5 Simple Secrets To Sharper Photos - Digital Photography School

5 Simple Secrets To Sharper Photos

Many factors play a part in image sharpness, not the least of which is the lens.  Most of us who ever pick up a camera judge our images, at least in part, on overall sharpness.  Before you go out and plunk down some hard earned cash on that top of the line pro-level lens you’ve been drooling over, think about these steps you can take with the lenses you already own to get sharper images.

  1. Pay attention to the basics.  Hold the camera properly.  Your right hand should grip the camera with your finger ready to press the shutter button. Your left hand should cradle the lens. Tuck your elbows firmly against your side. Press the eye cup of the camera firmly against your head.  This three-point stance stabilizes the camera and holds it steadier than holding the camera out and away from your face, with your arms extended.
  2. Use a polarizing filter. Polarizers are famous for darkening blue skies on sunny days, but they are just as useful in other situations. In misty or hazy situations, polarizers can help cut through that haze.  Haze has the effect of softening an image, so using a polarizer to eliminate the haze enhances sharpness. So don’t hesitate to put the polarizer on your lens, even when darkening a blue sky isn’t the reason.

  3. Use the “sweet spot” of your lenses. Most lenses are at their sharpest when stopped down 2 or 3 stops from maximum aperture. However, even if for depth of field reasons it’s not possible to stop down that far, closing the aperture 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop will still increase sharpness.  By the same token, when a lot of depth of field is required, shooting one or two stops open from minimum aperture will provide the best sharpness. This is because at minimum aperture, lenses begin to exhibit diffraction. Diffraction happens when light is forced through a small hole, and begins to disperse. At larger apertures, this light is a small percentage of the total light hitting the sensor.  At smaller apertures, this diffracted light is a much greater percentage of the total light hitting the sensor.  Diffracted light causes images to appear softer.  By shooting at f/16, rather than say, f/22, you can minimize diffraction and thus get sharper images.

    The above finished and edited image was shot at f/11. Beneath are two crops. The crop on the left shows the same scene, shot a few moments later at f/22. The crop on the right is from the same file as the completed image, shot at f/11, but unedited. In the shot at f/22, you can clearly see the effects of diffraction, as the windows on the building are just not as sharp as those shot at f/11.

  4. Select the AF point you want to use, and put it where you want to focus.  Many photographers I talk to like touse the center AF point and use the “Focus and Recompose” method of focusing to create their images.  Unfortunately, while easier in many ways, this method can contribute to less sharp photos.  This is especially apparent when shooting at wider apertures and depth of field is shallower. When you do this, the focal plane shifts, moving it away from where you originally focused. It’s not a big deal when shooting at smaller apertures, but when shooting near wide open, it will be noticable. A better technique is to choose the AF point nearest where you want the sharpest focus.  This reduces focal plane shift, thus keeping the sharpest focus where you want it in your photo.
  5. When using zoom lenses, focus at the focal length you plan to shoot at. In the past, in the manual focus days, lenses were parfocal, meaning that you could zoom the lens and the focus would stay the same. Many of today’s lenses, however, are not parfocal.  So changing the focal length by zooming causes focus drift, and the lens is no longer focused where it was before it was zoomed.  The better bet is to zoom the lens where you want it for your composition, and then focus the lens.

There is obviously much more to getting sharper images, but these five basic tips are a good start to keeping your images sharp.

 

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • Devang Gargieya

    Very well explained !!! Really nice post…

  • af

    Useful tips, thanks. I never thought about the focal plane shift with wide apertures, but it seems so obvious now!

  • Scottc

    This is useful information, I never considered using a polarizer as described here and have been guilty of #4 many times.

    Great article!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • Aju

    I always focus-and-recompose leaving the AF point at the center. Now I know when and why I shouldn’t do it.

    Thank you

  • Alisson Wilker

    Nice post! Really well explained! However, about item 4, I have already read that the central AF point is the most precise one. I cannot remember now the reference but I think it might not be difficult to find it (maybe Scott Kelby, David Ziser…). Have you ever heard about it too?

