5 Simple Steps to Sharper Photos

Taking razor-sharp photos is a pursuit of many photographers – crisp, defined edges and incredible texture creates a whole new dimension to your photos. However, there is a reason why professional images appear to be sharper than the average hobbyist – they follow a few simple, but key steps in order to eliminate camera vibration and make sure that their scene is as sharp as possible.

sharper

Getting the Shot by Zach Dischner on Flickr

There are 5 very important steps to clear, tack-sharp images.

1. Use a Tripod
I’m sure you’ve heard of this before, but a tripod is one of the most versatile and important pieces of gear in a photographer’s arsenal. It allows you to capture HDR images, do long exposures, and it will also help stabilize a camera in the event of camera shake.

When not using a tripod, your shutter speed needs to be fast enough to capture your scene without registering any movement caused by camera shake – or simply put, a slow shutter speed may pick up vibrations caused by handheld movement, which gives you a blurry photo. Even the slightest movement can cause camera shake, which ultimately affects your image sharpness.

A tripod will help stabilize your camera so that you can capture images of any shutter speed in sharp focus – assuming your subject isn’t moving. This is by far the biggest thing you can do to obtain a sharper photo.

sharper photos

Tripod by fensterbme, on Flickr

2. Lock Your Mirror
In addition to mounting your camera on a tripod, locking your internal mirror will help eliminate any vibration the camera causes when your press the shutter button. Instead of letting your camera flip the mirror up and expose your image in one fell swoop, it does it in two steps so that the vibration isn’t present when you actually take your photo. So when mirror lock-up mode is enabled, you’ll be pressing your shutter button twice to take a photo – once to flip the mirror and lock it in place, and again to take your image.

Each camera has a slightly different way to access this setting, so refer to your camera manual in order to learn how to enable this helpful tool.
3. Remote Cable Release
The remote cable release is another great tool for obtaining sharp images during longer exposures.  So you’ve got your camera mounted on a tripod, and you’ve enabled a mirror lock – now it’s time to actually take your photo. However, just the act of pressing the shutter button can physically shake your camera, causing unwanted blurring and a less-than-sharp image.

A remote cable release is simply a corded remote that attaches to your camera, allowing you to take a photo without actually touching it. Most remotes also come with a lock – perfect for extended exposures where you don’t have to hold down the shutter button for 15 minutes or longer.
4. Disable IS/VR
If your camera is already mounted on a tripod, then there’s no reason to use your image stabilization/vibration reduction function on your lens (if you have it) as it’s a redundant step. Actually, combining both IS/VR and tripod mounting as a stabilization method can be counterproductive – this function can actually blur your image instead of stabilizing it since the camera is already mounted. Make sure to disable this function for a truly sharp photo.
5. Aperture
If you’re following all the above steps and still desire a sharper image, note that the aperture you choose can greatly affect image clarity. Every lens has a “sweet spot” aperture setting – usually somewhere between f/8 and f/11. If you go outside of this bracket, your image sharpness will progressively decrease. Whether or not this is a concern to you depends on what is more important to you – your depth of field or your sharpness?

By following these 5 important steps, you will notice a considerable difference in image sharpness.

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  1. Jan

    Thanks. Never bothered about locking the mirror. Will give it a try. Thanks for sharing.

  2. tom donald

    Great tips! I like to carry a very lightweight tripod in my camera bag, it’s a tiny thing but extends to a good four feet. It’s not rigid, but I use time release, and the two second setting on my Lumix G1 is enough to press the shutter button and steady the camera before exposure starts. It helps a lot that the lumix is micro fourthirds, mirrorless, and therefore small and relatively light…
    Keep up the good work guys!

  3. Kyle Franklin Neuberger

    Great post Christopher. An alternative to the cable release is to use the automatic timer, giving you a chance to get your hands off the camera. Not ideal, but does the trick.

  4. Jason Renshaw

    I’ve been using all your tips besides the aperture one. Great tip! Going to play around with it some today.

  5. CalTek

    Forgot to mention a good lens! ;) The 18-200 kit lens I have with my Canon 60D is giving me headaches with regards to sharpness (not to mention Chromatic Aberration).

    Will look into the lens’ sweet spot as well as mirror lockup. Hopefully that will solve some of the issues.

