How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 3 of 3

We’ve reached Part 3 of our 3-part series on getting sharp pictures. This blog has been text-heavy, which differs from my usual approach of going relatively lighter on text and including photos as examples. So far, we’ve covered the first 4 of 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and how to address each. Causes #1-4 included camera shake, motion blur, inaccurate focus and your ISO/aperture choices. Let’s look at the final 3 causes now. Again, I am only scratching the surface of each as there are entire articles and even books devoted to each of these individual topics.


  • Good quality camera equipment make a difference. The internet is full of articles on whether to put your money into good lenses or a good camera if you are faced with a choice. Those on the side of good lenses form the majority when discussing sharpness and image quality. Can you still get sharp pictures using lower priced lenses and cameras? Sure! But, all else being equal, high quality cameras and lenses give you a better starting point.
  • Prime vs. zoom lenses. Although it is less the case than it used to be, prime lenses (those that have a fixed focal length, such as 50mm) are generally considered to be sharper than zoom lenses. Good quality zoom lenses can be sharp, but keep in mind that use of a zoom lens (especially a low or medium quality one) might affect overall sharpness.
  • Keep your lenses clean. You don’t want to be shooting pictures through dirty glass. Take it easy on lens cleaner, though. There are proper ways to keep your lens clean, so make sure to do some research on that.. and watch for a future blog on it.
  • Use filters of comparable quality to your lens. If you put filters over your lens, then the “weakest link” principle holds true. Don’t put poor quality filters over a premium lens.


Lighting is everything in photography. Try shooting a subject in a dimly lit room and then in beautiful lighting (natural lighting or using flash) and you will see a difference in perceived sharpness even if both images are exposed properly. If you are shooting in dim light and your pictures don’t seem sharp, then lighting could be a contributing factor. You can’t always control lighting, but many times you can. Consider shooting at a different time when the lighting is better or adding flash. The important point here is to know that lighting quality affects perceived image sharpness.

Compare the next two photos. Although there are a variety of factors going into the perceived sharpness of these two images, lighting is probably the key factor here. The top image was shot in dim light with no flash, whereas the bottom image used flash. Yes, these are processed differently, but the starting point was a lot sharper in the bottom image due to the flash lighting.

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Balinese Dancer : Prints Available

A Balinese dancer looking out the window

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Early Morning Smoke : Prints Available

Indonesian man having a morning smoke in a village outside Jakarta


If you notice your images are not as sharp as your favorite photographer’s images on his or her site, it could be partially due to post-processing. Post-processing can really make a night and day difference in the sharpness of the final image. If you shoot your photos in RAW format, then the files themselves are structured to preserve as much data as possible. These files often look dull and flat without processing. The idea is to add an “appropriate level” of sharpness for the medium in “appropriate areas” of the image. The point here is that, if you don’t sharpen your images in post-processing, you will likely not get the level of sharpness you see in images that have been sharpened in post.

Well, that’s it for this series. I hope this at least gave you some ideas on how to get tack sharp images. As I have only touched on each topic, feel free to shoot me an email through this site if you have any questions.

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 2 of 3

We are back with Part 2 of our 3-part series on taking sharp pictures. To recap, we are focusing on seven common causes of less-than-sharp images and how to address each. Part 1 focused on the notorious “camera shake”. Part 2 will introduce causes #2-4. With a reminder that I am only touching briefly on each, let’s jump right in…

CAUSE #2 – MOTION BLUR. While camera shake relates to movement of the camera, “motion blur” is about elements in your composition moving. Motion blur can happen with both your subject and your background. Your moving subject might be a person walking, while your moving background may include trees or grass blowing in the wind. Now, not all motion blur is bad. In fact, some of it is downright cool. However, it is important for you to have control over whether you want to freeze or blur the motion.

Motion blur happens when the shutter speed is too slow to freeze moving elements in the image. In addition to the speed of the moving elements, the space that the moving elements take up in the frame is a key factor. So, the distance to the subject and your lens choice play an important role. Once again, below is a link to a recent blog on shutter speed which deals with both camera shake and motion blur. For those that do not feel like clicking on the link, some starting points for freezing motion are to use 1/125 – 1/250 for slow moving objects (walking people)… 1/500-1/1000 for fast moving objects (running people and moving cars) and 1/2000 for very fast moving objects (race cars).

