21 Tips for Getting Sharper Photos

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Image “sharpness” has been the goal of many photographers over the years. Some photographers seem to nail the “razor-sharp” or “tack-sharp” image every time, while some struggle to capture a truly sharp image.

Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp

Before we start, know that there are basic ways photos end up not being sharp.

1. Movement Either the camera, or the subject is in motion during the capture.
2. Optics/Electronics Soft focus, soft lens, etc.
3. Atmospheric The amount and quality of air between the camera and subject.

Here we will break down all three and think about possible considerations to increase image sharpness.

Movement

1. Movement in the frame, either from a moving subject, or from the camera being less than completely still at the time the shutter is open, will cause motion blur in your image. Depending on the type of gear you are using or have available, there are ways to reduce and/or eliminate this movement.

2. Shutter Speed Shutter speed (a bit of a misnomer) is the duration of time that the shutter is open. The shorter the amount of time that the shutter is open, the less movement can happen during the capture of the image. The downside of a fast shutter speed is that less light makes it to the film or sensor, making it necessary to shoot at a higher ISO or at a wider aperture. Therefore, the maximum shutter speed for any given situation varies but, in general, you’ll want to shoot the fastest shutter speed possible to maximize sharpness.

3. Stance / Brace Even the Queen’s sentries at Westminster Abby move. No one can stand completely still. Using proper photographic technique will help reduce camera movement when taking the photo. Also, if possible, bracing yourself against a wall or other solid structure will help steady your body while shooting.

4. The “Squeeze” In the event you didn’t click on the last hyperlink, please note that the way you depress the shutter release is another important aspect in reducing camera movement. Never stab at the shutter release. This is where we all impart movement into the camera. Squeeze it gently and wait for the click.

5. Burst Shooting Many cameras offer a choice of single-shot or continuous mode. When you depress the shutter release in continuous mode, the first shot could be blurred, but the second, third, or fourth, taken immediately after, without moving your finger, may be better. The downside? More editing time and more memory being taken up on your card.

6. Remote Release The remote release is a tried-and-true best way to reduce camera shake while the shutter is being released. Old-school ones threaded into your shutter release. Today, you can use electronic, remote (IR, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi), or, even use your smartphone to release the shutter.

7. Mirror Lock-Up The SLR shakes itself when it takes a photo. When the mirror flips up out of the way of the shutter, it does so at high speed and that creates vibration. Mirror Lock-Up mode allows you to delay the shutter opening until well after the mirror is up. Mirrorless cameras do not suffer from the dreaded “recoil” of the mirror.

8. Tripod / Monopod It is not always practical to have a tripod or monopod with you. Or, if you have them, it’s not always practical to use them. But, there is no more surefire way to steady your camera than with a good support. The monopod is obviously not as steady, but it is better for portability and capturing movement.

9. Wind Wind can topple buildings. This means it can buffet you while you take a photo and it can also shake your tripod. Look for breaks that protect you and your gear from the wind while capturing photos on breezy days. You may further stabilize the tripod against the wind by hanging weight from the hook at the bottom of the tripod’s center column (if it has one).

10. Image Stabilization Modern technology has given us a host of electronic image stabilization gizmos engineered to take the shake out of camera shake. They are getting better and better. However, there are times where these systems can hinder your image (fast motion, tripod, etc.) more than help it. Know when those are.

Optics

Many photographers seek optical perfection in their unending quest for sharpness.

11. Focus If your photo is out of focus, it will not be sharp. It is as simple as that. Unfortunately, some autofocus systems can malfunction or give erroneous focus. Make sure yours works perfectly. If you are focusing manually, use all the available aids, be they electronic focus indicators, on-screen focus magnification fields, your focus screen prism, or electronic live view.

12. Autofocus Mode Autofocus is a wonderful invention, but it only works when it helps you get the photo you want. Autofocus systems can seem to have a mind of their own. Knowing how to master your autofocus modes and settings means that the parts of the image you want to have in focus will be sharp.

13. Lens Quality Most modern lenses are very, very good. However, there is a difference between entry-level optics and professional glass, and that difference can often be seen in image sharpness (among other things). Sound technique will help get the best possible image from every lens, but you need a sharp lens, first and foremost, to get the sharpest photos. Do not fret—some of the sharpest lenses are very reasonably priced, such as the venerable 50mm f/1.8 lenses made by most lens manufacturers.

14. Lens Cleanliness Lenses can be pretty dusty with no degradation of the image projected, but smudges are one of the enemies of sharpness, especially on the rear element. So, keep your fingers away from the front and rear of your lenses and clean them when needed.

