10 Tips For Top Sharpness

Getting your sharpest photographs today is as much about processing as it is about shooting technique. We’ll show you some pro tips for making your best pictures.
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Nature photographers are always on the quest for sharp pictures. I know I am. I want to be sure that when something should be sharp in a photograph, it’s indeed sharp. I sometimes get mad at myself when I look at photographs on the computer and find a picture that I really like, but it isn’t quite sharp.

1. Choose The Right Aperture
If your scene needs a lot of depth of field, stop your lens down to one of the smaller ƒ-stops such as ƒ/16. If that results in too slow a shutter speed for the scene, you’ll have to change either your ƒ-stop or your ISO.

But there are occasions when having everything sharp makes the picture look confusing. In addition, scenes can look less than sharp because there’s nothing in the image that gives the viewer a clear sense of sharpness. In these cases, you may be better off shooting with a wider ƒ-stop such as ƒ/5.6 to limit your depth of field to a narrow plane. This will create a contrast in your photo between sharp and unsharp areas, making the sharp areas look sharper.

2. Choose The Right Shutter Speed
Recently, I was shooting fall scenes in the chaparral outside of Los Angeles. California buckwheat has a rich red-brown color in the fall, and I wanted a landscape that showed the buckwheat in the foreground with the rest of the background sharp behind it. I needed a small ƒ-stop, but I also needed a fast enough shutter speed to stop the movement of the plants in the wind. I even had to change my ISO setting in order to get a faster shutter speed.

If you’re shooting handheld, be sure to use a fast shutter speed, as well. Few photographers can match tripod sharpness with a shutter speed of less than 1⁄60 sec. for wide angles, 1⁄125 sec. for standard focal lengths or 1⁄500 sec. for telephoto focal lengths. Image stabilization can help you go slower. If you’re convinced you can do better, test it. Shoot a scene with your camera locked on a tripod and then with the camera in your hand as you change shutter speeds and see what shutter speed you need after you enlarge the photos to see critical detail.

Really Right Stuff TVC-33 Versa Tripod

3. Use A Tripod And A Solid Head
Most OP readers are familiar with our mantra about using a tripod. That’s why I didn’t put this tip first. Still, it’s important that you have a good tripod and head—and use them! One of the best investments I ever made photographically was buying an expensive carbon-fiber tripod and a solid, but lightweight head. I spent a little under $1,000 for the combination, which is both light and sturdy. You can find excellent tripods and heads for less money, but don’t go the cheap route.

The point is, make the investment. I find it hard to believe when I see photographers with expensive gear using a cheap tripod. I can guarantee that I’ll get sharper images from a less expensive camera and lens combined with a top-level tripod and head than I will from an expensive camera and a cheap tripod.

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4. Shoot On Continuous For Challenging Conditions
Sooner or later, you’ll find a situation where sharpness is especially challenging. Maybe you have to shoot with a slow shutter speed, and you don’t have a tripod to steady your camera, or you may have subject movement from the wind.

A great trick is to set your camera on Continuous shooting. It’s not just for action! If you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed, hold down the shutter for a burst of maybe five or six shots. Even though most won’t be sharp, one or two shots usually will be. And for that moving subject, hold down the shutter and keep shooting as you work to get the subject in focus. Again, you’ll find many of your pictures will be out of focus, but you’ll also get sharp shots.

Singh-Ray Vari-ND Filter

5.Watch For Unsharpness Due To Filters
You may have purchased a quality lens and then got a story from the salesperson that you should get a cheap filter to protect the lens. That’s bad advice. A camera lens is a highly engineered collection of lenses that are designed to work together to give you maximum sharpness. Adding a cheap filter in front of that is putting something in the optical path that the lens was never designed for.

Hoya HD Circular Polarizer

B+W Polarizer Filter

Buy quality filters or use none at all. I’m so cautious about losing image sharpness from filters that I won’t use a filter unless I need it for a specific visual purpose like darkening the sky with a polarizing filter. If you feel more secure with a protective filter on your lens, make sure you buy a high-quality filter. It does make a difference.

Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask are excellent tools, but it’s easy to overdo it if you’re not careful.

6. Sharpen Properly With Software
Sharpening is an important part of sharpness for digital cameras, but it’s a little harder to talk about because of variations in software. If you’re shooting RAW, you must do some sharpening to the picture because no sharpening is applied in the camera. For a variety of technical reasons, the image as captured by the sensor doesn’t reveal the full sharpness of the lens, so you need to do some sharpening. If you’re shooting JPEG, you need to be careful about adding sharpening in the computer, as some sharpening is usually applied to the photo as it’s processed inside the camera.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom has its own set of sharpening tools that can give you solid results.