CAUSE #3 – INACCURATE FOCUS. Getting good focus isn’t quite as straightforward as it would seem. Here are some guidelines for getting good focus, starting with some tips which hold true whether you are using autofocus or manual focus:

  • Zoom in when focusing. If you are using a zoom lens, you will get better focus by zooming into your subject to lock focus and then zooming back out as necessary to take the shot.
  • Use “live view”. If your camera has it, you can get more precise focus using “live view”, which is Canon’s terminology. Live view (or whatever it may be called for your camera’s manufacturer) allows you to view and focus via the LCD screen on the back of the camera. You can zoom into a very small part of the image for precise focus. Live view is typically used when you are photographing still subjects on a tripod, as hand-holding the camera and looking at the LCD screen is not a stable way to hold the camera.

Here are some tips which apply to auto-focus only:

  • Test (and adjust if necessary) the autofocus of each lens on each camera. Don’t assume that your autofocus is working perfectly. I had to send a brand new top-quality lens back for repairs because the autofocus was WAY off. It is a good idea to test each lens’s autofocus with your camera on a tripod. There are some relatively inexpensive tools which will help you determine if your focus is off and by how much. Most of the better cameras will then have a micro-adjustment tool, where you can adjust the focus of your lens (or camera) and re-test to help it focus properly.
  • Be careful when re-composing with very wide apertures. Generally, photographers using autofocus will lock their focus, then recompose for the shot. This recomposing means a slight movement of the camera. For very wide apertures, such as 1.2 or 1.4, this slight movement can throw the image out of focus. So, be as careful as possible not to move forward or backward. If you are aiming the camera at an angle (as opposed to straight towards you subject), this is even more of an issue. If re-composition is necessary, some photographers using f1.2 will snap a few images, moving very slightly back and forth between each shot in an attempt to get one shot in focus.

Now, here are tips for manual focusing only:

  • First, try using manual focus. Many people never use it. However, you can sometimes get better results than with auto-focus. I always use manual focus when shooting macro subjects and some of my landscape images.
  • Getting good focus on manual is dependent upon two things: 1) Your eyesight; and 2) the diopter being adjusted properly if your camera has an adjustable diopter. The diopter is the little window that you look through when composing your image through the viewfinder. Adjust this until it is sharp to your eyes.

I know this might be “link overkill”, but I did do one other blog on focusing for moving subjects. Here it is:

CAUSE #4 – ISO AND APERTURE COMBINATION. We’ve discussed shutter speed. However, ISO and aperture can certainly affect the sharpness and quality of your image.

  • Use a lower ISO when possible. Your ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light. However, as you raise the ISO, the picture quality suffers in the form of “digital noise”. Shoot with as low an ISO as possible under the conditions, without compromising the image from an inappropriate shutter speed or aperture combination. Newer cameras, such as the Canon 5D Mark III, can handle high ISOs with minimal noise.
  • On a related issue, it is worth a brief mention here that aperture determines depth of field. Wider apertures (lower f-stops, like 1.8) have less depth-of-field, meaning relatively less of the image outside of the plane of focus will be sharp. Narrower apertures (like f/22) will have greater depth-of-field, meaning most or all of the image front to back should be in focus.
    • However, many people are not aware that lenses have differing levels of sharpness across the range of apertures. Generally, the sharpest aperture of your lens is 1-3 stops above the widest aperture. So, if your widest aperture is f2.8, then f5.6, f7.1 or f8.0 will typically be the sharpest. This does not mean that your pictures will be blurry at f/16, but it is useful to know that these apertures produce the sharpest images and factor that into your choice of aperture. You may still want to shoot wide open or at a small aperture to get the depth-of-field you want.

    That is more than enough for today. We’ll deal with the last three causes of less-than-sharp pictures in Part 3.

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 1 of 3

There is an old saying amongst professional photographers that “blur happens”. Okay, there is no such saying. I just made that up. However, there should be such a saying. That’s because we can all identify with being disappointed upon the discovery that our pictures were either blurry or less than sharp.

So, how do you get tack-sharp pictures? There is a long list of ways. I have identified 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and have included some specific suggestions on how to address each. Because there is a lot to say on the topic, I will only be summarizing and, even so, will be splitting the blog into three parts.

Before we get into it, here is some helpful advice: Evaluate your images for sharpness by zooming in closely on the image and checking key parts for sharpness, such as a person’s eye. You might be surprised that the pictures you thought were sharp are not so. With that piece of advice, let’s get right into the causes and corrections for less-than-sharp images. Part 1 focuses exclusively on the first of seven causes….

