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.

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