Normally when you head out shooting, one of your goals is to come back with clean, crisp and sharp images. It’s always frustrating when you have that great shot, only to have the focus missed or have a mysterious blur across the image. I have for you an all-inclusive list of ways to achieve the sharpest image you can take. Now, some of these tips are situation specific and you won’t use all of these every time you are out taking pictures. Some are even kind of silly, but they are true. These are merely tips and tricks for a variety of scenarios you might come across while creating your images.
- You want a high quality lens – There is a reason they are more expensive. Special elements and high quality optical glass within the lens help bend the light in a more effective manner resulting in less aberrations and sharper images. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy the most expensive and sharpest lens there is. Most lenses these days produce very sharp images and will be acceptable to most. If you’re looking for that next step in sharper images, this would be where I would upgrade.
- Image stabilization – Most lenses and some camera bodies come with a form of image stabilization. This technology can vary in name from vendor to vendor but idea is the same. Image stabilization allows you to hold your camera at slower than normal shutter speeds and still be able to produce images without camera shake. This doesn’t mean there won’t be motion blur (explained later) due to the slower shutter speed, but it will help lessen the effect of your movement while you’re holding your camera.
- Lens sweet spot – Every lens has a sweet spot with regards to aperture. Generally speaking, this is 2 f-stops above its widest setting. So if you have an f/2.8 lens, typically f/5.6 will be its sharpest aperture. This doesn’t mean you always want to use this aperture though. You have to take the scene and the depth of field into consideration (explained later).
- Have the right lens for the job – Having the right lens for the situation is critical. If your subject is really far away but you only have a standard zoom lens, you end up taking the shot then cropping it later in post-production and you end up with less detail, lost resolution and choppy edges. Switch out your lens to the telephoto lens if you have it, or come back later with the right lens if you can.
- Zoom out and walk closer – Whenever you are extending your focal length, you increase the chance of camera shake and the possibility of thick atmosphere softening your shot. If your composition can allow for it, zoom out and walk closer. The closer you are, the shorter the focal length and you decrease the chance of camera shake showing up in your image. You can also reduce the effects of thick atmosphere getting in the way as well.
- Center Your Subject – In nearly all cases, the center part of your frame is the sharpest. Lenses typically fall off in sharpness to the sides and the corners of the frame. If you need optimal sharpness on a subject, put it in the middle.
Use a Tripod
- Have a sturdy tripod – This is critical. Having a sturdy tripod helps keep your camera stabilized in heavy winds as well as allow you to use longer exposures without introducing camera shake. Now I mention having a sturdy tripod and not just a tripod. When I first started shooting, I had a cheap $35 tripod and although it served its purpose, something happened with I upgraded to a sturdier tripod. My images were much crisper and cleaner than they were before. You’ll often hear nature photographers say that the tripod is the single most important piece of equipment second to their camera. There is a reason this gets repeated over and over again.
- Have the right tripod – The right tripod is a tripod that is compatible with the equipment you are using. Having a cheap tripod with a large zoom lens and a gimbal head will not yield sharp images. The tripod must be able to support your equipment. If you overload the tripod, you reduce stability.
- Hook something heavy – Hook something heavy onto the hook of your tripod to give it extra stabilization. This helps keep your tripod grounded and can dampen the slightest movements. There is one thing I see done incorrectly when doing this, however. Make sure your heavy object is actually slightly resting on the ground. Setting your backpack on your tripod hook and having it waving around in the wind will create more movement than without it. Make sure the object is stabilized.
- Widen the tripod stance – On extra windy days, you’ll want to widen the stance of your tripod legs. The wider the base, the better because it gives it better lateral stability to withstand greater forces without tipping over or teetering.
- Don’t extend the center column – Most people will tell you that using the center column on your tripod is a bad idea and they are mostly right. I say mostly because sometimes you may need that little extra height and your composition depends on it being higher. Do what you have to do to get your shot and if that means extending it, then by all means do so. But if you don’t have to, leave it down.
- Don’t use the bottom legs – Now, this can depend on the quality of the tripod as to how much of a difference this makes. But the upper sections of the legs are always stronger than the lower sections. If your composition doesn’t call for fully extended legs, extend the upper ones first.
- Don’t use Image Stabilization – Having image stabilization on while the camera is on the tripod can cause slight camera shake. Image stabilization typically has a motor and a weighted ring which spins inside the lens or camera housing. If your camera is already supported by a tripod to stabilize the lens, you don’t need this as it adds movement within your camera and the whole sense of using a tripod is to minimize movement. Sounds counterproductive doesn’t it?
- Live View and 10x magnification – Modern DSLRs have the ability to zoom in digitally either 5x or 10x. Use this to make sure you have the best possible focus on critical objects within your frame.
