Not every photograph is meant to be sharp. There are times you'll intentionally blur an image, such as in sports photography when you're capturing a racecar zooming around the track and want to show speed. Then again, there are times you want to stop the action and have a sharp image, like this pooch running on the beach! The majority of the time, you are going to want your pictures to be crystal clear and sharp and in some cases, it's the camera that makes the difference while in others it's the photographer and post-processing software. Let's break this down into 7 helpful tips.
The Photographer's Role:
1. Hand Holding
99% of the time when an image is not sharp it's because of your hand and camera movement when taking the shot. Any amount of shaking can have the potential of blurring an image. So, how can a you best defend yourself?
Image Stabilization (IS) Lenses: If your have a DSLR camera, it's worth investing in a good IS lens. This is especially true if you use a heavy telephoto lens because the weight alone can make enough of a difference, even more noticeably so if you're on a long photo shoot and your arm starts to tire out. If it's affordable to you, the extra outlay of cash for an IS lens is worth having sharper images.
Tripod: Naturally, there's no doubt that a good tripod is worth using, especially with landscape photography or any other subject that's not in lateral motion. The key to successful tripod use is being sure it's set up in a sturdy spot. If one of its legs is balancing on something unstable, like a small rock, it can cause movement, and hence blurring, when the shutter is pressed. Double check it's stability before you start taking photos.
Timer or Remote Shutter Release: With your camera set either on a tripod or a stable object like a table or wall, setting the self-timer to 2 seconds means not having to put pressure on the camera. This will increase stability. Remote shutter releases are also a good idea, rather than setting the self-timer. They're inexpensive, but can be invaluable to creating a sharp image. In both situations, be sure to set the focus on your subject before actually shooting via the timer or release.
These above solutions are for you as the photographer. But, how can your camera play a role in sharper photos? In most cases, the tricks above are only as good as your camera's settings. The next series of tips are suggested camera settings.
The Camera's Role:
2. Focus, Focus, Focus
There are enough settings on your camera that have an impact on sharpness that if they're not all set to optimal settings, sharpness is in jeopardy. From focus to aperture to ISO and shutter speed, each plays enough of a role.
The more technology has integrated into cameras, the more options you seem to have. The trick is knowing which option is best for each circumstance. When it comes to focusing, there are several options from manual to automatic. Whether you're photographing a mountain or a person, where you focus will be different.
Distance: The range in which a camera or lens can focus can be limited to a foot or less of the lens. The minimum distance of lenses may vary, so check your manual to ensure you are within its limits. Landscape photographers take images with a large field of view, so these types of photos often give the illusion of less sharpness, whereas a portrait or fine art will be close up, making its subject pop.
Hold on a Second: Most Point and Shoot cameras show you where they are focusing with a box on the LCD screen. Sometimes (particularly with smart phones), you can set the focus point by touching the screen).
DSLRs are equipped with high-tech auto focusing that involves a few steps. There's usually a number of rectangles on the display and one will glow green and your camera will beep when the framed subject is in focus. It will flash red if it can't focus (see below). What some beginning photographers don't know is that you can move that rectangle around the frame and center it on the subject you want in focus. The default tends to be in the center, which defeats the rule of thirds! There are two ways around this. You can either move the rectangular box left or right or up or down until it's hovering over your subject then let it focus (check your manual on how to do this). Or, you can use the two step shutter trick. The first option takes a few more seconds, but it is the better option in case your subject moves while you're re-positioning the entire camera.
In the Works: DSLRs use an auto focus system that compares the contrast of lines in the subject area. It moves the lens slightly back and forth, which is what seems to take too long at times, as it compares the edges of the lines until the blurring disappears. Where this gets tricky is when the lines aren't defined or sharp to begin with. For example try photographing a cotton ball versus a Q-tip. The camera will have more difficulty focusing on a cotton ball with soft edges versus a Q-tip with a straight line. Finding an edge can be difficult, so in these cases it might work out better if you change to manual focus.
You probably know already that your aperture setting has a direct impact on what's in focus. Shallow depth of field, or a low f-stop, creates more blur either behind or in front of your subject. Large depth of field, or a high f-stop, puts everything in focus.
Depth of Field Matters: Portrait photos work really well with a shallow depth of field, but you need to be extra sure the subject is sharp. Make sure the subject's eyes are what's in focus. You also will most likely want a shallow depth of field to emphasize this. There are a lot of pro portrait photographers who don't use a tripod because they like to be fluid in their sessions. However, they're probably using a 50mm portrait lens (i.e. not heavy like a telephoto lens) with shallow depth of field. They also have ample experience with moving around, stopping, and focusing. This takes practice.
