How to be Sharp

Picking up where we left off the other day in our search to shoot a photo that has strong depth-of-field (dof) throughout the image AND is tack sharp, we learned about how to maximize dof by using the 1/3-in rule, a small aperture and focal length, now we are going to make sure other factors don’t destroy what we set out to accomplish.

There are two major reasons why images may not be as sharp as you would like.  The first concerns the equipment, the second the photographer and his/her technique.

So let’s get the easy one out of the way first.  Not all lenses are created equal.  The quality of your optics could have a great impact on the sharpness of your image.  If the optical quality is poor, or if your lens has been damaged, sharpness will deteriorate.   Your lenses likely cost more than your camera.  Choose them carefully and keep them well-maintained.  You’ll want to research lenses in the focal length of your interest before you purchase.  For Canon users there is an excellent website I consult quite often and have never been led wrong.   It is part of The Digital Picture site.  There are many others available on the Internet, just do a Google or a Bing search to find them.  The websites of photo magazines can also be a big help since they often review lenses.  Once you have that perfect lens for the money you must keep it clean.  A dirty lens will give you a dirty, out-of-focus picture, so clean before your photo sessions and keep dust and other debris away.

All right, now to the hard part, operator error.  Yes, that means you, but there are two types of operator error.  The first applies to the things you do to blur your photos.  The second deals with camera techniques you use that could result in inadequate sharpness.  Camera shake is probably the most frequently cited reason for lack of image sharpness.  It is also the easiest and least expensive to fix.  So, to avoid motion blur DO the following:

  1.  Use proper technique when handholding.  That is, hold the camera steady or brace yourself against another object to prevent motion blur.  You hold your camera with your elbows in and the camera against your face.  Grab your camera with one hand and place the other hand under the lens.  Using the LCD to focus may rock the boat, so use the viewfinder.  If need be, lean against a wall or other structure to provide additional support.  Squatting down may also help.  Breathe in and press the shutter button part way down, letting the camera focus, then press gently until the shutter does its job.  Pressing all the way down quickly and hard will not only likely move your camera, but won’t give the lens an opportunity to focus properly.
  2. Better yet, use a tripod or monopod.   Yes, it’s an investment, but one you won’t regret.  If you do use one, take care to turn off image stabilization on your camera or lens and don’t raise the center column too high, otherwise your tripod may shake more than your hands, especially in the wind. 

Okay, now what about those in-camera techniques: 

  1.  Many people do not realize that lenses have optimum f-stop settings where the best sharpness can be achieved.  Captured images are at their sharpest when the lens is stopped down a couple of f/stops from the minimum or maximum.  This means that if at all possible, you should use f/stops that are two stops from the maximum and minimal range of your lens.  A lens with a wide f/2.8 aperture, will be sharper at f/5.6 or f/8 and above, at least until two stops below the lenses smallest setting.  Practically, this means that you should avoid the extreme f/stops of your lens as much as possible, unless your selection serves some other purpose.
  2. Use your lens hood.  Without it, haze could form lowering the contrast in the scene, and the sharpness of your image will deteriorate.
  3. If you are handholding use a shutter speed that is at least the reciprocal the focal length of your lens.  If you are handholding with a 300mm lens, for instance, that means your shutter speed should be at least 1/300s to ensure a sharp photo.  If all else fails, increase your ISO setting until you can capture your image at a shutter speed that will avoid the “shakes.”  For our maximum dof project, we are primarily using smaller focal lengths, which should make it easier to handhold the camera if need be, but in low light situations, you may need to make an ISO adjustment.
  4. Learn when to turn off autofocus.  Autofocus does not work well in dark situations and if the spot you are focusing on has two different parts of the scene in close proximity, causing the lens to hunt and hunt for focus lock, you will need to go to manual or find another point of focus.
  5. If your scene requires a long exposure, the movement of the mirror as the shutter opens and closes could cause motion blur, especially at exposures longer than about 1/4s.  Dig into your manual and see if you can lock up the mirror during shutter release. 
  6. Many cameras today have a continuous shooting mode.  Some photographers swear that the images after the first in a sequence are often sharper than the first.  So take a few photos in a short burst and see if that gives you the sharpness you want.

Now that we know how to find the appropriate camera settings for  a strong dof scene and how to avoid human and technical problems that could reduce sharpness, we’re going to look next at those compositional elements that do justice to a landscape scene.

If I’ve forgotten one of your favorite ways to ensure tack sharp strong dof pictures, feel free to comment.  I’ll be back soon with the last part of this series.  Meanwhile, take a look at another strong dof image.  This one was taken at f/16, 1/50s, ISO 100, -1/3 exposure compensation.

"The Giant"

The Giant, 10 x 15 inches© 2010 Fran Saunders


Oh, and I get to do a little bragging today, too.  At the Dorchester Center for the Arts Community Art Show and Competition I was awarded a third place win for “Morning Glows” in the pro creative category and second place for “Moody River” in the pro open category.  You can see both below. Thank you, DCA!


About Fran Saunders

I am a photographer located on the beautiful Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I live with my husband and my Yellow Lab, Sam.
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