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Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of things to consider when you want to make the very sharpest photo that you can possibly make in any given situation. While it’s not at all always important to have a super sharp image, if you want one – these steps will get you closer than anything else I can think of.

1. What’s Your Target?

Establish what you want to be sharp. In a portrait – it will be the eyes. In a landscape, it might be a prominent foreground object. Whatever it is, you can’t measure sharpness if you don’t know what your target is.

2. Use A Tripod

If you want the sharpest picture possible, use a tripod. If the camera moves when you make the photo, the photo will not be as sharp as possible. Even the slight pressure of your finger on the shutter can make a difference. So use a tripod and make sure it’s properly set up. Make sure that it’s stable and locked down. And use a sturdy tripod. The $30 tripod they sell at Ritz isn’t going to cut it.
3. Buy the Best Glass

Sharp photos start with good glass. Just like a stereo system requires good speakers, camera systems require good glass. The best glass on a cheap body is better than the other way around.

With very few exceptions, the sharpest lenses will be fast primes.

4. Shoot in the Sweet Spot

Most lenses have a spot where they are sharpest. Using special tools you can find this spot, but as a rule of thumb, the sweet spot is typically 2.25 your maximum aperture. For example on an f/2.8 lens, the sweet spot is often between f/5.6 and f/8.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that stopping down to the smallest aperture will create the sharpest picture. It almost never will. What it will do is give you the greatest depth of field, but that doesn’t translate to the sharpest image. Most lenses perform poorly at their extreme apertures.

5. Lock up That Mirror

If you’re using an SLR, you have a mirror that causes the image to appear in your viewfinder. Most cameras have a mirror lock up feature that you can enable. This will keep the mirror from bouncing during the exposure since it will be locked up and out of the way. That mirror bounce can introduce vibration that causes the picture to be unsharp.

6. Use a Cable Release

Cable releases reduce the amount of human interaction with the camera and accordingly, reduce the chance of introducing vibration that can occur when pressing the shutter button.

7. Use Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction

If your camera supports stabilization – use it. Even on a tripod this can be valuable if you’re using big and fast 500 or 600mm lenses. But be sure that your camera/lens combination supports tripod use. Not all stabilization systems work when the camera is mounted to a tripod.

8. Use Fast Shutter Speeds

While it’s not always possible to shoot a 1/2000th of a second, you do want to select the highest shutter speed you can while staying within the lens’ sweet spot while calculating your exposure. Fast shutter speeds reduce camera shake and therefore allow for greater sharpness.

9. Shoot in the Best Light

Here’s a tip you don’t often see in lists relating to sharpness, but it is important none-the-less. If you have good light, your autofocus will perform better, your scene will be rendered with better contrast, and the brightness necessary to achieve APPARENT sharpness will be increased. This is NOT to say you can’t make a sharp photo in low light because you certainly can. This item just reminds you that it’s easier in good light.

10. Consider Manual Focus

While I am old enough that I can no longer adequately rely on my eyes to make a sharp photo, I can read a tape measure. And in critical focus situations I do what the cinematographers do. I measure the physical distance from the film/sensor plane to the point of focus and manually focus using the lens distance guide. This is a fool proof method if you have a situation and circumstance that allows for it.

Are there other tips? Sure. But these are the ten that I rely on most.

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 52 Comments

  1. On tip number 10 (consider manual focus) you can use a laser measure to get the distance to your subject. That way you don’t even have to move from your camera.

  2. On tip number 10 (consider manual focus) you can use a laser measure to get the distance to your subject. That way you don’t even have to move from your camera.

  3. if you don’t have your tripod or cable-release with you, the camera’s timer is a great way to dampen vibrations from pressing the shutter button. (the vibrations will die down considerably after 10 seconds). it’s frustratingly slow waiting for the timer, though.

    seriously, buy a cable-release or an IR remote. it is worth it.

    for hand-held shots. relax, breathe in, out. then shoot. don’t remove your finger on the shutter button immediately. wait. release.

  4. if you don’t have your tripod or cable-release with you, the camera’s timer is a great way to dampen vibrations from pressing the shutter button. (the vibrations will die down considerably after 10 seconds). it’s frustratingly slow waiting for the timer, though.

    seriously, buy a cable-release or an IR remote. it is worth it.

    for hand-held shots. relax, breathe in, out. then shoot. don’t remove your finger on the shutter button immediately. wait. release.

  5. How do you focus using the scale? They are so small and not detailed on modern lenses. I think there is no better way to focus on a modern camera than with live view at full magnification. Using live view I can be CERTAIN of focus before pressing the shutter.

