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.
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 (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 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.
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 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 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.
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!