In photography, the term sharp comes up all the time, and that is not surprising. Its antonym unsharp or blurred is the reason for the majority of unsuccessful photographs, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
To take razor-sharp photos, you have to learn what is sharpness, how to avoid misfocusing and the factors that will prevent you from taking sharp photos.
What is sharpness in photography?
In photography, sharpness is defined as the contrast between the edges of objects in an image. Perfectly sharp photos require flawless photographic technique and careful post-processing, but it also depends on your camera, lens, and viewing distance.
It should be noted, that despite many assistive technologies, sharp photos are still hard to achieve in certain situations.
Motion blur vs Out-of-focus vs Loss of detail
These are the three main types of blur. These are the culprit that your photos are not sharp.
Motion blur is like looking through the side window when you drive a car or ride a train. Instead of sharp objects, you see long streaks stretching across the image in the direction of the movement.
Common causes for motion blur include long shutter speeds, camera shake, and object movement.
Out-of-focus is similar to looking through a misty window or opening your eyes underwater. Everything is in its place but smudged in a circle. Common causes include misfocus, dirty lens, damaged or low-quality lens, soft aperture setting, or diffraction.
Loss of detail
Loss of detail looks like a loss of detail as if you smoothened the surface. A common cause for loss of detail is a high ISO setting.
How to Take Sharp Pictures?
If you want tack-sharp photos, you must learn and use all techniques I listed. It’s not enough to learn just a few. You must learn and use all of them. If you miss just one, you already improve the chance of creating a blurry photo.
Follow these simple steps to take razor-sharp photos:
1. Increase shutter speeds
Fast shutter speeds freeze objects in time. This has two key advantages:
- It will reduce the effect of camera movement. Using faster shutter speed is a must, especially if you’re shooting handheld.
- It will reduce the object movement. Any object that moves has a potential to become blurry in your photos. If you cannot slow down or stop the object, you must use a faster shutter speed.
Point your camera at the object you want to photograph and half-press the shutter. At the bottom of the viewfinder or the LCD, you should see the shutter speed that will be used.
If it’s showing 1/100 or faster, you should be good to go unless you have fast-moving objects in your photos.
I usually take a few photos and review them at 100% zoom to make sure nothing is blurry. Then, if anything in my photo looks unsharp, I use even faster shutter speed, such as 1/200 or even 1/500.
When you photograph in low-light conditions, you have to open an aperture, increase ISO, or use a flash to achieve fast shutter speeds. But, of course, each has its advantages and disadvantages. So, you would ideally learn how to balance them.
2. Focus carefully
The most obvious way to get sharp photos is by focusing properly. You can focus in two ways: automatically or manually.
I prefer to focus manually anytime I use a tripod. This way I ensure that the right area of the photo is sharp. On the other hand, autofocus is useful for handheld shots and fast-developing situation.
If you’re doing everything right but your photos are still not sharp, there might be something wrong with your lens’ autofocus.
Here a few reasons why your lens doesn’t focus:
- Dark conditions make it harder for autofocus to do its job correctly. Make sure that there’s enough light or disable the autofocus and focus manually.
- Usually, the centre focus point is the most accurate. However, if you have problems with one or several of your focus points, you can move your camera to focus with the centre focus point and then moving it back into the original direction.
- Autofocus works by checking the contrast around the focus area. Autofocus can’t focus accurately when you shoot a low contrast scene, such as the sky or a plain wall.
- Sadly, AF also breaks or stops working altogether. In this case, you will need to repair the lens or buy a new one.
- When you don’t have an apparent object in a photo, determining where to focus becomes more difficult. In such situations, you should focus around 1/3 distance into the image.
Even when you master focusing, I recommend that you always check the focus after taking the shot. It’s easy to fix when you’re on the terrain but impossible once you get home.
3. Use the Hand-holding rule
The Hand-holding rule is specifically useful for telephoto lenses, but I recommend you apply it to any handheld shot. It states that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length of your lens or faster. A good rule of thumb for handheld photos is to choose a shutter speed with a larger denominator than the lens’s focal length.
For example: if you have a 50mm lens, don’t shoot any slower than 1/50th of a second.
However, remember that this rule applies to a 35mm film (full-frame). So, if you use a crop sensor camera, you need to adjust the math. For example, for Canon with a 1.6x crop factor, multiply by 1.6, whereas, for Nikon with a 1.5x crop factor, multiply by 1.5. Therefore, with the same 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera, you shouldn’t shoot any slower than 1/80 s (1.6 × 50 = 80).
