Sharpness can be the difference between a striking and a dull photo. Unfortunately, there are many factors that influence the sharpness of a photo, from posture to post-processing you will have to ensure that your image remains sharp at every step. Here are 28 tips to help you capture tack-sharp photos every time.
1. Be Steady
One of the most common causes of blurry images when shooting handheld is camera shake. Camera shake happens when you move your camera while the shutter is still open.
You can also reduce camera shake by paying attention to factors such as your posture and breathing. I recommend standing with your legs apart for balance. If you need to lean in, place one leg forward to enhance stability. Breathe gently and press the shutter button softly.
2. Use a Tripod
Tripods are designed to hold your camera still and are one of the best tools to avoid camera shake.
To make the best out of this photography tool, make sure to get one that’s of quality. Although high-quality tripods are more expensive, they are generally more sturdy than low-quality tripods.
Using a quality tripod becomes even more important if you’re shooting outdoors. Elements such as snow, wind, and rain are beautiful photographic subjects but they can all cause your tripod to shake. To minimize camera shake under these conditions, you’ll want to use a sturdy, high-quality tripod.
Quality tripods are also more durable than cheaper tripods. Quality tripods will typically be made with aluminum or carbon fiber, so you won’t have to worry about your tripod breaking or bending easily. Although quality tripods come with a more significant price tag, they’ll likely be able to save you money in the long run.
I use two different tripods when I shot and I always make sure one has a middle-column in the event that I want to use different angles or shoot downwards and I also use an extra-long tripod. I recommend the Manfrotto Carbon Fiber with Horizontal Column, it is a well built and durable tripod with a versatile center column. I also recommend the Benro Mach3 extra-long tripod which is extremely stable and high quality.
3. Avoid Using The Center Column of Your Tripod
Many tripods today feature a middle column designed to boost the camera up to eye level. If your tripod has one, I suggest avoiding using more than the first few inches of it.
When extending fully or more than a few inches, even moderate winds can cause the center column to shake. It’s best to only use the center column if it goes horizontal for a sideways view rather than vertically.
The best option is to purchase a tripod with extendable legs. It is important that you get a tripod that is 6-12 inches taller than you need. This will give you enough height in most situations without using a center column.
4. Avoid Using The Thinnest Legs On Your Tripod
For a more stable tripod, always release the thicker portion of your extendable tripod legs first until you reach the thinnest legs.
Tripods typically have three sets of extendable legs. I recommend you avoid releasing the third and thinnest set of tripod legs, which is the least stable.
This is especially true if you’re shooting in windy conditions where you’ll need your camera to be supported by thick, stable legs. Although this will yield a shorter tripod and may require you to bend down to take the shot, this is a fair compromise for the sharpness of your image.
The best way to avoid using the thinnest legs while having a tall tripod is to buy a tripod that is about 6-12 inches longer than you would need. This will allow you to use only the first two sets of extendable legs when setting up, making your tripod more stable.
Another way to increase the stability of your tripod is to use spiked feet. Spike feet attach to the bottom of your tripod and allow you to embed the feet of your tripod into the ground. These are especially useful when you are shooting on grass, dirt, or sand.
5. Position One Tripod Leg In Front of Your Lens
The position of your tripod legs will significantly impact the stability of your camera. If you are on a relatively level surface, position one leg in front of your lens and two legs behind your camera.
Positioning your one tripod leg in front of your lens will place the majority of the weight over that leg and prevent it from falling over.
On the other hand, if you are on an inclined surface such as a hill, place two legs downhill and one uphill for the most stability. This will balance the weight of your camera on two legs with one leg position backwords for support.
6. Hang Weight On Your Tripod For Sturdiness
Many tripods feature a hook at the base of the center column for this purpose. You can use this hook to add weight on your tripod and keep it from shaking or falling over.
If you don’t want to carry another item to hang on your tripod, just hang your camera bag from the center hook. Your camera bag generally has enough weight to keep your tripod stable, even in windy conditions.
7. Use a Platypod
If you don’t feel like carrying a tripod, consider using a platypod instead. Platypods are thin metal plates that allow you to secure your camera and ballhead very close to the ground.
They are great for situations where tripods are not allowed, a tripod does not fit, or if you want to position your camera very close to the ground.
Platypods include four spiked feet and a strap that allows you to expand the locations and angles which you can attach it. This device allows you to secure your camera to avoid camera shake in locations you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
For example, you can secure your camera to a light pole and take photos without worrying about camera shake or it falling over. You could also place your camera close to the ground and capture great images with a low perspective without experiencing camera shake.
