Sharpness, clarity, even a certain kind of grittiness, seem to be the distinguishing mark of professional photography. Detail isn’t just the result of owning a good camera (although it does help), it comes from a fundamental understanding of the way your camera works. When you learn how to bring out the most important details in your subjects, you will have come a long way towards producing images that can withstand the test of time.
I must admit that I find it challenging to write a tutorial on detail alone. So much of getting great detail in your photos involves experience. If you don’t get the exposure, white balance, and focus just right, your photos will start to lose the detail that makes them truly “pop”. You don’t make great photos by attempting to add in more detail. Having details, like the skin on the frog in the photo above, is a symptom of success.
Crispness Depends On Even Lighting And Exposure
By now, you’ve probably seen both the light and the dark sides of exposure. Whenever you let in too much light, your photos are usually so bright that it erases all of the details. The same happens when you subtract light. As the photo gets darker, more detailed areas begin to blend in with one another.
Getting perfect exposure is extremely important when it comes to creating detail. In order to do this, you need to be willing to wean yourself off of the automatic modes your camera offers. That means learning which apertures and shutter speeds work best for certain kinds of photographs. It also means taking the time to experiment with slightly overexposed and slightly underexposed variations of each shot.
I will keep coming back to this point because it is very relevant. Your camera’s light meter isn’t perfect. It meters through the lens and doesn’t always “know” what you are trying to capture. That’s why you should create lighter and darker versions for every new angle or composition you’re working with. That way, when you go through all the photos you’ve taken, you can select the ones that automatically appear to have the most detail. This is called bracketing, and is partly explained in my tip on Exposure Value, and fully explained in my Digital Photo Secrets book.
Where Are You Focusing?
Some parts of photos are chock full of detail. Others aren’t. The frog’s eyes in the photo above are too smooth to have any detail, so you will need to focus on its skin instead. Most amateur photographers don’t know that you can pre-focus on one part of the frame, recompose the shot, and then take it later. When you start using this little technique, you’ll see notice immediate results.
I detailed the mode-recompose technique some time ago, but here's another way that allows you to take multiple shots of the same object without needing to move-recompose each time.
You will first need to find the part of the subject containing the most detail. Next, switch the focus mode on your lens to automatic focus. Hold down the shutter button halfway to focus on the most detailed and intricate part of the subject you are photographing. On most digital SLR cameras, you’ll see a quick flash in the viewfinder indicating where the focus is.
Once you have focused your lens, switch back to manual mode and frame the shot the way you want it. If you were photographing the frog above, you would probably have to move the camera downward to get the frog’s head closer to the top third of the shot. Now all you have to do is snap the photo. Assuming you’ve got the right exposure settings, the part of the photo with the most detail will also be sharpest.
Consider Your Aperture Settings
Your aperture number determines how much of your photo will be in focus. When you choose a high-numbered aperture, more of the photo will be sharp. When you choose a low-numbered aperture, less of it will be. This is something to keep in mind when you’re trying to produce an image with a lot of detail.
You can only increase your aperture up to a certain point before it affects the rest of your photo. If you are trying to mask some of the detail in the background (while preserving the detail in the foreground), you could run into some problems when you pick an aperture value that is too large for the purpose of your photo. This is something you should always experiment with, especially when you don’t feel like you’re getting enough detail from your subjects.
Interestingly, the person who photographed the frog above probably had to increase the aperture in order to overcome the decreased depth of field you get with a macro lens. Otherwise, probably only the front eye would have been in focus. See the photo below for a great example of this. Only the stamen are in focus while the rest of the flower is blurry even though the distance between the two is not very far. So it's another thing to consider. Every lens is a little different. You’ll only know the ideal settings by experimenting with manual settings.
Thanks to Kayleigh Hart for sending me this image.
I want to see some of the details you’ve uncovered in everyday life. Send me your most detailed pictures, and I’ll make one of them the subject of my next critique.
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