First of all, it is important to know that there is no single photography tip that would help you take tack sharp (meaning ultimate level of sharpness) pictures, but rather a combination of multiple factors coming together and producing a sharp and in focus image. It is the main point that separates the amateurs from pros: the pros will do all the little things amateurs will miss, and are willing to go the distance to get that tack sharp photo. We bring you a compiled list of these factors you have to think of, sorted in the sections according to your digital camera & equipment, digital camera settings, picture taking process, and digital darkroom:
Camera and Equipment
1. A Sturdy Tripod – Camera shake is the most common cause of soft shots. No matter how steady you think you can hold your camera, there will always be some movement. This is the reason why pro photographers always use tripod (even in daylight), since they leave nothing to chance. A tripod’s only job is to keep camera steady, and the degree to which they are successful at that depends among others on a price. Cheap tripod is a good place to start for a beginner, and you can get one for as low as 15-20$. However if you are serious about your gear you might look around 200-300$ price tag for the legs and additional 100$ for the ball head. Ball head will not help with sharpness, but save you a huge amount of time with adjusting and readjusting the camera. You can check our recommended tripods in the 5 essential camera accessories post. In case you do not have a tripod, lean against a wall or some surface for support. It will help.
2. Remote Shutter Release – Although tripods drastically reduce camera shake, having your hands on camera, still introduces some movement. This is where this handy tool steps in. It will help you minimize camera shake, resulting in sharper pictures. There are two types of remote shutter releases: wired and wireless. If your digital camera supports it, we recommend wireless, as it makes no contact whatsoever, ever further reducing the chances of a camera shake. In case you do not have a remote shutter release, use camera’s self-timer function.
…in terms of Lens – This one is pretty obvious, but I would still like to stress it out, since a good lens makes a big difference in sharpness. There are a couple rules of thumb here:
3. Faster Lens are usually sharper – Lens featuring bigger aperture such as f/1.4 or f/2.8 are sharper than the usual lens (f/3.5 – f/5.6), and often twice as expensive. While I am not sure if it has anything to do with the max. aperture, faster lens is usually aimed towards photography enthusiast and pro market segment, and consequently features higher quality glass with better construction, which in the end results in improved sharpness. However, we would recommend you to still check individual lens review for sharpness info.
4. Primes are sharper than zooms – There has been a lot of debate here, but according to the review published in January issue of Digital SLR User, prime lens are still sharper than zoom lens. This is understandable since the prime lens are optimized for a single focal length, and are much simpler to produce with great quality.
Camera (and Lens) Settings
Note: some of the following tips will assume you are using a tripod or another type of camera support while trying to shoot for the tack sharp pictures. These tips will be marked with a *.
5*. Turn Vibration Reduction (or IS) OFF – assuming you are using a tripod and a remote release, in order to take sharpness to the next level, you will need to turn off Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) on your lens (or digital camera). I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but if you understand how these lens function, it makes more sense. These types of lenses look for vibration (even if there may be none), which in turn causes some (although minor) vibration. Ironical, isn’t it ? To simplify, if you are using a tripod, turn VR or IS OFF, as it does more harm then good.
6*. Use Mirror Lock-Up function – ok, we have eliminated the influence of a photographer, and the lens. There is one more process that introduces camera shake during picture taking process: flippin
g the mirror up (which occurs in most dSLR cameras). Some DSLRs offer a Mirror Lock-Up function as a solution. It means that the first press on the shutter release button will flip the mirror up, while second press will activate the shutter. This process will help eliminate shake that occurs as a consequence of mirror flipping. However, if your DSLR is not equipped with a Mirror Lock-Up control (my Pentax K200D does not have it except for cleaning), do not despair. Simply check our following tip.
7*. Use Self – timer function – this is a handy function that helps in case you do not have remote shutter release and/or Mirror Lock-Up control. The way it works is, the moment you press shutter release, it will flip mirror up, count down, and then release the shutter. In doing so, it will allow the vibration caused by pressing the shutter release button and flipping the mirror up to settle before taking a picture.
8*. Avoid increasing ISO – if you can afford it, always use the lowest ISO available. While increasing ISO can help you minimize blur caused by camera shake, it will introduce another plague – noise. The effects of increasing ISO and how does noise affect your pictures is best described in our ISO guide. What you need to remember here, if you are using a tripod, remote release etc, always use lowest ISO possible. It will result in cleaner and sharper images every time.
…now we come to shooting parameters…
9. Shoot at Lens’ Sharpest Aperture – whenever possible, shoot at your lens’ sharpest aperture. Assuming that you have no special requirements in terms of depth of field (DOF), you can maximize the sharpness your lens’ can provide by shooting at the sharpest aperture. A good rule of thumb is that your lens sharpest aperture is about two full stops smaller than wide open (i.e. if you are using kit lens with max aperture of f/3.5 like me, your sweet spot will be around f/6.7 or f/9.5). This is not necessarily the case for all lenses, but will work for the most of them. If you still need to control the depth of field, such as in e.g. landscape pictures, check following tips.
