We’ve all seen the photos. The ones that are so crisp and clean it’s like you were actually standing there the moment it was taken. Getting sharp images is something every photographer strives to achieve, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
Luckily with just a few tips and techniques, we can take our otherwise okay travel images and turn them into super sharp snapshots worthy of showing off. Some of the general rules we’ll go over might sound a bit tricky, but don’t worry – I’ll break it all down, and you can always ask your questions in the comments below.
But before we get started, it is advisable to look back over the lesson on the Exposure Triangle if things like shutter speed, aperture and ISO are a bit fuzzy for you. Also, remember that the number one best thing you can do to get sharper images – without changing any settings or even turning your camera on – is to hold your camera correctly. When you’re shooting handheld, your body acts as a tripod and it needs to be sturdy. While your right hand is on the grip and shutter, your left hand should be under the point where your lens meets your camera body. Keep both of your elbows tucked into your body for extra support. Hold your breath and shoot.
Okay, now let’s get started!
A big cause of soft images is image blur. This is a result of either your camera moving during a shot or, more than likely, your subject moving and getting blurred across your photo. If you’re taking a picture of something that is moving, you’ll need a fast shutter speed to keep your image sharp and capture the subject with no blur. For handheld cameras, it’s a general rule that your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/ focal length with the bare minimum being 1/60. So if you’re photographing with a 135mm lens, your shutter speed should never go lower than 1/135.
If your shutter speed does need to drop, then use a tripod to reduce camera shake. Sometimes your finger pushing the shutter can also create enough motion to blur an image. so if you have your tripod handy, consider using a remote release for ultra-sharp images.
Remember that ISO has to do with your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more noise your photo will have, and the grainier it will appear. Some people like the grainy, old film look, but in general the lower your ISO, the sharper and clearer your photos will look.
You can adjust how much of your photo is in focus by adjusting your aperture, or depth of field. The smaller the f-stop, the shallower the depth of field. Larger f-stop, larger depth of field. I’ve talked all about how aperture works before.
As a general rule when your camera focuses on a single point, it focuses on exactly one super-thin imaginary horizontal line. The focus on your camera is set up to deliver 1/3 of the focus in front of that line and 2/3 behind. So more focus is weighted in the background than the foreground. This is of particular importance for getting sharp landscape photos. We’ll get more into this below, but keep the rule in mind.
Getting Sharp Landscape Photos:
Because of this focus weighing of 1/3 in front and 2/3 in back, in order to maximize the clarity throughout your entire photo, you should focus approximately 1/3 of the way into the background of your image. (For example, in the photo above I focused somewhere around the people sitting down.) This is called the hyperfocal length. You can learn all about the mathematics of hyperfocal length here. Of course this is not the case if you’re taking a picture of your friend standing in front of a landscape; then you’ll want to focus on your friend. This rule just applies to landscape photos where you want the entire scene set up for maximum focus.
Remember that when you’re shooting landscape you want a large f-stop for a large depth of field. So you should just crank your aperture number up as high as you can and you’re good to go, right? Actually, wrong. When you’re all the way at f-22, you’re working with a really small hole for light to pass through. When light passes through a small hole like this, a sort of distortion called diffraction occurs, which can create problems for the quality of your photos. So dial it back a bit and experiment with a couple of different apertures that aren’t pushing it to the max.
The Sweet Spot:
Technically, the sweet spot of a lens is the f-stop where vignetting and chromatic aberrations are at a minimum and sharpness is at a maximum from the center to the edges. In simpler terms, the sweet spot is the aperture that gives you the best possible image quality. While my 50mm f/1.8D lens can technically go all the way down to f-1.8, the sweet spot of the lens is actually closer to f/5.6. Of course this doesn’t mean my lens is only good if I set it at this aperture. Honestly, I choose my aperture setting based on the photo I want to capture, not to optimize the use of my lens. It is however good practice to know your gear inside and out. You can research different charts online, or better yet get out and experiment for yourself by taking photos at different apertures and comparing them on your computer. Generally the “sweet spot” can be found 3-5 stops above the smallest aperture.
