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.
For you to be able to take razor-sharp photos, you have to learn what is sharpness, how to avoid misfocusing, and the factors that will prevent your from taking sharp photos.
What is sharpness?
In photography, sharpness is defined as the contrast between the edges of objects in an image.
Sharpness depends on lens and camera quality, and shooting and photo editing technique that the photographers used.
It should be noted, that despite many assistive technologies, sharp photos are still hard to achieve in certain situations.
How to achieve sharpness in photography
I will describe every technique and accessory that will help you take sharp photos below but to make your process of learning simpler; you should understand that they fall into four categories.
All modern lenses are capable of producing sharp photos if you know how to use them. Without a doubt, more expensive lenses will create extremely sharp photos that you cannot replicate with cheaper lenses.
Several other factors can be detrimental to sharpness, no matter which lens your use.
Lenses are usually the sharpest when you stop them down a few stops from the maximum aperture, that’s around f/5.6 to f/11. Furthermore, shallow depth of field, for example, will cause a part of the photo to be in focus, while out of focus everywhere else.
It’s worth noting that virtually every lens is the sharpest in the centre, but softer towards the edges (except for flat-field macro lenses).
Unlike with lens, you have full control over camera settings.
High ISO settings will result in loss of detail and colours, producing soft-looking images.
Arguably the most critical camera setting is shutter speed. If you’re getting a lot of motion blur in your photos, most commonly seen in sports, weddings, and wildlife photography, you should use faster shutter speeds, without compromising photo brightness. To make up for the loss of light, use lower f-number or higher ISO.
A lot of photographers report that locking up the mirror in their DSLR’s also helped reduce camera shake.
In short, don’t use accessories that reduce photo sharpness, such as filters, and use camera accessories that help you reduce camera shake or movement, with a tripod being a must in almost every photography genre and a remote shutter being a welcome addition.
Photo editing is the last resort for fixing image sharpness, an emergency room if you will.
While virtually every photo editor comes with a built-in sharpening tool, these only work for sharp images that need some boost in sharpness. Photo editors are powerless against blurry or out-of-focus photos.
Motion blur vs Out-of-focus vs Loss of detail
These are the three main types of unsharp photos, and they are easy to recognize. Here’s how you can differentiate between them:
Motion blur looks like if you look through the side window when you’re driving a car or riding a train. Instead of sharp objects, you will 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.
Now let’s look at how can you avoid these three reasons for unsharp photos.
Here are all techniques for razor-sharp photos:
1. Focus carefully
The most obvious way to get sharp photos is by properly focusing. You can acquire focus in two ways: automatically or manually.
First, you need to recognize whether your problem lies in improper focus or some other reason for unsharp images. If your whole image or the main subject look blurry, there’s a good chance you misfocused.
If you’re having problems nailing the focus and taking sharp photos, consider these:
- Dark conditions make it harder for autofocus to do its job properly. Make sure that there’s enough light or disable the autofocus and do it manually.
- Usually, the centre focus points the most accurate. If you’re having problems with other focus point focusing, 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. If you’re pointing it a low contrast scenery, such as the sky or a plain wall, autofocus won’t be able to acquire focus.
- Sadly, autofocuses also break or stop working altogether. In this case, you will need to repair the lens or buy a new one.
- If you’re focusing manually, make sure that you’re focusing on your object. You can do so by digitally zooming onto the image and moving the focus ring until it’s maximally sharp.
- When you don’t have an obvious object in a photo, determining where to focus becomes more difficult, in such situations, you should focus 1/3 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 still at the scene, but impossible once you get home.
2. Pick fast shutter speeds
Fast shutter speeds eliminate opportunities for camera shake and object movement. Seldom you get a chance to use shutter speeds that would result in tack-sharp photos without bumping up ISO or opening the aperture.
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% to make sure nothing is blurry. If anything in my photo looks unsharp, I use even faster shutter speed, such as 1/200 or even 1/500.
3. Don’t forget the Hand-holding rule
A good rule of thumb for handheld photos is to choose a shutter speed with a denominator that is larger than the focal length of the lens.
For example: if you have a 50mm lens, don’t shoot any slower than 1/60th of a second.
Remember that this rule applied to 35mm film, so if you use a crop sensor camera, you need to adjust the math. 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.