If you’re working with Photoshop and similar programs, do the sharpening at the end of your processing of the image. If you sharpen first, you can run into problems because some adjustments can affect sharpening. Typically, you’ll do all your processing with layers, save that file as a master, flatten the file for use as a specific size, sharpen at that size and save a new file. You may also find that a sharpening plug-in such as Nik Software Sharpener Pro or PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener makes sharpening a little easier to deal with.

If you’re working with Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, the situation changes. Nothing is applied to the photograph as you work within either program. When you’re done with the picture and export it out of the program, all of the adjustments are applied to the photograph in the proper order for optimum quality. That means that sharpening could be done first or last, and the program will apply the sharpening at the right time during the processing. Lightroom has an excellent set of sharpening tools that are well worth using.

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7. Know Your Lens’ Sharp Apertures
Most lenses gain in sharpness stopped down a couple of ƒ-stops from the maximum aperture, keep that sharpness through the middle range of ƒ-stops, then drop off slightly in sharpness at the minimum aperture. For more expensive lenses, this range may be pretty close to all of the ƒ-stops available for that lens. For less expensive lenses, this range may be just a few of the middle ƒ-stops.

The only way to know for sure is to do some testing.
Set up your camera on a tripod facing a flat, detailed subject and photograph it with your whole range of ƒ-stops. Compare the pictures.

Use that information wisely. Don’t simply decide that you’re only going to use a few ƒ-stops. That might be fine with some scenes at a distance where depth of field isn’t critical, but when you get close, the proper depth of field can be more important than some arbitrary standard of sharpness.

8. Handholding For Sharpness
A tripod can be a critical part of your sharpness technique. Still, nearly every photographer will handhold shots at one time or another. You need to be sure to hold the camera correctly for maximum sharpness. A digital SLR based on a 35mm camera style is designed to be held in one way, regardless if you’re left- or right-handed.

Grab your camera with your right hand on the right side of the camera. Turn your left hand so that it’s palm-up, then place the camera into the palm of your hand with your fingers comfortably around the lens. Bring your camera up to your eye while keeping your elbows close to your chest. This is the most stable and sharpest way to hold your camera. You’ll see lots of photographers holding the camera with the left hand palm-down and the thumb and fingers grabbing the lens. That unstable handholding technique will result in less sharp pictures.

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9. Be Careful Of Noise Reduction In Software
One of the challenges of digital photography is noise. Noise can show up from using a high ISO or long exposure, or processing an underexposed picture. Some great software is available to help you get rid of much of that noise and still have a quality picture. However, consider that noise is a small detail in your picture and that it can be difficult for software to tell the difference between noise and the more important small detail in your picture. It’s easy to damage the sharpness of your picture by overprocessing it to remove noise. This has been a challenge with high-megapixel cameras and small sensors—when the manufacturer adds enough noise reduction to make the picture look good, the sharpness goes down.

I like Dfine from Nik Software for noise reduction. Its algorithms work well in distinguishing noise from other detail, but more importantly, you can tell the program to selectively affect noise based on colors in the picture. It’s common to have more noise in certain parts of the picture than others, such as in sky, so this helps a lot.

10. Print For Sharpness
Prints can really show off sharpness or unsharpness in a photograph. You might have thought a picture was okay, but then you make a big print and discover it just doesn’t look sharp. So what can you do?

First, it’s important to understand that the size of the picture has a big impact on its sharpness.
A 4x6-inch print may look great with excellent sharpness, but blow it up to 11x14, and it may not look so good. When you enlarge a photograph, you also enlarge its defects. Also, depth of field in a photograph looks deeper with a small picture compared to a large photograph. Certain photographs simply don’t look good printed big.

Second, look critically at your photograph as you prepare it for printing to see if it’s sharp enough to support the print you wish to make. This can be a good reason for shooting several photographs of a scene if you’re worried at all about sharpness because then you can pick the sharpest one for the print.

Third, some photographers swear by secondary sharpening for a specific print surface. Glossy prints, for example, display sharpness differently than matte prints. For this reason, Lightroom includes print sharpening as part of the Print Module. You choose a type of secondary sharpening specifically designed for the type of print—glossy or matte. It really can help make a better print.

Rob Sheppard is Editor At Large for Outdoor Photographer. You can see more of his photography and learn about his workshops by visiting www.robsheppardphoto.com.


    Everyone, everyone…I hope my comment is more helpful than annoyance… Here goes…

    I work as a studio photographer by day, sports photographer by afternoon, and wild life photographer by evening. Use your tripod when your shot is requiring it. If you know that at 1/25th of a second or slower etc.. Etc…is going to be blurry hand holding it, and this is the “money” shot, don’t kid yourself and grab your tripod or monopod, if you can manage it.

    If your going to chance it by upping your iso, expect a bit of grain and
    make the shot count. Otherwise, you’ve missed your shot, took a poorly grained image, and are stuck not publishing.

