It's a new year and a chance for us all to look forward and improve our photography. We are always trying to get razor sharp images but sometimes it is difficult, especially if you don't know what your are doing wrong...  Here is a list of 11 tips that will help you get the sharpest images you can! :) I hope this helps, and If you have any other tips to share, please leave a comment! :) Happy shooting, and remember a click a day keeps the psychiatrist away! :)

If you've not read it already, I recommend you read a post I did on how the AF system works, and why it fails in low light situations and on dark subjects.

1) Shutter speed

This is usually the prime reason for blurry images. The shutter speed as double impact on the image being blurry.

  1. The first relates to the subject. When your shutter speed is slow, than you will get motion blur. If the subject is moving quickly then you you need a fast shutter speed to "freeze" the action and make a sharp subject (if that is what you are going for). Motion blur can create a great dimension to your image, but is not always desired. As a general rule of thumb, you will need ~1/1000.
  2. The second is to do with you, and is called camera shake. If your shutter speed is slow, any movements YOU make, no matter how small, will blur the whole image. This is very evident the longer (or more telephoto) your lens is. The longer the lens the more camera shake you get. In order to avoid camera shake, do not use a shutter speed lower than 1/focal length of the lens you are using. For example, if you are using a 300mm lens you should not use a shutter speed lower than 1/300, otherwise you risk camera shake.

Here I wanted the motion blur of the train so used a slower shutter speed, but had to have a high enough shutter speed to avoid too much camera shake and keep the static subjects sharp. This is why shutter speed is so important for creating your images and making sure they are sharp where they need to be!

2) Hold your camera properly

Holding your camera correctly is important to get the best stability, reduce camera shake and get sharp images...  It is also important for you, especially when you are using big heavy lenses, and avoiding injuring yourself! That is why I took the advice of chiropractor come photographer Shelly Lake in a previous post! I suggest you check it out here!

3) Use IS/OS/VC/VR

If your lens has it, use image stabilization (or whatever your lens calls it). This is a clever bit of mechanics that reduces camera shake, allowing you to take stable images at up to 1/4 the normal shutter speed (1/25 instead of 1/100 for example). This will not, however, help with motion blur in your subject, so it only really helps with stationary or slow moving subjects!

Remember to TURN the stabilization off when you mount your camera on a tripod. It can actually introduce camera shake in this situation, by trying to correct shakes that are not there!

This is the IS unit that moves the floating lens element inside an image stabilised lens to keep the image steady on the surface of the sensor or film.

This is the IS unit that moves the floating lens element inside an image stabilised lens to keep the image steady on the surface of the sensor or film.

4) Aperture

In order to get all the butterflies in focus, i had to increase my aperture so that the depth-of-field was large enough to capture them all (well, most of them)! :)

Often images are called blurry when in fact they are not, they have just not focused accurately. This is a problem with low f/number lenses as depth of field is so low, it is easy to miss the target. If this is happening to you one option is to use a narrower aperture (higher f/ number), this will give you a deeper depth of field and means more of your subject will be in focus. However, remember, by increasing the f/number, you're letting in less light and will need to reduce the shutter speed or increase the ISO accordingly! It is all a balance.

If "missed focus" is happening constantly, you should check your lens (see the last point of this post).

5) Continuous shooting

Hold down and fire off more than 1 shot, this is particularly useful when at a less than ideal shutter speed, as the movement of pressing the shutter causes camera shake, and this way the 2nd, 3rd, 4th pics are more likely to be sharper...

6) Good lighting

Good lighting is will make a lot of difference to your images. It means you can have a fast shutter speed and a depth-of-field (higher f/number) that is manageable for you...  if this is not an option, like in wildlife photography, than increase the ISO. But always try for the best lighting you can get! Read my post on shooting for the conditions for more advice here! Noise and image quality in high ISO images can be dealt with (at least a little) in post-processing, motion blur/camera shake can not. So, I'd rather have a higher ISO image that captures the action, than a low ISO blurry mess! :) Like all settings in your camera, we are balancing the positive and negative aspects to get the best result we can.