  6. How do you focus using the scale? They are so small and not detailed on modern lenses. I think there is no better way to focus on a modern camera than with live view at full magnification. Using live view I can be CERTAIN of focus before pressing the shutter.

  7. How significant is mirror shake? My current camera doesn’t have mirror lock up, though all perspective upgrade models do.

    I wonder what reaction time is on things like Nikon’s VR. If it were fast enough, it would compensate for mirror shake, no?

  8. How significant is mirror shake? My current camera doesn’t have mirror lock up, though all perspective upgrade models do.

    I wonder what reaction time is on things like Nikon’s VR. If it were fast enough, it would compensate for mirror shake, no?

  9. Just make sure, using your laser, that you measure to the film/sensor plane and not the back of the body, front of the body, front of the lens, shutter release button or left ear of the photographer.

  10. Just make sure, using your laser, that you measure to the film/sensor plane and not the back of the body, front of the body, front of the lens, shutter release button or left ear of the photographer.

  11. I have to admit I love the crispness and clarity my Nikkor 200mm F2 VR prime gives me with the D2X and use it at concerts and live gigs with good effect.. I have just started using a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR zoom on my new D700 and can’t wait to find its sweet spot.

    Thats a great tip, Thanks Scott.

    As a Private Investigator, I am always using one extreme or another… shutter speed or aperture…. thats just what I have to do… but with my “hobby photos” I am keen to experiment with the tips above.

    Cheers Gavin Warren
    Melbourne Australia.

  12. I have to admit I love the crispness and clarity my Nikkor 200mm F2 VR prime gives me with the D2X and use it at concerts and live gigs with good effect.. I have just started using a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR zoom on my new D700 and can’t wait to find its sweet spot.

    Thats a great tip, Thanks Scott.

    As a Private Investigator, I am always using one extreme or another… shutter speed or aperture…. thats just what I have to do… but with my “hobby photos” I am keen to experiment with the tips above.

    Cheers Gavin Warren
    Melbourne Australia.

  13. Thanks for all the tips, good stuff to know.

    One thing though, on 5 you said, the “mirror bounce can introduce vibration that causes the picture to be sharp.” ;)

  14. Thanks for all the tips, good stuff to know.

    One thing though, on 5 you said, the “mirror bounce can introduce vibration that causes the picture to be sharp.” ;)

  15. @Dave thanks fixed…

  16. @Dave thanks fixed…

  17. @Adam Rosser if you’re young enough to trust your eyes, the Live View (which not all cameras can offer) may be a good alternative – but personally, it’s absolutely useless to me and I generally tell people trusting a 2-3″ LCD monitor in that situation may be difficult for some.

    As for the distance scale – it depends on the lens. I am able to use most of my lenses in this manner and sometimes the data is easy to capture looking at EXIF information.

  18. @Adam Rosser if you’re young enough to trust your eyes, the Live View (which not all cameras can offer) may be a good alternative – but personally, it’s absolutely useless to me and I generally tell people trusting a 2-3″ LCD monitor in that situation may be difficult for some.

    As for the distance scale – it depends on the lens. I am able to use most of my lenses in this manner and sometimes the data is easy to capture looking at EXIF information.

  19. On item 10: the LiveView – Tripod mode on my Nikon D300 (also on the D3 and D700) has been invaluable in getting the sharpest shots of static subjects. You can zoom in to the desired focus point and get the perfect focus with great precision. You can also see your DOF in real-time and watch it move through the scene as you adjust the focus or aperture.

  20. On item 10: the LiveView – Tripod mode on my Nikon D300 (also on the D3 and D700) has been invaluable in getting the sharpest shots of static subjects. You can zoom in to the desired focus point and get the perfect focus with great precision. You can also see your DOF in real-time and watch it move through the scene as you adjust the focus or aperture.

  21. Prediction: thread now gets hijacked into a discussion over Live View.
    Sigh…

  22. Prediction: thread now gets hijacked into a discussion over Live View.
    Sigh…

  23. Two more things:

    Correct chromatic aberrations in post and sharpen your images enough but not too much.

  24. Two more things:

    Correct chromatic aberrations in post and sharpen your images enough but not too much.

  25. Consider the atmosphere if shooting over a long distance. Is it hazy or is there a lot of heat being generated from asphalt. If the subject and lighting works, a shoot in the early morning or on a cold crisp fall day has improved my odds of extending the sharpness through the entire depth of field.

  26. Consider the atmosphere if shooting over a long distance. Is it hazy or is there a lot of heat being generated from asphalt. If the subject and lighting works, a shoot in the early morning or on a cold crisp fall day has improved my odds of extending the sharpness through the entire depth of field.

