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