5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images

5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images

An important element of photography is getting sharp, crisp images. You may be struggling with focus, especially if you are fairly new to DSLR photography. It is extremely frustrating to go out shooting, assuming you’ve got nice clear, sharp images, only to get home to find out they aren’t quite as sharp, or even in focus, as you had hoped.

There are several things you can do to improve your chances of getting sharper images. Here are a few to get you started, if you have other tips please share them in the comments below.

Five steps for achieving sharp images

#1 Pick the focus point manually

focus-pointsOn most SLRs, and some of the mirrorless or four thirds cameras, there is an option of selecting what point it uses to focus. Meaning, when you look through the camera and see some flashing dots or squares (or something similar to the image on the right), those are your focus zones or spots. Make sure it is NOT set for the camera selecting which of those spots are targeted for focusing. When the camera chooses where to focus it can often pick the wrong thing. If you have a subject that is behind something in the foreground the camera will usually pick the closest object, which is not your intention, and you’ll end up with the wrong thing in focus.

Find the setting that allows you to adjust which target focus zone the camera uses to focus. Depending on the camera make and model, that can usually be adjusted with a dial or joy stick on the back of the camera, while you are looking through the view finder. This frees you to choose the most appropriate zone or spot for your subject or scene.

#2 Select the right focus mode

Canon-focus-modesMost cameras have a few different types of focus modes. On Canon you’ll see them as Single (One Shot), AI (stands for Artificial Intelligence) Focus and AI Servo. On Nikon the modes are AF-S, AF-C and AF-A.  Choose the one that bests fits for the subject you’re photographing.

Single (or AF-S) means that the camera will focus and lock on a single object and will not refocus until you release your finger from the shutter button. AI Servo (AF-C) is for continuous focusing when you have a moving subject.  In this mode when you depress the shutter button half way, the camera will continue to focus on the subject as it moves away or towards you. It does not lock focus until you press the button down fully and take the photo. In AI Focus (AF-C) the camera will choose between the previous two based on whether the subject is moving or not.

#3 Set your minimum shutter speed accordingly

min-shutter-speedThere is much debate about this subject in terms of how slow is too slow for hand holding your camera. Some instructors will say 1/60th of a second, I tend to use another rule of thumb which is 1 over the focal length of your lens. So if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, then 1/200 is how fast you need to be shooting to get rid of blur caused by camera shake. The longer lens you select, the more amplified any movement will become. If you are shooting with a cropped sensor camera, remember that 200mm is now acting like a 350mm so that changes your minimum shutter speed to 1/400. If you use a lens that has image stabilization then you can often stretch it a little bit more, say one or two stops, depending on how steady your hands are. You also want to make sure you are holding your camera in the most stable position with your left hand UNDER the body and lens (sort of cupping it) and both elbows in tight to your body. Then, hold your breath and shoot!

#4 Make use of back button focusing

Another much debated topic is whether or not to use the back button focusing option now available on most DSLRs. I’m not here to get into that debate, if you want to know more about it you can read 3 Reasons Why You Should Switch to Back Button Focus by James Brandon. The basic idea is that instead of using your shutter button to focus, you separate the focus function to a button on the back of the camera, that you press with your thumb.

Taken using back-button focus

Taken using back-button focus

I use it for many things including; portraits where I want the subjects off centre and don’t want to do “focus, lock, recompose” for every frame, any time I want to focus on a moving target (you have a better chance of getting it sharp this way than with the shutter button focus), for HDR photography when I’m bracketing and don’t want the focus to shift accidentally between shots, for night photography when I focus with the assistance of a flashlight and don’t want it to move afterwards (other option is switch to manual focus every time but it’s too easy to forget to focus at all then).

It does take a little getting use to, but after a friend of mine that shoots sports for the local newspaper showed me how to use it properly I never looked back. So when she says it’s better for action focus on critical, fast moving subjects, I listen cause she knows what she’s talking about!

#5 Use a tripod and remote trigger or release

Tri-pod = three legs. Three is better than two right? In some the case of photography – yes! The tripod is your friend.

