How to Get Sharp Photos

One of the things that makes photography frustrating is the softness and blur in pictures. Sharp photos are much more appealing than soft images. It is very disappointing when you take a picture of a special moment and images come out soft/blurry or out of focus. So, in this article, I will go through the techniques I use to make sure that my images always come out tack sharp. Let’s start with the reasons why an image might come out blurry:

  1. A long shutter speed can capture camera shake, which would produce a blurry image
  2. Your subject could be moving and causing motion blur, made worse by a long shutter speed
  3. Poor focus acquisition would result in a soft image
  4. You might have a bad lens or a lens that is not capable of producing sharp photos
  5. Your ISO could be set to a very high number, resulting in lots of noise and loss of detail

To resolve these issues, you need to address them all at the same time, which will help achieve optimal sharpness.

Set the Right ISO

Start with setting your camera to the lowest ISO. Remember that the camera base ISO will produce the highest quality images with maximum sharpness. The higher the ISO (sensor sensitivity), the more noise you will see in the image.

Use the Hand-Holding Rule

If you have a zoom lens that goes beyond 100mm, I would recommend applying the general hand-holding “rule”, which states that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length set on the lens, or faster. For example, if you have your lens zoomed at 125mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/125 of a second. Keep in mind that this rule applies to 35mm film and digital cameras, so if you own an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera with a crop factor (not full frame), you need to do the math accordingly. For Nikon cameras with a 1.5x crop factor, just multiply the result by 1.5, whereas for Canon cameras, multiply by 1.6. If you have a zoom lens such as the 18-135mm to the longest focal range of the lens (135mm), which is 1/200 of a second.

Choose Your Camera Mode Wisely

When taking pictures in low light shoot in Aperture-Priority mode and set the aperture to the widest setting on my lens – the maximum aperture, AKA the smallest f-number. This is usually in the range of f/1.4 to f/5.6 depending on the lens. Set the aperture to its maximum value of f/1.8.) The camera automatically meters the scene and guesses what the shutter speed should be to properly expose the image. You can easily adjust the camera’s guess with exposure compensation. So, set your camera to aperture-priority mode and set the aperture to the lowest possible f-number.

Pick a Fast Enough Shutter Speed

After you set your camera to aperture priority and pick the right metering mode, point it at the subject that you want to photograph and half-press the shutter. Doing so should show you the shutter speed on the bottom of the viewfinder.

  • If the shutter speed is showing 1/100 or faster, you should be good to go, unless anything in your photo is moving quickly (or if you’re using a long telephoto lens; remember the hand-holding rule). Snap an image or two and see if you are getting any blur in your image. I typically review my images on the back of the camera at 100% and make sure that nothing is blurry. If anything in your photo is blurry – the entire image, or just one fast-moving subject – use a quicker shutter speed like 1/200 or 1/500 second.
  • If the shutter speed is below 1/100, it might mean you simply do not have enough light. If you are indoors, opening up windows to let some light in or turning the lights on will help to increase your shutter speed. It is still possible to capture sharp photos faster than 1/100 second handheld, but it becomes increasingly more difficult the longer your shutter speed is.
Use High ISO in Dark Environments

If you are still getting blurry images, try to hold the camera steady without shaking it too much and take another picture. If that doesn’t help, set a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp photos, and raise your ISO instead. You can do this via Auto ISO (described in the next section) or manually increasing ISO. In dark environments, it is not unusual to use quite a high ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed. Although this adds more noise/grain to a photo, that is usually better than capturing a blurry image.

Enable Auto ISO

Many cameras today have an “Auto ISO” feature that is very useful for capturing sharp pictures. So, set it to “On.” Set your Maximum Sensitivity to ISO 1600. If you have the option to select a minimum shutter speed, set it to “Auto” as well, which automatically applies the hand-holding rule! If you don’t have this option, set “Minimum shutter speed” to 1/100 second. This is a useful feature because, if the amount of light entering the lens decreases and the shutter speed goes below 1/100 of a second, the camera automatically increases ISO to keep the shutter speed above 1/100 of a second. Some cameras don’t have an Auto ISO feature. In that case, you will have to adjust ISO manually to do the same thing. Just raise your ISO in darker environments to keep your shutter speed at a reasonable level. I don’t recommend raising the ISO above ISO 1600 or perhaps ISO 3200. Anything higher than that in an entry-level DSLR produces too much noise. On older-generation, you might want to keep the maximum ISO to 800.

Hold Your Camera Steady

While holding your camera, there is a direct correlation between the camera shutter speed and blurry images. The longer the shutter speed (especially below 1/100 of a second), the higher the chance for blurrier images. Why? Because while hand-holding a camera, factors such as your stance, breathing, and camera hand-holding technique all play a huge role in stabilizing the camera and producing shake-free images. You need to stand as steady and stable as possible when you have to deal with slow shutter speeds. When I shoot long shutter shutter speeds handheld, like 1/10 second, and it does help me to get sharper images with a higher number and avoid camera shaking.