- Focus Modes – Choose the right focus mode for what you’re trying to capture. Although single area focus will work most of the time, focus mode AI Servo should be used for birds in flight and manual focus for landscape/static scenes. Read your instruction manual for your camera to better help determine what focus mode you should use. Don’t just always rely on the default setting.
- Hyperfocal Distance – I intend on writing an entire article on this because I find this information incredibly valuable. But in short, the hyper focal distance is a focusing distance where you focus on which gives you optimal depth of field for your scene. If you focus on the hyperfocal distance, you effectively get half the distance from the hyperfocal distance to infinity in focus. For example, a hyperfocal distance of 6 feet gives you acceptable focus from 3 feet to infinity. Again, I’ll go into more detail in another post dedicated to that but until then, check out www.dofmaster.com for more information.
- Refocus – What I mean by refocus is after you get everything setup and take your shot, un-focus your lens, refocus it and take your shot again. Although you might think you had proper focus on the first attempt, just the slightest miss on focus can frustrate you when you get back to your computer and notice blurred edges on an important object. Digital technology gives us the ability to be able to take multiple shots without much cost to it. Simply refocusing and taking the shot again gives you a better chance at getting that super crisp shot you are aiming to get.
- Micro adjustment/Lens Calibration – Some cameras give you the ability to calibrate your camera to your lens. If your camera has this ability, do it! Some recent lenses by Sigma give you the ability to calibrate the lens to your camera even if your camera doesn’t support micro adjustment. That’s because all the adjusting is happening in the lens itself. Also, you can ship your camera and lens off to a certified facility and they can tune/tweak the focus between the camera and the lens manually to give you the best possible sharpness from your lens/camera combo.
- Manual vs Auto – It’s good to know when to use manual focus and when to use autofocus. Not all scenarios require you to use autofocus and in some cases, it is better to use manual focus. Experiment and find out what you like best because this can vary from person to person. In my opinion however, using manual focus on a stationary object is almost always better.
- Focus Stacking – This is a process by which you take multiple photos of the same scene but with different focus points throughout your frame. This is useful when you are shooting a scene with a really close foreground object that you want 100% tack sharp and also have an object or feature which requires necessary sharpness and detail much farther off into the scene. As opposed to using a wildly closed down aperture and introducing diffraction into your shot, this is a much better alternative as you can use the sweet spot aperture of your lens, take your shots at the necessary focal lengths, and blend them together. This type of process does require software such as Adobe Photoshop.
- Focal Length Rule – This rule states the denominator of your shutter speed should be equal to or greater than 2 times your full frame-equivalent focal length. What does that mean? That means that if you are shooting with a full frame camera and your focal length is 200mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/400 second. If you are using a crop sensor like the Canon 60D with a crop factor of 1.6, your shutter speed would be (200mm x 1.6) x 2 = 1/640 seconds. This is typically meant for handheld shooting, but if you are having a difficult time getting sharp photos at longer focal length when using a tripod, give this rule a try. (I’ve seen this rule two ways. One way is the shutter speed which has a denominator equal to the focal length, and one way which is two times the focal length. I’ll leave that up to you to decide which one works best for you and your setup.)
- Shutter Speed and Motion – A shutter speed which freezes motion for one shot might not be the right shutter speed for another shot. An example would be taking pictures of your kids running around the backyard. A shutter speed of 1/200 second will give allow you to freeze enough motion to yield a sharp image because they do not move all that fast. You cannot then use that same shutter speed to shoot a race car speeding down the track during a NASCAR race. As the speed of the object being shot increases, so does your shutter speed.
Some quick examples of proper shutter speeds would be:
Race car – 1/4000
Sports Athlete – 1/2000
Bird in Flight – 1/1000 – 1/2000
Portraits – 1/125 – 1/250
Landscapes – 1/20 – 1/100
- Stand Against Something – Have you ever attempted to stand COMPLETLY still? If you ever do try, you’ll notice you do sway ever so slightly. If you are without a tripod but require a slower shutter speed, use something stable to lean against. This could be a wall, a light post, a car or anything else which doesn’t move. This will hopefully give you enough stability to get your shot off.
- Legs Apart, Elbows In – If you don’t have anything stable you can lean against, try spreading your legs out for more stability and lock those elbows in close to your body. This is using your wider stance for added stability which reduces your arm movement. Those combined might just give you what you need. Another option is to sit on the floor and place your elbows on your knees for stabilization.
- Continuous Shooting Mode – When pressing your shutter button, you are applying a directional force to your camera, a slight force but a force none the less. Put that camera into continuous shooting mode and press and hold the shutter button. This will negate the button pressing force in the second and each successive shot fired during the sequence.