I think you know what they are and what they’re for, but not many photographers own one or use it. Placing your camera on a tripod will help you get sharper images, if you’re doing it right. Get a good sturdy one, don’t cheap out on a $49 tripod on sale at the big box store and put your $2000 SLR on it. Do you put cheap tires on your high end sports car – I think not! A flimsy tripod won’t do you any good if it can’t hold the weight of your camera and is constantly slipping or loosening. Worse case scenario has your whole rig crashing to the ground, not good. Invest in a good one, do some research, make sure it is made for still photos not video, and it can hold the weight of your camera. A lightweight one made of carbon fibre is a good option, but expect to pay more for that option.

In addition to a tripod I also suggest getting a remove trigger or shutter release. They come in a few varieties including ones that attach directly to the camera, wireless ones, and even fancy programmable ones for doing timed exposures and auto exposure brackets. Like anything, the more fancy shmancy features you want, the more $$$ you will pay. But do get one, because it allows you to fire the camera without touching it, thus reducing any possible vibrations during the exposure. I also tell my students to turn of the IS (or VR) on their lens once the camera is on tripod. This is because the IS/VR runs a little motor inside the lens that vibrates it to help compensate for camera shake. On tripod you do NOT want your lens vibrating, even a tiny bit. The camera manufacturers would like us to believe that their cameras are smart enough to know when that’s happened and turn off the IS automatically. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I like to take no chances, so I just turn it off.

Me playing with a view camera at a mock western town in AZ. The guy posing as the photographer let me have a look through it, for old times sake.

Me playing with a view camera at a mock western town in AZ. The guy posing as the photographer let me have a look through it, for old times sake.

When I started photography school (technical college) the first camera they allowed us to use was a 4×5″ view camera. If you’ve ever seen one you’ll know it’s not possible to use it without a tripod. In hindsight, some 25 years later, I think those photo school instructors were actually pretty smart! At the time I just thought they wanted us to suffer hauling all this heavy gear around. By putting the camera on a tripod you will instantly slow down and put more time into setting up your shot. With the advent of digital and the popularity of SLRs and now even micro four thirds and mirror-less cameras, it’s become so easy to just grab the camera and fire off a few images. So besides the obvious benefit of stabilizing your camera so you can shoot at slower shutter speeds then we discussed in #3 above (if you want to do night photography it’s essential), using a tripod also forces you to put a little more time and effort into it. I find when that happens it often results in a better image aesthetically as well as technically.

Well this was a longer tip than I expected to write, whew!  To sum up, if you are having trouble with blurry images, try these tips out for yourself. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a bit more success.

So give it a go, and let me know how it’s working for you!

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Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Darle July 28, 2013 10:17 am

    @alisha - I'd need to know a lot more info such as:

    - what was your shutter speed?
    - tripod or no?
    - what focus mode did you use?
    - did you use a single focus point or let the camera pick where to focus?

    In general, lenses are not as sharp wide opened as they are in their middle apertures. However it shouldn't be unsharp to the point of not looking in focus. Distance really shouldn't factor in, but answer the above and we'll see what's happening.

  • Alisha wortham July 28, 2013 04:44 am

    My question is i have a 50 1.8 prime, shooting a child (still not moving) wide open from a distance. If i shoot wide from a distance her face is not sharp. What is a good distance from subject shooting wide, or do you have any tips for sharper images with that distance.

  • Corte on Camera June 5, 2013 10:34 pm

    Mike Lamusse
    Just thought I'd follow up on my repaired canon 7d - I am pleased with the results. Recalibrating it was necessary due to the drop onto a hard surface. Cost me two hundred dollars short of a new canon 7d body - they have really come down in price! Travelling extensively through England, Wales (just climbed Mt Snowdon yesterday), onto Ireland and then into Scotland, and finally going across the arctic circle to Svalbard and am happy with photos so far.
    I have appreciated all the advice on getting sharper images and love back button focus using it exclusively now.
    Thank you to everyone.