  27. Thanks Scott, I’ve never heard of or thought of half of these but then I guess that’s why I tune in.

    Keep up the great work, just listening to you guys has made me a better shooter and has thus increased my joy in doing it. Just six months in and I’ve managed to produce a few shots that are worth hanging on my wall, maybe another year or so and someone else will want to hang them on their wall as well.

    Love the show, and the tips in between thanks again.

  28. Thanks Scott, I’ve never heard of or thought of half of these but then I guess that’s why I tune in.

    Keep up the great work, just listening to you guys has made me a better shooter and has thus increased my joy in doing it. Just six months in and I’ve managed to produce a few shots that are worth hanging on my wall, maybe another year or so and someone else will want to hang them on their wall as well.

    Love the show, and the tips in between thanks again.

  29. For those of you who are still using that $30 tripod from Ritz, there are a few things you can do to make it stabler while you save your nickels for a nicer model.

    Most cheap tripods I’ve seen have a hook on the bottom of the center column. You can hang your camera bag from this hook to make the whole rig heavier (and thus stabler).

    Also, if your tripod has a plastic head that swivels up for portrait mode, glue it down securely. If you need to shoot portrait, get an L-plate for your camera. The plastic head wobbles too much.

  30. For those of you who are still using that $30 tripod from Ritz, there are a few things you can do to make it stabler while you save your nickels for a nicer model.

    Most cheap tripods I’ve seen have a hook on the bottom of the center column. You can hang your camera bag from this hook to make the whole rig heavier (and thus stabler).

    Also, if your tripod has a plastic head that swivels up for portrait mode, glue it down securely. If you need to shoot portrait, get an L-plate for your camera. The plastic head wobbles too much.

  31. *Scott sighs as he puts his eye up to the optical viewfinder on his G9…*

  32. *Scott sighs as he puts his eye up to the optical viewfinder on his G9…*

  33. #11 Assuming autofocus, make sure the camera is focusing on the item of your interest. Unless you over-understand what’s going on with all of those focus points, don’t let the camera second guess what you’re trying to do. Use the center focus point and recompose, or select exactly the focus sensor you need. Try single-servo vs. continuous servo (in Nikon lingo) on stationary objects. Maybe this is all obvious. Took me a while to “teach” my automation behave.
    …bill

  34. #11 Assuming autofocus, make sure the camera is focusing on the item of your interest. Unless you over-understand what’s going on with all of those focus points, don’t let the camera second guess what you’re trying to do. Use the center focus point and recompose, or select exactly the focus sensor you need. Try single-servo vs. continuous servo (in Nikon lingo) on stationary objects. Maybe this is all obvious. Took me a while to “teach” my automation behave.
    …bill

  35. I would suggest the self timer as an alternative or addition bit to some of these.

    You even wondered why they give you an option for a 2sec timer? No it’s actually not for fast people or impatient families. It’s to let the shaking from you finger minimize after pressing the shutter. (You’re supposed to remove your hand…)

  36. Although I have read most, not all of these before, it is great to have them listed. I will print them and keep them with my camera along with Derrick Story’s list for what to do after each shoot. joanlvh

  37. Although I have read most, not all of these before, it is great to have them listed. I will print them and keep them with my camera along with Derrick Story’s list for what to do after each shoot. joanlvh

  38. Can you please explain what a “fast prime” is. Thanks.

  39. Can you please explain what a “fast prime” is. Thanks.

  40. I do a lot of night landscape photography, and often have problems focusing manually in the dark. Never seem to get it right! I meet so few other people at 2am in the countryside that I don’t get the chance to exchange many tips:-)
    Any ideas for increasing sharpness in long (1 – 60 secs)?

  41. I do a lot of night landscape photography, and often have problems focusing manually in the dark. Never seem to get it right! I meet so few other people at 2am in the countryside that I don’t get the chance to exchange many tips:-)
    Any ideas for increasing sharpness in long (1 – 60 secs)?

  42. @Stu

    A Prime lens is one with a Single Focal Length (a.k.a. no zoom).

    A “fast” lens is one with a large Apeture (small f stop number). A lens with an f Stop of 1.8 is faster than a lens with a 2.8. A 1.4 is faster than the 1.8, and so on. The smaller the number, the more light that a lens lets in, and thus allows for faster shutter speeds.

    A “Fast Prime” is simply a combination of these two facts. Particularly with long Focal Lengths, if you use a Zoom lens, very often the Apeture is much smaller than what is available from a Prime of the same focal length. For example, on the Canon 18 – 55 zoom lens, at 50mm the largest Apeture can get is approximately 5.6. However if you get the Canon 50mm prime lens, you can get a 1.8 (or 1.4, 1.2) which is a much larger Apeture, allowing more light in, and allowing for faster shutter speeds.

