Let’s face it a good photograph starts with an in-focus image and I am going to explain some basic concepts and ideas that will get you to take tack sharp photos like a pro – assuming that is the aim of the photo you are taking.
You may not always want everything in frame to be in focus, there are times when you may want a part blurry image to create a feeling of speed or motion or a particular mood (a subject I will cover in another article).
In the photo above (of the Blue Waxbills) only the centre bird is tack-sharp with the others being slightly out-of-focus but still clearly recognisable.
By using a shallow depth-of-field, achieved by selecting a wide aperture of f2.8, I was able to blur (soften) the distracting boulder on the left, have all the birds recognisable and the centre one in sharp focus as the main character in the image.
Looking at the photo I get a feeling that this central bird is the leader of this group and is talking to the rest of them, possibly giving them instructions on safety, before proceeding to drink.
I want to help you understand what the three elements are that will always impact on the sharpness of your images.
- You the photographer
- Your subject
- Your equipment
There’s a lot to cover so let’s get straight into it.
Improve Your Technique For Sharper Photos
Assuming you have all the settings right in terms of shutter speed ISO and aperture as discussed below your technique is still a very important aspect of taking tack sharp photos. It doesn’t help to have the right gear, the right settings and all the other things if your technique is wrong.
The simple act of pressing the shutter button can result in the slightest of movement at exactly the wrong time, rendering an out of focus image.
With a DSLR camera when you press the shutter button the mirror “slaps” up to allow light in, the aperture opens and the sensor is exposed to light. Camera shake is caused by the slight depression on the shutter release button and the mirror “slap”.
With a mirrorless camera there is no mirror “slap” but this does not guarantee a tack sharp photo as the slight downward pressure, on the shutter release button, is more than enough to cause camera shake.
So what can you do to overcome this?
The good news is that the modern day cameras do, to a certain degree, compensate for the “human” element with the built-in camera-shake stabilizers that many lenses have.
- Nikon call it Vibration Reduction (VR),
- Canon call it Image Stabilisation (IS),
- Tamron call it Vibration Compensation (VC)
- Sigma call it Optical Stabiliser (OS).
They’re all the same thing and are supposed to counter the human movement that is inevitable in every exposure.
However, that is not the end of the situation as other elements come into play: such as the weight of the lens and camera body, the weather, the terrain etc.
To improve your hand-holding technique do the following:
Holding the camera correctly.
- Hold the camera correctly. Your right hand should be holding the the body of the camera with your finger paused over the shutter release button. Your right hand is the dominant controlling hand.
- Your left hand should be cupped with your left fingers creating the shape of a nest, the tips your fingers should lightly touch the lens which is resting gently on them. If you grip the lens with this left hand there will be tension in your left forearm resulting in camera shake and an out-of-focus image. I cannot stress enough how important this left hand is – it must be as light as a lover’s touch!
Brace yourself when standing!
- Make a tripod out of your arms and body by tucking your elbows firmly into your waist forming a triangle with your arms and torso. Make sure you have no tension in your forearms.
- Plant your left foot in front of your right about shoulder width apart or more if windy or on slope.
- Lean into the shot.
Get down low.
- One of the most effective ways to brace yourself is to get low by either sitting on the ground or lying down.
- When sitting, place your feet wide out in front of your body. Adjust the height of your knees, by moving your feet, until you are in a comfortable position when your elbows are place on your knees. With your eye to the viewfinder you should have a very stable base to shoot off.
- When lying down create a tripod using your elbows set at least shoulder width apart. Make sure you are comfortable and can breathe.
All the photos shown on this page, besides being tack sharp, have impact because in each instance I was at the same level as my subjects.
Use a prop.
- Have a look around and if there is something you can lean on, such as a post, a wall, a vehicle a rail or similar to add additional stability.
- Use a tripod whenever possible.
- Invest in a good monopod – these are especially useful if you are going to be in the same spot taking several photos over a period of time, such as a sport’s event.
Consider (Understand) Your Subject
Subjects can vary from non-moving landscapes to incredibly fast moving animals such as the Honeysucker.
For the former you have the option of using a tripod (I always recommend a tripod for landscape photography) combined with a small aperture for greater depth-of-field and a variety of shutter speeds, dependent on the light.
Every subject will vary and needs to be considered on merit and very much dependent on the end result you are trying to produce.
For tack-sharp photos it is vital you use the correct shutter speed in combination with ISO and aperture to get the desired result. Do a Google search for “The Exposure Triangle” and study it until you understand how each of the three elements, shutter speed, ISO and aperture, effect each other.
Your Gear and Tack Sharp Photos … are they compatible?
Gear can make a difference to your photography, and in particular the sharpness of your images.