8. Use a Fast Shutter Speed
Using a fast shutter speed is one of the best ways to create sharp images. A fast shutter speed not only eliminates camera shake but also eliminates motion blur ( blur that comes from your subject moving).
That said, fast shutter speeds also mean that less light will reach your camera’s sensor. So, you can’t just simply use the fastest shutter speed every time. For instance, if you’re shooting under low light conditions, using a fast shutter speed will render your image underexposed. However, if you use a slow shutter speed, your image will be prone to camera shake.
Your shutter speed isn’t typically an issue if you mount your camera on a tripod (given that your subject is still). However, if you’re shooting handheld, a good rule of thumb to follow is to use a shutter speed larger than one divided by your focal length. For example, if you’re shooting with a 50 mm lens, you’re going to want to shoot with a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second or faster.
9. Use A Large F-stop
Your choice of aperture determines the depth-of-field in your image. That is, it determines the area of your image that will stay in sharp focus. Using a large f-stop or small aperture will increase your depth-of-field, while a small f-stop or a large aperture will decrease your depth-of-field.
So, a large f-stop of say f/11 will keep most of your image in sharp focus. Whereas, a small f-stop such as f/1.8 will keep only a small area of your image in sharp focus.
This doesn’t mean that you should always use a large f-stop if you want a sharp image. It may be that your goal is to keep only a small portion of your image sharp while leaving the rest blurry or out-of-focus. In this case, you’ll want to use a small f-stop.
That said, using a very narrow depth-of-field such as f/1.8 requires great precision to create a sharp image. If your goal is to create a blurry background, I suggest starting with a slightly larger aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4. This still allows you to create the same effect but is not as challenging to work with as f/1.8.
If you’re shooting landscapes, then I recommend starting at f/11. This will keep most of your details in your scene in sharp focus. Remember, however, that the larger your aperture the slower your shutter speed will need to be to reach the proper exposure. A slow shutter may or may not work for the effect you’re trying to achieve, so it’s important to experiment. If you can’t use a slow shutter speed, then consider raising your ISO.
10. Increase Your ISO
Increasing your ISO amplifies the light that reaches your camera’s sensor. You may need to increase your ISO if you need to use a large aperture and a slow shutter speed.
Since a fast shutter speed and larger aperture is conducive to preventing blur, raising your ISO is a great way to create a sharp photo that is properly exposed. Keep in mind, however, that using a high ISO will also amplify the appearance of noise in your image.
For most modern cameras, you can typically get away with raising your ISO up to 400 and even 800 without doing any harm to the quality of your image. But avoid increasing your ISO past this value, unless necessary.
11. Image Stabilization
Vibration reduction or image stabilization is another way you can help you reduce camera shake. Depending on the brand of lens or camera you are using it may be called something different, but the concept is the same.
Image stabilization can be equipped in the body of a camera, the lens, or both. In either situation, it reduces the appearance of camera shake.
The basic idea is that there will be moving components inside a camera or lens that will adjust when camera shake is detected to eliminate it.
This technology can offer anywhere from 2-5 stops of image stabilization. Meaning it will allow you to use a shutter speed 2-5 stops slower before you would normally experience camera shake. It is important to check the capabilities of the image stabilizer you are using before deciding on your shutter speed.
It is typically recommended that you only use image stabilization when you are shooting handheld or on an uneven surface. Since image stabilization will not be required when you are using a sturdy tripod.
12. Use Auto-Focus
While some photographers may argue that focusing manually is better than using autofocus, this is not always the case. If you are new to photography or focusing manually, autofocus may be the best option.
Most cameras autofocus systems today are superb at producing tack sharp images. This is especially true when the lighting conditions are ideal, and your subject is still. Not to mention, autofocus is quick and easy to use compared to manual focus.
Also, autofocus systems can be especially beneficial if you’re photographing fast-moving subjects such as wildlife. In these situations, manually focusing can only slow you down and make you miss your shot.
That said, this built-in tool doesn’t come without a flaw. Even the most advanced autofocus system today is not able to perform well in the dark. So, you’ll generally want to avoid this when shooting in low light conditions.
13. Use Manual Focus in Low Light Condition
As mentioned, using today’s cameras auto-focus systems don’t work well in low light conditions. So, although the auto-focus system is my number one choice, learning manual focus is certainly worth it if you want to be able to take sharp images in any condition.
When shooting at night, I recommend manually focusing through your live view instead of the viewfinder. Turn the focus ring on until you see that your camera is in focus. Take a test shot and review your shot by zooming in 100% in your image using your camera’s preview feature.
