately dead on to the subject. The light I used was a small softbox which gives a softer look than the one in the gallery you posted. I also used a background light as the background was further away.

Here is the unedited version (note that you can get this look, or at least very close on camera by turning the contrast way up in the picture style or whatever the Nikon equivalent is!)

edit 2

Here is an image from a wedding which is at least similar subject matter to the Sardinia image. Here I have pushed the local contrast as far as I can:

It's not as good as the lighting was totally different (direct late afternoon sun, vs. diffuse sunlight from above) but I am getting warm? Here's the original for comparison:


From this image: http://www.pbase.com/compuminus/image/28657593 it seems like sharpness and contrast is mostly what you're after. If so then post processing is the best way to achieve this, especially when you're downsizing images for the web. Here is an example of what you can do with sharpening:

Here's an image reduced to 600 pixels and aggressively sharpened:

Here's the same in focus 12 megapixel image with the same high quality macro lens and same complex lighting, but without sharpening:

And it fails to pop in the same way. In reality I would go halfway between the two!.

As for fashion photography, you can't say it's more about the setup/capture, or it's more about the post processing. The truth is you need both for fashion photography. If either is not there it's very hard to make it up with the other.

One thing to bear in mind, you need a lot of space! Cramped indoor conditions give you very little control over your lights. Light bounces off the walls/floor and you get a muddy light with lots of different colours in it. What you want is a nice directional white light. A black walled studio is ideal, failing that shoots outdoors in a large enough space will suffice!

  • @Matt Grum: This is a very helpful answer. Thank you. To your point about lighting: for the first time recently I saw a photographer with an umbrella light setup and white backdrop and got to see many of the resulting shots. They were indeed smooth and quite crisp, even without any manual post-processing. Good lesson. Regarding your example portraits, I feel that they don't have quite the same natural crispness of the ones I posted in the question. Sharpening in postprocessing never gives my shots the same characteristics as the examples in my question. More to come...
    – jlpp
    Jan 11, 2011 at 13:29
  • And an extra +1 for space Jan 11, 2011 at 15:42
  • @jlpp How did you see the other photographers photos? Was it on the rear LCD screen, or on the computer? The cameras LCD images are jpegs and you can usually increase the contrast a lot in camera. I don't suppose you know who the photograpgher was? I've updated my answer with another example image.
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 11, 2011 at 19:54
  • @Matt Grum: Regarding edit 2 (wedding shot), the background is nice and smooth but the gentleman's face and jacket seem noisy rather than crisp. At least in comparison to the Sardinia photo. Maybe it's an ISO issue? Regarding the photographer's photos, they were projected onto a white ceiling as they were shot. Here are the results: cstanphoto.zenfolio.com/nye2011woolly
    – jlpp
    Jan 12, 2011 at 3:16
  • Looking back through them (nye2011woolly), they don't have quite the the same crispness that my original examples have but still pretty sharp and smooth.
    – jlpp
    Jan 12, 2011 at 3:23

This is not a complete answer, but I wanted to point you to http://www.benjaminkanarekblog.com/. Benjamin Kanarek is a fashion photographer who has a lot of very interesting behind-the-scenes (technical and otherwise) entries on his blog. The site layout is a little busy, and honestly, I'm not a huge fan of his particular style (even though it's technically and visually amazingly good), but there's good stuff there. Particularly, look at the Technical Discussions category for some answers to questions you're asking.

  • 2
    Thanks, mattdm. An interesting remark from Benjamin Kanarek: "Flash renders images in a manner where they seem sharper, due to the augmented perception of contrast." - benjaminkanarekblog.com/2010/09/09/…
    – jlpp
    Jan 11, 2011 at 3:03

The first portrait can be achieved by lighting the subject with 2 strobes, one with less power than the other, and making sure the background is underexposed.

I've done this type of thing in a studio setting and the background might as well be white - the important thing is the relative underexposure.

  • How do you think the strobes were arranged relative to the subject?
    – jlpp
    Jan 13, 2011 at 0:07
  • @jlpp 45 degrees on each side
    – gerikson
    Jan 13, 2011 at 6:19
  • @jlpp some photographers edit out the reflections, makes it much harder to decipher lighting setups ;)
    – gerikson
    Jan 13, 2011 at 14:22

It's true the type of the light used determines the appearance of sharpness. Lenses and cameras also have different characteristics too. Some of my favorite portrait lenses show nice contrast and it's my preference to use a shallow depth of field. Several posters also mention that post- processing has a big impact and that's true too, but It's always preferable to design your lighting based on what you're trying to portray and then augment that in post processing. The skill is to develop a look that you like and that is repeatable.


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