The 7 Tips for Getting Tack-Sharp Photos Every Time

Over the last year and a half, hundreds of students have taken my online beginning photography class.  By FAR, the most common problem that Dustin and I have seen as we review photos from our students is poor sharpness.

Sometimes, the photos are clearly blurry to the point that anyone would notice the problem.  But most of the time, the photos have fair sharpness, but they just aren’t quite as crisp and clear as they could be.

It can be difficult for photographers to learn how to take tack sharp pictures because there is no silver bullet.  The truth is that there are at least 7 mistakes that can lead to photos that aren’t sharp.  In today’s lesson, we want to provide the ultimate resource for learning to take sharp photos.

With no further adieu, the 7 deadly sins of sharpness…

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7 Tips for Sharper Photos

1. Improper Focus

After looking at many many photos from beginning photographers and analyzing each one to determine what problem caused the photo to come out soft, we have determined that improper focusing technique is the number one culprit.

Usually, the problem is that photographers are not as exact in their focusing as they should be.  We often find that the photographer did not put the focus point on the subject’s eye, and instead had the camera focus on the subject’s shoulder, nose, forehead, etc.  This is especially common with photographer who have not yet learned how to manually move the focus point that the camera is using.  Check out this post if you need help with this.

Another common problem stems from the use of the focus and recompose method of shooting.  This method is used when the photographer wants to focus the camera on a spot where there is no focus point, and is especially common on entry-level DSLR cameras which only have 9 or 13 autofocus points.  So the photographer uses the middle focus point and aims it at the subject’s eye.  Then the photographer holds down the shutter button half-way as she recomposes the photo to the proper framing for the picture, and then presses the rest of the way down.  While this is the only practical way to focus on cameras that don’t have enough focus points, it can lead to problems when shooting with shallow depth-of-field if the photographer shifts the angle of the camera while recomposing, or if her finger slips on the shutter button.

For more advanced photographers, you might also like to learn how to do back button focus.

How to fix it: If you need to use the focus and recompose method because your camera doesn’t have a focus point for where you want to focus, use great care not to move the camera around too much which may alter the plane of focus.  If you have enough autofocus points in your camera, moving the focus point around to match your composition is the preferred method.

2. Failing to sharpen the image

No photo is as sharp as it should be when it comes off the imaging sensor in your camera.  To compensate for this, you’ll need to apply some sharpening on the computer if you shoot in RAW.  If you shoot in JPEG, then make sure the picture control/picture style set in your camera is applying some capture sharpening for you.

There are many two main types of sharpening: capture and output.  Both are necessary to produce crystal clear photos.  Capture sharpening is used to compensate for inherent optical issues in all lenses and cameras.  Capture sharpening is generally applied to a RAW photo as it is brought into Lightroom or Photoshop, and you may find that these programs are applying capture sharpening behind the scenes.

Aside from sharpening the captured image, tack sharp photos also need to be sharpened at output.  In general, the larger your final photo will be, the more sharpening you need to apply.  For example, if I’m outputting a file for a 20″x30″ print (50×76 centimeters), then I would want to apply a lot of sharpness to the photo in Photoshop.  For example, I might use these settings in Filter>Unsharp Mask: Amount 100, radius 2.3.  At the same time, if I were printing a small photo, or using a smaller photo on the web, I would use much less sharpening: Amount 50, radius 1.7.  While you want to be careful not to apply too much sharpening, a little bit of it goes a long way.

3. Camera Blur

Camera blur simply means that the camera moved while the image was being taken, resulting in a blurry photo.  The most common cause of this is when a photographer mashes down the shutter button because they are excited.  Pushing the shutter button too forcefully moves the camera and will always reduce the sharpness of the photo.

Another common cause of camera blur is when the photographer uses too low of a shutter speed, so that the natural shaking of one’s hands causes blur in the photo.  No one, not even brain surgeons, can hold their hands perfectly steady.  We all shake just slightly, and that can often be enough to cause a blurry photo if the photographer’s shutter speed is too low.

How to fix it: To fix camera blur, try to keep your shutter speed at 1/the focal length of the lens.  So if you’re using a 100mm lens, then your shutter speed should be 1/100.  This is a general rule, and obviously only works when the subject that you’re shooting is still.

Also, using lenses with image stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon) will help reduce camera blur.  This technology compensates for camera shake by moving the lens around to steady the shot.

4. Motion Blur

Motion blur is simple.  It means that the photographer used too slow of a shutter speed for the movement in a scene.  If you’re shooting a sports game, you would almost always want a shutter speed around 1/1000 of a second in order to freeze the motion in the scene.  For more on this, check out this article on shutter speed.

How to fix it: Use a fast enough shutter speed to match your situation.  For general portraits, you’ll want a shutter speed of at least 1/100.  For slight movement (a walking model, for example), a shutter speed of 1/320 will often be sufficient.  For fast motion like sports, 1/1000 is generally enough to freeze the motion.