Here are some more examples:
|50 mm||1/50 s||1/80 s|
|100 mm||1/100 s||1/160 s|
|150 mm||1/150 s||1/250 s|
|200 mm||1/200 s||1/320 s|
|400 mm||1/400 s||1/640 s|
|600 mm||1/600 s||1/1000 s|
Keep in mind that the Hand-holding rule only applies to camera shake when shooting still objects. If you’re photographing a fast-moving subject, you will need quicker shutter speeds.
4. Pick the sharpest aperture
Aperture plays a significant role in the sharpness of your photos because lenses are not equally sharp throughout the entire aperture range. Therefore, you should avoid both the lower and the higher end of the aperture range for the sharpest photos.
At the lower aperture values, the corners of images get softer. However, at higher aperture values, around f/16, the lens’ blades are so tightly shut that the diffraction of light significantly reduces image sharpness.
Most photographers agree that shooting between f/5.6 and f/11 will produce the best results – this is the range that is one or two stops from the maximum aperture and a few stops away from f/16.
Therefore, I use apertures between f/7.1 and f/13 for landscape photography, whereas I use apertures between f/1.4 and f/5.6 for portraits. It all depends on what kind of effect I want to get with my background and how much of the images need to be in focus.
Because every lens is different, you should check a review of yours to find the optimal aperture range; alternatively, you can do it yourself by taking the same photo, only changing the aperture value and analyze them later.
Don’t obsess over always using the sharpest aperture just for the sake of sharpness. Though significant, you should always use the aperture that gives you the desired effect, be it a long shutter time or shallow depth of field, to create bokeh.
5. Use low ISO values when possible
Set the ISO to the lowest possible value, which is 100 for most cameras. This is also referred to as the “base” ISO value, and it produces the highest quality images. While high ISO is great for low light conditions as it helps you get faster shutter speed, it introduces a lot of noise.
Based on your camera and the size of your final print, you can get away with ISO between 400 and 800, and even 1,600 with some full-frame cameras. But for razor-sharp images, keep the ISO at the lowest possible value.
6. Use mirror lock-up
Mirror flip in DSLR cameras causes vibrations that you can avoid by locking up the mirror. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up out of the way, so light can hit the sensor, which causes vibrations.
You can disable the mirror flip in your camera’s menu (read your camera’s manual to find out how to do it). It holds the mirror up, so when you press the shutter button, it doesn’t move. Almost all DSLRs have this feature, and it can make a significant difference in the sharpness of your photos.
7. Turn on/off image stabilisation
Many cameras and lenses come with different image stabilisation forms (IS) or vibration control VC). IS and VC are powerful again camera shake, but they cannot eliminate it. So I highly recommend using them when you shoot handheld.
In contrast, you should disable IS when you use a tripod. These systems are designed to look for vibrations. So when you remove all camera shake by mounting it to a tripod, IS will “make the vibrations up”, thus reducing image sharpness.
8. Clean lens and sensor
After months and years of use, dirt such as dust, oil smudges, and pollen accumulates on lenses and sensors. Especially on mirrorless cameras because they don’t have the mirror to block some of the dirt.
The easiest way to start is to clean the front glass of your lens with a microfiber cloth. The mist can quickly form on your front glass in foggy or very humid areas, so make sure you wipe it off.
If your photos are still spotty or blurry, carefully clean the rear glass of the lens, and if that doesn’t help, consider cleaning your sensor. If you’re not 100% of what you’re doing, find a professional to do it for you.
9. Use a tripod or other sturdy surface
Tripod is the most basic piece of photographic equipment, right after the camera and lens. While a tripod hinders your manoeuvrability and possibly even creativity, it’s a must in low-light conditions, especially in long-exposure and astrophotography.
In addition, I use my tripod for landscape photography to maximise the sharpness of my photos, and when I shoot at 100 mm+.
I recommend a sturdy tripod to support your DSLR or advanced mirrorless but sufficiently light and flexible, so it’s not too heavy to carry around.
10. Use a remote or a timer
Remote is a great way to avoid moving your camera as you press the shutter button. Alternatively, you can set a 2-second timer on your camera if you don’t have a remote. Then, after you press the shutter, the camera will have 2 seconds to stabilise, which is sufficient in my experience. However, setting a 5 or 10-second timer might be better when you shoot with long focal lengths.
11. Remove unnecessary filters
With every additional glass panel you put in front of the sensor, images become less sharp. So even if you use state-of-the-art filters, there will be some of loss quality of your photos. To achieve maximal image sharpness, remove all filters. After all, the effect of every filter, except for the polarising filter, can be reproduced in post-production.