  • Mark June 5, 2013 04:05 am

    Hi Darlene
    I especially like the sound of using back-button focus, and following your link to James Brandon's article has convinced me to learn to shoot that way - using the shutter button exclusively to trigger the shutter... just as I used to with my old 35mm.
    Many thanks for making the time and effort to post these tips

  • Darlene April 6, 2013 03:08 am

    Aw thanks so much Paul! (Guigphotography)

  • Guigphotography April 5, 2013 10:34 pm

    One of the most relevant and useful guides you could hope to see when you're getting started (and beyond). And look at the time this lady puts into dealing with questions and comments. Aside from working on my photography I think I'll aspire to be as good as Darlene is without the camera as well.
    Thanks very much.

  • Darlene April 1, 2013 05:07 am

    Further to that, and I'm not that familiar with Nikon's so maybe someone else can help here - I found this helpful video on focus set up on the D90


    To me it seems like you can do "focus lock" using the AF-L button but it doesn't act the same as actually focusing with that button like the Canons and some other Nikon models offer.

  • Darlene April 1, 2013 04:58 am

    @robert a little thing called Google is your friend! I put in "nikon D90 how to back button focus" and this came up http://diegocattaneo.blogspot.ca/2012/05/back-button-auto-focus-with-nikon-d90.html hope that works for you, it gives step by step instructions

  • Robert Altman March 31, 2013 05:50 pm

    I have a Nikon D 90. I cannot figure out how to use back button focusing. I don't think I can do it wth the D 90. Could someone let me know what to do - other than buy the 7100!

  • Robert Fuller March 25, 2013 12:27 am

    Really helpful feedback Darlene. Thanks very much. Also appreciated the links to additional information on the subject.

  • Darlene March 24, 2013 11:39 am

    @robert - tough question to answer. The short answer is "yes" 1/3 into the scene is a good place to start. However the focal length of lens you're using may change things, as will distance to that close subject and distance from there to infinity. If you are 3 feet from a flower, it is possible you will never get infinity in focus even at f32 if you lens even has that.

    You could try focus stacking (taking multiple shots focused on different places then merged using Photoshops feature for this) or you may want to invest in a tilt shift lens which is what a lot of photographers use.

    Back in the days of Ansel Adams and the F64 group (photographers that strived for maximum sharpness overall) they were using large view cameras that had lenses that went to f64 first of all. And second of all allowed for tilts, shifts and swings of the lens focal plane so you could angle your plane of focus up/down or left/right. That allowed the photographer essentially to have focus at 3' and infinity at the same time even at wide open apertures. Today with digital cameras, a similar affect can be done with a tilt shift lens.

    For more info read these




  • Robert Fuller March 23, 2013 01:52 am

    Hi Darlene,

    Great article. Thanks very much.

    I'm always challenged with landscape photography regarding depth of field and where to focus. I want the foreground razor sharp and the background as sharp as possible. I realize that I should always have the smalest aperture setting (largest number), but where to focus. If I have flowers 3' away and mountains in the distance, do I focus 1/3 in into the scene I want to capture?

  • Darlene March 21, 2013 08:36 am

    @sandeep that is an impossible question to answer. If you are using a tripod and do not have a moving subject you can use any shutter speed you want. If you are not using a tripod you want to use the 1 over your focal length fraction as your minimum shutter speed. So using your lens at 55mm that means 1/60th of a second. If you are wanting to photograph wildlife or animals you will need a much longer lens - most wildlife photographers use 400mm or longer lenses.

  • sandeep thamankar March 19, 2013 07:39 pm

    I am using Canon 1100D EOS camera. Please tell me which is the best settings( Shutterspeed, focal length etc) for nature photography using 55mm lens? PS: I m still a learner!

  • DeWayne Brown March 16, 2013 04:25 pm

    Anything you can come up with that will help make your images sharp...use it. Use a tripod, a weighted bag (try hanging your camera bag under your tripod to help stabilize it in windy conditions) or the 1/focal length, all these techniques, when appropriate, will help. I have not yet tried back focus. However, many are the times when some or all of these techniques become impractical or even impossible to use, leaving no choice but to handhold the camera. So, what can you do then? I concentrate on self-control. Here are two self-control techniques that I have developed, that I have found to greatly improve my chances of getting sharper images.
    #1) establish a 3-point stance, use your body as the tripod. Start by creating a solid stance with both feet planted, as firmly as safety will allow, on a solid foundation. Then brace your shoulder, your back, buttocks or just about any part of the body, against a solid object…a building, light post, a rock, a tree, just about anything that allows for good, firm support. Thus you’ve established your 3-point stance.

