5 Steps to Increase the Sharpness of Your Photographs

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Here are five steps you can take which help to increase the sharpness of your photographs:

1) Keep your lenses, filters, and camera sensor clean

Somewhat of an obvious point, but a very important one nonetheless. If your lenses and/or filters have dust or debris on them, however small and unnoticeable to the naked eye, it can create ugly soft spots on your photograph. There have been countless times I was in such a hurry to go shoot, I didn’t check the glass to see if it needed a good cleaning. This especially holds true if the lens I am using has been sitting on my shelf for a while, collecting dust. Even if the lens has been wrapped up in a pouch with a cap on top, it can still accumulate dust on the outer element.

Quick side issue: This is why it’s a good idea to keep a protective filter over your lenses when they are resting on a shelf, or when you are traveling. Along with the front lens cap, a protective filter helps to keep dust off the lens glass. If you get scuff marks or dirt on a cheap protective filter, who cares? But if you scuff up the outer element on the lens, it’s costly to fix.

Back on point: It can be very frustrating to think you’ve got yourself a good shot, only to upload the images to your computer and see ugly spots scattered all over the image. You can use the Dust and Scratches Filter in Photoshop, use the healing brush, and/or clone away only so much before the smudges become a real time-consuming burden.

This is easily avoidable if you make it a routine to clean your glass before heading out to shoot.

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2) Shoot at the lowest possible ISO

The higher the ISO, the more noise you introduce into the image.

Sometimes you absolutely have no choice but to shoot at a higher ISO. For example, if you are in a poorly lit gym shooting your kid’s basketball game, you are going to need a relatively high ISO to freeze the action, even with a fast lens. Newer cameras mitigate this issue somewhat, because they are able shoot at higher ISOs without a significant amount of noise.

Additionally, if you are only going to be displaying low resolution photographs on Facebook or elsewhere on the internet, or printing small 5X7 pictures, you can get away with some noise in the photo. But, if you are going to be creating larger prints, or will be showcasing the images on the internet at a high resolution, you want your images tack-sharp, and lower ISOs undoubtedly help. There are all kinds of software programs which can help reduce noise in a photograph, but the more noise you are correcting, the softer the image will become.

This segues nicely into the next step because, if you lower ISO, your shutter speed will slow down (assuming aperture is constant). One way to shoot tack-sharp photographs at slow shutter speeds is to use a sturdy tripod.

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3) Use a sturdy, well-grounded tripod

On a tripod, you can shoot at any shutter speed and the camera and lens will (ideally) stay motionless. This assumes your camera is firmly fastened to the tripod head, and the tripod’s foundation is well anchored and balanced on the ground. Don’t take that for granted – just because you’re on a tripod doesn’t mean everything will stay locked in place. Make sure your tripod feet are solidly on the ground before setting up the camera (I usually press down relatively hard on the tripod to make sure the ground won’t give way…this is especially important on loose ground like mud, wet rocks, or sand).

Then, once your composition is set, make sure your tripod head is locked in position. Additionally, If your tripod has a hook beneath the centre column, hang something with a little bit of weight on it to further lock down the tripod (I usually hang my backpack on the center hook). Even a gentle gust of wind, or the vibration from a nearby car passing by, can introduce minor camera movement into a tripod setup, so you want that setup locked down as tightly as possible.

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4) Mind your shutter speed

If you are going to hand-hold the camera, it is customary to choose a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length you are using. For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, then you will want your shutter speed to be at least 1/50th, or faster, to get acceptable sharpness. Any slower and you risk motion blur. If you are shooting with a 500mm telephoto, then you want at least 1/500th or faster, and so on. The one caveat to this formula is if your camera or lens has some sort of additional stabilization, like Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR – called Image Stabilization or IS on other cameras). This will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds, usually by several stops, without introducing significant motion blur.

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5) Lock-up the mirror before firing away

When you are looking through the viewfinder in a DSLR, what you see is the light which passes through the lens, but you don’t actually see it until it bounces off a couple of mirrors. The light of the scene enters through the lens, bounces off of a mirror that sits at an angle directly in front of the shutter/sensor, then it travels through a pentaprism or penta-mirror, before it finally reaches the viewfinder.

So, in order for the exposure to be taken, the mirror in front of the sensor has to flip up, then the shutter opens to allow light to hit the sensor. If the mirror flips up at the same time the shutter opens, there is the potential for very slight movement of the camera due to vibrations caused by the mirror flipping up.

Most modern DSLRs give you the option of locking the mirror up well before the exposure is taken. The Nikon D810, for example, gives you the option of locking up the mirror anywhere between one and three seconds before the shutter opens (Nikon calls it Exposure Delay Mode). I always choose three seconds, unless there’s a need to shoot quicker. That makes sure the camera is nice and still before the shutter opens and the exposure is taken.

Note: if you’re using a mirrorless camera you don’t have to worry about this step!

This is also helpful if you forgot to bring along a remote shutter. Pressing the camera’s shutter release almost always causes slight movement in the camera. But, if the camera waits a couple of seconds after the mirror flips up, it gives the setup time to become completely still again.

