How To Take Sharp Photos
Sharpness is a signature trait of a good photograph. To shoot sharp images you want to limited camera and subject movement. Follow the tips below to start taking tack sharp photos today.
Use A Tripod
Limiting both camera and subject movement is critical to taking “tack sharp” photos. If you are shooting landscapes, or a subject that doesn’t require you to move often, you should have your camera on a solid tripod. I say “solid” because not all tripods are created equal. A good test of a tripod is to setup your camera then push on the end of your lens, there should be very minimal movement with everything locked down. I’ve listed a few suggestions across a variety of price ranges below. If using a tripod isn’t feasibly try bracing your camera against a solid object.
Exposure Delay Mode
If you are shooting with a DSLR you will want to use the exposure delay mode whenever possible. The mirror inside a DSLR is a relatively big massive object that must move out of the way before the shutter can expose the sensor to light. When you hit the shutter button the mirror swings up out of the way, then the shutter is released, and finally the mirror swings back down. The mirror swinging up can cause quite a bit of camera shake. The exposure delay mode will introduce a pause between the mirror swinging up and the shutter release so that vibration from the mirror movement is reduced when the shutter is released.
The video below shows how much vibration occurs when the mirror flips up on a DSLR. There doesn't appear to be a difference between exposure delay mode on vs off, but the difference is that the shutter doesn't fire until the vibration is minimal with exposure delay mode on.
Remote Release Or Timer
Here is yet another one that has to do with managing movement of the camera. Using your finger to trigger the shutter can also cause camera vibration. To eliminate this, the easiest thing to do is use a remote release. If you don’t have a remote release use the self-timer function of the camera to delay the exposure by at least 2 seconds after you hit the shutter button.
Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization Off
This may sound counterintuitive, but vibration reduction should be turned off when you don’t need it, such as when shooting on a tripod. This technology works by moving either a glass element in the lens or the image sensor in the camera body. The sensors and algorithms that control the movement of these elements to compensate for camera shake are designed to detect and compensate for movement. If the camera is kept stable on a tripod that electronic wizardry going on to reduce vibration can find vibration that isn’t there and introduce movement. It’s best to turn this function off when shooting on a tripod.
Shoot in the Middle
First, all lenses are not created equal! One of the sharpest lenses I own is a $200 35mm prime lens. One of the softest lenses I own is a $1,100 telephoto zoom! But I can still get sharp images with the long zoom lens. As a general rule of thumb, most zoom lenses are sharpest somewhere in the middle of their range, so try to avoid shooting at the ends of the zoom range. If you do research online you will likely find one of many nerdy photo blogs that have tested the lens and can give you an idea on where it is sharpest. The same goes for aperture. Almost all lenses are a bit soft wide open and usually really soft stopped all the way down. I find that most lenses are sharpest between f8 and f13. Again, a bit of internet searching will reveal the particulars of a given lens. Following these general rules will get you sharper photos right away, but if you are super nerdy go out and shoot at a variety of focal length and aperture combinations to find the sweet spot for each of your lenses.
Understand DOF and Hyperfocal Distance
So far, most of the suggestions have been about reducing camera movement and vibration. This bit of advice is about obtaining proper focus. It is important to understand the basic concepts of depth-of-field (DOF) and hyperlocal distance. DOF increases as the aperture is reduced and the focal point is moved away from the camera. For example, shooting at f1.8 with a focal point close to your lens will produce a super narrow depth of field, only leaving a tiny sliver of the subject in focus. On the other hand, shooting at f13 and focusing a few meters away from the camera will produce a much larger depth-of-field. When shooting landscape photography using the hyperfocal distance will allow you to have the maximum amount of the scene in focus. Hyperfocal distance is the distance at which you should focus for a particular focal length and aperture combination to have everything in focus from one-half the hyperlocal distance to infinity in focus. For instance, if I am shooting at a focal length of 10mm and an aperture of f11 (the sharpest aperture for my 10-24mm Nikon lens) on my Nikon D7000 the hyperfocul distance is 0.45m. That means if I focus at that distance everything from 0.225m to infinity will be in focus! There are all kinds of hyperfocul tables available online, I prefer to use the PhotoPills app to do these calculations.
Use a Low ISO
Shooting at low ISO well help preserve as much detail as possible in your photos. This is mostly due to the fact that high ISO can introduce noise into the image which can hide fine detail. I shoot at ISO 100 whenever taking landscape shots where subject movement isn’t an issue. Keep an eye on what this does to your shutter speed and think about if there is anything moving in your frame that will get blurred due to the longer shutter speed. For example, if you have plants in the foreground and its a windy day you may want to balance low-ISO with the need to have a fast enough shutter speed to “stop” the movement of the plants.
I can’t hammer home enough the importance of post-processing to making beautiful images. If you are serious about improving your photography I suggest investing in a program such as Adobe Lightroom and start shooting RAW images. This is the equivalent of a film photographer doing their own darkroom work. If you don’t want to spend the time fiddling with photos, look into the sharpening settings built into the camera. You might not want to crank it all the way up, but consider playing around with the settings to figure out what looks best to you.
Shooting super sharp photos takes practice, but if you follow the suggestions above you will see immediate results.