Do you find that your pictures aren’t quite as sharp as you had hoped? Many of us starting out in photography idolize the crisp, pin-sharp quality of images we see online. This is no surprise – after all, quality is important and it makes photos stand out from the crowd. But many photographers I meet tell me that their images just aren’t up to scratch when it comes to sharpness. Well, in this article I’m going to look at what contributes to a photo’s sharpness, and what you can do to maximize the sharpness of your images.
1. Lens Quality
This is the foundation of what makes a photo sharp. The quality of your glass is paramount – it’s what your camera is looking through to take the image after all. If you look through a dirty window, then the scene outside is less clear. The same goes for a window of poor quality; things can look fuzzy and lacking in clarity. The principles are exactly the same for your camera.
It’s no secret that the sharpest images come from the most expensive equipment, especially when it comes to telephotos. You can spend almost five-figures on a professional telephoto, but this is out of the reach of many photographers, especially when you’re just starting out. The advice here is to always buy the best you can afford when it comes to lenses if you are serious about your work. You should almost always be prioritizing your lens over the camera. A flagship DSLR camera won’t take better quality images through a poor quality lens, but even an entry level camera will record higher quality images through a better lens.
2. Finding the Sweet Spot
So how can you get the most out of the lens you already have? Well, all lenses have a sweet spot. This is the f-stop value (aperture) where the depth of field renders the sharpest possible photo from the lens. This is usually around f/8, but it does vary from lens to lens. Stick your camera on a tripod and focus on a detailed subject (preferably something close up and not far away so you can really see the detail) and take photos at different apertures. You’ll soon find the sharpest photo. With some lenses, the difference will be almost negligible, but many budget lenses (especially telephotos) are a lot sharper at this sweet spot.
Did you know that you can calibrate and fine-tune your lens, so the focus performs more accurately? For Nikon users, this will be under ‘AF Fine-Tune’ in your menu. This is particularly useful if you find that your photos are always just a little out of focus, but you are convinced that your technique is not flawed. There are pieces of equipment for calibration, such as the Spyder LensCal, which can help you to accurately fine-tune your lens.
4. eliminate camera shake
Camera shake is one of the biggest culprits for a lack of sharpness. This is when movement of the camera causes slight (or substantial) blur in the photo. A good general rule to adhere to is shooting no slower than one over the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are shooting with a 400mm lens, then your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/400.
If you’re handholding your camera, make sure you switch on any vibration reduction that your lens may have built-in. Not all lenses come with this, but if you have it, use it! There’s one exception, though: if you’re using the camera on a tripod, then you should turn the image stabilization off. This is the case for most lenses, as the stabilizer can introduce camera shake itself as it tries to compensate for movement that is non-existent. This can be a problem even on professional, high-end lenses.
5. Use a Tripod
If you don’t absolutely need to handhold your camera, then use a tripod. Not only does it eliminate camera shake, it helps you to compose your shots better. If you’re handholding (especially with heavy lenses), you may well find that you sway slightly. This is definitely the case for me when I’m handholding my telephoto lens, and sometimes the composition is slightly off because of it.
6. Choose Your Focus Points
When you’re focusing, make sure that you are using single-point focus. I can’t think of any situations where you would need multiple focus points unless you’re tracking a moving subject like a bird in flight. But even then, single-point focus is the best choice if your technique is perfected. Cameras using multiple focus points to select the focus often choose the focus incorrectly. This is particularly true of modes like AF-area (Nikon cameras) and photographers often find the camera focusing in the wrong area. For example, when photographing an animal you want the focus to be on the eyes. But cameras often choose the largest area of the subject, and land the focus on the body. This leaves the head slightly out of focus in comparison to the focus point, and it can ruin a photo in an instant.
7. Try to Manual Focus
Manual focus is not always appropriate, but it is mostly the friend of landscape photographers. Use the live view on your camera and zoom in digitally to achieve proper focus. Make sure that you have set the lens to manual focus mode, or when you press the shutter, you’ll just alter the focus automatically again.
8. Sharpening in Post Production
All those super sharp photos you see online will definitely have had some sharpening work done to them during post processing. This is completely normal in the industry and, in fact, it is necessary, especially for showing photos off-online. When you reduce the size of a photo from 1000s of pixels wide, to, say, 800px wide to show online, the sharpness of the photo is reduced due to the compression. Sharpening is required just to bring it back to normal.
But the same goes for the high-resolution files, too – sharpening is necessary in most cases. Learn how to properly sharpen your photos in your editing software and watch your photos come to life. Take a look at this tutorial on how to sharpen your photos in Lightroom or this tutorial on sharpening in Photoshop, for more instruction on this.
9. Hyperfocal Distance
This is more of an advanced technique, but it’s simple enough to understand once you have wrapped your head around it. Instead of letting me waffle on and explain it here, have a read of this infographic to learn more about how it works and what it can do for your photos.
Have a read of this tutorial for more information and examples of hyperfocal distance in action.