If I were to ask you what the best way to make sharper photographs is, your mind might instantly jump to something like, “Get a better lens.” While the quality of your lens glass certainly does play a huge role in overall image sharpness, it is not an absolute guarantee.
There are many other factors that come into play when discussing image sharpness or lack thereof. I’ve even said things myself like, “If I only had this lens or that lens, I could make better photos.” But have you considered the other reasons why your images seem to lack that wonderful sharpness we all chase?
Let’s face it, not all of us can afford the top of the line lenses that we believe will deliver the utmost clarity in our photographs. But there are so many other things that can be done to make sure you don’t stand in the way of even your kit lenses of delivering the best images possible. Here a few easy tips you can use right now to make sure you get the most out of whatever glass you might have on hand…or rather, on camera – and get help you get sharper photos.
#1 – Ye’ Olde Tripod
Here it comes. That same old practice that I’ve always implored you to do – use a tripod. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the more steady your camera is the sharper your images will be. Read: 5 Tips to Get Sharp Photos While Using a Tripod for more on this.
The truth is, excuses for not using a tripod are becoming slimmer and slimmer. Lightweight travel-style tripods (like the Vanguard tripod I wrote about here) are becoming more readily available. These are small and light options that fit in your camera bag without dragging you down. While not always practical, of course, a tripod (even a monopod) is the single best option you have for steadying your camera while making a photo. But when a tripod isn’t possible there are still ways to physically steady your camera for the capture. Like these…
#2 – How to Hold Your Camera Steady
There isn’t a set way to place your hands for each and every camera you may encounter. But there are some basic principles to follow that can help you to keep your camera physically stable when shooting handheld.
The most important thing to remember is that the further your camera moves away from your center of gravity, the more inherent possible camera shake will become. This means that whenever possible you should hold your arms close to your body and avoid putting distance between yourself and the camera.
Arms out making the camera unsteady.
Arms and elbows tucked in, this is much more stable.
Furthermore, the manner with which you hold the camera in your hands becomes important. Keep a comfortable yet firm grip with your shutter hand while your left hand remains beneath the lens close to the camera body, all the while still being capable of adjusting the lens focus or zoom ring. Your left hand should be pressing slightly backward in opposition to your shutter hand.
Hold the camera and lens firmly but stay flexible. Notice the left hand is under the lens.
This will allow more steady control of the entire setup to reduce shake. Again, experiment with different configurations of the same grip so that you become the most comfortable. Just remember to keep those elbows tucked in close to your body, with your left hand cradling the lens firmly underneath close to the camera. Your right hand should be gripping the camera equally as firmly with opposing forward pressure to your left hand.
If you want to test yourself, take in a deep breath before each shot and exhale half way before you click the shutter. These little nuances may seem somewhat neurotic but can help you to get sharper photos when the odds are against you.
#3 – The Importance of Shutter Speed
Much like the idea of preventing camera shake, the faster the shutter speed you can use the better it is in terms of making your images sharper. Motion is always your enemy. Unless you purposefully want to impart motion to your photograph the more helpful arresting it in your frame will be. One of the most helpful methods you will find to reduce both camera shake and subject blur when shooting handheld is something called the Reciprocal Rule. Which really, is more of a guideline than a rule.
The Reciprocal Rule is simply a calculation based on whatever focal length lens you happen to be using. Just take the focal length in millimeters and make it a fraction. If you’re shooting a 50mm lens your maximum shutter speed should not be slower than 1/50th of a second. If you’re shooting a 24mm lens then the shutter speed should be at least 1/24th second; a 300mm lens would need 1/300th, and so forth. If the exact shutter speed isn’t available just round up to the nearest speed (or faster).
Here are a couple of examples of the improved sharpness based on an increase in shutter speed according to the Reciprocal Rule:
Shot at 1/40th of a second with 85mm lens – notice how it’s not quite sharp. Usually when you see a sort of double image like this – it’s due to the shutter speed being too slow.
Now notice the reduction in motion blur once the shutter is increased to 1/100th second.
Shot at 1/100th of a second with an 85mm lens
This is an easy and quick way to prevent your images from suffering sharpness robbing blur due to camera shake. While not perfect, the Reciprocal Rule will become your best friend in the field.
#4 – What’s a Sweet Spot Anyway?
Regardless of the lens you happen to be using, it has what is often referred to as a sweet spot. This is the aperture range of your lens that will produce the sharpest images. This range varies even between lenses of the same make and model, so personal experimentation is a must in order to determine where the sweet spot of your particular lens may be. Read: How to Identify Your Lens’s Sweet Spot
Begin at the largest aperture (smallest f-number like f/4) and make photos at each aperture up to the minimum aperture (largest f-number like f/22 or f/32) of your lens. Adjust shutter speed and ISO as you go to normalize the exposure. Then examine each image throughout the frame, especially at the corners, to see which apertures give you the best sharpness. This is a somewhat tedious process, but I assure you it will pay off in more ways than you might imagine.
When in doubt, always place the subject of your photo towards the middle of the frame. The center of the lens glass will virtually always be the sharpest area. So, regardless of the aperture you happen to employ the more important aspect of your photo will benefit from the most physical sharpness possible.
- When you can, use a tripod. A tripod really is your best friend.
- Practice good camera holding techniques. Keep those elbows tucked in with your left hand firmly (yet still maneuverable) cradling the lens from underneath. Use your right hand to tightly grip the camera body in opposition to your left hand.
- Use the fastest shutter speed allowable for your image effect. If you need to figure a maximum shutter speed quickly use the Reciprocal Rule (one over the focal length of your lens).
- Learn the sweet spot of your lenses. Figure out the optimum sharpness aperture for each. If conditions don’t allow you to use that particular setting, then place your subject as close to the center of the frame as possible.
Have more tips that help you achieve sharper images? Please let us know in the comments please.
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