    Now, with the camera pressed comfortably but firmly against your forehead (assuming the use of a the viewfinder) begin thinking about making the shot. #2) Controlled breathing. Have you ever watch a golfer as he prepares for his golf shot? He has a routine that he systematically goes through each and every time as he prepares to make his golf swing. I love playing golf, I love the game and over time, I have developed a routine as I prepare to make every golf shot. Over time, I have also developed a systematic, deliberate routine as I prepare to make each handheld camera shot. As I begin composing the shot, I think about my breathing. Just prior to the moment I press the shutter release button (squeeze the shutter release button slowly so not to jerk the camera) I consciously take a deep breath, I exhale slowly, then at that moment between exhaling and taking the next breath, I take the shot.

    Will this guarantee a tack sharp image every time? No...but at the end of the shoot, it will significantly improve the number of sharp image, as opposed to the number of fuzzy, unacceptable ones that are destined for the delete bin.

  • Darlene March 16, 2013 02:58 am

    @alejandro - yes that is a good technique. I didn't go over that though as not all cameras have the capability. If you have an older DSLR that does not do video, you will not have Live View mode so this is not possible.

    One note, remember to turn off the Live View after you focus. You do not need it on to take the photo and some models capture as a video still and smaller file size than if it is off.

  • Alejandro Camacho March 15, 2013 05:13 am

    Please, pay attention to Arturomm comment, it has been the best technique for focusing shraply for on tripot shots. Use LiveView, magnify and focus the spot, then shoot. Perfect.

  • Glen March 11, 2013 11:04 pm

    Hi Darlene,
    I was just speaking in general, refering to #3 when the subject isn't moving fast, or for landscape, street photography. Thanks

  • Darlene March 11, 2013 03:03 pm

    @glen - what you are shooting it it!

    @jack yes that is all true

  • Jack March 10, 2013 04:55 pm

    Second user tripods may have a few scratches, but they won't affect your photos. I am bidding on a Manfrotto which is way cheaper than its price new, back in 2006. Maybe the referral to cheap tripods falling over is rather unlikely, Darlene. Most now sport a weighted bag hook underneath, using which can make them very stable. Of course, a monopod is also much better than handheld - as you know, the trick is to spread your legs and lean forwards, making a "2/3 human" tripod.

  • Glen March 9, 2013 08:12 pm

    Regarding #3
    I've always followed this suggestion, but I was wondering if I use a 200 zoom lens, zooming at 100 to use a safe shutter spped, I have to consider the lenght of the zoom (200) or the the lenght used (100) ?
    Many thanks

  • Mike Lamusse March 9, 2013 07:07 pm

    @Corte on Camera - I too have a 7D and I have never been happy with the focus !! I've done my own focussing test (a la @sm above), and verified there is a problem. I've sent it in for inspection (twice!) and they say there is nothing wrong with the camera!! I am really keen to know the results of your calibration and whether the 7D focus has improved. Please let us know the results on this forum ...

  • Ed Velez March 9, 2013 11:50 am

    I have been procrastinating learning the back focus button method and I have a wedding coming up in April I have been asked to shoot. Guess some weekend practice is in order.

    I used to have a 20D and never realized I should have included the crop factor in my 1/x calculations. That would explain alot when I was using my 70-200 lens with the 1.4 teleconverter!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt March 9, 2013 10:07 am

    @kelli - yes if you are doing groups of people you either need to get their noses closer to being on the same focal plane, or use a smaller aperture. I usually do group portraits at f5.6 or f8 depending on how far I am from them too which also plays into depth of field.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt March 9, 2013 09:33 am

    @Brian yes that is true, generally you want to fire three shots and keep the second one which is most often the sharpest of the three

  • Darlene March 9, 2013 07:28 am

    @marius - you lost me. If you are shooting in rapid fire you're likely shooting at fairly fast shutter speeds so you really don't need IS, just turn it off.

