Two over-arching qualities separate a good image from a bad one—the technical and the aesthetic. Aesthetic qualities include things like good composition, drama of the light, subject impact, good backgrounds and more. Technical qualities include proper exposure, correct combination of shutter speed and aperture, sharpness and more. In essence, photography is both a right-brain and left-brain art. The left-brain technical aspects need to be mastered to create gorgeous right-brained images. Good news—the technical aspects can be mastered easily. As stated above, one technical aspect is sharpness. Use the information in this week’s tip to more consistently capture sharp images. In other words, Stay Sharp!
Photos should be sharp unless you want to depict motion in a creative way. This being said, the “focus” of this “how to” is to get you sharp images all the time. A lack of sharpness can be caused by:
- The subject moved and the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough.
- The camera wasn’t focused properly.
- The camera moved during the exposure.
- The lens or filter was dirty.
- The tripod was unstable.
- You didn’t use a tripod.
Many of the above factors can by controlled. Some necessitate a greater understanding of the situation in which the image was made. Some require more effort and better technique. Regardless, if you properly incorporate the following, your images will be crisp.
Keep ’Em Clean: I start with this, as it’s the easiest to control. While it may sound basic, keep your front elements and/or filters clean. Before and after every shoot, get in the habit of cleaning both. Unless they’re filthy, sharpness won’t be drastically impacted, but to reinforce the importance of smudge free elements, make cleaning part of your regiment. This is especially true if you photograph in fog or mist, as condensation can build up on your filter and wreak havoc on sharpness.
Subject Movement: Photographs can be made because sensors gather light. Every situation in which a photograph is made, there’s a given amount of light. The amount dictates what camera settings can be used. A very important setting is shutter speed. If light levels are high, fast shutter speeds can be utilized. If they are low, photographers are limited to slow shutter speeds. Slow shutter speeds render fast-moving subjects as blurs. For instance, thick gray clouds rule the sky and your kids are playing in the back yard. They look adorable, so you grab your camera and photograph every moment. You enthusiastically run to the computer to download the photos only to discover not a single image is sharp. It’s imperative to realize what shutter speed the camera provides for each session. The thick gray clouds provided low light levels, so the shutter speed was slow. Possible fixes are: open the aperture to its widest setting to get the fastest shutter speed, use a lens with a wider aperture, remove filters that rob light such as a polarizer and raise the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to light. If you try all these fixes and the shutter speed is still too slow, the given conditions won’t allow sharp images to be made. Realize there are limitations.
The Active Focus Point: Autofocus is wonderful, but unless you have the active focus point on the subject, it won’t be sharp. In the viewfinder, be cognizant of what focus point is active. There should be a small square that lights up when you press the shutter halfway down. This square has to be placed over the subject. Refer to your manual so you know how to move that focus point. Press halfway down on the shutter and then move a dial, wheel or button to position the square over the subject. If you haven’t been doing this, chances are your images aren’t as sharp as they should be. Be sure to add this strategy to your picture-making.
Camera Movement: Think about a scenario where you want to make indoor photos of your kids and there aren’t many room lights. In low light level situations, the shutter will be slow. If you try to handhold the camera, the photo will lack the desired sharpness because it moves during the exposure. Ways to circumvent this are: enable vibration reduction on the lens or camera body (check to see if your lens/camera has this feature) and raise the ISO to obtain a fast-enough shutter speed to be able to handhold. Realize that the higher the ISO, the more digital noise will be introduced; place the camera on a solid surface to stabilize it. If the primary subject is in motion, a successful capture may not be possible.
With regards to camera movement, the more telephoto the lens, the more difficult it is to achieve a sharp image. Telephoto lenses magnify the subject size but, in turn, they also magnify mistakes. A good rule of thumb is to use faster shutter speeds commensurate with the focal length of the lens. For instance, use nothing slower than 1/250 if you zoom the lens to 200mm. A good trick to test your handholding capability is to tape a laser pointer to the top of your camera. Go into a dark room, raise the camera to your eye, and watch how the beam moves on the wall. If you see a lot of movement, err on the side of caution and always use as fast a shutter speed as possible.
Use a Tripod: Even with today’s cameras that have great high-ISO capability and with lenses or bodies that have built-in stabilization, I still encourage you to use a sturdy tripod. Along with it, use a cable release, self-timer or exposure delay mode. Additionally, use mirror lock-up. I prefer knowing I’m doing everything possible to get as sharp an image as I can. Be sure the tripod is sturdy enough to stabilize your heaviest and longest lens. A flimsy tripod may be lighter to carry, but if it gets windy, if it has to be fully extended or if it can’t counter the movement of pressing the shutter, it has no benefit.
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