Close-Up Sharpness

The Truth Is In The Details • Make It A Hard Drive • Times Two • When To Use IS • Airports And Cameras • Res It Up

Tech Tips: Close-Up Sharpness

The Truth Is In The Details
I’m using a high-resolution digital camera and just started photographing trees, bark, leaves, etc. Many of my photos don’t show good resolution in the small details, such as bark texture, the small veins in leaves or the edges of paint peels. I shot images today using a tripod, mirror lock and cable release, and I used an f/11 aperture on a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. The image looks soft in several places. Is what I’m seeing a problem with digital capture?
J. McKinniss
Via the Internet

I can assure you that today’s digital photography has the capability of giving us the greatest amount of detail and quality ever. Without seeing one of your images, I can only guess at what the problem is.

One problem with using ƒ/11 in macro photography is that it doesn’t give you much depth of field, especially with a telephoto focal length, so you'll often find areas in and out of focus. If this is the problem, look into a great program called Helicon Focus ( for unlimited depth of field.

You’re using a high-resolution camera. All of your techniques are optimizing the capabilities of your digital system. Macro lenses tend to be among the sharpest out there, and ƒ/11 is the sharpest ƒ-stop.

You should be capturing at the largest file size and preferably in RAW format to maximize the amount of image data. Then evaluate your images after they have been sharpened with-in your image-editing software. There‚’s no digital camera that outputs a perfectly sharp image; it needs to be sharpened in the processing.

Another mistake made by many digital photographers is that they view their images on their monitor at a high magnification that doesn’t represent how the image will look printed. Make your evaluation based upon an image magnified at 100 percent on your monitor and then again once it’s printed.

The paper on which the image is printed will also affect the apparent sharpness. If you’re looking for the greatest possible detail, you’ll want to print on a smooth-surfaced paper, such as an Epson luster or a Canon satin inkjet paper.

The image of dried flowers in the snow was taken with a Canon EOS 5D and a 180mm macro lens set to ƒ/16. Actually, nine images were taken to deal with limited depth of field, then they were composited using Helicon Focus software to give the extreme detail and depth of sharpness.

Make It A Hard Drive, Times Two

I’m getting nervous about the security of my images, which are stored on the hard drive of my computer. If the drive goes bad, I’ll lose them forever. Some friends have said to put them on CDs, but I have so many images that such an approach would even require a lot of DVDs. What do you do to protect your image files?
M. Jacob
Denver, Colorado

You need to store your important files in two places. It’s not a matter of if your hard drive will fail, it’s a matter of when. My suggestion is to purchase a pair of identical external hard drives. Units in the range of 250 to 500 gigabytes have become quite affordable. Transfer all your important files to one drive, then back them up on the other. This will clear up space on your hard drive for temporary storage while you’re working on image processing.

When you’ve finished working on an image, store it on the first hard drive and back it up on the second. It may also be smart to store the backup drive in a different location and retrieve it once a week or so to back up your new work. This will protect your images from the consequences of disasters, such as fires or floods.

Because our files have become so large as our cameras get better, backing up onto CDs isn’t very practical. You’d only get a few images on each CD, especially if you’re doing panoramas or files for large prints. I have many files that are so large that only two of them would fit on a single CD, which holds approximately 700 megabytes.

What would make more sense is to save on DVDs (single layer), which hold approximately 4.7 gigabytes of data. I recommend read-only disks because of their higher stability. Coming onto the market are the HD DVD and Blu-ray disks, which offer 50 to 100 gigabytes per disk. These have potential for being great backup platforms for the future. My problem with having multiple disks for storage is the continual searching for a particular image file, which is why I stick with the biggest external hard drives I can get.

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When To Use IS

I do quite a lot of backcountry photography in New Zealand, where, for weight reasons, it’s practical to take a monopod, but not a tripod. I use the Canon 100-400mm IS lens. Is it best to have the image stabilizer mode set to 1 or 2 when the lens is being used on a monopod, or should I have IS turned off? I realize it’s best to have IS turned off when on a tripod.
C. Bycroft
Via the Internet

A monopod definitely improves the results you get with your 100-400mm lens, and Image Stabilization will add a measure of insurance for those sharp images. When the camera is locked down on a tripod, you should turn off the IS because it may cause blur in long exposures with the 100-400mm IS lens. The newer super-telephoto IS lenses actually can use IS when on a tripod by switching to a shorter frequency of movement, and for a long exposure, they give almost the same motion dampening as locking up the mirror.

The monopod, even with a steady hand, has just enough movement to enable the IS to work for you. Typically, you aren’t going to be using the monopod for long exposures. As far as which mode to use, either will work. IS mode 1 is for still subjects, and IS mode 2 is for panning.

Airports And Cameras
I recently went digital with the purchase of a digital SLR. As I was reading the manual, it stated not to expose the camera to extreme electromagnetic radiation. Is there any concern regarding airport security X-ray machines and the radiation they emit damaging my D-SLR or any other equipment?
V. La Polla
Santa Fe, New Mexico

There’s no chance of radiation damaging your camera or your media in the airport security machinery. The problem with extreme electromagnetic radiation arises when you actually photograph in its presence. It can cause noise or banding in your images. This problem would be much more likely to occur in a medical facility next to powerful MRI machines, for example, than in the airport security area.

While researching this question, I learned something new. Many external battery packs contain a transformer that ramps up the voltage for flashes or the camera. Theses power packs can create a pretty strong electromagnetic field that shouldn’t be in close proximity to your storage media while files are being written. It’s better to leave the battery packs attached to your belt, away from the camera, than to attach them to the camera. Auxiliary battery grips made by the camera manufacturers aren’t a problem.


Res It Up
At the Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas, I saw your large panoramic photo of shorebirds on a log. I was wondering how you were able to get such a high-resolution print, considering the size. Besides the fact that this is a composite of five exposures, did you upscale the image or use any special RIP processing prior to printing?
D. Rice
Via the Internet

Yes, the "birds on a log" image is a composite of five exposures from an 11-megapixel camera. Each image from this camera is capable of at least a 20x30-inch print, and I often make 40x60s. Yes, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says you should never enlarge an image beyond the resolution of its capture. In that event, my 11-megapixel camera would be limited to roughly 11x14-inch prints at 300 ppi.

But, as you could see from the print in Las Vegas, even very large prints can retain excellent resolution. Don’t be afraid to interpolate! Interpolation actually expands the distance between the pixels in an image and fills in the blanks with information derived from surrounding pixels. This sounds scary, but there are some software programs that do an excellent job: Adobe Photoshop, onOne Software’s Genuine Fractals and Alien Skin BlowUp, to name a few.

You’ll know that you’ve enlarged beyond the capability of the image when you’ve lost the sharpness and detail that define a fine print. But step back a bit to make the judgment, perhaps four to five feet from a 16x20 print. We tend to view digital prints from a closer range than we did with darkroom prints because there’s considerably more detail to be seen in them. An optimal viewing distance is one that comfortably allows the viewer to appreciate the print’s quality as well as its message.

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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