Image Sharpness…

When I entered photography school a few years back the instructor reviewed my past collection of photography and made the observation that I seemed to have a good eye and good ideas but asked why all my images were soft.

Well, the answer was, of course, that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Since then I’ve grown to value sharpness in most photos. This doesn’t mean that I won’t purposefully soften a photo but it does mean that I want to start with all the detail I can get. There are several reasons for this. The first, and probably the most important, is that a sharp photo often has that “pop” that is lacking in a soft photo. Secondly, as I have begun using shorter lenses, the success of a crop is more likely if I start with good, sharp definition.

What follows is a listing of how I have determined to get sharpness in my photos. Note that these are not essays, merely a listing with a few comments.

Holding the camera
: At the risk of being a bit obvious I’ll point out that you want the camera to be still when the shutter is fired. Do this by supporting the camera/lens with one hand while holding the camera by the grip and pulling the eye piece firmly to your forehead. It makes a three point support system that does wonders for sharpness.

Aperture: Unless there is a very good reason not to (such as expanding or shortening the depth of field), I will use f/8. This is the sweet spot in the design of my lenses and the sharpness at, or around, f/8 is demonstrable. I had read this in various places and dismissed it as over-kill until I set up a test and convinced myself. It’s true, folks. Sharpness falls off noticeably at the aperture extremes.

Tripod: Before you buy that next lens spend some serious money on a tripod. Learn to lug it around. Learn to use it. Learn to love it. In case you doubt me on this, ask yourself why all the best landscape, architecture, and nature photographers use tripods? It is because it improves their photos. No other reason to punish yourself by carrying the extra weight.

Speed: There is a general rule of thumb that says that a person can handhold a camera for a sharp photo if the shutter speed is shorter than (roughly) one over the focal length of the lens. For example, if I shooting through a 60 mm lens I should be able to get a sharp image if the shutter speed is faster than 1/60 second. Maybe I’m a little bit over cautious but I halve it (i.e., 1/120 second in the example).

Best glass you can afford: There is a reason – when it comes to lenses – that high quality costs more than low quality. Research, quality materials, testing, quality in manufacturing processes – these things count and, of course, these things cost.

Vibration Reduction: There is some really high tech capability built into some lenses which senses a lens wiggle and, in a tiny fraction of a second, induces a move counter to the undesirable move. My long lens (70 -200mm) is equipped with VR – and I love it. And the reason I love it because…it WORKS. Now Nikon (my preference at the present) has released a 24-70mm lens with VR and I have just placed an order for this very expensive lens. It’s worth noting here that VR doesn’t play well with tripods. It actually fights with the stability of a tripod and can result in less sharpness in the photo. The consensus is that you should use only when you need it, i.e., in low light situations or long lenses.

Squeeeeze the shutter release: You should not know when the shutter will fire. And…the only way this is possible is if you are slowly increasing the pressure with your trigger finger. “Punching” the shutter release will cause a surprising amount of camera movement and the resulting soft image.

Remote Release: I own a shutter release – the kind on a wire – but I find I more often use an electronic (wireless) remote because I like the idea of firing the shutter from a long distance away and I don’t like having the wire hanging around. Another non-shaking release technique is to use the timer on your camera – you know, the thing you set before you run around to get into the family picture.

ISO 200: I read a rather exhaustive (and exhausting) article a few years ago that convinced me that the cleanest image is obtained when the ISO is set to 200 (for Nikon) and 100 (for Cannon). This, apparently, is the design point used by the manufacturers. You can get further into this subject – and, believe me, there is more out there than you can understand or want to understand. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? For myself, I start at ISO 200 if the other variables allow. And, of course, you should avoid the higher ISO settings and their inherent noise.

Mirror Lock-up: In a single lens reflex (most of our cameras) this happens: You see – through the view finder – exactly what your lens sees because a little mirror is in the path to the sensor. Then, as you press the shutter release that mirror swings up out of the way and the light of your image makes its way to the sensor. That movement of the mirror shakes the camera. So…if you lock up the mirror before releasing the shutter that little camera shake is eliminated. But maybe not. Some people have made exhaustive tests to conclude that they will get virtually no improvement in sharpness by locking up the mirror. I agree and find it troublesome and of no use.

That list is pretty long and I have to admit that I usually forget to do some of it when I’m out shooting. But here’s the thing: A lot of photography is made in situations where there is only one opportunity to make the image. I try to make it as sharp as I can. It’s easy to selectively reduce the sharpness but often impossible to make it any sharper.

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Guy Davies - I agree with everything you say John, but can I add one more thing. When you get a tripod, get a really good solid head with a firm quick release. Years ago I was having sharpness problems when using the long lens and a tripod. I couldn’t understand where the problem was until it was pointed out to me that I was using a flimsy quick release on a not very firm head. When I changed that, my pictures got sharper.

Another small point is that if there is a strong wind when you are out in the field with a long lens, take the lens hood off because it catches the wind and can shake the whole camera.

Guy Davies - John I agree with everything you say, but I’d like to add an extra. As well as a good sturdy tripod, make sure you invest serious money in a good firm head and quick release. I found this out the hard way when I was still getting soft images even when using a good tripod. My quick release plate was too flimsy. Once I changed that I started to get sharp images.

skeeter - Absolutely. I’ve even found that hanging a weight from the center post (to make the whole thing more rigid) is a good way to get “wind wiggle”.

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