Creating a sharp image is almost the goal for every photographer out there. It may sound like a lot of technicalities, but creating a sharp image is actually not as difficult as you may have thought.
Many beginner photographers think that getting a sharp image is a one step process, which in fact, is not. There are several things you can do in each step of creating a photograph to ensure the end result is a sharp, crisp and clear image.
Why Are My Images Not Sharp?
Before we start learning how to create a sharper image, let us do the opposite and find out how to create an image that is not sharp.
For your camera to capture a sharp image, the light that is reflected off your subject into the camera lens and eventually onto the image sensor must be absolutely still. Anything that causes movement or vibration to the subject or the camera while the shutter curtains are open will lead to motion blur. Besides that, aperture also plays a role in determining the sharpness of the image, which we will talk about it later.
9 Steps To Create A Sharp Image
A tripod stabilizes your camera and anything that is attached to it (lens, flash, etc). A good tripod holds the camera in place securely and does not transmit vibration. There are hundreds of different tripods in the market today and it can be confusing and challenging to choose a good one that is within your budget. When buying a tripod, do not be tempted to “save money” and buy a cheap one because these are often made of a low quality material with poor construction. You may have saved some money in the short term, but you will soon realize that it is not doing its job and you have just wasted your money (and you are going to spend more money to buy a new one!). The key here is to take your time, do your research, try out the tripod that you are interested in and commit to one when you are ready.
2. Image Stabilization
Most point-and-shoot cameras today have inbuilt image stabilization technology. However, in a DSLR, only the more expensive lenses have this function. It does help sometimes, especially when you are shooting handheld in low light situations. My personal opinion is, if you do have a lens that has image stabilization, use it to your advantage. If you don’t, you are not missing out because you don’t need image stabilization to be able to create sharp images.
3. Mirror Lock-Up
In a DSLR, there is a mirror in front of the shutter curtains and the image sensor. That’s right, that is the mirror you see every time you change a lens (for DSLR users). It is always in a position of 45 degrees shown in the picture above (in red, number 1). Its main function of this mirror is to reflect the light (and the image) that passes through the lens up to the prism and to your eye so that you can see what you are shooting. It flips up from position 1 to 2 when you press the trigger, and comes down again to position 1 when the shutter curtains closed. It can create subtle motion blur especially when your shutter speed is already slow. Luckily, camera manufacturers know this issue and have added in a mechanism called “mirror lock-up”. You can enable this through the main menu (check your manual) in your camera. Now when you press the trigger, the mirror will flip up first but the shutter curtains remain closed. Press the trigger again to open the shutter to record the image. This reduces the chance for motion blur created by the flipping motion of the mirror.
You may ask: wouldn’t pressing the trigger the second time cause movement to the camera even when the mirror is locked up? You are absolutely right! And this leads me to the next subject, a remote release.
4. Remote Release
A remote release is a device that allows you to activate the trigger without physically pressing it. In the days of film photography, it is a long cable that attaches to the trigger itself. Today, it is connected via wireless technology and there is no wire or cable to mess around. When considering a remote release for your camera, bear in mind that you can get the official one made by the camera manufacturer, or you can buy a third part remote release. A third party remote release usually cost significantly lower and you can get it from places like Amazon or eBay. Do look around instead of clicking buy on the cheapest remote release you see. Read the reviews to find out what other buyers have said to avoid wasting money on one that doesn’t work. if you want to use the bulb mode on your camera (exposure time of >30 seconds), you will need a remote release for that.
Another plus side of getting a remote release is that if you want to use the bulb mode on your camera (exposure time of >30 seconds), you will need a remote release for that.
A wide aperture produces a soft image whereas a small aperture creates a sharper image. However, this doesn’t mean you need to crank up your aperture to f/22 every time every time you take a picture. Firstly, it is often not the optimum aperture for your lens to produce the sharpest image. Secondly, it will simply drag the shutter speed down and increases the chance of motion blur (if you do not use a tripod). Every single lens has a different optimum aperture for sharpness. In general, this is often around f/8 to f/11. Check with your lens manufacturer or visit a reliable lens review website to find out. Alternatively, go out and experiment with your lens to find out the answer!
6. Shutter Speed
The slower the shutter speed, the more prone it is to motion blur if you are shooting handheld. A useful guide to remember is that your shutter speed should not be lower than your focal length. For example, if you are shooting at 70mm focal length, your shutter speed should ideally be anything above 1/70 second. You may be able to go beyond that a little if you have image stabilization. Again, you do not have to follow it every time as it is only a guide. When you use a tripod, you don’t have to worry about slow shutter speed.
Focusing on the subject may sound intuitive, but many beginners often get it wrong and end up with a blurred image. When using auto-focus (AF), you get to choose which AF point to use, or you can let the camera decide for you. The chances of getting focusing right are higher if you choose the AF point yourself. If you do let your camera decide, make sure when the AF points blink, it is on your subject. Otherwise, you risk your subject being out of focus.
For total control of sharpness, switch to manual focusing (MF). I know this may sound daunting at first, but this was how photographers focus their image before the invention of AF. In the era of digital camera, manual focusing is not as hard as before. To start off, turn on live view so you can see what you are shooting on the LCD screen. Now zoom in to the highest magnification and move your subject to the center of the screen. Next, manually turn the focusing ring on your lens until your subject becomes sharp. Keep practicing and you might find MF performs better than AF (manual focusing is THE KING!)
8. Depth of Field
Depth of field is the range of sharpness in your image and it is inversely related to the aperture. This means a large (wide) aperture creates a small (shallow) depth of field and a small aperture creates a larger depth of field. So if sharpness throughout your image is what you aim for, select a small aperture.
9. Sharpening In Post-Processing
The final step you can do to ensure sharpness is to sharpen it during editing. There is no one way to sharpen an image and you can learn every single method and pick one that works best for you. Having said that, the commonest tool used in Photoshop for sharpening is the unsharp mask. However, the way that I prefer to sharpen my images in my workflow is by applying a high-pass filter.
For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!