How To Take Sharp Photos

Outdoor Photography

There are numerous factors that impact the sharpness of an image. There are also numerous strategies you can utilize to attain the necessary sharpness in your subjects. Some are basic and some aren’t so obvious. But even the most professional photographers sometimes get lazy and wind up with images rendered unusable due to a lack of sharpness. Here I’ll discuss some strategies, from those that are ultra-basic to those that aren’t so obvious, for consistently obtaining sharp photos. Be sure to adhere to them all for consistent results. 

Use A Stable Tripod

To obtain sharp photos, use a stable tripod. I emphasize “stable” because too many photographers purchase a tripod that’s easy and light to carry but, in actuality, if it’s exhaled on, it moves! Just simply using a tripod doesn’t ensure sharp photos. I fully understand the burden of carrying a tripod, but if it’s too unstable to serve its purpose, all it does is provide a false sense of security. On the other hand, too heavy a tripod is overkill and counterproductive.

The size of the tripod should be governed by the longest focal length lens needed to make the shot. The longer the lens, the heavier and more stable the tripod. Carbon fiber tripods are more expensive but are lighter in weight and therefore easier to carry. Purchase a tripod based on the “Flick Test.” Place your longest lens on the head and flick the middle leg with your finger. Look through the viewfinder and if the camera moves, the tripod isn’t stable enough. A practical tripod shouldn’t wiggle with the camera on it, be impacted by light wind or give the impression it’s been fasting for the past three weeks.

Here are two additional and very beneficial tripod suggestions: Avoid raising the center post to gain height—especially with longer focal length lenses. The stability factor decreases tenfold; And just because a tripod can be raised to six feet, try to avoid extending the bottom thinnest tube as the thicker two on the top provide more stability.

Say you purchase the perfect tripod, but in the photography world, you’re what we call a “shutter jabber.” Even with the camera mounted to a good tripod, shutter jabbers introduce movement each time a photo is made. Shutter speeds in the neighborhood of 1/30th of a second readily reveal this motion. A cable release prevents this transfer of movement from the shutter finger to the camera body since the shutter is tripped electronically. Alternative ways to trip the shutter are via the use of the self-timer or a remote release.

Mirror Lock-Up

If you still own a camera with a mirror, mirror lock-up is a great feature, especially with macro or long lenses. Both greatly magnify the subject. As magnification increases, so does poor technique. Specifically needed apertures often necessitate shutter speeds between 1/2 and 1/45 of a second. These speeds are notorious for causing cameras to vibrate due to mirror slap. When the mirror is in the up position, the slap is eliminated, which keeps the camera steady during the exposure.

Depth Of Field

Depth of field affects whether you obtain sharp photos. As the lens is stopped down from ƒ/4 to ƒ/22, the range of sharpness increases. This has tremendous impact controlling how the main subject separates from the background. In portraiture, it’s common to use long lenses at wide open apertures. The subject is offset against an out-of-focus background. The subject jumps out from the background and makes it look tack sharp. Alternatively, in landscape photography, a more successful image is made when everything from the foreground to the background is in focus. This often dictates the use of wide-angle lenses with chosen apertures of ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. In both cases, tripods are essential.

Focus Point Placement

I photograph a lot of wildlife. The most critical plane of focus is the eye, so I make sure I move the focus sensor over the eye. If you’re a photographer who doesn’t constantly move the focus sensor point for every photo you make, break out the manual and learn how to move it so the essential plane is the sharpest. Properly placing the focus sensor point should be under your control. My right thumb has developed callouses due to the workout it receives when I move the sensor to all areas of the viewfinder.

Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction

All photographers have been in circumstances where a grab shot is needed. There’s simply not enough time to set up a tripod. Image stabilization to the rescue. Some cameras have it built in to the body as do some lenses, especially those with longer focal lengths. Some body/lens combos recommend it’s switched on only when needed while other systems state it’s fine to leave engaged all the time. Again, break out the manual and learn how to incorporate it into your repertoire.

Shutter Speed

Focal length has a huge impact on whether you obtain sharp photos. The longer the lens, the greater the difficulty to get tack-sharp end results. The more a subject a magnified, the more you magnify technical errors. The rule of thumb is you can handhold a lens that’s 1/reciprocal focal length. So, if you have a 300mm lens, the slowest recommended shutter speed you should use is 1/300th of a second. With a 50mm lens, it would be 1/50th second. Image stabilization provides wiggle room.

Implied Sharpness Via Depth Of Field

It’s quite simple to minimize depth of field. Choose the longest lens suitable for the shot, set it at its widest aperture and place the subject a good distance from the background. To gain more depth of field, stop the lens down to a small aperture, choose a wide-angle lens and move farther away from the subject.

But it takes a bit more to maximize depth of field. To obtain the greatest amount of depth of field, it depends on where in the scene the point of focus is placed. Focus one-third into the scene to provide the greatest depth of field. The term commonly associated with this is hyperfocal distance. There are charts available free on the internet. Stop the lens down to a small aperture. Use as wide an angle lens as possible as they provide more depth of focus.

Another way to increase apparent sharpness is to make sure the subject is parallel to the film plane. A butterfly with open wings fills the frame. The ambient light dictates an aperture of ƒ/8. Your friend is next to you and directly above the butterfly with his camera parallel to its wings. You’re set up to your friend’s side. Your friend gets wing tip to wing tip sharpness because his film plane is parallel to the butterfly. Because you’re shooting the butterfly from an angle, parts of the wings will be sharp while other sections are soft.

Quick Tips For Sharper Photos:

  • Always use a tripod to attain the sharpest possible image.
  • Buy the highest quality lenses you can afford.
  • Use the lowest possible ISO for the given lighting conditions.
  • Use a cable release to trip the shutter even if the camera is on a tripod.
  • Use a tree, fence or another object to support the camera if a tripod isn’t available.
  • Use mirror lock-up, especially with shutter speeds in the 1/2 to 1/45th sec range.
  • Buy top-quality filters and keep them clean.
  • Use depth of field to your best advantage.
  • Use shutter speeds fast enough to cancel subject movement.
  • Invest in image-stabilized lenses/camera bodies.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

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