CAUSE #1 – CAMERA SHAKE. The exposure of an image… how light or dark it is… is determined in part by shutter speed. Unless your camera is stable, longer shutter speeds (even 1/125 is too long in some cases) can lead to blurry photos due to the natural movement of the camera. I recently wrote a blog on suggested shutter speeds which offers guidance on acceptable shutter speeds if you are hand-holding the camera. I suggest you read this blog first.

In case you skipped over the above link without reading (you know who you are!), the general rule for shooting STILL subjects is to NOT hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. So, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens (or zoomed in to that equivalent), then you would not want to hand-hold the camera at speeds slower than 1/50. (There is no 1/50, so you go to the next fastest speed, which is 1/60.) If you are shooting at 200mm, then 1/250 (there is no 1/200) is the slowest you will want to hand-hold. This is just general guidance, although a good starting point. As for me, I try to avoid going slower than 1/60 even with wide-angle lenses. I like to err on the side of caution.

If your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold and you will get better results due to the mobility of NOT using a tripod, then follow these suggestions when hand-holding the camera:

  • Hold the camera steady. Holding the camera still during shooting is important at any shutter speed. For digital SLR cameras, you grab the right side of the camera with your right hand and use your index finger to press the shutter button. Rest the camera on the palm of your left hand. Hold the camera close to your body, which means looking through the viewfinder, as opposed to holding the camera out in front of you. I usually breathe in and hold my breath for a second while pressing the shutter, then exhale. You will also want to stand in a stable way. You can lean on something if you can. If there is nothing to lean on, then spreading your feet apart (perhaps about even with your shoulders) will help. Standing straight up with your feet together is not optimal.
  • When in doubt, fire off a few shots using continuous shooting mode. If I have no other choice but to use an uncomfortably low shutter speed, I’ll stand as still as possible and hold the shutter button down in continuous mode, firing three quick shots. This increases the chance of getting a sharp image.
  • In some cases, use your lens’s image stabilization (a.k.a. vibration reduction) feature. Some of the better lenses have a feature that allows you to shoot STILL subjects at considerably slower shutter speeds. This does not work for moving subjects. It also should not be used if the camera is on a tripod or otherwise completely still, as many photographers (including myself) have gotten blurry images by forgetting to turn this feature off when using a tripod.

Next, if your shutter speed is too slow to hand-hold OR you want to help ensure your camera is completely stable, then do the following:

  • When appropriate, use a tripod. Photographers have a sort of love/hate relationship with tripods. They can be bulky and a pain to carry, but help us get sharp pictures at slow shutter speeds. It is important to know that not all tripods are created equal. A flimsy tripod might be okay in some circumstances, but add a little wind or place the tripod in moving water and you will be unpleasantly surprised when you see your pictures. Your tripod must be stable. The following picture always comes to mind when I talk about the stability of the tripod… I had the camera on a stable tripod, but my friend and I were shooting on a flimsy bridge when another photographer came running up on the bridge and was moving around while shooting, resulting in the bridge moving around slightly. As a result, one of my (otherwise) best landscape pictures is not completely sharp.
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Sunset Over the Watchman : Prints Available

Brilliant light hits the Watchman after an intense rainstorm

  • When using a tripod, use a remote shutter trigger and mirror lock-up. Even with a tripod, there are two things that can cause camera shake. First, pressing the shutter button will move the camera slightly. Secondly, with single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, the internal mirror must move out of the way in order to expose the camera’s sensor and create the image. This movement of the mirror can shake the camera slightly. You can address both of these issues by using a remote shutter trigger (or the camera’s self-timer if you dropped your remote in the water like I did), combined with a “mirror lock-up” feature. If your camera has mirror lock-up, then enabling that while your camera is on a tripod is a good idea. You trip the shutter twice instead of once.. the first time to lock the mirror up and the second to expose the image.

I should quickly mention the monopod here. A monopod is basically a stick that you can put your camera on. This falls somewhere between hand-holding and using a tripod. Your legs and the monopod together form a sort of less stable “tripod”. The advantage of the monopod is that it allows the photographer more freedom to move around while providing some stability. Sports and wildlife photographers who use heavy lenses often use monopods to take on the weight of the long telephoto lenses.

Coming up in Parts 2 and 3… causes #2-7 for less-than-sharp pictures.