    @arturomm yes that will only work on tripod because live view requires the camera away from your eye, it would be impossible to focus using that and keep it in the same spot to press the shutter button. If you shooting off tripod and just walking around that won't really work. Try some of the other tips and use autofocus - it is helpful, you just need to use it correctly for each situation.

  • ArturoMM March 9, 2013 07:13 am

    In my Canon 40D I use Live View mode where there is the help of a 10x magnification to manually adjust the focus.

    The manual indicates that Live View mode is better used with a tripod.

    That is how I got the best focusing and also the sharper images.

  • marius2die4 March 9, 2013 06:57 am

    A good lense whithout UV filters,a good tripod and head, ISO is also important,mirror lock up (5s is enough),trigeer release (timer delay is a option), one image mode(no multiple image mode).
    An example of a wrong settings: try to shoot 10 image with stabilization active in multiple image mode at 1/500s :first image is sharp, next soft because the stabilization dont finish the circle and begin another circle,next soft,nr.4 is almost sharp,....In final,only 2-3 image from 10 are acceptable sharp


  • Brian March 9, 2013 01:06 am

    The other thing I have tried in low light situations while shooting handheld is using burst mode. I put my Nikon D600 in in "continuous high" shooting mode, compose the shot, then when I fully depress the shutter button, I let it fire off 2-3 captures. The theory is that the second or third shot that the camera fires automatically are not susceptible to camera shake like the first one is where you are physically depressing the shutter button the whole way. Admittedly, the few times I've tried it I got mixed results with a couple second shots looking sharper than the first - I need to experiment more with this to determine when it might be beneficial...

  • Masud Ali March 8, 2013 07:01 pm

    Hello Darlene, thanks for the article...it cleared many a doubts that i had in mind...
    i will surely keep in touch with you to sharpen my skills further.

    Best Regards

  • Rahul March 8, 2013 03:28 pm

    Darlene, if you can share the "proper usage" of back focusing button your friend shared with you in #4, that'd be great. The way I use it is often pressing camera's AF-on button with my thumb while keep clicking pictures using the shutter button. What else is a proper use?

  • kelli prestly March 8, 2013 02:06 pm

    I was wondering since i a new and have been learning learning learning everyday and probably will til the end...lol I have picked up the focal point subject and the alservo vs one shot ect. But I have a hard time doing more than 1-2 poeple in focus... if the focal point is chosen and it is on say person 1 and then another person is off the same plaine, like 2 rows............is aperature the only setting in which will fix this... ??

  • Ray March 8, 2013 10:43 am

    If you are using Image Stab then always push the shutter a second or so before taking. Some IS systems take a short while to start up. If you push straight through, the lens elements may still be moving during start-up.

    Cheers, Ray.

  • Corte on Camera March 7, 2013 08:01 am

    Darlene & SM - thanks for your replies. I have sent my camera for a health check up and when I get it back I will test focussing as suggested, the DIY setup sounds fairly simple. I feel strangely lost without my camera. Time to explore iphoneography?

  • Darlene March 7, 2013 07:22 am

    Interesting! Good information, thanks for sharing that!

  • SM March 7, 2013 04:34 am

    @ Corte on Camera

    UPDATE: Here's a link that describes what I was trying to say below: http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2013/01/24/diy-photography-hacks-make-an-af-micro-adjustment-for-precise-focus/

    There is a device you can buy (or make) that lets you test how your lens is focusing. Perhaps it would help you. It's usually used to test whether your lens is focusing properly or whether it's focusing just slightly in front or behind of where it's supposed to be focusing (you can correct for focusing issues like this in your camera's settings). The device looks like a yardstick/ruler tipped at an angle away from the camera, with a vertical stick coming up right by its middle point (like you're standing at the end of a seesaw with the end closest to you on the ground and the end that's further away up in the air, and at the fulcrum/center of the seesaw there's a vertical pole coming up right next to the seesaw). You're supposed to focus on the vertical pole (sometimes it also looks like a ruler -- or just something with detail that you can focus on) and take the photo. Then you look at the seesaw ruler that's right next to it and see where on the ruler the camera focused. It ought to be right next to where the vertical pole/ruler was, since that's where you focused. I hope that's clear at all! Anyway, there are devices that you can buy or make for cheap that test whether your camera/lens is focusing. Maybe they would help you with your focusing question.

