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Everyone wants to have sharper photos; but they may not always be aware of what is making them not sharp. There are many factors and there are also lots of solutions to solve your problems. Here are a couple:
If your lens or camera has image stabilization, then you'll want to have it switched on when shooting hand held. Image stabilization can quite literally be the life or death of a photo. In general, long focal lengths are tougher to shoot with because of the magnification factor involved.
If your camera and lens do not have image stabilization as an option, then you'll want to consider the reciprocal rule of shooting photos. According to this rule, your shutter speed should be equal to or faster than your effective focal length in order to achieve sharp photos.
That means that with a 50mm lens on:
- A full frame body should use at least 1/50th
- A Canon APS-C with a 1.6x crop factor will mean that you'll need at least 1/80th.
- A Nikon/Pentax/Sony APS-C with 1.5x crop factor will mean that you'll need at least 1/80th.
- An Olympus Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds with a 2x crop factor will mean that you'll need at least 1/100th.
Image stabilization can factor into the exposure settings in different ways. If your lens allows you to have 3 stops of image stabilization, then you'll be able to shoot at 3 stops slower and still be able to shoot a sharp image.
Also, according to this rule, wider focal lengths will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds.
For more tips, you can read this entire piece on image stabilization.
Holding your Breath
Holding your breath is also extremely helpful to shooting sharper images when going hand held. When you are breathing, your body is moving—so your hands will shake which can also cause camera shake. Instead, holding your breath steadies your hands and body.
This is important to keep in mind if you're running from location to location and then stopping intermittently to shoot a couple of frames. Situations where this happens most is in photojournalism, weddings, events, some sports, wildlife and concerts. As it is, when I shoot professionally I sometimes get a bit of an adrenaline rush and my breathing tends to get a bit faster. Controlling my breathing when shooting is important. Because of this, it is also often easier for me to shoot with prime lenses. The major reason is that I have no zoom range to worry about when incorporating the reciprocal rule of shutter speeds into my exposure values.
For the best results, I breathe in and then approximately a quarter of a second after my lungs are full I release the shutter. This usually yields me sharper and stiller images.
Stopping Your Lens Down
A problem that many people run into when they upgrade to a lens like a 50mm F/1.8 is shooting with the aperture wide open. While this can be an intentional choice for the effect, it also is a surefire way to get soft photos.
You lens becomes sharper as you stop it down. Most lenses reach their peak sharpness at around F/4-5.6—and these days some lenses are even too sharp for most people. I've shot portraits with a 50mm F/1.8 stopped down to F/8 and had complaints from an elderly lady saying that I captured every single detail and imperfection in her face.
Words of caution: with great sharpness comes great responsibility.
Of course, stopping your lens down means that less light is hitting the sensor. To compensate you'll need to either slow your shutter speed down, raise your ISO, or adjust your flash output.
Down below, you can see how more and more becomes in focus as the lens is stopped down. I'm focusing on the roll of film on the left.
You're probably asking yourself what Micro adjusting is. Micro adjusting is the process of tweaking your camera's autofocusing algorithms to focus back and forth an extra couple of millimeters. Canon calls it Micro adjustment while other brands name it differently. Though most people don't need to do it, it is a feature of your camera that you should consider using.
Here's a quick video on how to do this: a big thank you goes out to Chuck Westfall from Canon USA for helping with this.
Another way to make your images sharper is by artifically sharpening them in the post-production process. This can be done in most photo editing programs. In more powerful and complicated programs, the user has the option to sharpen only certain areas as opposed to the whole image (which many image editing programs do.) That means that if you only want to sharpen your subjects eyes in the portrait you just shot, you can go ahead and do that and then add a guassian blur to the rest of the image if you'd like.
One of the drawbacks I've seen from oversharpening is that my image/area becomes noisier (grainier). This means that you'll often need to balance the sharpening, noise reduction, and detail levels.
We've talked about megapixels and if you need that much resolution. But what exactly is resolution?
The resolution is determined by your sensor’s ability to distinguish fineness of detail among closely placed elements in an image, such as hair or the texture of fabric. Additionally, the number (and quality) of pixels on the sensor, the algorithms your camera uses and many other very technical factors contribute to a camera’s resolution.
Besides just your camera's sensor, you also need to consider how well your lens can resolve. Many sensors outresolve the lenses you attach; but some lenses resolve more detail than others. Typically, more expensive lenses tend to resolve more detail than the affordable options. This has to do with the glass elements put into the lens.
Also be sure to consider just how much resolution you need, most people don't need 21MP and expensive lenses.
In-camera Noise Reduction
Many cameras these days have the option of in-camera noise reduction. Much of what this does is softens the image so that you lose details—often resulting in a softer instead of sharper image. If you want to reduce your image noise, it is best done in an external program like Photoshop or Lightroom. In fact, Lightroom 3's noise processing algorithms are very good and allow the user to retain lots of detail.
Please do note that this only applies to JPEG shooters (and there are many of you out there.)
Of course, also keep in mind that there are different types of noise: grain, color banding, and speckles are only some of them.
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