10 Tips for Sharper Photos

How to improve sharpness in photography

Fine, I admit that this photo has nothing to do with this article on sharpness. I couldn't find a good photo to illustrate this one.

Daily readers of this site already know how I feel about sharpness.   Sharpness is vital to professional photographers who make large prints, but beginners probably will not notice much of a difference between a razor-sharp photo that they view on a computer screen compared to a fairly-sharp photo that they view on a computer screen.  Nonetheless, photographers are crazy about sharpness, and I am too.

This post is in reply to Emily Gifford’s question that she sent in via our Facebook Fan Page.   She asked what Bryan Peterson of PPSOP meant by the term “exacting sharpness” in his book entitled “Understanding Exposure.” The answer is that “exacting sharpness” simply means precise sharpness in a photo.  Here are some times on how we can achieve exacting sharpness in our photography.

Sharpness Tip #1: Shoot like a sharp-shooter.  Anyone who has ever shot a gun knows that the key to shooting well is finding a firm shooting foundation.  Gun shooters do this by stabilizing themselves against a bench, using a monopod, or standing in the most stable positions.  Not surprisingly, photographers should use the same advice.  If you haven’t taken a minute to consider whether your photography posture is solid, think about it for a minute and decide how to improve your stability.  If you don’t regularly use a tripod, just do it!

Sharpness Tip #2: Don’t zoom to the extremes.  I have never tested a lens that is sharpest at the extremes of the zoom range.  For example, if you shoot a 75-300mm lens, you will get sharper photos at 280mm than 300mm.  If you shoot a 70-200mm lens, you will achieve greater sharpness at 100mm than at 70mm.  I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t seen them personally.

Sharpness Tip #3: Determine your sharpest apertures.  Many photographers learn that the sharpest aperture on many lenses is f/8 or f/11.  That is a good general rule, but it is foolish to accept this as 100% true.  Just take a minute to lock your lens on a tripod and shoot a subject at all of your aperture levels to see what photo is sharpest.  If you are a landscape photographer, you will likely notice that many wide-angle lenses are significantly sharper at slightly higher apertures, because they are made that way.  This test will only take you 5 minutes to perform and will improve your photos for the life of the lens.

To test sharpness, make sure to shoot from a distance that you commonly shoot that lens, shoot in lighting conditions similar to what you will shoot in the field, and do common-sense things like shoot on a tripod with a cable release and mirror lock-up.

Sharpness Tip #4: Sharpen last. Unfortunately, many photographers use the clarity slider in Camera Raw to adjust sharpness before passing the photo into Photoshop and finishing the editing process.  I strongly discourage this technique because sharpening should match the medium.  Photos should be sharpened differently for the use on the web as they are for print.  Also, a photo that will be seen small should be sharpened differently than photos that will be seen large.  It just doesn’t make sense to sharpen before finishing the editing process.  This way, you’ll be able to go back and re-sharpen the photo in a different way when you want to use that photo for a new purpose without needing to re-do all of the other edits done in Photoshop.

Sharpness Tip #5: Stop mashing your shutter button.  In my photography workshops, I see many photographers smash their shutter button with more force than they would smash a cockroach.  Mashing the shutter button will torque the camera at the critical moment when the photo is recording the scene.  The proper way to press a shutter button is to simply roll your finger back across the button.


Sharpness Tip #6: I know you won’t do it even though I’m suggesting it, but pick up the manual for your LENS.  The lens manual will tell you whether or not to use image stabilization (vibration reduction for us Nikon folks) when the camera is on a tripod.  Some lenses should have vibration reduction ON when using a tripod, and other lenses should have image stabilization turned off when on a tripod.  The only way to know is to check the lens manual.

Sharpness Tip #7: Increase your ISO.  Although grain doesn’t actually improve sharpness at all, it does give the appearance of sharpness.  While grain is certainly a negative aspect of many photos, landscape and sports photographers often add a minimal amount of grain to make a photo look slightly sharper.

Sharpness Tip #8: Test different copies of a lens.  When lenses are created, they are made to certain tolerances.  Especially in the case of lower-end lenses, the tolerances are not precise and allow for size variances.  For this reason, one lens may shoot better on one camera than another.  Make sure the lens is working well for your camera.  If it isn’t, you might consider returning the lens and buying another copy of the exact same lens model and see if it works better.

Sharpness Tip #9: Increase your shutter speed.  Enough said.

Sharpness Tip #10: Upgrade your shutter button.  The next time you’re purchasing a DSLR, notice that most cheap DSLRs have a shutter button that clunks between half-way down and a full press.  Higher-end DSLRs have a squishy shutter button that will cause less twisting and mashing of the camera’s stability when the button is pressed.  It might seem like a negligible benefit, but I find that squishy shutter buttons actually increase the sharpness of my hand-held shots significantly.

If you have more sharpness tips, please share it with the rest of the Improve Photography community by leaving a comment below.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Good tips, although not convinced about #3 – finding your best aperture. Many great pro photogs shoot almost exclusively wide open and get pretty stunning results (Cliff Mauntner for example). Maybe if you’re pixel peeping at 100% there may be marginal difference away from the wider extremes, but with regular viewing, can you honestly see a difference?

  2. says

    For Mario – I have an olympus E-510 with crop factor 2, so when Focal Lenght is 100 mm i should keep the speed at least at the same number that the lens. At 100 mm at least 1/100, with the 2 crop factor of a non full-frame make it 1/200 an so on. Is this correct Jim ?

  3. Seb says

    Hi,

    Polaroid has a new gadget that I will try during my next airshow. I shoot moving subject and can’t go below 320 (to avoid freezing the prop). Panning an stability is very hard. This thing, Polaroid Aputure Magic Rig / Polaroid Rig http://www.amazon.com/Polaroid-Stabilizer-Support-Cameras-Camcorders/dp/B005MRXPE4 cost 60$ and is very versatile. You can adapt it to your position for better confort. The trick is practice. I made lot’s of reading about sharp shooter rifle handling and I’m getting better and better.

  4. says

    Thanks for these tips! Is there also a difference in sharpness when shooting raw or jpeg. I would almost say that the jpeg looks sharper than the raw one.

  5. says

    Thanks for these tips! Is there also a difference in sharpness when shooting raw or jpeg? I would almost say that the jpeg looks sharper than the raw one.

  6. says

    Thats a fact. The Camera Computer will so Dome work for you while getting the jpeg. The contrast and color optimization will give a “sharper” view and most cameras use the unsharp mask filter when shooting jpeg – more or less is depending of your preference.

  7. says

    Good article and tips! Quick note: I think you had a dyslexic moment in tip 2:

    If you shoot a 70-200mm lens, you will achieve greater sharpness at 100mm than at 70mm.

    Happens to best of us.

    -Phil

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