    Hope that helps.

    @Andrew Denny

    I’m sure others have a better suggestion, but when I am shooting in very dark, long exposure situations, I normally focus to infinity, lock the mirror up and use a cable release.

  43. @Stu

    A Prime lens is one with a Single Focal Length (a.k.a. no zoom).

    A “fast” lens is one with a large Apeture (small f stop number). A lens with an f Stop of 1.8 is faster than a lens with a 2.8. A 1.4 is faster than the 1.8, and so on. The smaller the number, the more light that a lens lets in, and thus allows for faster shutter speeds.

    A “Fast Prime” is simply a combination of these two facts. Particularly with long Focal Lengths, if you use a Zoom lens, very often the Apeture is much smaller than what is available from a Prime of the same focal length. For example, on the Canon 18 – 55 zoom lens, at 50mm the largest Apeture can get is approximately 5.6. However if you get the Canon 50mm prime lens, you can get a 1.8 (or 1.4, 1.2) which is a much larger Apeture, allowing more light in, and allowing for faster shutter speeds.

    Hope that helps.

    @Andrew Denny

    I’m sure others have a better suggestion, but when I am shooting in very dark, long exposure situations, I normally focus to infinity, lock the mirror up and use a cable release.

  44. @Jay

    Focusing to infinity is only useful if your subject is far away… which isn’t always the case. For closer subjects, I bring a flashlight to use as a sort of extra-powerful “AF Assist”. I shine it on the subject, let the camera focus, then switch to manual focus to prevent it from hunting again when I depress the shutter (after turning the flashlight off).

    Of course, for this to work you need a tripod and a relatively still subject.

  45. @Jay

    Focusing to infinity is only useful if your subject is far away… which isn’t always the case. For closer subjects, I bring a flashlight to use as a sort of extra-powerful “AF Assist”. I shine it on the subject, let the camera focus, then switch to manual focus to prevent it from hunting again when I depress the shutter (after turning the flashlight off).

    Of course, for this to work you need a tripod and a relatively still subject.

  46. I use live view with a 10x scale factor to really get the focus right. I compose zoomed fully out, but focus using the live view zoom and pan to nail the focus where I need it.

    Focus scales almost don’t seem to exist on modern lenses anymore, at least the ones in my price range. The older manual ones usually have a lot more markings to get a confident distance. But that assumes that scale is reliable. I just use the live view 10x zoom and be done with it.

  47. I use live view with a 10x scale factor to really get the focus right. I compose zoomed fully out, but focus using the live view zoom and pan to nail the focus where I need it.

    Focus scales almost don’t seem to exist on modern lenses anymore, at least the ones in my price range. The older manual ones usually have a lot more markings to get a confident distance. But that assumes that scale is reliable. I just use the live view 10x zoom and be done with it.

  48. I just got the canon 1ds mark 3 and I’m using a 70-200mm lens as I like to keep a bit of distance between me and my models but I am finding it hard to get really sharp images free hand – is a camera and lens like that too heavy for a tripod or is that my best bet? And also when I bought the camera from jessops they told me it doesn’t have live view but it does, how do you use that to focus as I can only seem to pan?

  49. I just got the canon 1ds mark 3 and I’m using a 70-200mm lens as I like to keep a bit of distance between me and my models but I am finding it hard to get really sharp images free hand – is a camera and lens like that too heavy for a tripod or is that my best bet? And also when I bought the camera from jessops they told me it doesn’t have live view but it does, how do you use that to focus as I can only seem to pan?

  50. I am a working pro with 30+ years under my belt, I guess I am an old man because I still use film and scan for my work images, my scans give me images of one gig in file size. With everything said above, in addition (In my opinion Schneider are the best) apochromatic rectilinear lenses, (lenses with built in shutter, focal plane shutters cause shake) A good 4×5 or 8×10 camera with slow speed thick emulsion sheet film (processed correctly) and a 40 plus pound tripod with counter weights will give you the sharpest image. Then with rock solid print making equipment you can make Museum quality 40×60 inch prints that look like you can walk into. GOD SAVE OUR FILM?

  51. [...] Wie bekomme ich die höchstmögliche Schärfe in einem Foto? Photofocus weiss [...]

  52. [...] a follow up to my first article on Secret to Sharp Photos, I found Scott Bourne’s How to Get the Absolutely Sharpest Photo Possible something I’d like to pass along to [...]

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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