4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos


If I were to ask you what the best way to make sharper photographs is, your mind might instantly jump to something like, “Get a better lens.” While the quality of your lens glass certainly does play a huge role in overall image sharpness, it is not an absolute guarantee.

There are many other factors that come into play when discussing image sharpness or lack thereof. I’ve even said things myself like, “If I only had this lens or that lens, I could make better photos.” But have you considered the other reasons why your images seem to lack that wonderful sharpness we all chase?

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Let’s face it, not all of us can afford the top of the line lenses that we believe will deliver the utmost clarity in our photographs. But there are so many other things that can be done to make sure you don’t stand in the way of even your kit lenses of delivering the best images possible. Here a few easy tips you can use right now to make sure you get the most out of whatever glass you might have on hand…or rather, on camera – and get help you get sharper photos.

#1 – Ye’ Olde Tripod

Here it comes. That same old practice that I’ve always implored you to do – use a tripod. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the more steady your camera is the sharper your images will be. Read: 5 Tips to Get Sharp Photos While Using a Tripod for more on this.

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

The truth is, excuses for not using a tripod are becoming slimmer and slimmer. Lightweight travel-style tripods (like the Vanguard tripod I wrote about here) are becoming more readily available. These are small and light options that fit in your camera bag without dragging you down. While not always practical, of course, a tripod (even a monopod) is the single best option you have for steadying your camera while making a photo. But when a tripod isn’t possible there are still ways to physically steady your camera for the capture. Like these…

#2 – How to Hold Your Camera Steady

There isn’t a set way to place your hands for each and every camera you may encounter. But there are some basic principles to follow that can help you to keep your camera physically stable when shooting handheld.

The most important thing to remember is that the further your camera moves away from your center of gravity, the more inherent possible camera shake will become. This means that whenever possible you should hold your arms close to your body and avoid putting distance between yourself and the camera.

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Arms out making the camera unsteady.

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Arms and elbows tucked in, this is much more stable.

Furthermore, the manner with which you hold the camera in your hands becomes important. Keep a comfortable yet firm grip with your shutter hand while your left hand remains beneath the lens close to the camera body, all the while still being capable of adjusting the lens focus or zoom ring. Your left hand should be pressing slightly backward in opposition to your shutter hand.

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Hold the camera and lens firmly but stay flexible. Notice the left hand is under the lens.

This will allow more steady control of the entire setup to reduce shake. Again, experiment with different configurations of the same grip so that you become the most comfortable. Just remember to keep those elbows tucked in close to your body, with your left hand cradling the lens firmly underneath close to the camera. Your right hand should be gripping the camera equally as firmly with opposing forward pressure to your left hand.

If you want to test yourself, take in a deep breath before each shot and exhale half way before you click the shutter. These little nuances may seem somewhat neurotic but can help you to get sharper photos when the odds are against you.

#3 – The Importance of Shutter Speed

Much like the idea of preventing camera shake, the faster the shutter speed you can use the better it is in terms of making your images sharper. Motion is always your enemy. Unless you purposefully want to impart motion to your photograph the more helpful arresting it in your frame will be. One of the most helpful methods you will find to reduce both camera shake and subject blur when shooting handheld is something called the Reciprocal Rule. Which really, is more of a guideline than a rule.

The Reciprocal Rule is simply a calculation based on whatever focal length lens you happen to be using. Just take the focal length in millimeters and make it a fraction. If you’re shooting a 50mm lens your maximum shutter speed should not be slower than 1/50th of a second. If you’re shooting a 24mm lens then the shutter speed should be at least 1/24th second; a 300mm lens would need 1/300th, and so forth. If the exact shutter speed isn’t available just round up to the nearest speed (or faster).

Here are a couple of examples of the improved sharpness based on an increase in shutter speed according to the Reciprocal Rule:

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Shot at 1/40th of a second with 85mm lens – notice how it’s not quite sharp. Usually when you see a sort of  double image like this – it’s due to the shutter speed being too slow. 

Now notice the reduction in motion blur once the shutter is increased to 1/100th second.

