Every photographer wants pin sharp images every time they take a photo. But sometimes getting those clean, crisp shots can be difficult to achieve. Fortunately there are various things you can do to improve sharpness and avoid issues.
Before I look at those though, let’s just look at what are the main causes of a lack of sharpness. The most common reason is, of course, images being out of focus. This can happen for a number of reasons – being too close to the subject to focus, focusing on the wrong part of the image, taking a photo too quickly for the camera to focus, or using too small a depth of field.
So, how can you ensure that you get those sharp shots? Here are my top tips.
Before you even consider pressing the shutter, you need to make sure that you have a good stance. You need to be fully supporting your own body weight and bracing yourself. This is particularly important if you change your angle of view. For instance, if you want to get low-level shots, don’t simply crouch down. Crouching offers little stability. Instead, try kneeling on one knee. You can then use the raised leg as a good balancing point for your arms, which will in turn keep your camera steady. By always thinking about bracing yourself, you’ll form a strong frame for the camera.
Having a range of shutter speeds so that you can work in low-level light is a wonderful feature on cameras. But unless you have incredibly steady hands, don’t try to take hand held photos at anything below 1/60th of a second. You’re liable to get camera shake. As an extra precaution, particularly when using longer lenses, try to use a shutter speed that is faster than your focal length (for example with a 200 mm lens, use a shutter speed of 1/250th and above).
Unless you’re lucky enough to own some very expensive professional glass, you need to know the limitations of your lenses. Many standard and budget lenses tail off a little at their extremities, so it’s worth knowing and avoiding this. All this means in practice is stopping down (e.g. from f3.5 to f4) a stop, as cheaper lenses can be a little soft at wide-open apertures.
Depth of field
In the right situation, using a small depth of field can lead to very dramatic images, and help to bring a single subject out from a cluttered background. However, if you use too small a depth of field it can lead to your photograph looking out of focus. Remember that, as a very general rule, you’ll need an aperture of around f 4 to f 5.6 to get a sharp ‘head and shoulders’ portrait and that, if you’re shooting a landscape, you will want an aperture of at least f 16 to get everything in the image sharp.
In conjunction with the advice on apertures, a few adjustments should also be made to ensure maximum sharpness when using budget zoom lenses. Again, it’s worth avoiding using them at their extremities so, for example, zoom a 10mm lens in fractionally to 12mm to get the sharpest images. All lenses have a sweet spot, so you’ll get your sharpest shots at a particular focal length and aperture. A little research before you buy a particular lens will help with that information.
My rule of thumb as a pro photographer is to try and keep my ISO at 400 and below. This is mainly because I don’t like the effect of noise on digital images. At higher ISOs, noise can begin to make shots look pixilated – the edges of buildings and subjects can start to distort and this in turn makes the image look soft. Modern DSLRs can cope with higher ISOs without so much distortion being obvious, but I still think that it’s worth asking the question, ‘do I really need this shot?’
If you’re shooting at any shutter speed below 1/60th of a second, using a long telephoto lens, or if the conditions are blustery, a tripod is an essential requirement. You need to make sure that you invest in a tripod that is sturdy enough to hold the weight of your camera and chosen lens – do not scrimp on a tripod! I use a Manfrotto tripod, which I’ve had for around fifteen years and it’s never once let me down. A good tripod will pay for itself in the length of time that it lasts. Alternatively, if you’re trying to travel light, make sure you carry the brilliant little invention that is The Pod. This is a small beanbag with a tripod screw sticking out of the top of it, allowing you to safely place your camera on inhospitable surfaces.
None of the above tips will be of any use if you don’t know how to focus your camera properly in the first place. You need to always make sure that you press the shutter button halfway down to compose and focus the shot. Most DSLRs come with a ‘beep’ function, which, although it can be a little annoying, is a great Pavlovian signal to remind you not to take the shot unless you hear it! One of the most useful features on DSLRs and most Bridge cameras is that they allow you to choose your AF point. This means that you can choose the right point to ensure that the camera focuses on your subject. In addition, you need to make sure that you choose the right autofocus mode – selecting the appropriate mode depending on whether your subject is stationary or moving.