 5.  Poor Lens Design

The fact is that most photographers start out learning photography on inexpensive lenses.  Obviously, it would be nice if all photographers could use expensive pro lenses that capture crystal clear images… the fact of the matter is that most photographers can’t afford the pro lenses.  That’s okay!  You can still capture tack sharp photos if you learn to take advantage of the lenses you already own.

How to fix it: Two quick tips for achieving sharp images from inexpensive lenses are (1) do not use the lens at either extreme of the aperture range.  So if your lens goes down to f/5.6, then consider shooting at f/7.1 when possible.  This will generally be a sharper aperture on that lens.  (2) Try not to shoot the lens at either extreme of the focal range.  So if you have a lens that goes from 18mm to 55mm, consider shooting at the middle of the focal range for better results.  Each lens is different in this way and has different sweet spots, but these general rules will often produce sharper images.

6. Too Shallow Depth-of-Field

Portrait photographers are often taught to use shallow depth-of-field to achieve a creamy blur in the background of the image.  While this is a great technique, I often find that photographers go too far.

If you use a very low aperture such as f/2.8, and you use a long lens and stand close to the subject, then your depth-of-field will be razor thin.  Often, this means that the photo will show the subject’s eyes in focus, but her nose or the back of her head will be out of the plane of focus.  In general, it is advisable to increase your depth-of-field just slightly in these situations so that the entire head or body of the subject is in focus.

This is especially true when shooting engagement, wedding, or family photography.  We often find that photographers who shoot couples or groups use too shallow a depth-of-field and this results in only some of the people in the photo being in focus.

How to fix it: Always focus on the front person in the group, or for couples, focus on the closes person to the camera, and increase your aperture just slightly to give more depth of field.

7. Diopter Not Properly Adjusted

The diopter is a (very) small wheel next to the viewfinder on almost all DSLRs that allows the photographer to make minor adjustments to the focus of view that the viewfinder shows looking through the lens.  Adjusting the diopter does NOT affect the image recorded by the imaging sensor, but only the view you see when looking through the viewfinder.

The reason that adjusting the diopter is important, is that having it set properly will allow the photographer to see in the viewfinder exactly how well focused the image is.  This can go a long way in spotting problems such as improper focus while taking the photo.

How to fix it: Next time you grab your camera, look closely for a tiny wheel to the right of your viewfinder.  You may not have noticed it before,  Look through the viewfinder at something about 30 feet (9 meters) away with a long lens on.  Carefully scroll the diopter until the view through the viewfinder looks perfectly sharp for you.  This will depend on your vision and will not be the same for everyone.

 

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Dwayne Schnell says

    Hi Jim,

    I’m in Lethbridge, AB, where we often have wind (often 35+ mph). Any recommendations for getting sharp images with a mid-range tripod/ballhead combo? I’ve got a D3100 right now with kit 18-55 and cheap Sigma 70-300 (which isn’t very sharp to start with). One of the problems I find is the strap, which isn’t easily removable, is flapping like a flag – even if I try to tie it off. I can’t afford a better tripod/ballhead right now. I’d like to just avoid shooting in the wind – but we often get gorgeous sunsets when it’s windy.
    Tips?

  2. Mike says

    Hi Dwayne, not sure if you have solved your problem yet but here is an idea. Your tripod may have a small hook at the bottom of the centre column. Hang your camera bag off it and that will stabilise your camera somewhat.

  3. says

    TY – You guys were great .. First time I saw one of your videos and I enjoyed it a lot.. Even learned a new trick ..Have a great day
    Jodi Foster

  4. Chris says

    Thanks for advice kept have problems with sharpness now I understand some areas that may have been causing my focusing. Great job!

  5. Kelly says

    I shoot with a Nikon D3100 50-200 lens. I usually do outdoor portraits and have been setting my aperture at f/4.5, which is the lowest stop. I’ve been finding that when I set my single point focus on the subject’s eye, my pictures tend to come out with the sharp focus off to the left of my subject. I’m seeing that you say to increase my aperture, which I will definitely try along with the other tips mentioned. Any other thoughts for this problem? Thanks!

  6. Shellback says

    Diopter adjustment –
    1. Use live view and focus on object – zoom in on object and ensure sharp focus.
    2. Now, look through view finder and turn wheel to bring into focus for your eye

    If you don’t do 1 – you don’t know if your camera is in focus and you’re adjusting the picture to make it appear to be in focus .

  7. Gfreeman says

    First wedding shoot guided by you and smashed it, thank you so much, your site has given me so much new information and the way you explain everything helped me understand my camera even more, I made a few BW shots followed by colour I’m meeting with the bride and groom for lunch and were going to look together I’m so proud of this shoot can’t explain my excitement but this would have not be possible if it weren’t for you I h ave another wedding shoot end of October I’m lucky both weddings are in turkey so catching the sun sets aswell cheers for the help I will continue with your site I find it fasinating
    Regards gra

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