This image was taken at ISO 12800, 500mm, f/4 @ 1/125. I had to really stretch my cameras abilities to get a good shot, but after a bit of post processing, it came out fantastic!

7) Keep your ISO low

Erm, John, you just told us to increase the ISO!?!

Well, yes, but there is a direct correlation with ISO and image quality. The higher the ISO the lower the image quality is, sharpness included. So you always want to keep your ISO as low as possible. If you are shooting in crappy lighting, you still need to have a high enough shutter speed for the situation, and sometimes the only option is to increase the ISO, but only increase it as much as needed and no more!

8) The correct AF point

As i mentioned earlier, a lot of so called blurry images are not 'blurry' as such, just not correctly focused correctly. That is why it is important to use the best AF point for the job. Usually this is the one closest to the subject. It is important to place it over the EYE of the subject (if it has eyes, if not, well, the main point of interest). So select an AF point that gives you the composition you want. On another note, YOUR center AF is always the best, so in low light conditions use that to focus, it will be the most accurate.

This is what the AF points look like on my Canon 5D Mark III. Each point has a different sensitivity to light (f/number) and works in wither a horizontal, vertical, cross or double-cross orientation, which provides different specificity. Knowing this allows me always to use the best point for the job at hand! Image taken from a canon AF point manual!

If you have not got a focus point where you want it (a common problem), then use the closest AF point, focus, recompose the shot how you want it, and then click the shutter.

9) Focus Mode

Continuing on the focusing theme, it is important to use the correct focusing mode. This can simply be divided into two; a mode that focuses once when taking the image (OneShot/AF-S), and one that focusing continually (IServo/AF-C). Each has its place, and if not used correctly, does not work well. For example, OneShot focusing on canon, will focus and then take the image. If you use this on a static subject, it works great and is very accurate, but if you use it on a moving subject (particularly one moving closer or away from you), by the time it takes the picture, the subject has moved position and it will miss the focus. like everything there are pros and cons, but the bottom line is this. Still/static subject, use OneShot/AF-S, moving subject use IServo/AF-C. Cameras also tend to have another mode, that is an "intelligent" blend of the two I just spoke about. Avoid it, as it guesses what you are trying to do, and sometimes will guess wrong.

10) Back button focus (BBF)

This is a little bit more advanced, but then again, if you can notice you're images are not as sharp as others, and want to improve, it is relevant to you! :) The default setting puts the focus button and shutter button together, meaning, when you "click" the camera will focus before taking the picture. This makes sense for beginners, but it limits your photography options. By separating the focus from the shutter, you have several advantages:

Don't have to switch between focus modes

If you have your AF mode set to continuous focus, back-button is a huge advantage. press it once and you get one-shot focus, hold it down and you have continuous focus. This can not be done when the focus is initiated by half-pressing the shutter button! No need to switch AF modes (as much).

Can manual focus at any time

Normally, to manual focus, you have to turn AF off on your lens (assuming it has it) and then you can manual focus. with BBF, you just don't focus and you can manual focus whenever you want, no need to change settings! (assuming your lens has full-time MF).

Easier to focus and recompose

If your AF point is not exactly where you want it, or if you are shooting in low light and using only your center point, you need to focus and recompose. In the standard situation, this involved awkwardly half-pressing the image and recomposing (which can only be done in one-shot by the way). I found that this lead to accidental shots, and many missed focuses as it is not a comfortable situation. With BBF, you press to focus, then move and press the shutter when-ever you want! :)

The Cons!

Like everything in life there are some down-sides...  but for this situation, in my opinion, there are few. The main one being you will probably screw up some shots while getting use to the new settings, but this is minimal and I find people get used to it very quickly! The only other down-side I can think of, is if you give your camera to someone else to take a pic of your good self, their images won't focus, as the average Joe does not know BBF! :)

11) Lens

If you are doing everything correctly above, and your images are still not as sharp as you want, you might want to look into upgrading your lens! If you have the best possible lens and your images are still not sharp...  It's you! :P

If you are continually missing the focus, you might have to check that the lens is calibrated correctly for your camera...  I will be making a post about this, but to be honest, nowadays it is less of a problem as manufacturing standards have improved.


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