Optimizing Your Focus:
Depending on your camera, you have a few to a ton of options for controlling your focus. Learning to control your focus is quite possibly the most important step to getting extra-sharp images. I’m going to talk about a few settings that are standard on almost all DSLR cameras these days.
Single Point vs Dynamic Area
For Single Point focus, you have the ability to isolate one focus point and use it to pinpoint accuracy. This is great for isolating one particular point of focus that is stationary. I like to use this mode for portraits as I can easily pick my single focus point and use it to focus directly on the eyes. This setting is also handy for landscapes as you can select your focus point that aligns with your hyperfocal length for optimum clarity from foreground to background.
Dynamic Area focus takes up the entire focus area of your viewfinder. This is best used for subjects that move sporadically, like wildlife, children or athletes. These subjects would be impossible to track if you are in single area mode, so it’s best to allow your camera to do the work for you.
Single Focus Mode vs Continuous Focus Mode
Like the focus areas, I use Single Focus Mode (AF-S) for stationary subjects like landscapes and portraits. When using AF-S, if you push your shutter halfway to focus then shift your composition, your focus will stay locked in. A popular method for capturing super sharp portrait photos is to use AF-S to focus, compose and capture. While using AF-S mode, press the shutter halfway to lock your focus. Then compose your image in your viewfinder. Finally press the shutter down all the way to capture. Just be careful when using very low apertures that you’re not moving your camera too much after you lock your focus as your subject may fall out of your focal range.
In Continuous Focus Mode (AF-C) your camera will recalculate your focus based on things that are moving across your viewfinder and follow your subject while the shutter is half pressed. AF-C works well paired with the dynamic area as it can track moving objects across the frame for more precise focusing and therefore sharper photos.
One situation where I would suggest using Single Point with AF-C is with a subject that is moving directly toward or away from you. Imagine a bear running straight at you. With Single Point you’ll be able to focus on the face of the bear, while the Continuous Focus mode keeps track of the bear running towards you. Your camera will even refocus in between shots to make sure each frame is crystal clear.
If you get fed up, frustrated, overwhelmed or you just don’t feel like dealing with it, you can always resort back to Auto-Area Focus and Auto Focus mode (AF-A). Now the camera will determine whether it should shoot in single or continuous mode.
Ever tried to take a photo and your focus zooms in and out and in and out and then just gives up? This can be very frustrating and cause a lot of headaches when trying to capture that special moment. Luckily, there’s an easy solution: Manual Focus Mode! Here are a few common situations where your camera’s focus may fail you and you’re better off using your manual focus ring and your eyeball:
Low Contrast: Auto focus systems have a really hard time calculating depth if everything looks the same. Solid colors like a clear blue sky are very difficult to photograph with autofocus because there is no contrast. This problem also occurs in low light conditions. Try focusing on something else that is at equal length, lock your focus and then shoot. Alternatively, do it yourself and switch into manual mode.
Overlapping objects: Because your cameras little brain believes that the object closest to you is what you want to photograph, it is hard for your camera to focus on what’s really important when there are objects in the way. For example, branches or a chain link fence can create focusing problems. Even a reflection on a window can throw your focus off. In these situations, switch to manual and focus past the overlapping distraction.
Small subjects: If your subject is small like a flower your camera may have a hard time picking it out. Use manual focus to pin point your focus on small objects.
Who knew that there was so much that went into crafting that perfectly clear image, right? With a bit of practice, most of these tips and tricks will become second nature.
As always I love to hear what you have to say in the comments. Do you have any tips for achieving sharp photos? Any questions or comments?
~ Natural Light: Explains the different qualities of natural light and how to use them to your advantage.
~ HDR Photography: Explains what HDR is and how to use it.
~ Understanding the Histogram: Learn how this graph can inform you about everything in your image.
~ Composition: An introduction to the artistic side of creating an eye-catching photo.
~ Dan R Moore Photo Shop: Discover and purchase photos from this article and more