15. Aperture The aperture of your lens has a definite effect on image sharpness. Each lens has a “sweet spot” aperture that provides maximum sharpness. This is, generally, two or three stops from the lens’s widest aperture. Therefore, an f/2.8 lens will have a sweet spot around f/5.6 or f/8. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, so you may want to test your lens. The lens’s widest aperture is unlikely its sharpest and the depth of field shallows as you open the lens. As you stop down toward smaller apertures, diffraction can affect sharpness.

16. Depth of Field A very shallow depth of field—caused by shooting at very wide apertures—will leave only a narrow sliver of distance in the image to be sharp. The rest of the image will appear out of focus. To show shallow DOF image as a sharp image, you need to ensure that the point of interest is that which is in focus… and sharp.

17. Zoom Zoom lenses are a wonderful convenience. The bad news is that they are rarely working at their sharpest at the extreme ends of their zoom range. Again, test your gear, but you will likely find that any zoom lens is sharper in the middle of its zoom range—not at its widest or longest focal length.

18. Optical Filters Filters have countless uses in photography. One thing they do not do is increase sharpness. The more elements of glass (or plastic) (or crystal) through which light must pass before it gets to the film or sensor, the more the light is degraded. For maximum sharpness, skip the filters.

19. ISO Not technically an optical issue, boosting your camera’s ISO to increase shutter speed in an attempt to reduce camera shake is a good thing, but the higher the ISO, the less sharpness you will have. As you raise your ISO from the camera’s native ISO setting, the more digital noise you will get. This digital “grain” will reduce image sharpness.

20. Antialiasing Filter Many digital cameras have built-in anti-aliasing (or optical low-pass) filters covering their sensors. These filters reduce image sharpness intentionally to avoid some unfortunate optical phenomena that occur when light hits a digital sensor, like moiré. Some cameras allow you to remove the filter, and some have no AA filter at all.

Atmospheric

This is one element that is likely beyond your control.

21. Air Unless you are reading this in outer space, we are not photographing in a vacuum. The farther away your subject is from your lens, the more air that light must travel through to get to your camera. Haze, smoke, fog, smog, and more can prevent you from getting a sharp image of a distant object. Get closer, if you can.

Stay sharp! Got other tips and tricks for sharpness? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

59 Comments

Nice article - good reminders & great references for going deeper. Love the discussion and added suggestions too - thanks all! Todd - I laughed at the sleeping with the cameras quip - actually has been true confessions during classes I've taught :). Photography/passion/love - it's all one, yes? Thanks for another information packed, inspiring article. 

Thanks, Heidi!

I am glad you enjoyed the article and discussion! Thanks for reading!

Dan

Sometimes there's a problem withn the camera. As a kid I had a Cirroflex I got cheap because thw images were not sharp. Turns out that an internal lens had been installed backwards. Then there's the Retina I got cheap for the same reason. It's a folding camera and the lens/shutter support was (still is) warped. Cheap is great if you are super handy! Otherwise, caveat emptor.

Hey Dan,

Very very true! As careful as manufacturers are, there are errors in the assembly process and, even when coming from the same factory, "identical" lenses may have very different performance characteristics and all of that can affect image sharpness.

Having said that, sometimes those errors can give your image unique characteristics!

Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!

A very good article. I will put it in practice.

Thanks, JOSE! Good luck! Stay sharp!

Thanks.  A very informative article. I have just a couple of things to add.  Very small apertures, (for depth of field), degrade the image with diffraction.  As a rule of thumb, I never go smaller than the reciprocal of the focal length.  That is, for instance f/16 for a 16mm lens, etc.  Also, Image Stabilization doesn't work well with mirror lock-up. The finder goes blank for a time and you lose framing with hand-held shots.  This is useful mostly for tripod shots. One other consideration is that the mirror slap vibration lasts about 1/15 second and affects sharpness in photos taken at 1/8 to 1/30.  These are shutter speeds frequently encountered in medium to low light at f/8 and ISO 100.  A tripod is better than hand-held with IS in these situations.

Hey Scott,

Great additions! Thanks for sharing your rule of thumb for dealing with diffraction as well as the info on IS. Depending on the IS system, it should definitely be off when the camera (or lens) is mounted on a tripod. You wouldn't really be using mirror lock-up off tripod, so I've never encountered the issue.

Thanks for writing in!

Excellent article! Thanks.

Thank you, Eduardo!

While backpacking and hiking I like to keep the DSLR at the ready. Having a Nikon circular polarizer on the zoom lens helps protect the front element from bushes and scratches. Can be taken off if necessary. It adds to apparent sharpness by partial elimination of atmospheric haze and polarized reflection from foliage. Shots into water allow fish and rocks to be seen. It effectively reduces some flare by polarizing out sky brightness in above horizon shots, IF you keep the sun off its large aperture. Don't leave home without one.