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Shot at 1/100th of a second with an 85mm lens

This is an easy and quick way to prevent your images from suffering sharpness robbing blur due to camera shake. While not perfect, the Reciprocal Rule will become your best friend in the field.

#4 – What’s a Sweet Spot Anyway?

Regardless of the lens you happen to be using, it has what is often referred to as a sweet spot. This is the aperture range of your lens that will produce the sharpest images. This range varies even between lenses of the same make and model, so personal experimentation is a must in order to determine where the sweet spot of your particular lens may be. Read: How to Identify Your Lens’s Sweet Spot

4 Simple Ways to Get Sharper Photos

Begin at the largest aperture (smallest f-number like f/4) and make photos at each aperture up to the minimum aperture (largest f-number like f/22 or f/32) of your lens. Adjust shutter speed and ISO as you go to normalize the exposure. Then examine each image throughout the frame, especially at the corners, to see which apertures give you the best sharpness. This is a somewhat tedious process, but I assure you it will pay off in more ways than you might imagine.

When in doubt, always place the subject of your photo towards the middle of the frame. The center of the lens glass will virtually always be the sharpest area. So, regardless of the aperture you happen to employ the more important aspect of your photo will benefit from the most physical sharpness possible.

Summing Up

  • When you can, use a tripod. A tripod really is your best friend.
  • Practice good camera holding techniques. Keep those elbows tucked in with your left hand firmly (yet still maneuverable) cradling the lens from underneath. Use your right hand to tightly grip the camera body in opposition to your left hand.
  • Use the fastest shutter speed allowable for your image effect. If you need to figure a maximum shutter speed quickly use the Reciprocal Rule (one over the focal length of your lens).
  • Learn the sweet spot of your lenses. Figure out the optimum sharpness aperture for each. If conditions don’t allow you to use that particular setting, then place your subject as close to the center of the frame as possible.

Have more tips that help you achieve sharper images? Please let us know in the comments please.

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

  • Michael Kastler

    Hi curious to hear what you think of the inexpensive “steady-cam” equipment? Like this one here I’ve had my eye on, less than $50: https://goo.gl/20njtN

    Not sure if these are worth it – but I take a lot of pics of sports, plays, and other activities with a lot of motion, so it’s intriguing … but the amount of video i do with my dslr is slim to none.

    Curious to hear any thoughts, or if anyone has used something similar? Thanks!

  • Stabilizers like that one tend to be more aimed towards video and I personally wouldn’t really use something like that for photography. That said, you may end up really liking that kind of thing for photo work and it probably would be more stable than hand held!

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  • Greg Morris

    How about the importance of focus. Using live view focus to increase your percentage of accurate focus with most lens and camera combinations. Especially on cameras with out a micro focus adjustment option.

  • Pete L.

    When shooting static subjects (ie landscapes) from a tripod, use manual focus and live view zoomed in. This will give you the best chance to get the most precise focus. Good auto gets it right very often, but manual focusing done right will eliminate the chance of a miss in this situation.

  • Jeff

    I started practicing shooting using hyper focal length measurements. There are quite a few good apps available to download. It really changed the way I set up my shots and I get much better sharpness through out the whole photograph.
    My favorite landscape lens is manual focus . It is much easier focusing the camera on a closer object knowing the rest of the pic will be just as sharp .
    Using this method with auto focus takes a little more focus depressions of the shutter button to get the camera focusing on the correct distance. Often I will automatically focus centered on the hyper focal length distance and then with the shutter button still slightly depressed, move the camera to the shot I want then click.
    Somewhere in the Dps library is an article that explains about hyper focal length. Have fun.

  • Michael Kastler

    Thanks Caleb, that was kind of my thinking too except that I’m frequently on the move … I do the photography for the local hs marching band for example, and I’m on the field running between rows getting action portraits. Right now, I use my monopod – run, set, shoot, get out of the way.

  • Lenie

    And for those who take pictures with the live view, how are they to hold the camera?