Alternatively with landscapes, you want the entire image to be sharp. Although most might expect the f-stop to be f-11 or higher for landscape, pros know that the secret to landscape photography is setting the f-stop to a range between r-7.1 to 9. That's the sweet-spot. If you're not sure about how to set the f-stop, or how it affects Depth of Field, I recommend my Depth Of Field Secrets product.
Your ISO setting should be adequate for the lighting conditions. If a subject is in a poorly lit area, the shadows just won't have detail.
ISO Settings: Increase your ISO to 200 for situations like cloudy days and 400 for indoors or subjects in motion. The darker the lighting, the higher your ISO should go because you need to allow that light in to capture details within she shadowed areas. Some of the shadowed areas can be lightened in post-processing software plug-in filters, such as Topaz Adjust. See tip #7 for details.
5. Shutter Speed
Speed Matters: A few times around the block with a camera and you likely know that the faster the shutter speed, the less amount of time the shutter is open. The less amount of time the shutter is open, the more likely you'll get a sharp image. Seems easy, right? Well, when you're out in the field and you want certain effects, whether it's stopping a subject in movement or capturing headlights on a busy road at night, there are a lot of other factors that come into play. In fact, those factors are the ones already mentioned: aperture and ISO to name two.
Who's In Charge?: It's up to you to decide what role you want the shutter speed to play... is it the priority or is it secondary? If it's the priority, you can try shooting in shutter priority mode, but keep in mind everything else already stated if sharpness is your main goal. A shutter speed that produces a low aperture may blur out more of the background than desired.
6. Focal Length
One aspect that can make a big difference but isn't often a thought to amateur photographers when it comes to sharpness is your lens' focal length.
The Reciprocal Rule: Other than the Rule of Thirds, the Reciprocal Rule is one of the most used rules in photography. So, what is it? It is used to determine the slowest shutter speed to ensure a steady hand held shot. In other words, when hand holding your camera, the shutter speed should not be slower than the reciprocal of the effective focal length of your lens.
Re-read that if you need to! But it's really pretty simple. If you have a 55 mm lens, then the reciprocal of that would be 1/55, which means that the slowest shutter speed you should use would be 1/55 seconds. Or if your lens is set for a focal length of 135mm, then the slowest shutter speed you can effectively use to ensure sharp photos is 1/135 of a second. Try it and see if it helps!
Light Changes: Sometimes, you're shooting zooming right in, like nature or sports or even a clown in a parade. Remember though, that when your subject is that far away and you're using the telephoto to capture them, the light is reduced. While there may be lots of light around you, it's the light on the subject that matters. As already covered, low light and shadows means less detail. In these cases, increase the ISO of your camera slightly to make sure it's going to take a sharp image.
As you can see, if you as the photographer are doing everything right, then it's your camera's settings that have the biggest impact on achieving those sharp images. For the last tip, we're going to look at software and plug-in filters to see if they can help when all else fails.
7. Post Processing Software Tools and Filter Plug-Ins
Those of you who are adept with Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, or other programs know that image sharpening is a powerful tool for emphasizing detail and texture.
Blurry Blues: Digital camera sensors and lenses will blur an image to some degree. Most cameras sharpen an image slightly before they save it, so you may not notice. Photo editing programs also have a sharpening feature. However, not all sharpening techniques are created equal. When overly used, sharpening artifacts may appear almost hideous (or actually hideous in some cases!). On the other hand, when used properly and with the right touch, sharpening can often improve an image. The right touch is the trick. I recommend using the sharpening tool, then stepping away from the image for a moment, letting your eyes focus on something else, and then come back and see if it still looks good. When it comes to sharpening, your eyes can play tricks on you and you may believe an image looks better than it actually does.
Tools Art: When you become more familiar with the sharpening tool, you won't have to think as much about it. In time, you'll be able to go by instinct for what looks bad, good, better and best!
Filter Plug-Ins, such as Topaz Adjust (you'll need a compatible host program like Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture to use this one), can take a doldrums image and give it life, including the appearance of being sharp. Color and lines pop, giving the image vitality. This and other plug-ins are downloadable filters (most are reasonably priced) that work with most software programs. In the case of Topaz Adjust, there's a "details" feature that sharpens images and an "adaptive exposure" feature that brightens and adds contrast to a flat image. These filters, just like the tools, are dangerous to those who know just enough. They take practice and lots of tweaking to get their effects just right.
Tricks of the Trade: When using tools and filters, it's always a good idea to save your new, edited file as a new file, keeping the original intact. Many pros save the PSD file, then a high rez and a low rez version, making 4 files of the same image: the original, the Photoshop (or other software) file, a high rez version for printing, and a low rez version for computers (non-printing). It sounds like a lot, but for your top images, it's easier to do this from the get-go than to regret and try to reinvent later.
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