How to take Sharp Pictures

Getting sharp pictures is not always as simple as it seems. In this article we take a look at ways to ensure you get the sharpest photo possible

Regardless of the level of photography you engage in, getting blurry pictures sucks!
Sadly, many people blame such pictures on their camera not realizing that with a little care a more satisfying result could have been obtained.

Let’s look at some ways to ensure getting sharp pictures:

Use a Tripod

I guess everyone saw this one coming, but it is hard to argue the fact. A good sturdy tripod WILL make your images sharper. You might be surprised to learn that the pros ALWAYS use a tripod, even in bright daylight.
The slightest camera shake will result in “soft” images, images that are not quite as tack sharp as they could be. This effect is amplified by using a larger zoom. Why is this amplified? Imagine a “level” where a small amount of movement at one end, results in a large amount of movement at the other end. Your camera is at the “small amount” side and the longer a zoom you use, the more the movement will be at the other end.

Fortunately, there are tricks one can use when a tripod is not available:

Use the Self Timer on the camera.
All cameras have one, read the manual if you have never used it. By placing the camera on a sturdy surface and tripping the self timer, you can take the shot without holding the camera. Almost anything can be used, a fence, a mailbox, steps, a parked car (don’t scratch it!), anything. Some care is of course necessary. For example, don’t put the camera too far from the edge of a surface as you’ll likely get a nice shot of that surface in the foreground.

Use a Bean Bag

Yes, a bean bag, you know, one of these small bags filled with birdseed or dried beans, often used to in the home to sooth aching muscles by heating the bag up in the microwave. They are cheap to buy and easy to make, in fact a couple of hand-fulls of birdseed in a zip-lock bag will do the trick just fine.
The point here is that the contents (the seed or beans) absorbs movement and provides a very sturdy base for a camera, even when you trip the shutter with your finger. Of course, using the self time AND a beanbag is even better.

Don’t press the shutter by hand

As mentioned earlier, a pro always uses a tripod. But a pro ALSO always uses a Cable Release. This is a cable that plugs into your camera and lets you trip the shutter by pressing a button at the other end of the cable. This avoids you having to touch the camera at all, removing ANY possibility that your hand creates minuscule movement (similar to using the self timer).

Shoot at your lens’ sharpest aperture

A lens is rarely really sharp at its largest or smallest aperture. So the astute photographer will try to avoid those settings if and when possible. Often the “sweet spot” lies 2 or 3 stops smaller than “Wide Open”. So, for example, if your lens is an f/2.8, you can expect an f/5.6 or f/8 setting to render the sharpest image. This can be easily tested yourself, by taking a series of images at different apertures and comparing the result. A small investment of time to find that “sweet spot” of your lenses.

Image Stabilization

New technology is helping you get sharper pictures too! Image Stabilization (IS), Vibration Reduction (VR), Optical Stabilization (OS) and Vibration Control (VC) are all terms used my different manufacturers to indicate their stabilization technology, which can be built into a lens or into the body of a camera.
This technology is quite amazing. It is based on the principle of counteracting the minuscule movement of your hands and arms. It does so by moving the optics or the sensor (depending if the stabilization happens in the lens or in the camera). The method is very effective and can be quite essential for, say, photojournalists or sports photographers who cannot always afford the time to set-up a tripod to get the action.

Beware! However, you do need to be careful when also using a tripod. When using a tripod, make sure you turn the stabilization OFF. Yes, that’s right, — OFF. The reason is simple. When turned on, the stabilization mechanism is looking out for movement and that “seeking” can cause some vibration by its own.

Mirror Lock Up

By now, you should already be getting much sharper pictures. But there is more!
One additional trick, used by the pros, is something called Mirror Lock Up. This ONLY applies to cameras with a mirror of course, the DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex).
Those cameras let you view the scene through the lens itself by using a mirror. When you trip the shutter, the mirror is briefly flipped out of the way, so the incoming light can be directed to the sensor. It only takes a fraction of a second and is why the view finder briefly goes black every time you take a picture.
Well, you can imagine that the slap of this mirror can also cause minute shake. In some scenarios, such as macro photography, where great magnification is used, this minute movement can cause blur in the shot.
Mirror Lock Up, as the term suggests, is a camera feature that allows you to flip the mirror out of the way and lock it in its flipped position. Then when the shutter is tripped, there is no movement by this mirror.
Obviously, when the mirror is flipped aside, you can no longer see through the lens, so you need to compose the shot before you take the picture.
You will need to look up your manual to see how to invoke the Mirror Lock Up feature.

Buy quality lenses

You will be surprised by the difference between a good lens and a bad lens. Sadly, the “kit lens” that often comes with a DSLR is not of the best quality. Typically, if the camera with lens combination is less than $100 more than the body only, you can pretty much be assured that the lens will not be the sharpest.
There are some exceptions of course. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 is a plastic lens that costs around $70. It’s build quality is pretty low, but it is a legendary lens as it performs magnificantly.
If you are serious about your photography and do not believe the difference a good piece of “glass” can make, I suggest you go to your local camera store and see if you can rent a lens for a day. That way you can try it out for yourself. I suspect you will be surprised.

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This entry was posted in Photography Tips.

One Comment

  1. Mariano Holub May 12, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

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