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33 Techniques for Creating Sharp Images

     Sharpness is often considered the "holy grail" of photography. There are many ways to judge an image and sharpness is almost always considered one of the important. Obtaining critical sharpness requires using proper technique. Many of the strategies are listed below.

     How do you obtain critical sharpness? Sometimes you need to keep the camera as steady as possible. Sometimes the camera needs to be mobile. Sometimes it needs to be moving during the exposure. Depending on what you're shooting, some techniques may be more helpful than others, but there are a number of key points to keep in mind when you're looking to get the most from your photographic equipment.



  1. Tripod
  2. First and foremost, a tripod is the number one way to increase the sharpness of your images. By stabilizing your camera and avoiding handshake, your images will be sharper. In fact, you'll often get better results using a stable tripod and a lower end lens versus a high quality lens handheld.

    If possible, you can add mass to your tripod by hanging a weight such as your camera bag via the tripod hook. Also, avoid extending your tripod's center column or even remove it altogether.

  3. Using mirror lockup and a remote release cable
  4. Using a tripod properly requires certain techniques. If your camera has mirror lockup capabilities (MLU), engage them. This way you can let the mirror slap vibrations dissipate before taking your photos. A remote release cable is very helpful here for tripping the shutter without touching the camera once the mirror is flipped up.

    If you don't have a remote release cable, you can fake it by activating both your camera's MLU function and the 2 second timer. Certain cameras will flip up the mirror when you press the shutter button, pause for two seconds, then fire off the exposure.

    If you have just a remote release cable but the situation makes MLU inappropriate, avoid shutter speeds between 1/8th and 1/25th.

    Instead of spending big bucks on the name brand versions, you can save yourself some cash by getting the inexpensive Chinese versions on eBay. They're basically a switch and a plug so unless you plan on getting one with a built-in intervalometer like the Canon TC80N3, go hunt for a deal on eBay.

  5. Monopod
  6. If you can't use a tripod, a monopod is the next best thing. Even a monopod requires using proper technique. Some photographers even use a beanpole to keep steady and rock forwards and backwards to get their subject in focus. The Manfrotto 680 and Manfrotto 681 are popular solutions.

  7. Brace yourself
  8. If you don't have any support system, see if you can lean against a wall. If a wall isn't available, tuck in your elbows, steady yourself, and fire.

  9. Shoot between breaths
  10. When it comes time to shoot, slow yourself down, breath out, and fire once you're completely relaxed. Snipers have long used this technique. In fact, they take it one step further and shoot between heartbeats!

  11. Trip the shutter button gently
  12. Think to yourself, "soft hands, soft hands." Gently press the shutter button and fire off your exposure instead of forcefully mashing down.

  13. 2 sec timer
  14. Along the lines of the previous two techniques, using your camera's 2 second timer can help. Press your shutter button, wait two seconds, and the camera will fire without you having to physically move your body. Of course, this technique is only feasible in certain situations. You'll still get mirror slap vibrations, but you'll get rid of the movement created when you press the shutter button and your hands shift.

  15. Sharp lenses
  16. It goes without saying that some lenses are sharper than others. Generally higher end lenses such as Canon's L lenses will be sharper than the consumer grade counterparts, especially at wider apertures. Additionally, primes are generally sharper than zooms and macro lenses are deadly sharp. Certain lenses in particular are known for being incredibly sharp such as the Canon 135 f2L, Canon 200 1.8L, and the Canon 300 f2.8L IS.

  17. Third party lenses
  18. Sometimes mounting a third party manufacturer's lenses will give you better results than the native lenses. The best example is Canon's lack of outstanding wide angle lenses. Many full frame users are looking to Leica and Zeiss to obtain critical sharpness throughout the frame, particularly in the corners. The Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon is the king of wide angle sharpness and the benchmark other lenses are compared against.

  19. Turn Image-stabilization on
  20. Optical image stabilization techniques either in the lens or in the camera body itself will help steady the image when shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds, effectively giving you between 2-4 stops of extra handholdability.

