10 Tips for Sharper Photos (Even when zoomed in)

In Photo Basics by Jim Harmer149 Comments

Photo by Jim Harmer

10 Tips for Sharper Photos.  #9 was the most helpful for me.  I never thought about that before.

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.

Sharpness Tip #1: Shoot like a sharp-shooter

Anyone who has ever shot a gun or bow and arrow knows that the key to shooting well is finding a firm shooting foundation.  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.  The Nikon 70-200mm lens shoots sharpest at 135mm.  I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I haven't seen them personally.  Almost all lenses are sharper somewhere between the extremes of the zoom range.

This is especially important if you are shooting a less expensive zoom lens or a kit lens.  Spend just a minute and take a picture of a newspaper taped to the wall across from you at different focal lengths and apertures.  You're likely to find quite a variation in sharpness levels depending on the focal length.

Sharpness Tip #3: Determine your sharpest apertures

Just as the zoom dramatically impacts sharpness, so to does the aperture.

Many photographers learn that the sharpest aperture on many lenses is f/7.1 or f/8, but it totally depends on the lens.  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.

This test was performed on a Nikkor 70-200mm lens at 200mm.

This test was performed on a Nikkor 70-200mm lens at 200mm.

Sharpness Tip #4: Do Your Output Sharpening Last

Unfortunately, many photographers use the sharpness slider in Camera Raw or Lightroom first thing. I strongly discourage this technique because sharpening should match the medium, or be applied selectively.

Photos should be sharpened differently for the use on the web as they are for print.  For example, when saving a photo that will be displayed on a computer (like posting a photo to Facebook, for instance), less sharpening is needed because a screen is a sharp output medium.  When saving a photo for matte paper, more sharpening should be applied than when printing on glossy paper because the matte paper soaks the ink more than the glossy does.

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.

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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: 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.

Lenses made in the last couple of years will make this switch for you, but you'd probably be surprised by looking at the manual for your lens to find that many lenses that you think may be turning this off for you… are not.  The only way to know is to check the lens manual.

Sharpness Tip #7: Decrease Your ISO

Photographers know that increasing your ISO increases the noise in the photo, but their knowledge usually stops there.  Did you also realize that increasing the ISO also dramatically reduces the visible detail in the photo?  When I say “dramatically,” I mean dramatically!

When you're in a situation where you have to increase your ISO beyond where you're comfortable, consider adding flash or moving to an area with better lighting to produce a sharper shot.

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: Know Your Focus

I've given portfolio reviews to THOUSANDS of photographers in my online photography classes just in the last year.  THOUSANDS!  When they ask me about the sharpness of their photos and how they can improve, the problem is imprecise focus at least 95% of the time.

So here's my recipe for proper focus every time…

#1. Decide if you are shooting an action photo or a photo with a stationary subject.  If you're shooting a moving subject, choose continuous focus (AI servo on Canon or AF-C on Nikon).  If you're shooting a stationary subject like a landscape or a person standing mostly still, choose AF-S on a Nikon or Single Servo on a Canon.

#2. Always choose the focus point yourself.  Don't let the camera decide.  Get used to moving the focus point with the four-way selector on the back of your camera.  If you're shooting a portrait, ALWAYS place the focus on the eye of the person closest to the camera.  On the nose or face or body of the person is not good enough.  Always focus on the eye.  If you're shooting a landscape, generally focus one-third up from the bottom of the frame, but if you have a strong foreground element, you may want to focus closer.

#3. Once you've focused, be extremely careful not to sway forward or backward at all.  When shooting with a fast lens at a wide f-stop, even a slight movement will move the focus before the shot.

#4. Be sure not to focus too close to the lens.  Each lens has a close focus distance, and the camera manufacturers like to push the envelope with this distance.  I usually find that if I focus right at the closest point where the lens will still focus, the result is a blurry shot.  Back up a little bit from the closest you can be to the subject and you'll always improve the result.

Sharpness Tip #10: Upgrade your shutter button

Less expensive cameras come with either a metal or plastic shutter button.  It does the job just fine, but it encourages the poor habit of “clicking” or “mashing” the shutter button.  More expensive cameras like the 5D Mark III, Nikon D810, etc, have squishy shutter buttons with a rubber coating on top so that the press of the button does not vibrate the camera as much.

For only a few dollars, you can pick up a rubber pad to fit over your shutter button which will solve this problem and upgrade your shutter button for you.

It can be tough to tell how sharp a shot is when looking at the back of the camera. Zoom in all the way on the eye and the difference is easy to see.

It can be tough to tell how sharp a shot is when looking at the back of the camera. Zoom in all the way on the eye and the difference is easy to see.

Bonus Tip: Zoom to the Eyes!

The best way to know if you have a sharp photo while shooting is to zoom in on a picture you've just taken all the way to 100%.  Zoom in on the eyes and see if you can see the eyelashes.  If the eyelashes are just a clump of black, the photo is not sharp.  If you can see each hair in the eyelash, you have a sharp shot.

