Do you want to capture sharp images every single time you take out your camera?
Because capturing sharp photos isn’t actually hard. It just takes a little bit of know-how–which I’m going to share with you in this post. Because it turns out there are a few simple tips you can use to maximize sharpness, whether you’re working in wind, rain, or even complete darkness.
So if you’re ready to create amazingly sharp photos, then keep reading.
What Makes a Sharp Image?
First things first:
In order to capture consistently sharp photos, you have to understand the nature of sharpness.
And, broadly speaking, sharpness is made up of four things:
- Sharp optics and a low-noise sensor. You want your lens to be sufficiently sharp, and you want your camera to produce low amounts of noise.
- The perfect shutter speed and aperture. You need to choose a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze your subject, and you need to choose an aperture that highlights your entire subject.
- Perfect focus. You need to ensure perfect focus on your main subject.
- An unmoving camera. You need to keep your camera steady so as to prevent camera shake.
If you fail to hit any of these four conditions, then your photos simply won’t be sharp.
So my goal in this article is to show exactly how you can get the sharpest optics, choose the perfect shutter speed, nail perfect focus, and keep your camera still.
Let’s get started.
Selecting the Perfect Gear for Sharp Photos
This is the first step in capturing sharp photos:
Using the perfect gear.
Now, gear is just a small part of getting sharp images. Gear won’t guarantee you sharp shots. So don’t expect to rely on your gear; it won’t deliver, unless you have the skills to make it work for you (note that these skills are discussed in the remaining sections of this article).
But if you use poor-quality gear, you won’t get sharp images, no matter how good your technique.
There are two important elements to sharp gear.
First, you want a lens that is designed to be pin-sharp. The lens should be able to resolve crisp, clear details. Ideally, you should use a lens that has corner-to-corner sharpness–because many lenses perform well in the center of the frame, but become soft at the edges.
Generally speaking, prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. This is especially true at bargain prices; bargain prime lenses tend to be tack-sharp, whereas bargain zoom lenses perform poorly. So unless you want to fork over a fistful of cash, a prime lens is the way to go.
This photo was taken with a very cheap prime lens:
If you’re looking for top-of-the-line sharpness, professional-quality lenses such as Canon’s L-series optics do an incredible job. But they’re very pricey, so I don’t recommend them unless you’re extremely serious about your photography.
Also, note that plenty of cheap prime lenses can get you results that, if not identical to professional-level lenses, are very impressive.
Now let’s talk about cameras:
The camera quality only affects image sharpness in one main way: The more noise the camera produces, the less sharp the image appears. This isn’t a problem at low ISOs like ISO 100 and ISO 200, because pretty much any modern camera performs just fine at these settings. But at ISO 800, some cameras will give you very clean images–while others will give you intensely noisy, unpleasant-looking photos.
High ISOs are necessary if you often find yourself shooting in low light. If that’s something you identify with, choose your camera carefully. I recommend purchasing a camera with a full-frame sensor, which is guaranteed to keep the noise levels down at higher ISOs.
Related Post: Prime vs Zoom: Which One Should I Choose?
Selecting the Perfect Settings for Sharp Images
If you want sharp photos, you must master your camera settings. Shutter speed and aperture can be the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry shot.
Fortunately, shutter speed and aperture aren’t too difficult to learn. Here’s what you should know:
Shutter speed refers to the length of time your camera sensor is exposed to the outside world. In other words, shutter speed is the amount of time you take a photo for.
Shutter speed is written in fractions of a second, like this: 1/100s, 1/250s, 1/500s, 1/1600s, etc.
The smaller the fraction, the less light you let in, and the darker your photos. Also, the smaller the fraction, the faster the shutter speed. And if you want sharp photos, your shutter speeds need to be fast.
Here’s a rule of thumb you can use to select your shutter speed:
The shutter speed should at least be the reciprocal of your lens length. So if you’re shooting with a 300mm lens, you should have a shutter speed of at least 1/300s. And if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, you should have a shutter speed of at least 1/50s.
This will ensure sharp shots, even if you’re working with a long, heavy lens, such as a 400mm telephoto.
However, if your subject is moving, you need to increase the shutter speed accordingly. A running person may need a shutter speed of 1/500s. A moving car may need a shutter speed of 1/1000s. And a flying bird may need a shutter speed of 1/2000s or more.
The aperture is a hole in the camera lens. The narrower the aperture, the less light you let in, which makes the photo darker.
More importantly, as the aperture narrows, your photo becomes sharp throughout (known as the depth of field). Basically, a narrow aperture gives you a deep depth of field, which means your photo is sharp from throughout the frame, like this:
A wide aperture, on the other hand, gives you a shallow depth of field, which causes only a sliver of the photo to be sharp, like this:
Aperture is represented by f-numbers: f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4, f/8, etc. Higher numbers indicate a narrower aperture.
Note that a wide aperture isn’t necessarily bad. But it will give your photo a softer look. And lenses tend to perform better at narrower apertures, so wide aperture shots look softer in general.
So if you’re aiming for complete sharpness, I recommend using an aperture of f/8 and beyond.
Sharp Settings in Perspective
One last thing to know about sharp settings:
Shutter speed and aperture work together to determine the overall exposure (i.e., the overall brightness of the scene). So you can’t just use a narrow aperture and a fast shutter speed to get sharp shots every time. Instead, it has to be a compromise, designed to keep the photo bright while also making it as sharp as possible.