10. Control Sharpness through DOF – in case you need to control depth of field, and make sure that as much of the scene is possible is sharp, such as e.g. landscape pictures, a basic rule would state that you should use the minimum aperture possible (such as f/16, f/22 or f/32). Please note that it will not ensure the maximum sharpness for the selected area, but it will ensure that most of the captured area is in sharp focus. For more information on depth of field and how to control dof please check our depth of field article, or video guide. If you still need to squeeze every bit of sharpness your lens can deliver in your landscape shot, you need to ….
11. Use Hyperfocal Focusing Technique – this is great photography technique that is particularly popular with landscape photographers who often want to have both foreground interest, such as rocks and the horizon in sharp focus. The simple version of this focusing technique relies on the basic optical principle that the area 2/3 behind the point focused on and 1/3 in front will also appear to be sharp. This means that if you focus on infinity, you are effectively wasting the 2/3 beyond the point of focus. So, if you focus before infinity (at the hyperfocal distance), you can maximize on the parts of your image that will appear tack sharp. Finding the exact hyperfocal distance for your lens can be tricky as it depends on the lens, the focal length, the aperture used as well as camera’s sensor crop factor, however there is a great online calculator provided by DOFMaster. It is used for calculating depth of field as well, but it also calculates hyperfocal distance. If you are really interested in calculating hyperfocal distance yourself, there is an excellent article on Great Landscape Photography website.
Previous tips focused more around gear and camera settings before pressing the shutter release. Tips below focus on either during or after shooting process.
12. Use pre-selected focus points – while today’s cameras make good and quick auto focus judgments, we strongly advise against using automatic selection of the focus point. Using fully automatic focus point selection means that you are letting your camera decide where in the scene will the focus be, and what areas of the photo will appear sharp, effectively nullifying all of the hard work described in previous tips. This might be OK for snapshots, but not if you pursue tack sharp pictures. However, most of the DSLRs will allow you to define manually which focus point to use (select AF point based on composition, dof, and effect you want), and then let the auto-focus do the hard work for you.
13. Use manual focusing – there are some cases where auto-focus will simply not suffice. In these cases such as macro photography, it is better to use manual focus, as it gives you better control about a specific spot you want in sharp focus. Macro photography is well known for its extremely limited depth of field (in millimeter range) where pin-point focusing is absolutely critical. Also one of it common uses is in sports photography, where is common to anticipate where the action will occur and then pre-focus on the selected location.
…if you are shooting a fast-moving object such as a motorbike you might want to…
14. Use Continuous Shooting Mode – if you are into action shots of fast moving objects, you can either pre-focus as stated in previous tip, and/or use continuous shooting mode, and fire a quick burst of shots, ensuring that you will succeed in capturing the action shot you were after. If there will need to re-focus between the shots, you might want to engage continuous auto-focusing (AF.C) mode.
After you have taken your photo, make sure you…
15. Zoom in to check sharpness – I cannot begin to tell you how many great shots i have lost over this one. Since your digital camera’s LCD is small, it is a good bet that most of the pictures taken will appear sharp. It is only when looking at your computer’s screen that you will realize that some pictures are not as sharp as you wanted them to be. That is why it is important that you zoom in and check sharpness in the photo you have just taken. The scene might be gone just a few minutes later, and if you do not check immediately, you might miss it.
…which leads us to:
Digital Darkroom Sharpening
It is important to get as sharp images as possible in-camera. Photo manipulation tools offer additional step in sharpening, but you have to be very careful not to overdo it.
16. Adobe Camera Raw Sharpening – ACR’s tools are powerful enough to help you through image-enhancement process from beginning to end. Once you have adjusted your picture, click through to the details tab for a final sharpen.
17. Photoshop Elements – Adjust sharpness tool enables you to combat three common types of blur: motion, gaussian and lens. The adjustment to the amount and radius should always be made in tandem to gauge the process of sharpening.
18. CS4 Smart Sharpen – This is similar to the Elements Adjust Sharpness tool. It enables the same blur removal types and sliders, but also allows save settings and options to tackle the sharpening in shadows and highlights.
19. Photoshop Unsharp Mask – Although there are three points of adjustment, Unsharp Mask remains a popular option. The Threshold slider enables you to adjust the effect of the Amount and Radius, making it perfect for use in noisy shots.
20. Sharpening using High Pass filter – Photoshop’s most popular tool Unsharp Mask although being the most popular option, may not be necessarily the best one. There are different and better tools to use, and one of them is by using the High Pass filter as shown in this excellent article featured on Digital Photography School website.
Hopefully our tips will help you shoot sharper pictures. If you found these tips useful please feel free to share it with your friends. If you know of any other tips and techniques, please notify us by commenting and we will include them in our photography school. Until then, happy shooting.