- Mirror Lockup – Many cameras are equipped with a mirror lockup function. The reason for this is that in a DSLR, you have the mirror which moves up and out of the way before the shutter curtain opens. This tiny movement (or big movement if you are running a larger medium format SLR) can cause just a little shake to your shots. Typically this type of shake is not seen during daytime shots, but if using a longer exposure at night with bright or moving light sources, you might notice a slight hiccup in the light in your resulting image.
- Remote Cable/Wireless Shutter Release – This is where you have either a device plugged into your camera or you have a wireless IR remote which you use to fire off your camera. The reason you would do this is the same reason mentioned above about using the continuous shooting mode. That button press can add just a little bit of shake to your shot and could be enough to ruin it. I personally almost always shoot with my remote cable release.
- Timer Delay – If you don’t have a remote cable release, you might choose to use the timer delay. Most cameras have a 10 second timer built into them. This allows you to press your shutter, let the camera finish shaking from your button press and then fire off the shot. If I’m not using my cable release, this is the method I use.
- Don’t Shoot at Widest Aperture – Typically, lenses yield softer results when wide open than when they are stopped down a few stops. However, this doesn’t mean to never use the wide open setting. Most lenses are still sharp enough wide open, but if you’re looking to find a way to get things just a little more sharp, don’t shoot wide open.
- Don’t Shoot at Smallest Aperture – When shooting at smaller apertures, you are squeezing the light from the scene through a small hole and as the light is compressed, it begins to interfere with and bounce off and they cancel each other out. All this results in an image which is less sharp. This phenomenon is called diffraction. The nitty gritty of diffraction could be covered in an entire post in and of itself. I’m not going to dig that far into that here. If you would like to know more, this website does a pretty great job explaining diffraction. If you don’t feel like reading all of that, just know that most cameras start to get noticeable diffraction at around f/16. Depending on how picky you are, you might say f/11. I use f/16 from time to time but not often, and I rarely use f/22 unless creatively that is something I’m going for.
- Lowest ISO – Your camera’s lowest ISO will be the almost always be the sharpest. It will resolve the light the most efficiently and have the least amount of noise resulting in sharper images. Now this might be different from camera to camera where expanded ISO ranges are available but typically when in doubt, go low.
Remove Wind Grabbers
- Battery Grip – Although this might be minimal, if you are shooting in extreme windy conditions, a battery grip can add additional surface area to the camera which can catch more wind. If it is not necessary, remove it.
- Camera Strap – The wind can grab the camera strap and flap it around like a flag introducing camera shake every time a small gust comes along.
- Lens Hood – A lens hood can grab wind just like an umbrella does on a windy day. If you’re going for optimal sharpness and it’s windy, remove the lens hood.
- Use a Flash – When you don’t have enough available light to keep the shutter speed where you need it to freeze the motion of an object, you need light from an additional light source. But here we are not talking about lighting a scene, we are talking about using a short flash duration to freeze the motion. Although your typical DSLR might have a shutter speed of 1/4000 or 1/8000 of a second, your typical flash duration bottoms out somewhere around 1/35000 of a second which is significantly faster than your camera’s shutter. When using a flash to freeze motion in a scene, you need to negate the ambient light falling on the sensor. This is done by simply exposing your shot so you end up with a black frame– a frame where you can see nothing. This means you only populate the image sensor with the light from flash.
- Clean Your Equipment – Having smudges on your front element or filter, or dust and oil on your sensor can affect your sharpness, especially at smaller apertures. Keep an eye on your local camera stores for promotions or demo days as they will generally have a vendor come in and clean sensors free of charge. If that doesn’t happen around you, camera repair shops will generally charge around $65 to clean a sensor. You can even ship them back to the manufacturer to have them cleaned. If you are feeling brave and are confident in the dust levels in your home, then there are at-home sensor cleaning kits for purchase online or at your local camera store.
- Weather Conditions – This one is easy….. Come back if weather isn’t great. No sense in trying and trying endlessly when things aren’t working out because of the weather. You could have everything right but it is so hot outside you get that heat wave ripple in your shot or the haze is affecting the sharpness of a shot. There are some things you cannot control, and for those scenarios, just come back at another time.
- Post Processing – I placed post processing last because I like to run by the rule of getting it as close to right with the camera as possible. Although they are getting better at correcting blurred images using advanced methods, and some of them are downright remarkable, it still won’t be sharper than getting it right while in the field. Period.
As you can see, there are many ways of improving the sharpness of your images. Not all of these methods will work in all scenarios, but I listed these as guidelines. All of these are recommendations and are by no means unbreakable rules. Use your judgment as a photographer. You know your equipment best. Also, it would be nearly impossible for me to go into great detail about every one of these. These are just a bunch of quick descriptions of various methods and if you would like to know more about any of these, either leave a comment for me and I can point you in the proper direction or you can use that fancy search engine called Google to look it up yourself.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article and I hope this helps you improve the sharpness of your images, because that’s why you came here wasn’t it?