This might involve widening the aperture for a blurry background but a sharp subject, like this:
Related Post: The Ultimate Guide to Sharp Smartphone Photography
Achieving Perfect Focus for Sharp Photos
If you miss focus on your subject, the shot just won’t look sharp.
Which is why missed focus is a common culprit of blurry photos.
But how do you nail your focus consistently?
You can improve your focusing by using continuous AF with back-button focusing. This will revolutionize your photography–it’s a huge game-changer, and one that I urge you to start using today.
Let me explain:
Normally, when you press the shutter down halfway, your lens focuses. Press the shutter down all the way, and your camera takes a shot.
But with back button focus, you separate the autofocus function from the shooting function. You press a button on the back of your camera to focus (often the AE AF Lock or AF-ON), then press the shutter button to take the shot.
This is extremely useful because it allows you to lock focus on your subject by pressing the back button before letting go. You’ll then be free to recompose and take your shot, without having to worry about your camera refocusing.
Plus, if your subject starts moving, you simply hold down the back button, and (as long as you’ve activated AF-C) your camera will track your subject.
Note that you should generally try to acquire focus using your camera’s center autofocus point. This point will get you fast, accurate results.
To turn on back-button focus, you’ll need to check your camera manual and make a few changes in the camera menu. But it’ll absolutely be worth it.
Related Post: How to Make Absolutely Sharp Images
Keep Your Camera Still for Sharp Shots
If your shutter speed is fast enough, you’ll never have to worry about keeping your camera steady. You’ll be able to rely on the fast shutter, so you’ll capture sharp photos regardless.
However, as I explained above, selecting a shutter speed must be part of a compromise. It’s often not feasible to choose a lightning-fast shutter speed, unless you crank up the ISO and widen the aperture–both of which come with problems of their own.
So you often have to choose a slower shutter speed. But this makes your camera vulnerable to camera shake.
What do you do?
To keep your photos sharp, you often have to keep your camera completely still. And that’s what this section is all about.
The first thing you can do to keep your camera still is to use a tripod. Good-quality tripods are rock-solid, even in tough conditions, and they’ll make sure you don’t worry about camera shake. Unfortunately, the best tripods cost a lot of money, and cheaper tripods have other drawbacks: heavy legs and a lack of true stability. Plus, some photographers don’t like tripods because they limit your overall flexibility.
However, tripods are a must-have for serious landscape photographers; you won’t be able to capture sharp shots at narrow apertures without one.
Monopods are another option. They’re good for photographers who are shooting in low light but don’t need to drop down below 1/50s or so.
If you don’t like the idea of carrying extra equipment into the field, then I recommend you work on your handholding technique. Try tucking your elbows in and holding the camera close to your face. Bend your knees slightly or, better yet, get on the ground. You can also lean against something stable, such as a wall or a tree.
Capturing this shot took some carefully-stabilized handholding:
Another trick is to use a shutter release or a self-timer. Both of these will cut down on vibrations caused by pressing the shutter button.
Note that purchasing cameras or lenses with image stabilization will increase your ability to handhold at slower shutter speeds. So try to find gear with good image stabilization capabilities.
You can also try using your continuous shooting mode, which will allow you to capture a burst of shots at once. Generally, the photos in the middle of the burst are the sharpest, so you can take several shots and pick the best one once you get home.
Finally, if you’re using a DSLR then you can turn on Live View. This will flip the camera mirror upward in advance and prevent vibrations from blurring your shots.
I took this photo in a low-light situation without a tripod, using a number of the tricks detailed above:
Related Post: How to Shoot Sharp Portraits: A Step-By-Step Guide
How to Capture Sharp Images: Conclusion
You should now know exactly how to capture sharp images.
You know all about choosing the right gear. You know all about choosing the right settings. And you know how to focus and keep your camera still for the sharpest shots.
So get out. Start shooting.
And watch as your images become amazingly sharp.
Sharp images are a combination of sharp gear, good camera settings, perfect focusing, and good technique.
I recommend getting prime lenses and a full-frame camera for the sharpest images (though an APS-C camera should work just fine, especially if you don’t plan to do much shooting in low light).
I also recommend choosing a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture.
To nail focusing, you should try back-button focus, which is practically guaranteed to revolutionize your focusing skills (and your photography as a whole).
Finally, stabilize your camera with a tripod, a monopod, or by tucking in your elbows and stabilizing your body.
If your photos are consistently blurry, then you’re going to want to make a few changes to your photography technique. The problem is you much more often than it is your gear, so start there.
First, make sure you always stabilize yourself before taking the shot. You should tuck in your elbows and bring your camera close to your body.
Second, ensure your shutter speed is sufficiently fast, especially if your subject is moving.
Third, make sure you’re focusing correctly. Ideally, you should be using AF-C with back-button focus. This lets you easily lock focus and recompose. It also lets you track moving subjects without having to switch between AF-S and AF-C.
If none of these fix your sharpness problems, then you may want to consider purchasing a prime lens.
To capture sharp images of moving subjects, you should use a fast shutter speed. You should experiment with different speeds, but 1/500s should be good for capturing a moving person, 1/1000s should let you capture a moving car, and 1/2000s should let you capture moving birds (though you should always err in the direction of faster shutter speeds).
To consistently capture sharp photos, you should use back-button focus with AF-C. That way, you’ll be able to focus and recompose with ease. Use the center autofocus point to lock focus on your subject.
Back-button focus is a little-known camera function that will allow you to capture consistently sharp shots when focusing. Instead of focusing with the shutter button, back-button focus allows you to lock focus using a button the back of your camera. This makes it possible to lock focus and recompose with ease.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.