Lenses, in particular, play a big part in just how sharp a photo can be.
It has long been acknowledged that “prime” lenses are sharper than zoom lenses.
However, that does not mean you cannot take a well focused image with non-prime lenses; I have seen many award-winning photos taken with the amazing kit lenses that come with the camera.
Not every lens is the same either. You can put two identical lenses on the same body and get a slightly different result despite having identical settings. The reason for this is that each lens has a slightly different sweet spot – the aperture at which that particular lens is absolutely tack sharp.
- A lot of prime lenses are sharpest when they are 1 or 2 stops away from there widest.
- Zoom lenses are often at their sharpest at a particular aperture and focal length, not necessarily the longest focal length or the widest aperture.
Your camera’s capabilities can also impact on the sharpness of your photos in as much as some bodies can shoot at much faster shutter speeds and have sensors that produce wonderful photos at very high ISO.
The faster your shutter speed the more chance you have of freezing fast moving subjects such as the little Honeysucker mentioned above whose wings move at a truly amazing speed.
The combined weight of your camera and lens will impact on your ability to hold the camera still.
The bigger DSLR bodies can weigh a fair bit and when coupled with a longer lens it can weigh a ton! This means a far greater chance of camera shake.
The general rule of thumb is use a shutter speed of at least 1.5 times the longest focal length of the lens. A 70-300 mm lens will then need a shutter speed of at least 1/450 second (300 x 1.5) or faster. But this rule of thumb does not take into account the fact that prime lenses are way heavier than other lenses so I tend to use this rule … like never, and prefer to know my hand holding capabilities.
Of course if you need a slower shutter speed, to create the image you want or to get the correct exposure, you will need to use a tripod, monopod or some other method of providing a stable base.
If it’s been a long day and you’ve been carting your camera and gear around all day your ability to keep a steady hand will diminish. You may feel OK but your body will be fatigued and you may wonder why your last few photos are soft – the probable reason will be fatigue.
To overcome this, consider investing in a good tripod (or a gym subscription!). Jokes aside though if you have lots of long days out in the field your camera fitness will definitely improve.
What to Focus On For Really Sharp Photos … the critical focal point.
Another common question I see and am asked is what to focus on.
For live species, humans and animals, always the eye and always the eye nearest the camera.
When viewing a portrait of an animal or human we are naturally drawn to the eyes so make this your focal point.
Be aware that if you focus and recompose there may well be a shift in the plane of your camera relative to your subject. This can impact on the sharpness of the image dependent also on the aperture setting you have used, remember aperture determines the depth of field.
For landscapes you generally want everything in focus so choose a small aperture (large f-stop) of at least f16 and focus on a point 1/3rd of the way into the frame.
For other still life images select your point of interest and focus on that. Select the aperture you want depending on how much depth of field you are trying to obtain.
For fast moving subjects try to get as much of the subject in focus as possible – this can be achieved by setting the required number of focus points available with your particular camera body. The more expensive models have more focus points than the lower priced models. On my Nikon D7100 I use 21 focus points for birds in flight and similar fast moving subjects.
The best way to learn is to go out into the field and practice with a view to understanding your own limitations first, and improving on them, once you know your limitations then, and only then, should you start looking at upgrading your equipment.
Putting it All Together and Producing Tack Sharp Photos
I hope this has helped you to understand the likely reasons why your images may not be tack sharp and more importantly helped you understand what to look for and concentrate on.
Some ideas you may want to consider trying …
- Take on a “365 challenge” whereby you commit to taking at least one image each day and posting it online. It has to be a new image everyday taken on that day, regardless of anything else. When I did it I took the process a step further within myself and tried to produce an image every day that was better than the previous day’s effort. The improvement in my photography was very noticeable and handling my camera every day made me very familiar with the settings and menus.
- There are other alternatives to this idea. Do at least 1 photo a week. Shoot using one lens only (this is a great way to learn the lens intricacies).
- Join your local camera club and enter the monthly competitions. These local and national competitions are a great way to receive genuine critique on your photos and the first thing all judges consider is how sharp the image is. Facebook is great for your ego as all your friends will “like” your photos but they really don’t mean anything other than your friends are encouraging you. That is of course great but even an out-of-focus image will get a “like” and will not motivate you to improve your skills.
- Put your money where your mouth is and print the best photo you take each month. When I am paying money I find it increases my concentration very dramatically!
- Practice, practice and practice some more – but always with a purpose.
Remember it’s all about focus to get out there and concentrate on taking tack-sharp images by shooting, experimenting with settings and different lenses and making notes.
TIP – focus!
And finally if there are any questions or any particular aspect of your photography that you want me to help with I will do my best if you …
leave a comment below.
I am also very open to suggestions and further tips that will help fellow photographers.