  • someone

    Good tips. I just discovered the polariser filter tip 2 days ago, when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine. Nornally with my 50 f1.8 lens, autofocus would usually not hit or hit at the wrong point wide open, but focus was nearly perfect every time with the polariser. The images do appear sharper too!

  • Michal France

    Thank you! It is exactly what I needed to know!

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    @Alisson- Yes, with most cameras, the center AF point is more sensitive, and thus more accurate. However, it’s only accurate if you do not move the camera after you focus. If you then recompose your shot when you’ve finished focusing, you shift the focal plane, sometimes as much as an inch or more. With fast lenses such as a 100mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.8, that can mean the difference between being tack sharp where you want to be, or having some front or back focus instead.

  • Kim P

    Great tips! I had not heard of using a polarizing filter rather than a UV so I am definitely going to try that. Also, being a Minneapolis girl, I was excited to see your sample image of the Minneapolis skyline – beautiful!!

  • http://symbolicmeasures.co.uk chris k

    Simple no nonsense post like this are why I’m here. Thanks for the why and how friend.

  • Jay

    Nice!
    My lens is best at f5.6; with flash I use the “thyristor” mode set to this opening and the flash adjusts light (duration). Works well for me.

  • David J

    This all makes good sense, well explained and easy to follow.

  • http://www.dreamlightphotography.co.uk Steve Dunham

    6. Ditch the zoom lens and use a prime instead. Especially true for cheaper consumer zoom lenses which are generally not as sharp as the four figure offerings. But $100 or so will buy a very sharp f1.8 50mm lens. Great for tack sharp portraits. Use your feet to zoom!

  • Kristof

    I don’t really agree with the 5th ‘secret’.
    While I was on vacation in October, I noticed that when I fully zoom in not everything was sharp. When I focussed when fully zoomed and then got back to the focal lenght I wanted, the pictures were a lot sharper.
    I’m not sure though if my lens is parfocal or not. (Nikkor AF-S 18-105mm F3.5-5.6 G IF-ED DX)

  • http://www.joe-elliott.co.uk Joe Elliott

    Great tips here thanks, I shoot in dark places all the time so the aperture is always low and can definitely notice the difference :)

    Thanks

  • http://aholidayincairns.com Terence Starkey

    Boy, so much to learn! Great article. I have switched completely to manual settings recently and thought I was getting some pretty sharp photographs on my web site. Yes I use a polarising filter, but now I have to find my lens sweet spot and start practising selecting the right AF spot.

    Thanks for the excellent information.

  • Dorothy Warwick

    Do you use a polarising filter all the time? In addition to or in place of a UV filter? I love to read all the hints but I think I get more confused by it all. :-)

  • http://www.kaadumedu.com Shashidhar

    Explained the standard pain points in brilliantly simple ways. I have faced all the above problems and have learnt the hard way.

    Thanks.

  • Michael C

    Kristof, it is possible two focus errors can cancel each other out. Let’s say your lens is slightly out of calibration with your body by an auto focus micro adjustment factor of -6. Let’s say the result of changing the focal length after you focus introduces an error of +6. The two combine and effectively cancel each other out to give you sharper focus than when you leave the lens where it was at when you focused. If you were to have the lens calibrated to the body so the original error when focusing is eliminated, then zooming after focusing would result in softer pictures.
    But when I hear someone saying their wide angle shots are sharper than their telephoto shots the first questions I ask are “what shutter speed are you using” and “how is the camera being stabilized”? The same amount of camera movement will cause more motion blur in the longer focal length than the shorter one. Remember the minimum shutter speed = 1/effective focal length rule: If you are using a 105mm focal length lens on a DX body (1.5x crop factor), the slowest shutter speed you should use handheld is 1/160 sec. Try using a tripod and remote/cable release/self timer and see if the results are the same. If they are, you need to check your lens’ auto focus calibration to your body.