  • Darlene March 6, 2013 11:28 am

    @corte on camera: any time you drop your camera on something that hard you may need to send it in for recalibration. The lenses and cameras are finely tuned instruments, being out less than 1mm can mean focus or not. I'd suggest finding a service center so they can check it for you, or send to the manufacturer for that. Many camera stores offer shipping to the manufacturers for you.

    @rodger - wow that's impressive, way to go!

    @greg only thing I can say about that is try it and report back to us and let us know your findings please. Again keep in mind it's a rule of thumb, which means it isn't the end all be all, it's a starting point. Some people will be able to hold at slower speeds, others will need even more if they have extra shaky hands.

  • greg March 6, 2013 02:06 am

    These are some really great tips. Some of them I've already adopted just recently. The one I have a hard time reconciling though is the minimum shutter speed as it relates to focal length. Now, I do understand the concept as a guideline and I use it frequently. However, I question the need for conversion of that for a crop sensor. The focal length is the focal length - a 200mm lens is a 200mm lens regardless of what camera it's mounted on - the physical dimensions don't change. It's the angle of view that changes due to the crop sensor. So in the spirit of the quideline, if you are trying to offset the movement at the far end of the lens (which amplifies the longer the lens is) by setting an appropriate shutter speed, that amount of movement should be consistent with the physical length of the lens regardless of what camera it's on...that is to say that if I can get a clear shot at 1/200 on a 200mm lens mounted to a full frame camera, then I should be able to do exactly the same with it mounted to a crop sensor camera. Thoughts?

  • Rodger March 6, 2013 12:58 am

    I started in photography over 50 years ago with a 4x5 Speed Graphic and with shutter speeds up 1/1000 I took hundreds of pin sharp images hand held.

  • Corte on Camera March 5, 2013 08:02 am

    I have a lot of problems with getting tack-sharp focus. I use back button focus, AI Servo (mainly), a tripod (often), IS if hand holding, hold my breath, consider my stance. I did know about the 1 over focal length, but didn't realise that with a crop sensor I should double the speed. But even on a tripod I'm not happy with my results.
    I don't know whether I expect too much from my Canon 7d with canon lenses, or if there is a problem with my camera - it did drop on a tiled floor accidentally a few months ago. The Sigma 50-500 lens that was attached to it, broke clean off close to the camera body. I thought the body seemed to work without problem, but focussing really really well is still an issue.
    I use LR3 for processing and whenever I zoom 100% the images are slightly blurry - and it's frustrating me.
    Thinking: I need a way to test the camera and all the lenses to be absolutely sure one way or the other - is it just me (my expectations or my ability, or lack of), or my equipment. Any suggestions?

  • Darlene March 5, 2013 04:46 am

    @robert - that and when you're shooting a lot of images in a row it gets really time consuming and a bit annoying to have to wait 2 seconds before the shot every time. It doesn't seem like long but it adds up after 100s of shots.

  • Darlene March 5, 2013 04:45 am

    @Mridula - what do you mean by "manual focus bit", you lost me?

    @robert that works great for times up to 30 seconds that your camera counts for you. If you want exposures longer than that you have to be on Bulb and then timer doesn't work.

  • Mike March 5, 2013 04:04 am

    I recently bought a decent tripod - as opposed to the freebie one they throw in when you buy a camera - and the difference is very obvious.

    I tend to use timer + mirror lockup when shooting slow shutter. Otherwise I have to hold the darn trigger for the full length of the exposure so that the trigger doesn't swing and bump the tripod.

  • Robert March 5, 2013 02:31 am

    I see a lot of tips saying to get a remote trigger so that you don't have to touch the camera, but one other suggestion is to put the camera on a timer. Yes a trigger would give you more flexibility, but most could do without one.

  • Mridula March 5, 2013 01:23 am

    I am about to go on a trip and I have to remember the manual focus bit, though I am becoming better at it.