Taking sharp images is something that most photographers want – but clean, crisp, sharp images can be difficult to achieve.
Before we start exploring how to improve sharpness, let’s talk about the main causes of a lack of sharpness:
- Poor focus – The most obvious way to get images that are ‘un-sharp’ is by shooting them out of focus. This might be a result of focusing on the wrong part of the image, being too close to your subject for the camera to focus, selecting an aperture that produces a very narrow depth of field, or taking an image too quickly without checking that it is in focus.
- Subject movement – Another type of blur in shots is the result of your subject moving; this is generally related to the shutter speed being too slow.
- Camera shake – You can get blur if you, as the photographer, generate movement while taking the image. This often relates to shutter speed and/or the stillness of your camera.
- Noise – Noisy shots are pixelated and look like they have lots of little dots over them (get up close to your TV, and you’ll get the same effect).
10 Ways to Take Sharper Images: Tips for Beginners
Here’s a list of 10 basic things to think about when shooting – so you can get consistently sharp images.
(Note: There’s also a lot you can do in Photoshop after taking your images!)
1. Hold your camera well
A lot of blur in the photos that I see is a direct result of camera shake (i.e., the movement of your camera for that split second when your shutter is open).
While the best way to tackle camera shake is to use a tripod (see below!), there are many times when using one is impractical, and you’ll need to shoot while holding your camera.
I’ve written a tutorial previously on how to hold a digital camera, but in brief:
Use both hands, keep the camera close to your body, and support yourself with a wall, tree, or some other solid object.
2. Use a tripod
Regular readers of this site will have seen our articles on tripods and know that we’re a big fan of using tripods as a way to reduce (and even eliminate) camera shake.
While tripods are not always practical, the result you’ll get when you do go to the effort of hauling one around can be well worth it.
Related Article: A Beginner’s Guide to Tripods
3. Select a fast shutter speed
Perhaps one of the first things to think about in your quest for sharp images is the shutter speed that you select.
Now, the faster your shutter speed, the less impact camera shake will have, and the more you’ll freeze movement in your shots.
As a result, you reduce the likelihood of two of the main types of blur in one go (subject movement and camera movement).
But how do you pick the right shutter speed? I recommend the “rule” for handholding:
Choose a shutter speed with a denominator that is larger than the focal length of the lens.
- If you have a lens that is 50mm in length, don’t shoot any slower than 1/60th of a second
- If you have a lens with a 100mm focal length, shoot at 1/125th of a second or faster
- If you are shooting with a 200mm lens, shoot at 1/250th of a second or faster
Keep in mind that the faster your shutter speed is, the larger you’ll need to make your aperture to compensate (see the next section!). And this will mean you have a smaller depth of field, which makes focusing more of a challenge.
4. Choose a narrower aperture
Aperture impacts the depth of field (the zone that is in focus) of your images. Decreasing your aperture size (which means increasing the f-number) will increase the depth of field – meaning that the zone in focus will include both close and distant objects.
Do the opposite (by moving to f/4, for example), and the foreground and background of your images will be more out of focus. Therefore, you’ll need to be exact with your lens focusing.
Keep in mind that the smaller your aperture, the longer your shutter speed will need to be – which makes moving subjects more difficult to keep sharp.
5. Keep your ISO as low as possible
The third element of the exposure triangle is ISO, which has a direct impact on the noisiness of your shots.
Choose a larger ISO, and you’ll be able to use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture (which, as we’ve seen, helps with sharpness). On the other hand, this will increase the noise in your shots.
Depending on your camera (and how much you plan to enlarge your images), you can probably get away with using an ISO of up to 400 (or even 800 or 1600 on some cameras) without too much noise. But for pin sharp images, keep the ISO as low as possible.
6. If you have image stabilization, use it
Many cameras and lenses are now being released with different forms of image stabilization (IS).
Image stabilization won’t eliminate camera shake, but can definitely help reduce its impact. I find that using IS lenses gives me an extra two or three stops (i.e., I can drop the shutter speed by around two to three stops) when handholding my camera.
Keep in mind that IS helps with camera movement but not subject movement – so it’s not helpful in low-light action scenarios.
Also, don’t use image stabilization when you mount your camera to a tripod.
7. Nail focus as often as possible
Perhaps the most obvious technique to work on when aiming for sharp images is focusing. Most of us use our camera’s autofocusing, and this works well – but don’t assume that your camera will always get it right.
Make sure you check what part of the image is in focus before hitting the shutter. And if the focusing isn’t right, then try again or switch to manual focus. This is particularly important if you’re shooting with a large aperture (small depth of field), where even the slightest focusing error can result in your subject being noticeably out of focus.
Most modern cameras have a range of focus modes you can shoot in, and choosing the right focusing mode is very important. You can learn how to do that here.
8. Make sure your lenses are sharp
This one is for DSLR and mirrorless owners:
If you have the budget for it, invest in good-quality lenses, because this can have a major impact upon the sharpness of your images.
For example, shortly after buying my first DSLR, I was in the market for an everyday zoom lens that would give me the ability to have both wide and telephoto zoom capabilities. I bought a Canon EF 28-135mm lens. It was a good lens (and reasonably priced), but it wasn’t as sharp as some of my other lenses.
A few months later, I borrowed a Canon EF 24-105mm “L” lens (“L” is Canon’s professional series of lenses) from a friend, and I was amazed by the difference in sharpness between the lenses.
While the first lens was good for what I paid for it, I ended up going for an upgrade. The new lens is now almost permanently attached to my camera.
9. Get your eyes checked
Since I was young, I’ve worn glasses. But in recent years, I’ve been a little slack in getting my eyes checked.
Recently, I got them tested for the first time in a number of years, and I was surprised to find that they’d deteriorated significantly. Getting new glasses improved a number of areas of my life, one of which was my photography.
Also connected to this is checking the diopter on your camera, if it has one.
What’s a diopter?
It’s usually a little wheel positioned next to your viewfinder that lets you tweak the sharpness of the image you see when shooting. The diopter is particularly useful for people with poor eyesight, because you can use it to compensate for your vision (so you won’t have to remember to wear glasses when out shooting!).
10. Clean your equipment
Recently, my wife and I went on a window-cleaning frenzy at our place. Over the previous months, the grime on our windows had gradually built up without us really noticing it.
But when we did clean the windows, we were amazed at how much more light got through and how much better the view outside was!
The same can be true for your lens. Keep it clean, and you’ll eliminate the smudges, dust, and grime that can impact your shots.
Similarly, a clean image sensor is a wonderful thing if you have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, as getting dust on it can produce noticeable blotches in your final images.
11. Use your lens’s aperture sweet spot
Lenses have some spots in their aperture ranges that are especially sharp. In many cases, the ultimate “sweet spot” is one or two stops from the maximum aperture.
So instead of shooting with your lens wide open (i.e., where the f-numbers are smallest), pull it back a stop or two, and you might get a little more clarity in your shots. Learn more about identifying your lens’s sweet spot here.
Further reading about how to take sharp images
Learn more about how to take sharp images with the following tutorials: