Editor’s Note: This post was written by Scott Bourne and Abba Shapiro contributed — Follow Abba on Twitter
Sharpness continues to be a problem for some beginners and even intermediate photographers. Here are some tips for those of you who want the absolutely sharpest photo you can get.
1. 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 Best Buy isn’t going to cut it.
2. Use A Sturdy Tripod Head
What good is the tripod if you have a flimsy head? The tripod head is almost as critical as the tripod itself. Make sure you’re using a head that is rated for your gear. A ball head that holds two pounds isn’t going to support a Nikon D3s with a 24-70mm lens on it.
3 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. A cable release, either attached to the camera or remote wireless, will reduce camera vibration.
If you just cannot use a tripod, or don’t have a cable release, use your self-timer. This will minimize camera shake and reduce the cause of blur.
5. Lock up The Camera Mirror
If you’re using an SLR, you have a mirror that causes the image to appear in your viewfinder. Most cameras will let you lock up the mirror. This will keep the mirror from bouncing during the exposure since it will be up and out of the way. That mirror bounce can introduce vibration that causes the picture to be unsharp.
6. 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. It’s a must when you are NOT using a tripod.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Use Enough Depth of Field
If you do everything on this list but your subject isn’t within the camera’s depth of field, you’ll come up with a photo that appears to be unsharp. Use a depth of field preview button or depth of field calculator if you want to make sure that you have critical depth of field.
10. Know 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Use Live View
Most modern cameras have Live View and some even offer a zoom feature. This zoom feature can be very helpful in checking your focus.
15. Use a Third-Party Optical Viewfinder
If you use a DSLR with a rear LCD screen, you may benefit by using a product like the Zacuto Z-Finder. These devices give you a larger optical view of the viewfinder and make it much easier to obtain critical focus.
While there are other things you can do to get the image right in the camera, this list will solve most of the major problems I run into. I hope it helps.
16. Try single point focusing
When shooting people – the most important focus point is their eyes. If you are using a very a shallow depth of field that only one eye is in focus…It should be the nearest eye to your camera.
17. If the lighting is low – push your ISO to get faster shutter speeds.
Most new cameras can shoot at higher ISO speeds and still give you a clean, noiseless image. It is much more effective to fix noise artifacts in post that it is to artificially post sharpen an image.
18. Moving targets
When shooting sports or images where your subject is moving quickly towards or away from you – there are various settings for how the camera focuses. One Shot, AI focus, AI Servo are some examples. Learn how they work and use them
19. Regularly clean and maintain your lenses.
Periodically take them in to make sure they are calibrated to your camera body or buy a calibration kit and tweak them yourself.
20. If you’re not using a tripod, hold your camera properly.
Do everything you can to steady yourself as well as the camera.
21. Adjust your eyepiece’s diopter.
You’d be surprised how many people don’t bother to do this. It helps you see better through the viewfinder which in turn lets you know whether your focus is spot on or not.
22. Try focus stacking
Thanks to programs like Photoshop, you can now rely on focus stacking to make sure every slice of the image is sharp. Focus stacking has traditionally been used to expand depth-of-field in macro work, but can offer flexibility to photographers who want to get the sharpest image possible, regardless of macro or not.
23. Shoot in burst mode.
If your camera shoots at a high frame rate, such as five frames per second or more, you can sometimes get a sharper/steadier shot using a burst of several shots to make your desired image and then select the one in the middle (which will usually be the sharpest) and get better results.
24. Learn how to properly sharpen in post
Whether you use Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop or some other post-processing program, there is a right way and a less right way to sharpen in post. Sharpen very minimally during the raw conversion, then sharpen everything else last. Be sure you sharpen for output. In other words, sharpen based on the size and the type of output you are making. There are third party programs that help with these calculations from companies like onOne and Topaz Labs. Learn proper sharpening in post to get the best results.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when trying to achieve that perfect goal of Tack Sharp! This list is only the beginning. But it’s a good place to start. As always, we offer these tips as they are, intended to help. Feel free to try them if you like.
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