Hey Dennis,

Thanks for sharing! Yes, the polarizing filter is a great one to have as you cannot realistically simulate polarization in post processing.

Thanks for reading!

Polarizers only work at certain angles (to the sun).  If the angle is not about 90' it doesn't work.  The easiest way to figure out if it will work, is to use your thumb and forefinger like the shape of a gun.  Point your forefinger at the object.(your thumb is pointing upward).  Then rotate your wrist, so that the thumb marks an arc in the sky.  If the sun is not in that arc, then the polarizer won't work.  Having good control of your tools--notabley post porcessing--negates, to some extent the need to carry the extra glass of a polarizer...

Howdy from SE AZ. I am using a nikkor 18-200 zoom (f3.5-5.6) on a nikon D7100. I would like to test this lense for both auto focus and best apperature. Can aynone direct me to an article on making these tests? Seems that my focus is always a bit soft. Sure, I would like to jump up to pro glass but $$ are an issue. Thanks  gb..

Howdy, George!

Here is how I test my lenses: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/how-test-your-lens

If you do a controlled test and find that the images are still blurry, you may have an autofocus issue. Try manual focus to verify and then try using AF fine tune to correct, if needed. (Do an internet search for "Nikon D7100 AF Fine Tune" or check your owner's manual to see how to do it.)

Let us know if you have any trouble or have more questions! Thanks for reading!

What is the best and esay software to use to improve shapeness in post processing a photo? 

I cannot get along without Adobe Lightroom. There are several adjustments to optimize sharpness and minimize grain. I never print a photo without applying sharpness. Just be sure to shoot in raw mode and of course, don't expect great results if your shot is bad to begin with.

Thnaks for your response.  I am asuming Lightroom 6?  How difficult is the learning curve? Thanks again for you input! 

Hey Rich,

Simple question with an almost unlimited number of possible answers. There are a lot of ways to build the post-processing sharpening mousetrap!

Our Shawn Steiner wrote this article not long ago: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/photoshop-tip-alternative-sharpening-method

Try it out, or research other ideas to figure out what works best for you. But, do NOT over-sharpen! A trained eye can always tell when an image has been over-sharpened.

Thanks for helping a fellow reader, Bari!

Although manual focus is recommended there is no mention of using the camera's "back-button" auto focus. Many Canon, Nikon, and other camera models can be enabled to use back-button to lock the focus rather than with the normal half-way shutter button focus. For still-life subjects you may also want to set the camera to use oinly the central focus point. You can then point that central point to the primary subject area, push the back-button, and then recompose the image. This also allows the camera to meter on the actual composition area. I also suggest understanding depth of filed calcualtions to determine where that "optimum focus point" should be to sharply focus the "area of interest." I don't know if I can add links, but here are some:

http://www.learn.usa.canon.com/resources/articles/2011/backbutton_af_art...

http://www.nikonusa.com/en/learn-and-explore/article/hxlkcpoz/benefits-o...

http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/depth-of-field.htm

http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/dof-calculator.htm

Hi TRS,

Good tip! I did not mention the back-button autofocus as it is not very common on many consumer cameras. Also, you can use the half-press to AF-lock and then recompose as well, depending on your settings.

Thanks for the tip and the links and for reading!

If the target has a lot of air between you and it and it is stationary, shooting ten or more exposures and then digitally stacking them produces a dramatic improvement in clarity and sharpness. This is a routine procedure in astrophotography. The image clarity will increase with the square root of the number of exposures stacked. Stacking also tends to eliminate the grain noise from the image as the noise is random and tends to cancel out with multiple images. The whole purpose in stacking is to increase the signal to noise ratio. 

My first thought is that stacking shots would blur the areas where the atmosphere caused deviation, just like adding blur to a waterfall by stacking multiple images.  Can you tell me how to stack to improve sharpness?  (I have not tried it.)
 

Hey Blade,

We don't have any articles on image stacking, but the procedure is likely very similar to focus stacking described in this article: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/photo-editing-tutorial-macro-photography-focus-stacking

But, I am curious to see if Jeffery comes back to share some tips as well!

Hi Jeffrey,

Good tip. Very interesting! I had not thought of that. When practical, it is probably a great idea!

Thanks for sharing!

In my years as a freelance photographer, sharpness has always been an issue that hass to be addressed properly. All that matters, realy, is the quality of the lens. You may have a camera with an excellent software, such as BIONFS, however if the lens quality is poor, then shapness also will be difficult to attain.I recomend high-end lenses because they have better coating and len´s elements. Also stay close to 1.4 to 2,8 apperture ones, even if they are the zoom type. The more a lens can sustain a big apperture throgh its focusing ratio, more light and detail canbe captured. Some recomendations:

1- A 24mm to 80mm, at 2.8 all the way, lens

2-A 80mm to 105mm, at 2.8 all the way lens.

