Advanced Steps to Sharper Pictures :: Digital Photo Secrets

Advanced Steps to Sharper Pictures

by David Peterson 9 comments

One of the basic goals of a photographer is to have a sharp image, unless you're going for a stylistic blur. If you placed two photographers in the same spot with the same lighting, and even the same camera, I can guarantee you that it doesn't mean they will both get the same sharpness to their photos. To help ensure sharper images, try these tips.

#1 Hold Your Camera Still

This may seem like the most obvious of solutions, and isn't the most "advanced" option. But, I had to make this number one - holding your camera still. A 300mm lens is heavy and can make your hand shake ever so slightly - just enough to ruin an image. Boats create unwanted movement just when you want to photograph a fish. And don't forget to bring your tripod in lowlight situations. Whatever you can do to keep your camera still will help to create tack-sharp images.

#2 Use The Self-Timer

Along with Tip #1, I advise using your self-timer, especially in the above mentioned scenarios of low light and heavy lenses. The 2 second self-timer relieves your hand if its duty of pressing down on the shutter release button. Less pressure on the camera means less movement. Even if the movement is ever-so-slight, it can make a difference between sharp and extra sharp. The 2 second self-timer won't add much more time, and you are the best judge of when to use it most effectively versus it being a hindrance. Remember that photography is about the patience needed to get the best shot, and those 2 seconds could just give you that edge (and a sharp edge at that!).

#3 Back Button Auto-Focus

Raise your hand if you use the feature of pressing your shutter down half way to focus. Yes, that's what I thought. The vast majority of photographers focus on a subject by pressing the shutter half way down to focus then the rest of the way to finish taking the photo. What seems like the best way to do this, because it's easy and familiar, may actually be hindering your ability to capture sharper images.

Auto Focus Button

Let me introduce to you the Focus Lock feature. On almost every DSLR, there is an option to turn your camera to “AF On.” It can be changed through your menu settings, which changes the "focusing" button to the back of your camera instead of the shutter release. I know, sounds crazy and awkward, but stick with me. Once you set this button as your focus trigger, you set your focus with that button, leaving you free to fire off as many shots as you need to without your camera having to refocus each time you press the shutter button down. The focus point stays the same while the shutter is free to do its job as a shutter release rather than a focusing mechanism.

#4 Single Point AF

As you just read in Tip #3, most photographers press their shutter down halfway and then let their camera decide what to focus on. Usually a camera will pick the right thing either out of luck or a prominence of the subject in the frame. But once you start playing with shallow depths of field for portraits or other shots, your images will begin to suffer a great deal if you use this method.
There are cameras that have joysticks (some, like the Canon T3i don't, but have alternative methods). Look for the button on the back of your camera with the grid above it because it shows how your camera is focusing. By default, your camera likely has all the focus points on and the camera uses those points to choose where to focus. Instead of using all the focus points, press the focus grid button and utilize the joy stick (bottom left in image) to reset your focus point. You should see it change to only the single focus point.

Changing Focus Points

So, when is the best time to do this? Let's look at portraits. The most desired aspect of a portrait is sharp eyes. In order to best focus on your subject's eyes, change the focus point to over the eye and turn on back button AF. Your focus will now be set for the focus spot in the frame, which should be over your subject's eye.

#5 AI Servo Focus Tracking

If you've played around enough with your camera's settings, you may have seen a few options for auto focusing that include: One Shot, AI Focus, and AI Servo... and you probably left it on One Shot because the other two were not so self-explanatory and your manual wasn't handy. That's okay, plenty of people ignore this particular setting because they've been able to get by with One Shot. However, if you want extra sharp images, you may want to come closer and pay attention.

Changing your camera from its standby “One Shot” can be one of the most life-changing decisions you make when it comes to your photography. Why? Here’s how AI Servo works: Your son is graduating from college and during the ceremony he and his best friends are walking down the aisle between all the proud family members. You are strategically seated in the back row to ensure time to capture his photo. It's an overcast day, and to enhance lighting in your camera, you set it for f/2.8 because you want to let in as much light as possible.

Had you stayed in “One Shot,” your camera would be partial to focusing on your son each time you press the focus button. You would have had to press the shutter to take the picture. With a shallow depth of field, and the happy graduates coming at you, your window of opportunity to focus closes with each step they take. One way to go with One Shot is to hurry up, press the focus button and shutter in succession and as quickly as you can. Another way would be to set a mark on the aisle and wait for each person to hit that mark, then snap. This is risky, because you might miss your one opportunity.

Instead, switch your camera over to AI Servo. With Servo activated, your camera will track its focus on the graduates as their smiles approach, and it will continue to update the focus with each step. Double check your menu settings because you can even adjust the sensitivity of the focus tracking. The only note I'd add is to play with this before the big event so you're comfortable with the switch!

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. David Peterson says:


    They each serve different purposes. Use additional focus points to tell your camera to focus on different parts of the image (so you don't have to focus and then recompose). The AF ON button tells your camera to focus without you needing to hold the shutter down.


  2. Saralyn says:

    So, if you use back focus, does that mean that the huge numbers of focus points on some cameras isn't really important?

  3. maerlyn says:

    This is great! I, too, had heard of back-button focus but didn't understand how to get to it. Thanks so much.

  4. Michael J. matusinec says:

    Great information

  5. Adrian says:

    How do I change to al selvo on Nikon d700 couldn't find anywhere in the menu please help

  6. Val says:

    Thank you. Your explanations are so clear and uncomplicated. This helps taking photos much more enjoyable.

  7. Nalini says:

    Very clear and uncomplicated explanation thank you

  8. Doug says:

    Now I have a grip on back button focus. Heard the term befor but did not understand. Thank you!

  9. sue says:

    Awesome post.
    Thank you

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.