Tips for sharper photos

Probably one of the biggest challenges that most photographers encounter when getting started is why their images don’t look as sharp as they should. Getting consistent sharp images involves a lot of different elements and techniques. Even when you have mastered the art of taking sharp photographs there will still be the occasional blurry image. Below is a list of steps toward ensuring your images are tack sharp every time.

The Basics

To many, this might seem obvious and redundant, but the simple concepts are easy to overlook.

Fall Colors

  • Learn how to hold the camera properly. Tuck your elbows in and push them against your body for support. Keep your face pressed against the viewfinder. If possible find a solid object to lean against.
  • Don’t hold your breath. Ideally you want to breathe gently, exhale slowly, then take the shot before inhaling again.
  • When you press the shutter, it is bad practice to push at it. Squeeze it gently trying to avoid any unnecessary vibration.
Use the best focus mode for the situation

Most cameras have a few different types of focusing modes. Choosing the right one for your subject can vastly improve your results.

  • Single focus mode is called “One Shot” on Canon cameras and “AF-S” on Nikon cameras. When you press the shutter button down half way in this mode, the camera picks the focus point and locks on it. The focus will not change unless you take the shot or release the shutter button. This mode is the most precise and should always be used if the subject is not going to move.
  • Continuous focus mode is called “AI Servo” on Canon cameras and “AF-C” on Nikon models. In this mode, while the shutter button is half pressed, the camera will continue to keep the subject in focus as it moves until you take the shot. If you predict any movement in the subject, use this mode.
  • The third mode is the camera’s automatic mode. On Canon models it’s called “AI Focus” and on Nikon “AF-A”. When you select this mode the camera will choose between the single and continuous modes depending on whether it detects movement in the subject. Use this mode when you are unsure which of the above modes is the best fit.
Set the focus points manually

When you look through the viewfinder of your camera, you will typically see several flashing dots and squares spread across the frame. These are the camera’s focus points. Cameras have a bad habit of focusing on whatever the closest point is. When you use large apertures with shallow depth-of-field, this becomes even more critical.

The default of your camera is to use all the focus points and automatically decide where to focus. Instead, using the camera settings, learn how to manually set the focus point. The individual settings vary by camera, but typically you use the arrow keys (or joystick) on the back of the camera to set the specific point to use. With any type of portrait, place the focus point on the subject’s eyes.

Back button auto-focus

Almost all DSLRs have a button on the back of the camera used for locking the focus. On Canon this is usually the “AF-On” button. Nikon usually has an “AF-L” button. Use the in camera menu to set this button as the focus lock. When using this setup, simply press the back button to lock the focus on your subject and take as many photos as you want. The camera will not change the focus unless you use the back button again to change it.

Minimum shutter speed rule

Motion blur in an image is a result of using shutter speeds that are too slow. The basic rule for shutter speeds is to divide one by the focal length of lens you are using. Therefore, when taking a picture of wildlife with a 300mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/320 of a second. Any subject with motion will require an even faster shutter speed. As an example, sports usually require a minimum of 1/1000, and a bird in flight would require 1/2000-1/4000.

Camera Blur

Where motion blur affects how the subject looks in the image, camera blur affects the sharpness of the entire image. Camera blur is introduced when the camera is not held steady enough while taking an image. Many things can contribute to camera blur. While holding the camera properly, squeezing the shutter properly, and using a quick shutter speed matter, there are situations where these are not enough.

When doing any kind of macro photography, using long focal length zoom lenses, and photographing in low-light with long shutter speeds, camera motion becomes extremely important.

Some things you can do in these types of situations:

  • Use a sturdy tripod. A solid tripod can make a big difference over a cheap flimsy one.
  • Use a remote or a shutter release to eliminate shake from touching the camera while taking the picture.
  • Use the live-view or mirror lock-up function of your camera. In situations with long shutter speeds the motion of the mirror sliding up out of the way can cause camera motion.
  • Use a lens with some type of vibration control feature. Vibration control will allow you to shoot sharp images at a slower shutter speed by 2-4 full stops. The exception is: if you’re using a tripod turn the vibration control off. Using it while the camera is on a tripod can actually make the image more blurry.
Use the sharpest aperture

All lenses have an aperture at which they produce their sharpest photos. This is not the same on all lenses, but a general rule is two to three stops from the widest aperture. This usually means an aperture from f/8-f/11. The smallest and the widest apertures are the worst for overall lens sharpness.

Depth-of-field issues

Using a shallow depth-of-field is a great way to separate the subject from the background. What many new photographers don’t usually know is that depth-of-field can also be too shallow.

Lenses with large apertures can have very shallow depth-of-field; sometimes only an inch or two wide. Even if you maintain perfect focus on a subject’s eyes, other parts of the face may not be in sharp focus. Be especially careful with group photos where you have multiple subjects. You should choose a depth-of-field that allows the entire group to stay in sharp focus.

Image Sharpening

When an image is captured on the sensor is has had no sharpening done. If viewed in this state every image would appear soft. Depending on what format you like to shoot in has a big difference on sharpening workflow.

The detail panel in Lightroom is where sharpness adjustments are made

The detail panel in Lightroom is where sharpness adjustments are made

If you shoot raw format, the camera applies no sharpening to the image. All images that are shot in raw format need to have sharpening applied in post-processing. Typically, when the image is imported to your editing software sharpening is applied with other import adjustments. Depending how you plan to use the photo, additional sharpening may also be necessary. Images that are used for the web, computer screens, or small prints usually need only a small amount of additional sharpening. For photos that you intend to print, the amount of sharpening varies greatly depending on the size of the final print. Generally, the larger the final print, the more sharpening needed.

Last but not least

If you’ve tried everything and are still having problems. One of the most overlooked adjustments on the camera is the viewfinder diopter. Right next to the viewfinder is an adjustment called the diopter that needs to be adjusted to your vision. Every time someone different uses the camera the diopter needs to be adjusted. If not adjusted correctly, what you see in the viewfinder will not be what your camera sees.

To adjust the diopter, take the lens off the camera. Point the camera towards something bright and look through the viewfinder. Keeping an eye on the focus points adjust the diopter till the points look sharpest. It’s that simple!