3-A 100mm to 200mm, ay 2.8 all the way lens.

Hi Virgilio,

Great tip, thanks! You are correct, many of the tips I listed above will not matter if you are starting with below-average optics.

Thanks for reading!

1. Ensure that the diopter compensation (on the eyepiece) is set for your eyes.

2. Other factors permitting, nothing beats careful manual focusing.

3. Use the stop-down button on the camera body to see what will actually be in focus in the captured image.

Hey Colin,

Good tips!

1. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/calibrating-diopter-your-camera

2. ...unless you have poor vision!

3. Using the DOF preview is a great tip...as long as your camera has one.

Thanks for reading!

Just a word or two:
Tripod in windy conditions: Try to lower it as much as possible.

Weather: Another factor causing blurriness is head coming up from sun-hot field.

Yehuda

Should read heat. Sorry.

Hi Yehuda,

Yep! A good friend of mine wrote a book years ago on ultimate image quality. He said to never, or only partially, extend the last leg section of your tripod to keep it lower and more stable.

Yep, I would throw "heat" in my tip #21...Air. That paragraph could have definitely been very very long!

#9: My travel tripod has no hook for hanging a weight. What I do have is called a stone bag. It's basically a triangle of canvas with a Velcro loop at each vertex. I attach it to the tripod legs and put something heavy in it for added stability.

#22. Air Conditioning - When you take a camera from a well air-conditioned environment (car, house) to the outdoors which has much higher humidity, it will cause a fog to cover the lens. You will then need to wait for this to equalize for the fog to go away. I have had it take as long as 1/2 hour to dissipate. If I am able to plan ahead then I can sometimes minimize this.

I had this problem on a trip to Viet Nam once.  The air conditioning was truly chilling.  The tour guide said to put the camera in bed when I got up in the morning and pile on the covers.  After breakfast, it was ready to be outside without a problem (or wait).

Don't all B&H customers already sleep with their cameras, Herb? 

Problem solved!

similar- I have gone from a hot humid day into an ice rink, arrive early and don't take the lens off the camera untill the camera temperture has dropped too- moisture will codense inside the camera.

Condensation only occurs when the lens (any object) temperature is BELOW the dewpoint, moisture cannot condens on a warm lens or anything that is above the dewpoint.

Thanks, NadoHeinz!

Good tip, Kal! Thanks!

Another way to combat the condesation problem is to place a few chemical hand warmers into your camera bag with the camera to help keep it a little warmer. I  have had good success with this on cruise ships in the caribean.

Good tip, Scott!

How many of us have "hand warmers" on our packing list for a cruise to the Caribbean? You might be the only one...for now!

#23 Cold outside, hot inside. The opposite can happen in the winter! I have definitely experienced both!

Thanks for your tip, Judith!

In the discussion on "Optics", there was no mention concerning the lens quality issue of "Chromatic Abberarion". This can happen when using non-OEM lenses or lenses of less quality than OEM lenses, which are designed for the camera being used. 

Hi George,

Very good point! You are correct, but I didn't want to dive too deeply into optical topics here as I could have easily gone off on a wild (and boring-for-some) tangent!

Our own Bjorn Peterson wrote a great article on optical anomalies. If you want more info check it out: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/optical-anomalies-and-lens-corrections-explained

Thanks for reading!

Early zoom lenses suffered from poor sharpness compard to fixed focus optics.  Is this still true, and if so, to what extent?  Is it still better to use a fixed focus (prime) lens when possible? 

Jonathan- Top of the line pro Zooms have improved dramatically. There is almost no difference between a fixed lens and these canon zooms:  16-35 F4 IS L; 24-70 F2.8 IS LII; and my favorite, the legendary 70-200 F2.8 IS LII.  Haven't tested the two new canon  L zooms but assuming they are outstanding.  However, NO zoom compares to canon's Super Telephotos.

Hey Jonathan and Johnny,

Johnny is correct, zoom quality is outstanding these days, however, I would still encourage the use of primes if you are looking for the ultimate in sharpness. Zooms are convenient and versatile and often as sharp as one could want, so do not suddenly think all of your top-of-the-line zoom lenses are soft!

Early zoom lenses arrived in the days of film where there was no such thing as "pixel peeping." Those lenses are very likely outperformed by today's zooms and, when zooming into images at unrealistic magnifications on your computer screen, you may see their limitations.

As my photography has matured, I have moved towards prime lenses more and more over the years—depending on what I am shooting.

Thanks to you both for reading and commenting!

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