A photographer goes through stages as they progresses over the years. First you’ll master your camera and all its buttons and knobs. Next you will figure out how to master exposure by tweaking all those buttons and knobs until you have the right combination of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The inevitable next step is mastering composition, some are born with it, some think they are born with it, and some work very hard to master it. Once you’ve got the fundamentals down you can start to work on the specifics, that’s where sharpness comes in… As you try to get sharper and sharper images you may find yourself or your camera is to blame for the soft images you are settling for. After reading this article you will be able to eliminate user error and use your camera and it’s lenses to their full potential.
Handheld or Tripod
Depending on your shutter speed you may be able to get away with shooting handheld 80% of the time, that’s not to say your images will be super sharp but they may look “good enough”. Try not to judge the extent of your photographs sharpness by the tiny LCD screen on the back of your camera, it’s useless for this (and white balance). If you want the sharpest picture possible then use a tripod. Do you ever wonder why professional photographers use tripods in the middle of a bright sunny day while you’re prancing around hand-shooting like a dickens? It’s because they demand perfection. If you don’t have a tripod with you then brace yourself against something or set your camera on a log, stone, bolder, branch, trash can, etc.. The shot above, while sharp, could have been much sharper. The photo was taken handheld while braced against a small fence.
Your shutter speed will vary depending on a couple of different elements, the amount of available light and whether or not you’re using a tripod. If there is limited light available then the option of shooting handheld is out so you’ll have to use a tripod. If you use a tripod you can set your shutter speed to as fast or as slow as you’d like, you could set it to stay open for hours on end, as long as you don’t shake the tripod you should end up with sharp images. If you’re adventurous and too cool for tripod there is a general rule you need to be aware of. If you shoot handheld you will want to make sure your shutter speeds denominator is always higher than the lens’ focal length. For example:
A 50mm lens = Shutter speed of 1/60 or higher
A 100mm lens = Shutter speed of 1/125 or higher
A 200mm lens = Shutter speed of 1/250 or higher
The rule of thumb above will give you “good enough” results in regards to sharpness but you’ll have to take a in to account your hands shaking or your body swaying. If you plan on shooting handheld then use your left hand to support your camera and lens while your right hand will adjust the cameras settings and press the shutter button.
Your aperture controls the opening that allows the light into your camera as well as your image’s depth of field (bokeh or background/foreground blur). When you open your aperture (lower f/number) you are allowing more light into your camera but decreasing your depth of field. This means that at an aperture of f2.8 you’ll have a small area (the area you focused on) in focus and the rest of the image will progressively blur as it moves away from the point of focus. At smaller apertures (large f/numbers) more of the image will be in focus. If you’d like your entire image to be sharp then you’ll want to open the aperture to f/11 or higher. If you find that your image looks soft around the edges, and your camera is braced with a good shutter speed, then your camera’s aperture setting is a good place to start some adjustments.
Where to Focus
What you focus on in an image is purely up to you, this has a lot to do with composition. Keep in mind the Rule of Thirds when composing your photo, you can read about the Rule of Thirds here. If you are photographing landscapes and want the entire photograph to be as sharp as possible the rule of thumb is to focus about a third of the way up the frame. There is a lot of debate about this and there are actual calculations you can do to figure out, based on your aperture and shutter speed, where exactly to focus but that is another article all together (it’s called Hyperfocal Distance). If you find that you aren’t able to get your camera to focus exactly where you’d like try switching to manual focus and dialing it in yourself.
If you are hand shooting something and want to increase your shutter speed but are unable to because it would under expose the image then you have the option to raise your ISO. The more you increase your ISO the more noise (that grainy look) that you will introduce to the image. Most newer cameras can handle an ISO up to 800 or even 1600 without rendering the image useless. The image to the right has had no noise reduction and was hand shot with an ISO of 1600.
There are a few more things you’ll want to keep in mind while trying to get the sharpest image your camera can produce. Image stabilization, whether in your camera body or the lens itself should be turned off when placing your camera on a tripod. If your camera is on the tripod the camera or lenses stabilization motors may actually introduce slight shake while trying to compensate for the shake that is not there.
Your gear may have the biggest impact on the quality of shots your able to obtain regardless of the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture used. It is wise to invest in the best lens you can afford if you’d like the highest quality photos your camera can produce. Your lenses will outlast your camera bodies by years and years so rest assured you’ll get your money worth. Also, your lenses have a sweet spot you should be aware of. If you are used to shooting with your lens wide open (lowers f/number) and your images always seem soft then try to move up a couple of f/stops (if your lens opens as wide as f/2.8 then try f/5) and you may find your images are much sharper.
Lastly, take care of your equipment. Clean your cameras image sensor, your lenses, and your viewfinder so you can get the most out of your gear for the longest amount of time. If you are not sure how to clean your cameras image sensor then read my article on it here.