For example: if you have an 80mm lens attached to a 1.6 crop sensor camera, don’t shoot any slower than 1/125 (1.6×50=80).
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 quite probably need a quicker shutter speed than this to get sharp photos.
4. Pick the right aperture for sharp photos
Lenses are not equally sharp throughout the entire aperture range.
For the sharpest photos, you should avoid both the lower and the higher end of the aperture range.
At the lower aperture values 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.
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 value when possible
In low light conditions, high ISO value will help you achieve faster shutter speed; however, you will also introduce more noise to the image, making it softer.
To get the best quality photos, set the ISO value to the lowest possible, that is 100 for my camera; but it’s crucial to stay under ISO 400-800, especially if you own a crop sensor camera.
If you need more light, you can use wider apertures or using longer shutter times – but don’t forget what we’ve learnt a while back in #2. 🙂
6. Mirror lock-up
Mirror flip in DSLR cameras causes vibrations that can’t you can avoid by locking-up the mirror. You can disable the mirror flip in your camera’s menu – read your camera’s manual to find out how to lock-up the mirror.
I experimented with my camera to test how much the mirror flip affects my image sharpness. Using a semi-sturdy tripod and a fast shutter speed, I didn’t notice any difference between photos with the mirror locked up vs normal mode.
7. Pay attention to Image Stabilisation or Vibration control
A lot of cameras and lenses come with different forms of Image Stabilisation or Vibration Control, which significantly reduce camera shake.
It’s worth noting that IS or VC will help with camera movement but are powerless against the subject movement.
Always remember to disable any form of IS or VC when you use a tripod. These systems are designed to look for vibrations, so when you remove any camera shake, they will “make them up”, reducing image sharpness.
8. Clean lens and sensor
After months and years of use, dirt such as dust, oil smudges, and pollen, will accumulate on the lenses and sensors.
The easiest way to start is to clean the front glass of your lens with a microfiber cloth. In foggy or very humid areas, the mist can quickly form on your front glass, 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 photography equipment, right after the camera and lens. While tripod hinders your manoeuvrability and possibly even creativity, it’s a must in the low-light conditions, especially in long-exposure and astrophotography.
To maximize image sharpness, you should buy a sturdy tripod, but sufficiently light and flexible, so you don’t throw your back out carrying it.
10. Use a remote or a timer
Even if you placed your camera on a sturdy tripod, pushing down the shutter button will introduce some camera shake. To avoid this, you can use either a 2-second built-in timer or a remote.
11. Remove unnecessary filters
With every additional glass panel the light passes through, images become less sharp. Even if you use state-of-the-art filters, there will be a lesser, but still noticeable degradation of the quality of your photos.
To achieve maximal image sharpness, remove all filters. After all, the effect of every filter, except for polarizing filter, can be reproduced in post-production.
I only ever use a high-quality polarizing filter to avoid unnecessary unsharpness.
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, that is those with great focal length range (18-300 for example), generally perform worse than a more specialized lens. Multipurpose lenses are a great way for a beginner to learn; however, as you become more skilled at photography, you will find yourself needing more.
13. Get closer
If you run out of zoom, you should get closer to the subject you’re photography 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.
14. Use shorter focal lengths
When you use longer focal lengths, even the slightest camera shake can have a detrimental effect on images, so consider using the shortest focal length that won’t affect your composition.
Remember: composition first, only then we solve physics-related problems.
15. Don’t go too wide
Cheaper wide-angle lenses are usually softer towards the edges.
Before purchasing the lens, always check their reviews to find out how they perform and if this fits your needs.
If you already own a lens that is not sharp towards the edges, account for that when you go photographing and leave yourself a little more space at the edges, which you can crop later.
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, you should try tips:
- block wind with your body,
- find a natural shelter, such as trees, large boulders, brushes,
- remove camera strap or try wrapping it around tripod or lens, so the wind doesn’t get caught up in it,
- weigh down your tripod by pushing it down with your whole body.
17. Sharpening in 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 to use it sparingly and leave the photo slightly soft than to overdo it to the point where the image looks pixelated or too textured.
Related reading: How to Sharpen in Lightroom
18. 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 focusing 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. Later, you merge only the sharpest part of the images.
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.
(I updated this article on 26 October 2020, to add more techniques for sharp photos and to make it easier to read and skim.)