  • Graeme

    I find that, if your DSLR has the capability, calibrating each lens to the camera makes a useful improvement and is a feature that I consider essential in a DSLR. It is the only way to cheaply and easily remove manufacturing tolerances in the lens construction, camera lens mount and AF focusing elements.

  • Johannes

    Kristof,
    Zoom lenses are never evenly sharp all over their variable distance. Every zoom lens has its best image quality within a certain range and generally loses quality when you push it to the limits; whether this be the smallest or the biggest focal lenght. This means that zooming totally in or out will eat away at quality, and this might give you the false idea of your focus being better here or there when you change focal length.

  • Barry E Warren

    Thanks Rick for sharing these important tips. Maybe my polarizer filter has been its case to long,When I go out tomorrow The UV is coming off and the polarizer is going on. Thanks again.

  • Iam Marshall

    nice

  • Roland Bogaerts

    My first advise would be: use a tripod and the mirror-up function in combination with a remote control.

  • George Samuel

    Thanks for these; a couple of them not heard usually.

    I’ve seen a problem with this – “Tuck your elbows firmly against your side” – unless you stop breathing, your chest up & down motion heaves the camera too.
    It actually may be a good idea to “Tuck your elbows firmly against your side, and stop breathing momentarily while you click” :-)

    Like Roland says – nothing to beat a tripod.

  • marius2die4

    Tank’s for sharing! From this article I have a clear explanation for tree things witch I usually use.
    Congrats!

  • Ameet

    Thanks rick for the article, but would like know “what are sweet spot aperture’s”?

  • Shreesha Mokhashi

    “When using zoom lenses, focus at the focal length you plan to shoot at” – How do we determine what is the appropriate focal length for a given distance? Any empirical formula / rule of thumb / simple template would be helpful for a beginner.

  • Tom

    Focal length +30

  • Shreesha Mokhashi

    Thank you. Just one thing.
    Focal length is in mm.
    So is “focal length + 30″ in meter or feet or yards, which one would be most appropriate here?i

Some older comments

  • Johannes

    December 23, 2012 12:47 pm

    Kristof,
    Zoom lenses are never evenly sharp all over their variable distance. Every zoom lens has its best image quality within a certain range and generally loses quality when you push it to the limits; whether this be the smallest or the biggest focal lenght. This means that zooming totally in or out will eat away at quality, and this might give you the false idea of your focus being better here or there when you change focal length.

  • Graeme

    December 21, 2012 05:37 pm

    I find that, if your DSLR has the capability, calibrating each lens to the camera makes a useful improvement and is a feature that I consider essential in a DSLR. It is the only way to cheaply and easily remove manufacturing tolerances in the lens construction, camera lens mount and AF focusing elements.

  • Michael C

    December 21, 2012 02:48 pm

    Kristof, it is possible two focus errors can cancel each other out. Let's say your lens is slightly out of calibration with your body by an auto focus micro adjustment factor of -6. Let's say the result of changing the focal length after you focus introduces an error of +6. The two combine and effectively cancel each other out to give you sharper focus than when you leave the lens where it was at when you focused. If you were to have the lens calibrated to the body so the original error when focusing is eliminated, then zooming after focusing would result in softer pictures.
    But when I hear someone saying their wide angle shots are sharper than their telephoto shots the first questions I ask are "what shutter speed are you using" and "how is the camera being stabilized"? The same amount of camera movement will cause more motion blur in the longer focal length than the shorter one. Remember the minimum shutter speed = 1/effective focal length rule: If you are using a 105mm focal length lens on a DX body (1.5x crop factor), the slowest shutter speed you should use handheld is 1/160 sec. Try using a tripod and remote/cable release/self timer and see if the results are the same. If they are, you need to check your lens' auto focus calibration to your body.

  • Shashidhar

    December 21, 2012 02:23 pm

    Explained the standard pain points in brilliantly simple ways. I have faced all the above problems and have learnt the hard way.