I only ever use a high-quality polarizing filter to get tack-sharp images.
12. Buy a better lens
There are two possible reasons your lens is not sharp enough.
Either you’re using a low-quality lens that won’t be sharp even in the hand of a world-class photographer. In this case, you should consider buying a more expensive lens.
On the other hand, multipurpose lens, those with a great focal length range (18-300, for example), generally performs worse than a more specialized lens. Therefore, multipurpose lenses are a great way for beginners to learn. However, as you become more skilled at photography, you will quickly notice the dissatisfactory sharpness of the lens.
13. Get closer
If you run out of zoom, you should get closer to the subject you’re photographing if at all possible. Don’t rely on cropping the photo in the post-processing, as this reduces image resolution and consequently image sharpness. Even with high-resolution cameras, images become noticeably less sharp when you heavily crop them.
In addition, if the subject you’re shooting is far away the chance of it being affected by haze increases rapidly. A good polarising filter can help, but it’s always better to come closer.
14. Use shorter focal lengths
When you use longer focal lengths, even the slightest camera shake can negatively affect image sharpness. So consider using the shortest focal length that still supports your composition. Get closer if needed.
What is more, a lot of lenses is the least sharp at their maximum focal length. If you do a lot of telephoto photography, I recommend you invest in a high-quality telephoto lens. (If you’re a Canon shooter, read check my list of budget Canon telephoto lenses)
15. Don’t go too wide
Cheaper wide-angle lenses are a lot less sharp towards the edges. Before purchasing a lens, I always check their reviews to find out how sharp they are at through their aperture range.
If you own a lens that is not sharp towards the edges, account for that when you go photographing. Then, make sure you compose your shot in a way that allows you to crop the unsharp parts later without cropping out your main elements.
16. Block wind
Even the sturdiest tripods are no match for strong winds. To prevent winds from shaking your camera and prevent your from taking sharp photos, try to:
- block wind with your body,
- find a natural shelter, such as trees, large boulders, brushes,
- remove camera strap or wrap it around tripod or lens, so the wind doesn’t get caught up in it like a sail,
- weigh down your tripod by pushing it down with your whole body.
17. Sharpen with photo editors
Image sharpening in photo editors is and should be your last resort for sharp images. While it can’t perform miracles, you will see a significant improvement to image sharpness when you apply it with precision.
Just like any other post-production technique, even sharpening can be overdone. It’s better if you use it sparingly and leave the photo slightly soft than to overdo it to the point where the image looks pixelated or too textured.
I recommend using Lightroom to sharpen your photos.
18. Try focus stacking
Focus stacking is a popular technique used mainly in landscape photography to achieve a broader depth of field. To perform focus stacking, you take at least three identical photos but focus at different depths.
This way, you collect sharp parts of your entire composition, which you can merge in post-production with tools such as ON1 or Photoshop.
For example, you can take three images and focus at 0.5 m (1-2 ft), 2 m (6-7 ft), and 30 m (100 ft) into the composition. Then, later, you merge only the sharpest parts of the images.
How to make photos sharper?
The easiest way to sharper photos is by getting sharp photos straight out of the camera. If you took a blurry photos, you can make it sharper with post-processing software. I recommend Lightroom.
Why are my pictures not sharp?
Not sharp photos can be a consequence of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, autofocus, and lens quality. When you use a shallow depth of field, only a small portion of your image will be sharp. In this case, consider using a small aperture to achieve broader depth of field.
How do I take sharp photos in low light?
Increase ISO setting, use wider aperture, and mount your camera on a tripod. To get sharp photos in low light it’s crucial that you get a short enough shutter speed, while balancing other settings for optimal image quality.
How do you know if a picture is sharp?
Image is sharp when the main objects in it are sufficiently sharp. After you took the photo, zoom onto your main subject(s) on your camera’s LCD and check the sharpness.
What is the sharpest aperture?
The sharpest aperture of lens is two or three stops from the widest aperture. Therefore, the sharpest aperture of lens, known as the “sweet spot”, is between f/8 and f/11. A lens with wider maximum aperture is the sharpest between f/5.6 and f/8.
Conclusion | How to Take Sharp Photos
Taking sharp photos is a skill that you must learn if you want to make it as a photographer.
Of course, it’s not that difficult. Read through this article a couple of times until you internalize the information, and you’ll be good to go.
If you know anyone struggling to take sharp photos, you can help us both and share this article with them.
Let me know in the comments below, which tip was new for you.