14. Where To Focus
Besides using a large f-stop to keep most of your scene in sharp focus, you’ll also need to focus on the right spot. As a landscape photographer, the standard rule of thumb is to focus about 1/3 the distance into the scene.
This goal of this rule is to produce an image with the foreground to background in focus and sharp.
The basis of this rule is embedded in the concept of hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is the distance you need to focus on, to place the entire frame in focus. Hyperfocal distance is dependent on aperture and focal length you are using.
I have created a hyperfocal distance calculator to make this as simple as possible. All you have to do is select the camera you are using, the aperture, and focal length, and you will get the distance you need to focus on to place your entire frame in focus.
15. Set Your Focus to Infinity
Sometimes, you may have trouble finding a good focus spot ⅓ of the distance into your frame. In this scenario, you can switch your lens focus to the “infinity” setting.
Setting your focus to infinity will make it so that objects in your frame will be acceptably sharp for small aperture regardless of the distance from your lens.
How to focus on infinity will depend on the lens you’re using. Some lenses will allow you to simply turn the focus ring into the infinity mark (which looks like this: ∞) while other lenses will not have one.
16. Use A Shutter Release
If you’re using a tripod, consider using a shutter release remote. A shutter release eliminates any camera shake due to the contact of pressing the shutter button.
A shutter release remote can be wired or wireless. Wired remotes are easy to use, simply plug it in and start shooting.
Wireless remotes can be a bit more complicated. First, you need to check if your camera has Bluetooth capabilities. If it does, then a simple wireless remote will work fine.
On the other hand, if your camera does not have Bluetooth capabilities, you will need to purchase a wireless remote with a transmitter.
I recommend a wireless shutter release to avoid any chance of camera shake. With a wired shutter release there is still a chance of camera shake with the movement of the wire.
I recommend the Pixel shutter release remote, which works extremely well and can function as both a wired and wireless shutter release button. It is compatible with most camera brands, had an LCD screen, and over 230 feet wireless range.
17. Use A Self-Timer
Using a self-timer is a great alternative to using a cable release or wireless remote. This feature allows a few seconds in between you pressing the shutter button and the camera taking the image. This way, even if you shake your camera by pressing the shutter, there will be a few seconds for that movement to dissipate before the camera takes the image.
Most cameras have a few settings for how many seconds go by before your camera fires the shot for you: the default is usually 10 seconds, which is excellent for taking a group shot where you need to be in the picture. However, for shooting landscapes, a self-timer of two to three seconds is usually enough.
18. Check Your Sharpness During The Shoot
The best way to check your images sharpness as you shoot is to shoot in live view mode and zoom in on your image. To apply this trick follow the steps below:
- Turn your live-view and autofocus on.
- Set your focus point approximately ⅓ of the distance into your scene or the farthest object you want in focus. Position your camera’s autofocus at this point by holding down the shutter button.
- In live view, zoom into the point you found in the second step by pressing the zoom button (a magnifying glass icon typically symbolizes this). Once you’re zoomed in, you determine if your image is in focus.
- Shut off autofocus mode and switch to manual focus on the barrel of your camera lens.
- Maintaining your zoom view on your focus point, rotate your focus ring until your image is sharp.
We recommend this trick for times when you need an added boost of sharpness. Many photographers won’t have to use it very often, given how advanced cameras’ autofocus capabilities are today. But, this trick can give you an extra edge when you’re shooting a stunning landscape.
19. Use A Quality Lens
The quality of lens you use can have a significant impact on your image’s sharpness. The optics of a lens can have a huge impact on the sharpness of the images.
The quality of a lens does not only depend on the manufacturer, although camera brands such as Nikon, Canon, and Sony do produce some of the best lenses. Other thirds party manufacturers produce high-quality lenses such as Tamron and Sigma.
It is important to note that all manufacturers produce low-quality lenses. Avoid kit lenses and lenses made of primarily plastic as these are a sign of a low-quality lens.
High-quality lenses also typically include autofocus and image stabilization. Often, these lenses will also be equipped with higher quality glass and optics.
20. Clean Your Lens
Before shooting, take the time to wipe the face of your lens with a microfiber cloth. Doing so will eliminate any smudges, specks, and dust that can render your image blurry. This is a quick and easy way to ensure that the sharpness of your image is not affected by dust or smudges.
21. Use Your Aperture Sweet Spot
Every lens and camera combination has what is known as an “aperture sweet spot”. The aperture “sweet spot” is the aperture value that produces the sharpest images.
Although you may think that the sharpest images come from the widest aperture value, this is not the case due to diffraction. Diffraction reduces the level of sharpness in your photos.
As a result, although a wider aperture value produces a deeper depth of field, the image gets progressively softer after a certain aperture value.
You can find your aperture sweet spot two ways: follow the rule of thumb or self-testing.
The rule of thumb states that the aperture sweet spot is 2-3 full stops from the maximum aperture value. For example, if your maximum aperture if f/2.8, then your sweet spot is likely f/5.6 and f/8.
Now you can follow the rule of thumb, or you can test yourself. You can test yourself by taking photos at each aperture value in the sweet spot range and comparing the sharpness using post-processing software.
22. Switch to Single Point Autofocus
Landscapes are stationary subjects. If you are using autofocus, it is important to set your focus mode to single.
In single focus mode, your camera will select a single point in your frame and place it in focus. This is ideal for landscape photography since your subjects won’t be moving.
Single focus allows you to focus on your subject and then recompose without losing focus of your object. It is important to note that if you move forward or backward when recomposing in single focus mode, your image may lose some sharpness. Be sure to check your sharpness and refocus if necessary.
23. Mirror Lockup
Mirror lockup is a feature only DSLR owners need to worry about. If you own a mirrorless camera you can proceed to the next section since your camera does not have any mirrors.
When the mirror flips up or down when using a DSLR, the movement can cause vibrations which result in camera shake.
Mirror lockup is a feature most DSLRs have, which allows you to lock the mirror in place and prevent it from moving. This is done to eliminate the possibility of camera shake.
24. Press the Shutter Button Thoughtfully
How you press your shutter button may seem inconsequential, but it can have an effect on how much camera shake occurs when taking your image. Before you take your shot, make sure that your finger is already touching the shutter button, instead of hovering above it. Once you’re ready to take your shot, press the shutter slowly and softly. Keep your finger down until your camera is finished taking the image.
25. Use a Prime Lens
Prime lenses generally produce sharper images at all aperture settings compared to zoom lenses. These lenses are superior for capturing sharp images at higher apertures such as f/8 as well as much smaller apertures such as f/1.2.
This is because, with prime lenses, the optics have been perfected at each aperture value. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, typically produce less sharp images because there are multiple focal ranges and optical components to account for.
Prime lenses are also generally much faster than zoom lenses. That is, with a prime lens you’ll be able to shoot with really wide apertures such as f/1.4 and f/1.8. This way, you’ll be able to shoot with faster shutter speeds without needing to raise your ISO. Although today’s zoom lenses can be just as fast as prime lenses, they tend to be much more expensive.
Also, zoom lenses are typically several stops less sensitive than prime lenses. For instance, the Nikon 30-70mm f/2.8 is two stops less sensitive than the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. This means that you will have to use eight times the ISO or shutter speed in low light.
Even inexpensive prime lenses can produce quality images.
Most photographers on a budget can find a 35mm f/1.8 for under $200. On the other hand, a Nikon 17-55mm f/1.8 cost around $1500.
If you’re able to spend a little more money, you can buy some of the more expensive prime lenses. The 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.2 are great options if you are looking for high-quality images that can’t be matched by other lenses.
Resource: 10 Benefits of Prime Lenses
26. Get Closer
Longer focal lengths tend to produce more camera shake than the shorter focal lengths. So, to get tack sharp images, try to zoom in with your feet instead of with your lens. This doesn’t work for every composition, of course. But it is something to keep in mind if you’re in a situation where moving closer is possible and will not affect the aesthetic of your composition.
27. Focus Stack
There are instances where it’s impossible to achieve a sharp focus for both your foreground and your background in one shot. This is especially true if you’re shooting an object close to your lens.
To get around this, I recommend focus stacking your image. Focus stacking is a technique that involves shooting different photos with different focus points and merging them into one image in post-processing.
Remember to use a tripod when using this technique, as it will allow you to blend these images in photoshop seamlessly.
28. Sharpen your Image in Post Processing
Sharpening your image in post-processing can make a huge difference, especially if you’re shooting in RAW,
I recommend using the RAW camera detail panel to sharpen your images. There are four sliders dedicated solely to sharpen your photo. These sliders are extremely powerful and give you great control over the sharpness in your images. Although it takes some time to learn, the effort is well worth the results.
If you are looking for a very simple and easy tool to use you I recommend the adjustment brush in photoshop. This tool acts just like a paintbrush and you simply paint over the areas you want to sharpen.
If you would like an in-depth explanation of how these tools work check out my resource article below.
Resource: Top 5 Sharpening Tools in Photoshop