  • damead

    Regarding the Reciprocal Rule: I’ve heard this rule since the ’70’s, but it’s never been updated for the ubiquity of zoom lenses.
    With a prime lens, such as described here, for this problem the photographer can set and leave the speed no lower than the calculated limit to ensure sharpness. But a zoom lens invites constantly changing the focal distance, requiring corresponding speed changes; and zooming subtly to crop/compose (habitual and subconscious), as opposed to explicitly applying the telephoto function, can leave the requisite shutter adjustments behind.
    Adam could bring the Reciprocal Rule into the 21st century by adding a paragraph on how to stay aware of it while crop-composing with a zoom.

  • Michael Clark

    On the tripod. See #1 above.

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  • The lenses will make a difference too, espacially a fix lens !

  • Hank

    When using a crop sensor camera, the reciprocal is the lens focal length multiplied by the crop factor. Nikon has a 1.5 crop factor, Canon’s is 1.6. etc.

  • Hank

    When using a tripod, image stabilization should be turned OFF. Image stabilization can actually create vibrations that will cause your photo to become less sharp when using a tripod.

  • np0x

    Don’t underestimate the need to tune the Autofocus in your camera for each lens if you are using auto focus. Each lens can and might need a different fine tuning adjustment, instructions for doing it can be found by googling Autofocus Fine Tuning. Without tuning your autofocus, your camera might think it’s focusing the lens, when in fact it is not doing what you think you are telling it to do.

  • John Thome

    You beat me to it….

  • Michael Clark

    With regard to blur from camera movement, cropping after the fact has the identical effect as increasing the focal length before shooting. This is because the difference in magnification and the difference in the enlargement ratio offset each other exactly if you’re viewing the resulting images at the same display size.

    Even though a zoom lens has more than one focal length, you’re only using one focal length per image so the rule holds. Well, unless you’re doing zoom blur, but then you are desiring much of the image to be blurred in a specific way and likely to be shooting well slower than the 1/focal length rule of thumb.

    The 1/focal length rule of thumb is based on an assumption of an 8×10 display size produced from a 36x24mm negative (cropped on the ends use only 30x24mm of the negative) to be viewed from a distance of 10-12 inches. Even back in the dark ages of film we knew that if we planned to print at 16×20 we had to halve the shutter time (double the shutter speed) to get the same amount of perceived blur. The same is true of DoF, by the way. When you enlarge something twice as much you also enlarge the blur twice as much (and the noise).

  • Michael Clark

    Only on a few first generation stabilized lenses from the 1990s. All of Canon’s IS lenses introduced since 1998 can sense when they are tripod mounted and make appropriate adjustments. Other manufacturers did the same very soon after the implementation of stabilized lenses. Most turn the IS off internally (but allow it to be active if motion is subsequently detected). Some of Canon’s Super Telephoto series adjust the IS to be active but optimized for tripod use. They can actually help counteract the vibrations from mirror slap at these longer focal lengths without creating a feedback loop.

  • Mohan Krishnan

    Even with a tripod it is good to use a cable release

  • KC

    All true. Autofocus is good if you understand how it works and what it’s doing. It gets more complicated because it may also impact other settings. This was a hard one for me to sort out when I switched from manual focus film cameras. Those viewfinders had focusing aids, like micro-prisms and split prisms, as well as ground glass. In digital we have “blinking boxes”.

    Granted, things have gotten better, but you still have to know your particular autofocus system’s strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately with “live view” and EVF’s we have loupe views.

    I have a mostly white dog, except for his nose, eyes, lips, tongue, whiskers and nails. It’s interesting to watch the autofocus “blinking boxes” try to find something to focus on. I can see the detail in his hair, the nuances, but can the camera? Our do those “blinking boxes” latch onto something behind and in front of him, maybe his nose, and average? He’s my autofocus test and a good sport about it.

    I sometimes miss lens markings for distance and depth of field. In “the old days” even zoom lenses had markings. You could do a bit of zone focusing. You’d think in digital there would be a the digital equivalent. With some cameras you might see a distance indicator. I haven’t seen one with DOF indicators.

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