    In certain lenses, the added glass in the IS version makes the lens softer than the non-IS version. Case in point: Canon 70-200 f2.8L. The non-IS is actually a bit sharper, but the benefits of IS often negate this fact. On the other hand, IS versions of certain other lenses are actually sharper than their non-IS counterparts like with the Canon 70-200 f4L and the Canon 300 f2.8L series lenses.

  21. Turn Image-stabilization off
  22. This suggestion may seem like it contradicts the last one. However, when shooting off a tripod, older generation IS systems get confused by the lack of movement and create a feedback loop which actually generates more movement than if IS was off! Newer IS lenses don't have this problem, but if you aren't sure, just turn it off. As an added bonus, you'll save on battery life too!

  23. Lens filters
  24. UV filters are great for protecting the front element of your lens, but they will reduce the overall sharpness of your lens (not to mention decrease contrast and increase the likelihood of flare). If they're not necessary, UV filters can often be removed.

  25. Panning
  26. If you're shooting a subject running past your camera, your image quality may benefit by following the subject with your lens during the exposure (panning) and letting the background slightly blur. Ultimately, you must select the look you're going for but even at faster shutter speeds between 1/500th - 1/800th, you will see subjects blur if they're running past you close to the camera.

  27. Selecting appropriate shutter speeds
  28. The rule of thumb is that when handholding, you'll want a minimum shutter speed of 1/focal length. For example, with a 100mm lens on a full frame body, you'll want a shutter speed of at least 1/100th.

    If your technique is especially good, you may be able to dip down below this number.

    For cropped bodies, multiply the number by your crop factor. For example, on a 1.6x crop body, you'll want at least 1/160th.

    In general, most sports need a shutter speed of 1/500th to freeze the action. For young kids, you can sometimes get by with slower speeds closer to 1/320th. Faster sports like gymnastics might need 1/800th-1/1000th. Freezing a baseball bat in motion will require faster shutter speeds closer to 1/8000th of a second.

  29. Macro shutter speeds
  30. In macro photography, things are a little bit different. The closer subjects are to your lens, the more of an impact any move will have on blur. When shooting at 1:1 or beyond, handholding at a shutter speed of 1/focal length will be way too slow. Either crank up your shutter speed, shoot off a tripod, or use a flash.

  31. Flash
  32. If getting a fast enough shutter speed in an issue, using your flash as the main source of light is often a solution. The duration of the flash is extremely quick, typically 1/2000th or faster depending on the power of the pop of light. Using your flash as the main source of light, you can even stop bullets!

    Indoor low-light situations and macro photography in particular benefit from using a flash to stop movement.

  33. Wait for a lull in the wind
  34. If you're macros or landscapes with flowers and leaves and you would like them nice and sharp, wait for a lull in the wind and fire when your subjects are most still.

  35. Tilt-shift lenses
  36. Tilt-shift lenses will let you effectively extend your depth of field for shooting landscapes. If you plan on shooting in a windy environment, a TS-E lens like the Canon TS-E 24mm f3.5L will let you freeze the scene and shoot at larger apertures rather than have to stop way down and extend your shutter speed.

  37. Use a plamp
  38. Wimberly makes an accessory called a plamp which will hold a small object in place. Imagine you want to shoot a flower blowing in the wind. You could clamp the plamp on the stem below the frame and keep the flower still.

  39. Shoot multiple shots
  40. Sometimes you're going to be stuck shooting in a situation with less than ideal lighting. If your subject isn't moving, you can shoot several shots and select the sharpest image from the series.

  41. Select the optimum aperture
  42. Lenses are typically sharpest 2-3 stops down from wide open. At their largest apertures, lenses most clearly show their optical imperfections including corner sharpness. Stopped all the way down, diffraction starts to become an issue and the image will get softer. "f/8 and be there" is a nice rule of thumb.

  43. Focus stack
  44. Sometimes it is impossible to get your entire subject in focus, even if you stop all the way down. Other times you can, but the softness due to diffraction is undesirable. Programs like CombineZ let you combine several similar exposures focused at different points and create a single image which uses the sharpest and most in focus areas from each shot. This is a very effective technique used in both macro and landscape photography.