    I enjoyed the article and all of the comments. It’s good to occasionally stop and think about your own technique. Are you doing the things you learned or discovered way back when? Or have you slipped a bit here or there? It never hurts to be reminded of the basics. Thanks for a good refresher.

    Not only do the top-earning wildlife/landscape pros use a tripod, they also whole-heartedly recommend them.

    Ansel used one.

    Moose uses one.


    Try shooting a 600mm VR on a monopod while tracking a flying bird. Don’t work. 🙂

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    whappen to the ” real Art of Photography “? it seems to me that with all these expensive camera and lenses still everybody use some manipulation to their photograph.

    Mark, I agree. Tripods are indispensable. That may be part of why they were invented. My biggest nuisance in photography, bone heads who mock, sneer and insult the methods of others, while making fail jokes about their own awesomeness.

    Like anything, there are exceptions. Though your sharpness hints are helpful, I tend to veer away from this “norm” of crunchy-crispy and create blurs/movement for emotional effect. Sometimes it seems incredibly difficult to obtain these types of photos in comparison to conventional sharpness. I was hoping you’d discuss that too.

    @ Les: I tend to like a softer look, too. But it needs to be done right, and intentionally. Getting a sharp shot is something a lot of photographers struggle with, so these tips are a great starting point for breaking off into selective focus. Also, it’s tougher to make a visually interesting SHARP photograph than it is to make an interesting BLURRY one. When you go sharp, composition and depth-of-field play critical roles. Finding the sweet spot of sharpness and softness – offering both in a composition – is a hallmark of great photographers.

    Excellent tips on Sharpness, thank you. I do question a need for a high end tripod and head to obtain sharpness. If I can’t obtain professional grade sharpness with a $200 or $300 tripod and head, with an IS lens and Remote Timer, I will forever remain an Amateur Photographer.

    Quickest way to tell an amateur photographer?

    He’s the one using a tripod all the time!

    Those of us who earn a living from shooting mostly cannot be doing with the inconvenience. I use mine maybe 12 times a year…!

    A monopod is much more useful and so much more portable.

    Well since I’m just a hack novice with more camera than brains I appreciate the info like the f-stop range having varying levels of sharpness and how or when to apply sharpness in processing.

    Great tips. I agree with your comments about sharpening in Photoshop. What I find that works best is to use the burning tool. I burn in shadows to give the image a bit more depth and find the image just comes alive. It gives it a much sharper quality than the sharpening tool.

    Huh Ted,

    From an amateur to a pro … I would take everything you said … and do the opposite.

    Worst thing about a tripod: It slows you down

    Best thing about a tripod: It slows you down

    Unless you are doing “hack” sports photograpy, the laws of physics can’t be denied. A monopod will never stack up against a tripod when support is necessary … amateur or pro.

    If you don’t have time (give me a break) to do a good job by using a tripod, then just leave the best work to us amateurs!



    Actually, most pros I know carry both a monopod and a tripod, so the “this or that” discussion is a little bit silly, given how light most of them are these days. If you’re taking a quick shot, a monopod usually works fine, but there are times when you need complete stability with longer shutter times and only a tripod will do. I have a $30 mono from WalMart that I wouldn’t leave home without. Get a comfortable backpack and bring it all!!

    Smooth trails, Chris

    I’m surprised at your #1 suggestion. Perhaps something slipped past the editor?

    Stopping down to f/16 on the cropped sensor cameras that most photographers use these days (assuming that we aren’t considering P&S models here) will make photographs LESS sharp than if they are exposed at perhaps f/8. Diffraction blur is a sharpness issue at apertures smaller than about f/8 on these cameras. DOF increases but overall sharpness decreases.

    Along the lines of the tripod use I find that if I have gone this far to set up, I always do the mirror lock up and cable release. Somebody else mentioned the desire for more technical tips, I am reading the “Real World Image Sharpening” second edition. So far this has been an excellent read on the “technical side” of post processing sharpening. Ron

    ” good tips… great for starters – how about some advanced techniques.”

    Seems that advanced techniques and substantial material that does not promote some new lens/camera/tripod/fill in the blank are very hard to come by in OP.

    Good tips. As a beginning photographer, the importance of using a tripod was drilled into me, and I still carry and use one most of the time. However, I see more and more advanced and even pro photogs that I know using their tripods less, given the popularity of image stabilization technology. Sometimes this makes sense, such as when bright light enables one to use fairly high shutter speeds as well. As far as cost goes, solid, sturdy tripods can be purchased for much less than $1000.00, as I’m sure the writer knows. I bought my first on ebay for $75.00 and it was as solid as they come… and as heavy, too, which made it hard to carry on hikes. The beauty of carbon fiber is its stability AND lightness, hence the high price tag.

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