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10 Tips for Sharper Images

Today’s guest post comes from professional photographer and photography teacher, Kevin Gourley of Kevin Gourley Photography, right here in Austin, TX. Read on as he shares 10 great tips for taking better pictures.

I teach a variety of photography workshops, and one thing I regularly emphasize to my students is the importance of image sharpness. All too often, I see photographers take photos that are a little ‘soft’ and that sometimes kills an otherwise great photo! If you have this problem, here are ten tips that can help you ensure your images come out sharp.

First of all, I should mention that I sometimes encounter photographers who think the problem is that they need a higher resolution camera, and they rush to get ‘more megapixels’, but actually that is NOT AT ALL the problem. So, save your dollars and put these tips into practice:

1. Make sure you are accurately focusing on the part of the photo you want to be sharp. I know, this sounds obvious, but it’s tempting to let the camera’s auto focus system do all the work and let it choose which ‘focus points’ to use, and it might make a decision to focus on the wrong thing. Make sure you read up on how your camera’s focus points work, and whether they detect vertical or horizontal line contrast, or both. That helps explain why the focus points don’t work as well as expected in some situations. Also, with most cameras, you can tell the camera to only use specific focus points, instead of all focus points. That means you can tell the camera to focus on only one point. If you do that, you can then point the selected focus point precisely at the subject you want to be in sharp focus, and press the shutter button halfway down and lock focus on what’s most important. Then you can reframe the shot and take the perfectly focused photo!

2. Keep in mind that you can control depth of field (the range front to back that appears to be sharp) by adjusting your aperture. If you use a wide aperture value like f/2.8, then you’ll have a shallow depth of field and focusing becomes even more critical. For example, if you focus on someone’s nose, their eyes might be slightly out of focus. (And it’s REALLY important to have the eyes in focus!!) You can increase the depth of field by using an aperture value of f/11 or f/16 instead. That will give you greater depth of field, which is especially useful if you are taking a group photo. It’s important to make sure everyone in the group look sharp! Using Aperture Priority exposure mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon) is a great way of controlling your aperture value.

3. Sometimes a ‘soft’ image that looks ‘out of focus’ might not really be out of focus at all! The other big culprit is shutter speed. If you hand-hold a shot at a shutter speed that is too low, the photograph will pick up the hand vibration as ‘blur’ that prevent s the image from looking sharp. The slower the shutter, the more likely the image won’t be sharp. There are several ways to deal with this. Read on…

4. Of course, if motion blur is causing your image to not be sharp, you can put the camera on a tripod. That provides a more stable platform for holding the camera, and thus at slow shutter speeds your image will be sharper. And if you don’t have a tripod, you can always try to brace the camera against a tree, a post, a railing, or a wall (etc.).

5. If your camera or lenses offer ‘Image Stabilization’ or ‘Vibration Reduction’ (or any of a wide variety of other terms, based on the brand), that can be a huge plus! This technology helps stabilize the image, even if you are hand-holding the camera. This will allow you to use a little shower shutter speed than would otherwise be ‘safe’ to use for hand-held photography. Since photographers often hand-hold their camera for most shots, this is a really valuable feature to have, and is well worth the extra cost.

6. Proper holding of the camera is a factor also! When holding the camera, make sure to hold your elbows close to your body, bracing your arms against you, giving them more stable support. Also make sure you have firm footing and as you fire the shutter, relax and exhale softly and squeeze off the shot. (Yes this really helps!)

7. I still haven’t explained how slow is ‘too slow’ for a hand-held shutter speed. The old rule has always been 1/focal-length as the minimum safest shutter speed. So for a 200mm lens, shooting below 1/200th of a second means you risk a soft/blurry shot. You have to keep in mind, though, the crop factor of your sensor. If your camera has 1 .6 crop factor, then that lens is effectively a 320mm lens, so keep that in mind for your minimum shutter speed calculation. This calculated ‘minimum shutter speed’ is just a guideline and is not precise. Sometimes you can get lucky and shoot at a little slower shutter speed, but it’s just risky. I think it’s best to stay well above that minimum safe shutter speed if you can. Remember, Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction is a huge plus that can allow you to shoot at a little slower shutter speed.

8. When you are shooting, ALWAYS pay attention to the shutter speed you are using. If it is in a risky range or the images are turning out ‘soft’, fix the problem immediately rather than just ‘hoping they’ll turn out anyway’. Go ahead and move up to a higher ISO setting. That will allow your shutter speed to be faster for the same aperture value. Move the ISO as high as you need to ensure the images are not blurred! Even if it means going to a range where you start adding more ‘noise’ due to the higher ISO value. It’s better to get a sharp grainy shot, rather than a blurred non-grainy shot.

9. The good news is that when shooting with a digital camera, you can check your work right then! If you have ANY question about whether the images are turning out sharp, check it on the back of your camera. Zoom in on the image preview and make sure it is sharp, and if not, make corrections immediately before taking any more photos.

10. There are two final considerations for creating sharp images, both related to digital image sharpening. If you’re shooting JPG in camera, then your camera has settings that affect JPG image sharpening done in camera. Check your camera manual about image sharpening and features such as ‘Picture Styles’, ‘Picture Control Styles’, ‘Creative Styles’, or a variety of other names based on camera brand. Also, once the images are on your computer, you can add some image sharpening, depending on what software you use. Some judicious image sharpening can really add that last little bit of sharpness that makes the image look nice and crisp. The exact amount of sharpening you do depends on how the image is to be presented. The sharpening needed for a 16×20 print is different than the sharpening needed for a photo you post on facebook, or present in your next beautiful slideshow using ProShow!

These ten tips will ensure you are creating consistently nice sharp photos, freeing you up to think about all the other factors that create a great photograph such as composition, light, color, etc.

Kevin Gourley is a professional photographer and has a full service studio in Austin, TX and teaches a series of popular photography classes/workshops in the Central Texas area.
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As a member of Photodex's events team, Dylan specializes in teaching pro photographers and slideshow hobbyists alike how to use ProShow in their business. He's an avid student of photography and enjoys Austin's eclectic mix of music, art and nature.