  45. Blur your background
  46. In sports, portrait, and macro photography, it is often desirable to blur out the background. By doing this, your subject really pops out and seems even sharper compared to the blurry background.

  47. Avoid certain focusing distances
  48. Certain lenses have known optical flaws which you need to be aware about. For example, the Canon 70-200 f4 IS is unusably soft at the minimum focusing distance. Also, the newly released Canon 50 f1.2L backfocuses at close distances from f/2 - f/5.6. At the other focusing distances, the lenses perform beautifully.

  49. Select sharp focal lengths on zoom lenses
  50. Zoom lenses rarely have the same sharpness throughout the entire focal range. For example, the Canon 17-40 f4L is sharper on the wide end while the Canon 16-35 f2.8L is sharper on the long end.

  51. Sharpen your images
  52. The majority of cameras include an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor to reduce moiré. A side-effect of this filter is that sharpness is reduced.

    There are countless methods of sharpening your images, numerous programs and plug-ins to do it for you, and an abundance of tutorials and books written on the subject.

    Sharpening an image won't bring back any detail that wasn't captured in the first place, but it will make the image seem sharper.

  53. Focus on the eyes
  54. In portraits and macro photography, in focus eyes are crucial. If the eyes are out of focus, the whole image will look out of focus.

  55. Resize images
  56. When resizing images for the web, images will often seem sharper than when viewed at 100%. Thus, when pixel-peeping to determine the sharpness of a lens, look at 100% crops.

  57. Minimize compression
  58. There are two ways to save and compress an image: lossy and losslessly. Certain formats like .TIF and .PSD are lossless so you won't lose any image quality by saving, opening, and resaving these images. On the other hand, formats like .JPG are lossy. Saving an image in the jpeg format does lose image quality permanently. To minimize image quality loss and jpeg artifacting, save the image at a high quality level.

  59. Shoot at a low ISO
  60. First off, a noisy sharp photo is preferable a clean blurry one. However, the lower the ISO, the lower the noise, and the higher the quality of the photo. Noise covers up fine detail and adds grain. It is possible to reduce noise with specialized software, but doing so typically removes sharp details.

  61. Manually focus with a focusing screen
  62. Autofocus systems are not perfect. When an image is out of focus, it's out of focus. Sharpening may help slightly if the image is just a tiny bit out of focus, but there's really no way to fix it.

    Instead of using autofocus, you can manually focus your lens instead. Modern DSLRs have focusing screens unsuited for manually focusing, particularly with lenses faster than f/2.8. Older film SLRs often had split prism focusing screens which made focusing much easier. With the advent of autofocus systems, the focusing screens were replaced by brighter yet less accurate focusing screens.

    Some cameras make it very easy for the user to swap focusing screens. Others still let you do it, but with a little more effort. Either way, it's a fairly simple procedure. By swapping out focusing screens to something like the Canon EC-B, you can much more easily manually focus yourself. As an added bonus, you'll know for sure when your autofocus system is functioning properly!

  63. Test multiple lens copies
  64. Not all lenses are created equal. Even in the same batch, some copies are softer than others. If you buy from a local camera store, you may often be allowed to test multiple copies of the lens you desire and cherry pick the sharpest copy. You may pay a little more for the cost of the lens as well as in taxes, but you'll know you have a sharp copy without having to send back lenses several times hoping you get a good copy.

  65. Have your lenses calibrated.
  66. Soft copies of lenses do exist though the problem is less widespread than internet forums would make you believe. Regardless, if you feel your lens is soft, you can send it back to the manufacturer to have it calibrated. It will typically come back sharper than when you had it before. Additionally, you can send in both your body and your lens and have them calibrated to each other, assuming of course both the camera and lens are sent to its manufacturer for repair.

    Before you go packing up all your lenses and thinking they're soft, make sure you properly test your lenses by following the techniques listed above. Set it up on a tripod with remote release and MLU. Ensure your focus is accurate and that the subject doesn't move. Also, your expectations for what a lens will produce shouldn't be wildly unrealistic. If you decide that you do wish to send your equipment in for repair or for calibration, here are the appropriate places to mail your gear:

    List of Camera Factory Service Centers