Focus Carefully on Your Subject

Learn how to focus correctly and deal with focusing issues. This one is very important, as your camera focus directly impacts image sharpness. The first thing you need to learn is how to differentiate between a camera shake and motion blur and a focus problem. If the subject in your image is blurry, but something closer to the camera or farther away is perfectly in focus and sharp, it is most likely a focus issue. If the whole image is blurry and nothing is sharp, it is generally due to using too long of a shutter speed handheld. And lastly, if a fast-moving object in your photo is blurry and streaky in the direction of travel, then your shutter speed is not fast enough to eliminate subject motion. That isn’t a focus problem; use a faster shutter speed.

Reduce Motion Blur in Your Subject

If you are photographing a person, tell them to freeze and not move while you take their picture. When you work with slow shutter speeds, even if you do everything right, your images might still come out blurry just because your subject moved while the shutter was open. This is called motion blur. Sometimes people like the effect of the motion blur, especially for high-speed objects like cars. To reproduce this effect on your camera, set your camera to Shutter-Priority mode, then set your shutter to 1/100 of a second or less. Ask your subject to move his/her hand quickly, while not moving the body. The result should be a sharp picture of the person’s body while having a motion blur on his/her hand. If you want motion blur, use a long shutter speed like 1/10 second or even several seconds (if you’re using a tripod). But you’ll usually want to avoid motion blur when taking pictures of people or actions, so make sure to use a fast enough shutter speed. The hand-holding rule doesn’t apply if your subject is moving very quickly, because it is all about eliminating camera shake blur, not motion blur from your subject.

Turn On Vibration Reduction

Make sure that your vibration reduction (VR on Nikon) or image stabilization (IS on Canon) is set to “On” on your lens if you have it. Many of the consumer zoom lenses have some sort of anti-shake and vibration reduction technology in them, allowing one to shoot at lower shutter speeds and still get sharp images. If you have one of those lenses, go ahead and try lowering your shutter speed to a lower value. You can even lower down the “minimum shutter speed” in your Auto ISO settings to something like 1/50 of a second and still get sharp images.

Use a Faster Lens

Get a good fast prime lens. Lenses are relatively inexpensive, ranging between £200 to £400 for the f/1.4 model. Very few zoom lenses can achieve the same optical quality as the prime lenses, because prime lenses have simpler design and are optimized to perform for only one focal range. Although you lose the ability to zoom in and out, prime lenses are much faster than most zoom lenses and are excellent choices for low-light and portrait photography. Because of the shallow depth of field lenses are also capable of producing pictures with beautiful bokeh with nicely blurred backgrounds.

Use Depth of Field Strategically

When photographing people or animals, always focus on the closest eye to you. This is very important, especially when dealing with large apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8 because your depth of field will be very shallow. As long as the eye of the subject is sharp, the image will most likely be acceptable.

Pick a Sharp Aperture

Aperture also plays a role in achieving optimal sharpness. For landscape photography, I mostly use apertures between f/8 and f/11, while for portraits, I use apertures of f/1.4 to f/8, depending on what I want to do with the background. Most lenses are sharpest between f/5.6 and f/8, so if you are shooting during a bright sunny day, try setting your aperture to a number between f/4 and f/8 and see if it makes a difference. Just keep in mind that playing with aperture changes the depth of field and will have an impact on the lens bokeh, which are usually more important than the sharpness effects.

Clean Your Lenses!

As a photographer 

I have seen some photographers use lenses that are not kept in a proper camera bag with no lens covers on them. That can be very bad and all I could see was lenses so dirty that I couldn’t believe the person was still able to take pictures. A dirty and greasy front element of the lens will cause inaccurate camera focusing and poor image contrast. If you don’t know how to clean lenses properly there are plenty of videos on YouTube to help you learn.

Use a Tripod in Low Light

Get a tripod for low-light situations. For shooting lightning storms, fireworks, city lights, and other things you might be interested in at night, a sturdy tripod is a must! Do not buy a cheap tripod designed for point-and-shoot cameras, but rather invest in a heavy-duty, sturdy tripod that can handle your DSLR or advanced mirrorless camera. Using the self-timer mode or having a cable or wireless shutter release is also very helpful to minimize camera shake. 

Shoot a Burst of Photos

Set your camera to a “continuous shooting” mode (also known as burst mode), then photograph your subject in bursts by just holding the shutter button. Especially if you are photographing a moving subject like children or pets, burst mode helps improve the odds that you will get a shot that is spot-on. With most cameras today, you can fire off at least 3 photos per second, and often more like 4 or 5. With a bit of panning to follow along with your subject, you can get sharp photos even when your subject doesn’t stay still. Sometimes, you’ll get just enough in focus then everything else gets blurred because of the motion, leaving you with a nice isolation that highlights the emotion of that moment.

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