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


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

    1. Author

      @Bob Mulholland – Yeah… I have my reservations on DXOMark. It seems that no matter how technically perfect their tests are, they RARELY seem to line up with the real world tests that I do. I wish I could rely on it, but I often find that their results are COMPLETELY different from how my tests (and many other photographer’s) end up. For example, they say the 70-200 is sharpest at f/2.8 and I can’t even find a way to possibly justify that.

  1. Now that’s a good #11. My first two lenses made me think i was the worst photographer in the world.

  2. That’s for video. A monopod will be more stable for photos.

  3. Great tip on the vibration reduction and tripods. I would have never thought of that and would have figured VR would do nothing while the camera was attached to a tripod. I could see the camera then getting a bit confused and have the opposite effect.

  4. Here is a tip for certain DSLR cameras. Compose your shot with appropriate lens zoom and use auto focus with tips described in article. Then, switch to ‘live view’ on the image viewer on the back of the camera (TIP: Practice with the camera on a tripod so both hands are free.) Next, switch to manual focus mode and digitally zoom in (usually by pressing a ‘+’ button the back of the camera. YOU ARE NOT ZOOMING IN WITH THE LENS. After digitally zooming on your focus point in live view, use the manual FOCUS ring on your lens to get a super sharp focus. Press the shutter release button. The shot will be captured using the preset zoom you set with your lens in step one with a perfect focus exactly where you want it. Yes, for photo situations without excessive movement. However, I have used it in low light, concert photos with singer in front of a microphone!

    1. Thank you! I was wondering when someone was going to mention this technique. I am a complete beginner and I figured this trick out on my own. By taking a picture this way you make sure you can “see the eyelashes” BEFORE you take the photo. Works best for stationery objects and with a tripod—add in the remote control and you are golden. I doubt there is a more effective surefire way of taking super sharp photos. If you use a decent older Nikon lens the results are astonishing.

  5. Agree with everything you said except I think the mirror lock up function is a complete marketing gimmick and makes no difference.
    Perhaps that’s a subject for your FB page.
    You could run some tests and post the results.

    1. Author

      I tested mirror lockup quite extensively. It does NOT make even a SPECK of difference under most conditions; however, when shooting at 1/15 to 1/40 shutter speed, it makes a BIG difference.

      So I recommend it for this test just because I don’t want someone to be shooting indoors and have that be throw off the test.

      Here’s my write up about mirror lockup: https://improvephotography.com/9442/mirror-lockup-is-a-conspiracy-sort-of/

  6. Phil,
    Please re-read tip #2. He fully states that you will receive the sharpest image somewhere in the Middle of your lenses range, not at the ends of the range.

  7. I have read so many comments on sharpness. This article finally listed something new and I think very important that many don’t talk about. Thank you for teaching me something new.

  8. Thanks for the tips. I didn’t know so many of them! Sharpness is very important in a picture – it enhances the creativity of a photograph.

  9. You could see this as an extension to the “shoot like a sniper” tip: snipers generally pull the trigger while exhaling, or to be more precise, in the moment between fully exhaling and inhaling again. This will help with photography as well, especially when shooting a long lens handheld.

  10. What advice for a sharp photo do you suggest when shooting at f2.8 or so to get that depth of field blur everyone wants. I shoot nikon d800 and I can get the eye sharp but it doesnt keep the entire face sharp. If I bump it to f7 or so…no blurry background???? Using my 35 to 70 mm nikon lens. I tried my 85m 1.8 but not happy with that at all.

  11. Tip #10 sounds great. Is this a rubber pad specifically made to cover the shutter or is it something that can be found in a hardware store?

    All great tips, especially Tip #2: Don’t zoom to the extremes. I had read that before but forgot about it. I’m going to try these tips this weekend. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Pretty interesting article though most of the tips were about physical things you do. Nothing on auto focus or remote shutter or auto timing for night shots? And what about getting sharper photos at low apertures? I mean we shouldn’t be just shooting at 7.1 because it’s the sharpest every time.

    1. A previous reader was the only only one to mention the trick outlined below. My variation of it is that you get out of LV mode and then take the pic. If you don’t then your shutter speed may be too slow. If you use a tripod you won’t even have to use the viewfinder so this is ideal for a remote shutter control
      Michael wrote as follows:
      “Here is a tip for certain DSLR cameras. Compose your shot with appropriate lens zoom and use auto focus with tips described in article. Then, switch to ‘live view’ on the image viewer on the back of the camera (TIP: Practice with the camera on a tripod so both hands are free.) Next, switch to manual focus mode and digitally zoom in (usually by pressing a ‘+’ button the back of the camera. YOU ARE NOT ZOOMING IN WITH THE LENS. After digitally zooming on your focus point in live view, use the manual FOCUS ring on your lens to get a super sharp focus. Press the shutter release button. The shot will be captured using the preset zoom you set with your lens in step one with a perfect focus exactly where you want it. Yes, for photo situations without excessive movement. However, I have used it in low light, concert photos with singer in front of a microphone!”

  13. Thankyou x 1000! I have a Nikon D3100 and the basic kit lenses, and lack of sharpness is my one frustration. I am going to try these tests out asap! This is possibly the most useful article I’ve read with regards to my photography

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