Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shooting Sharp - Tips to Get Tack Sharp Shots

Today I thought I'd share some simple tips for getting sharp focus. In photography circles there is always a lot of buzz about getting tack sharp images. As a newbie, I was sometimes mystified by how the images I saw online were so crisp and sharp and mine were, well, not. I was awed by those shiny portrait eyes that seemed to pop off my screen. After much reading, googling and practicing, I uncovered some of the secrets of the pros. So, here are a few tips I've learned for getting sharp focus.

1. Use a tripod
Okay, I'll admit that I often skip this one. I'm too lazy to take it out and set it up most of the time. I'm also usually chasing my kids around and tripods are not exactly made for that task. But, if you are shooting a macro shot, landscape or posed portrait it will be a tremendous help! Any little bit of camera shake will effect your focus. Just do it!

2. Use a remote or wireless trigger
These devices remove all chances of shake as you don´t have to touch the camera. You can most likely find a remote compatible with your camera for under $20. I got one on amazon for about 10 bucks. Or, you can use the self timer. This is also a great way to get in some of those photos yourself. You don't want to be the family member missing from every photo in your archives!

3. Check  your shutter speed
Always make sure that your shutter speed is set higher than the focal length of your lens. For example, if you shoot with a 50 mm lens, set your shutter speed at least 1/60 or above. If you shoot with 85 mm lens, set your shutter speed at 1/100 or above, etc. And if you are skipping tip #1 and hand holding your camera, anything below 1/80 will be tough to keep steady.  If you are taking photos of kids, you'll need a faster speed to avoid motion blur. I always try to stay above 1/125 for squirmy subjects. Actually, since I'm lazy about using a tripod, I try to stay above 1/125 most of the time, which brings me to #4.

4. Up that ISO if you need to! 
It is more difficult to achieve tack sharp focus in a low light situation. If you don't have much light to work with, don't be afraid to increase your ISO. Most cameras these days handle higher ISO's pretty well. Get to know what yours can handle with practice. And remember that a properly exposed image will have less noise, even at a higher ISO, than one that has been underexposed and lightened up in post processing.

5. Shoot with a prime 
Prime lenses are known to be faster and sharper. They are generally more pricey but worth every penny in my opinion. The nifty fifty, 50 mm 1.8 is an inexpensive choice that offers speed and sharpness. The 50 1.4 is a little more expensive, but one of my favorite and most used lenses. It's sharp, fast, small, and delivers dreamy bokeh.

6. Check your F-stop
If you increase the number of your f-stop, more things will be in focus as you'll have more depth of field to work with. Shooting wide open not only eaves little room for error, but most lenses aren't as sharp at their widest apertures. If you want super sharp images you are probably better off to stop down a bit to a smaller aperture.

7. Toggle your focus point
Most DSLR cameras have a button to tell the camera how and where to focus. Check your camera's manual if you don't know how to do this. For portraits it is best to focus on the subject closest eye (or between the eyes if they are straight on) for close ups, and on the face for full body shots. If you are shooting a group, choose a subject in the middle of the group (check that your aperture is wide enough to keep the whole group in focus too!).

8. Choose AI Servo or AF-C
Your camera has different settings for how it will focus. Read your manual to get a better understanding of how this works. They are called different things on Canons and Nikons but work pretty much the same way. Most DSLR's have three options here: one for a subject that won't move (single shot or single servo), one for a subject that might move (Al focus) and one for moving objects (Al servo or AF-Continuous).
Most photographers I know (especially those shooting children) choose Al servo or AF-C so that the camera will track focus when the shutter is pressed half way (or the AF-ON button pressed) even if your subject moves

9. Try back button focusing. Most DSLR's have an option for separating your focus from your shutter release. You can designate a button on the back of your camera to control focus, usually the AF-On button. When you press this button it locks focus and then you press your shutter button when you are ready to record the image. It takes a little getting used to, but many photographer's swear by it for sharp images. My advice is to check your manual (or google "how to back button focus" for your camera model) to set it up. Then give it a try for a couple of weeks to see if it's for you. 

10. Sharpen...a little After following all of the above tips, you can sharpen in post processing, but easy does it! I like my images (especially portraits) to be pretty natural so I try to avoid over-processing them. But I do sometimes add a little sharpening to the eyes in Lightroom or Photoshop to help them pop. Keep in mind, if your focus is off when you click the shutter, then extra sharpening in post-processing won't fix the image. There are about a bazillion actions out there to add selective sharpening to eyes, brighten irises, and make those catchlights sparkly. But beware of creepy overdone eyes! Too much is definitely a bad thing. 

Remember to keep these tips in mind as you shoot, and you'll be on your way to some snazzy sharp images in no time!



  1. Great tips Melissa! I especially agree with the last point about enhancing the eyes. I have seen some really creepy photos with glowing alien eyes. It can ruin a beautiful photo. Also, I have been afraid of getting my ISO too high, but I am getting over that thanks to some recent research.

  2. I was just asked by a friend how I got my images so sharp, thanks for putting it together Ii'll be passing this along this to her!

  3. Excellent summary, and this is in plain English! Yay! I am pinning this, and will refer to it often! Thanks again! :)

  4. Excellent tips! So funny I just did a similar post for Mira that went live yesterday. :) Like minds I tell you! I found that with my 85mm the slowest I can shoot is 1/160 but with my 50mm I can go as low as 1/60 & still be sharp. I also completely agree with you on the 50mm. The f/1.8 is a great starter into the primes & I learned so much with it. But then upgrading to the f/1.4 was actually more change than I would have ever expected.

  5. Great posts. I definitely need more practice getting sharper shots.

  6. Brilliant post- I read with great interest. I will keep this in mind.

  7. This is really helpful, Melissa. Thank you!


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