    Thanks.

  • Dorothy Warwick

    December 21, 2012 02:19 pm

    Do you use a polarising filter all the time? In addition to or in place of a UV filter? I love to read all the hints but I think I get more confused by it all. :-)

  • Terence Starkey

    December 21, 2012 01:29 pm

    Boy, so much to learn! Great article. I have switched completely to manual settings recently and thought I was getting some pretty sharp photographs on my web site. Yes I use a polarising filter, but now I have to find my lens sweet spot and start practising selecting the right AF spot.

    Thanks for the excellent information.

  • Joe Elliott

    December 20, 2012 08:57 am

    Great tips here thanks, I shoot in dark places all the time so the aperture is always low and can definitely notice the difference :)

    Thanks

  • Kristof

    December 19, 2012 08:29 pm

    I don't really agree with the 5th 'secret'.
    While I was on vacation in October, I noticed that when I fully zoom in not everything was sharp. When I focussed when fully zoomed and then got back to the focal lenght I wanted, the pictures were a lot sharper.
    I'm not sure though if my lens is parfocal or not. (Nikkor AF-S 18-105mm F3.5-5.6 G IF-ED DX)

  • Steve Dunham

    December 19, 2012 10:08 am

    6. Ditch the zoom lens and use a prime instead. Especially true for cheaper consumer zoom lenses which are generally not as sharp as the four figure offerings. But $100 or so will buy a very sharp f1.8 50mm lens. Great for tack sharp portraits. Use your feet to zoom!

  • David J

    December 19, 2012 08:58 am

    This all makes good sense, well explained and easy to follow.

  • Jay

    December 19, 2012 03:35 am

    Nice!
    My lens is best at f5.6; with flash I use the "thyristor" mode set to this opening and the flash adjusts light (duration). Works well for me.

  • chris k

    December 19, 2012 01:52 am

    Simple no nonsense post like this are why I'm here. Thanks for the why and how friend.

  • Kim P

    December 19, 2012 01:20 am

    Great tips! I had not heard of using a polarizing filter rather than a UV so I am definitely going to try that. Also, being a Minneapolis girl, I was excited to see your sample image of the Minneapolis skyline - beautiful!!

  • Rick Berk

    December 18, 2012 12:49 pm

    @Alisson- Yes, with most cameras, the center AF point is more sensitive, and thus more accurate. However, it's only accurate if you do not move the camera after you focus. If you then recompose your shot when you've finished focusing, you shift the focal plane, sometimes as much as an inch or more. With fast lenses such as a 100mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.8, that can mean the difference between being tack sharp where you want to be, or having some front or back focus instead.

  • Michal France

    December 18, 2012 08:56 am

    Thank you! It is exactly what I needed to know!

  • someone

    December 18, 2012 08:34 am

    Good tips. I just discovered the polariser filter tip 2 days ago, when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine. Nornally with my 50 f1.8 lens, autofocus would usually not hit or hit at the wrong point wide open, but focus was nearly perfect every time with the polariser. The images do appear sharper too!

  • Alisson Wilker

    December 18, 2012 08:17 am

    Nice post! Really well explained! However, about item 4, I have already read that the central AF point is the most precise one. I cannot remember now the reference but I think it might not be difficult to find it (maybe Scott Kelby, David Ziser...). Have you ever heard about it too?

  • Aju

    December 18, 2012 08:15 am

    I always focus-and-recompose leaving the AF point at the center. Now I know when and why I shouldn't do it.

    Thank you

  • Scottc

    December 18, 2012 08:04 am

    This is useful information, I never considered using a polarizer as described here and have been guilty of #4 many times.

    Great article!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/

  • af

    December 18, 2012 07:44 am

    Useful tips, thanks. I never thought about the focal plane shift with wide apertures, but it seems so obvious now!

  • Devang Gargieya

    December 18, 2012 05:53 am

    Very well explained !!! Really nice post...

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