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Do you have any additional tips or tricks to increase sharpnes in your images? Please share in the comments below.

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Jeb Buchman is a self-taught, professional real estate and architectural photographer based in Baltimore, Maryland. Although he spends his days photographing the interiors of homes and buildings, he spends his free time in the outdoors, capturing the natural beauty of landscapes and waterscapes he discovers along the way.

  • sandeep

    Use aperature above 7 to increase sharpness of pic.

  • If you’re using a tripod, it’s generally recommended that you turn image stabilization off. IS is intended for hand-held use. On a fixed mount, it can lead to vibrations that will actually make your picture less sharp.

    Also, most lenses have a ‘sweet spot’ — a particular aperture or range of apertures where the lens yields the sharpest results. This is usually in about the center of the lens’s aperture range, but you may be able to identify the exact aperture to use by mounting your camera on a tripod and then shooting a series of test images at different apertures.

  • There are diminishing returns to this. While DOF does get longer with smaller aperture (higher number), you lose sharpness at the smallest end of the aperture spectrum due to diffraction.

    One strategy to combat this and effectively increase the DOF without the issue of diffraction is focus stacking. Though this has its own issues and requires more work in post-processing.

  • Mike

    With regards to mirror lockup. If I’m shooting anything that requires a tripod and stationary subjects, I use the “live view”, one to zoom in digitally to get focus on exactly what i want and 2 so mirror lockup is not an issue since its already up for live view.

  • Very true angusm, thanks for the comments! The use of stability control discussed in the article was in reference to hand-holding the camera only. When on a tripod, it’s usually best to turn off IS…not only is there usually no need for it since your setup will be locked in place… but also, as you said, it can actually introduce unwanted movement.

    In my experience, most lenses’ “sweet spot” is usually two to three stops down from wide open. So if your lens opens to a maximum of f/2.8, typically the sweet spot should be in the f/5.6 to f/8 range, ceteris paribus.

  • I agree, Mike. When shooting anything stationary (which is most of the time when shooting Landscapes) I use Live View and magnify. Seeing the subject close-up in LV definitely helps the shooter get the subject in better focus. Thanks for your comments!

  • Ed Cobb (Double Shot)

    Jeb, do I need to allow for sensor crop factor when calculating minimum shutter speed. Eg on 1.6 cropped sensor at 70mm 1/70 or 1/112?
    Ed

  • Great question Ed. As a general rule, you should include the crop factor when calculating minimum shutter speed. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens on a camera with a crop factor of 1.5, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/(200*1.5) = 1/300.

  • Michael Hindes

    Great tips, and the comments were helpful too.

  • Helene

    If you can get a cable release for your camera, I’d recommend using one to reduce vibrations when using a tripod. New cameras might be able to be triggered remotely.

  • I agree Helene…I always use a remote shutter when on a tripod. But…if you forget to bring along a remote shutter, using the mirror-lockup (Exposure Delay Mode in a Nikon) option will usually mitigate any vibration introduced by pressing the camera’s shutter button. The obvious exception is for long-exposure photography, when a remote shutter is practically essential.

  • Wayne Werner

    Note, that if you’re shooting at wide apertures your front element can be surprisingly um… dirty? (http://kurtmunger.com/dirty_lens_articleid35.html) and it won’t cause that much of a problem.

  • Patrick Dote

    gr8 piece! thank you.

  • Dave Munn

    Regarding the ‘mirror lock-up’ I have researched test made by professional photographers and the opinion is that there is no significant difference in image quality using ‘mirror lock-up’.

  • Gaurang Arora

    You can also use the self-timer.

  • Thank you

  • TomMorrison

    If you don’t have a remote available, most cameras have a 2 second self timer, which I think is specifically for the purpose of mitigating the vibration from pressing the shutter button.

  • walwit

    The Canon software of my camera (DPP) has a button for increasing sharpness both for raw and jpg pictures.

  • Then why would they bother to even offer the feature? There are high speed videos on youtube showing just what a percussion the mirror makes when the shutter is released.

  • traveller 66

    Placing a cheap grade (distorting) UV filter in front of expensive glass makes little sense. When shooting, I remove the protective UV filter for sharper results.

  • The article only refers to using a protective filter while the lens is being stored on a shelf, or while traveling…not while shooting. I’ve read countless studies that have concluded that using a UV filter while shooting creates little to no distinguishable advantage as it pertains to clarity or sharpness of photographs. But, it does help protect the lens while in storage or while traveling.

  • Mark

    It makes a difference in long exposures for definite. If you take sunsets, astro shots etc you can see the slight fuzziness introduced by the vibration from the mirror slap.

  • e filler

    I understood that generally the sweet spot is roughly 2 stops above the lowest aperature Setting.

  • me

    And this depends on the lens of course…. I fin f5.6 or 7 is best on my f4.5 lens

  • António Silva

    I’m not sure, focal length is constant and the image size on the sensor is the same.

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