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Sally Mann's sharp AND soft pictures

Peter Olsson , Jul 05, 2000; 04:06 a.m.

In Sally Mann's beatiful Intimate Family several of the pictures are sharp in the middle but feature an abrupt decrease in sharpness towards the edges and corners. It's not subtle (but strikingly effective).


She uses an 8x10 view camera, but how is the sharp/soft effect above achieved? (1) Is it during the taking stage or in the darkroom? (2) Is it (as I suspect) an effect of using lenses that are made for smaller formats than 8x10? (3) If none of (1) or (2), what? Coke-bottles?


Thank you for any answer from you knowledgeable large- format shooters. Note, this is a technical question, not a question on how Sally Mann is able to turn out the pictures as she does (which would require a strong mother-child bond anyway, in addition to skill).


Sriram R , Jul 05, 2000; 05:12 a.m.

Probably not (2), since the lens wouldn't cover an 8x10" negative - it would only cause severe vignetting. I've seen some (unnamed) filters which may be able to do what you described. These are clear in the centre and get progressively diffused as you go towards the edges of the filter. I'm just guessing here.

Chad Jarvis , Jul 05, 2000; 08:04 a.m.

Sally uses old/"damaged" lenses which barely cover 8x10. She has no secret techniques other than developing paper in VERY OLD, extremely oxidized film developer and the occasional toning in odd substances such as tea.

David Goldfarb , Jul 05, 2000; 08:51 a.m.

Yes, she experiments with all kinds of old, undistinguished (i.e., not Dagors, Artars, etc.) lenses--kind of a large format Holga approach. Modern lenses are usually shielded to vignette sharply before the image circle degrades. Older lenses may go soft at the corners before they begin to vignette.

Doug Paramore , Jul 05, 2000; 10:02 a.m.

Peter: You can get the same effect with a single element meniscus lens. It isn't complicated. A close-up attachment lens designed for 35mm cameras works well. This is the plus lens that screws into the finlter ring of the 35mm lens. Mount it in front of a shutter and you are in business. You will have to figure out the f-stops. Good shooting.

Doug Paramore , Jul 05, 2000; 10:04 a.m.

Peter, that should read screws into the FILTER ring of the 35mm lens. Sorry about the typo. Doug.

Michael Wellman , Jul 06, 2000; 10:24 p.m.

There is nothing special in Ms. Mann's photographs of her family. She used an 8x10 camera and older lenses with shutters. The photo's that you speak of, I believe, were shot wide open with little depth of field. You could also achieve this shallow depth by swinging the front tilt of the camera up/down. But, I don't believe her older camera has this ability.


Now, that her family has grown up, she has started to take landscape pictures of the old south. She is using the older lenses with all of their problems (some without shutters) for this project. She is also using glass plates for many of these photo's. There was an artilce in 'View Camera' Sept/Oct 99 concerning this new project.


Personally, I don't care for her new style and I'm appalled at how much she's getting for these out of focus vignetted photo's. I don't believe these photos would be given a second thought if they were not taken by her (or another photographer of her statue).

C. W. Dean , Jul 06, 2000; 11:45 p.m.

If you look at a lot of work from around 100 years ago, you see similar effects. At that time, the Rapid Rectilinear design was widely used in large format and it's definition falls off at the edges especially if used near wide open. Other designs like the Petzval portrait lenses had a curved field of focus (like a saucer); sharper in the direct center and softer at the edges--in order to photograph a group of say 6 or 8 figures (and get them all in focus), the photographer had to arrange them in a semi-circle roughly corresponding to the curvature of the lens. Sally Mann has said that she tries dozens of old lenses looking for interesting results. The Pinkham-Smith, Graf Variable, Spencer Portland, and Wollensak Verito were notable for the soft/sharp manipulations with the variations in sharpness controlled by the iris and selective focus. The present day Imagon has been around at least 100 years and produces similar results.

Peter McDonough , Jun 10, 2001; 05:30 p.m.

As to using a close-up meniscus lens for soft-focus , I get much better coverage by mounting the filter behind the shutter rather than in front. The front of the filter thus facing the film.

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