Taking sharp images is perhaps the ultimate goal of any photographer, and it’s only natural then that over the past 150-odd years photographers have found a number of different ways to achieve it.
Our head of testing Angela Nicholson draws on her wealth of experience and explains all of her best camera tips and other methods photographers use to get sharp images.
Apart from a few creative exceptions, one of the ground rules of photography is that the subject should be sharp. Sharp images are something we start to take for granted over time, but in some situations we need to take more control of the camera to make sure it happens.
Fortunately, it’s all pretty straightforward as there are essentially just three elements involved; focus, freezing the subject and keeping the camera still. Let’s take a look at how to do that:
Best Ways To Get Sharp Images: 01 Focus
The first step in creating sharp images is to get the subject in focus. In most situations this is easy, but if you allow the camera to choose the focus point itself there is a chance it will get it wrong, as many cameras tend to assume that the subject is the closest object and near the centre of the frame.
If there’s something between you and your subject then the camera’s AF system may pick the wrong target and the most important part of the image will be soft – especially if you are shooting with a large aperture.
This is an easily rectified situation, just set your camera to allow you to select the active AF point – the mode is usually called something like Single point AF or Select AF, or in some cases the number of available AF points maybe mentioned, for example 51-point AF.
After activating the mode use the camera’s navigation controls to select the AF point that lies over your subject in the frame. If this isn’t possible choose a point that’s near the subject or the central point (as it is the most sensitive) and move the camera so this point is over the subject.
Then half-press the shutter release to focus before recomposing the shot (still with the shutter release button pressed) before pushing the release fully home to take the shot.
This focus-and-recompose technique is incredibly useful, in fact some photographers use it all the time, and you’ll find it gets quicker and easier with a bit of practice.
When using the focus-and-recompose technique it’s important to set the camera to single AF mode rather than continuous otherwise it will continue to focus the lens as the image is recomposed.
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Best Ways To Get Sharp Images: 02 Freeze the subject
If the subject is stationary you can use a slow shutter speed and it will still appear sharp provided that the camera stays put (more about this later). However, if the subject moves when you use a slow shutter speed the movement will be recorded as a blur.
The simple solution is to use a faster shutter speed, the faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed needs to be.
When photographing sports like football, cycling or hockey a shutter speed of around 1/500sec can be fast enough to freeze a player’s body, but the fastest moving parts such as their legs or the hockey stick may still be blurred and an even shorter exposure time is required.
Many photographers’ natural inclination is to avoid raising the sensitivity setting, but provided that you avoid the very top values most DSLRs these days produce decently sharp images, and a bit of noise is usually much more acceptable than a badly blurred image.
If you decide to open up the aperture, you need to be super-precise with the focusing as the depth of field will be restricted and less of the image will be sharp.
Best Ways To Get Sharp Images: 03 Keeping the camera still
Unless you are panning to track a subject as it moves across the scene, the camera should be kept as still as possible, especially as the shutter speed drops.
Hold the camera firmly in both hands, pull your elbows in against your body and steady it against your face (using the viewfinder to compose the shot).
An old rule of thumb when hand-holding a camera is that the shutter speed should be at least 1sec divided by the effective focal length of the lens being used.
This means that with a 100mm lens mounted on a full-frame DSLR you should use at least 1/100sec, which usually means 1/125sec or shorter.
With an APS-C format camera (which means any DSLR without a full frame sensor, for those who are new to all this), however, the focal length magnification factor should be taken into account so in many cases this means using 1/160sec or faster.
This guide holds good down to shutter speeds of around 1/30sec (and therefore focal lengths of around 30mm). Some photographers claim to be able to get sharp images below this, but it’s usually a bit hit and miss.
In modern times with stabilised lenses or sensors these rules can be bent a bit and it’s worth experimenting with your camera and lens to see what works for you.
It varies from person to person and the amount of coffee you’ve drunk (or alcohol the previous night) can make a significant difference.
The best way to keep a camera rock-steady is to put it on a tripod. Monopods are also useful, especially when shooting with a long heavy lens, as they allow a bit more freedom of movement while taking out the major shakes and vibrations.
When choosing a tripod go for the best that you can afford. Many novice photographers baulk at the cost of a decent tripod and opt for something cheap and light, but which doesn’t always do the job properly. As a result they end up having to buy a second tripod and spend even more money.
A decent tripod and head needn’t cost the earth these days and there are several models available for around the £100 mark.