  6. UWSkier

    One other thing I recommend is when shooting outdoors in any kind of breeze at all, lash your camera strap to the tripod somehow or remove it altogether. I’ve had a few long exposure shots end up less sharp than desired from a camera strap swinging about in the breeze.

  7. jeffery

    How do you do the things you do … The photos are beautiful..

  8. Rockland County Portrait Photographer

    Haven’t tried locking the mirror up yet. Thanks.

  9. Joolz

    I started trying the aperture tip, usually f8 last year when I noticed one of my fave photographers was regularly shooting landscapes around there instead of the classic f16. I didn’t notice depth of field issues viewing his images online, so I’ve been wondering if f16 really does gives much more sharpness to the entire image. Interested in anything you can tell me about this. Thanks for the article!

  10. Kyle

    Two things, First it’s called the reciprocal rule. It’s really not a tip to say make sure you use a fast enough shutter speed to not get motion blur. Here’s how it works. For a full frame camera, take the lens focal length, and place it under a 1. IE, a 50mm lens requires a 1/50th of a second shutter speed minimum. For a crop frame like APS-C, take the EFFECTIVE focal length and place it under a 1. IE, that same 50mm lens requires a 1/75th of a second at a minimum.

    Second, here’s how you find the lens sweet spot. Google a “Lens Sharpness Chart”, print it out and set your camera on a tripod or something steady. Set the camera to aperture priority and take the image, without moving the camera, with all the lens’ apertures. Take those files into the computer, set the sort order to “Largest File Size”. The largest file size will have the most detail, so check the EXIF data and remember the aperture number. You can do this with zooms and primes, on a prime, do the test at the widest, the middle, and the most telephoto. They should be somewhat similar. I write the aperture on my lens caps so I don’t forget.

  11. Michael G. Clark

    If your camera has the capability, calibrate all of your lenses to your body using the Auto Focus Micro Adjust feature. This is especially critical if you use very shallow depth of field.

    Use a prime lens, or a high quality zoom. The old rule of thumb used to be anything with a longest focal length more than three times the widest focal length had too many design compromises. Computer simulation aided design has stretched that a little, but anything like an 18-200 will give up a lot of image quality for the focal length flexibility. In general constant aperture zooms have better optics than variable ones.

    Learn how to calculate the hyper-focal distance for any given focal length and aperture, and then learn how to apply it.

    Find out what the DLA (Diffraction Limited Aperture) is for your digital body. It is mathematically figured based on the sensor’s pixel density. DLA is the point for each particular sensor where diffraction begins to visibly affect image sharpness when viewed at 100% crops. The larger the pixel size, the narrower the DLA will be. The EOS 1D Mark II had a DLA of f/13.2 for its 8.2MP APS-H sensor. The 18MP APS-C sensor shared by the 7D/60D/T4i/T3i/T2i has a DLA of f/6.9. The current full frame Canons have DLA’s of between f/10 and f/11.

    • Brian Jenkins

      Thanks Michael G. Clark for telling us that the 7D has a DLA of f/6.9. Does that mean an aperture close to f/6.9 should bring the sharpest images?

  12. myrtle

    Great! Thanks for such a great info in here.=D

  13. Oliver

    I learned very quickly that if you want good evening photographs then you need to use a tripod and with so many easy to carry small tripods out there it doesn’t become a hassle carrying them around.

  14. gopal shroti

    very helpful for sharp images….Actually less photographers know to disable IS/VR on tripod.

  15. Pusat Belanja Bandung

    Very nice tips
    I just found out that a tripod can not be combined with IS/VR
    I will practice soon

  16. Chris

    Although all of these are generally speaking good points, they are too generic. Locking your mirror up will have no effect if your shutter speed is outside the zone where mirror-slap-induced vibration is actually pertinent – roughly speaking, this is the 1 sec – 1/40 sec zone. In addition, the f/8-f/11 aperture applies only to lenses with max aperture f/4-f/5.6. If you have an f/1.4 lens to begin with, you won’t see any perceivable difference between f/4 and f/11 (actually, in some cases f/11 might even be less sharp – at least on specs – than f/5.6).

  17. Cordu

    Great tips, thank you! I have to admit I didn’t even know you could lock the mirror. Will definitely give it a try!

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