The most common question asked by many people is
“How come my photos are never sharp?”
Their big concern is that the lens or lenses they already own are not good enough and they need to upgrade.
Photography has always been a lens specific pursuit. So much of what we do as photographers are wrapped up in gear. Not surprising, once you enter the sales funnel of the photographic arts, you’ll most likely consume more gear than you ever imagined.
When it comes to camera lenses we all have our favorites, getting the most out of them is another story…
Many find difficulty when it comes to nailing down sharp photos even with the most pricey lens options. Learning how to operate your camera is a muscle response that takes time to develop. Accessing and using your camera frequently will pay dividends when it comes to sharper photographs. Weekend warriors need to take some time during the week to practice handling their gear. You want your camera to be an extension of your hands.
Before ditching that lens on eBay you feel isn’t sharp, try the following these in-Camera tips I’ve used for years to achieve sharp photographs. You may not agree and have other ideas, that’s great! I’ve been in the photography business for over 20 years and have sold hundreds of prints and murals and the following works for me.
If you’re more of a handheld photographer and pursue action related activities, such as wildlife sports or model shooting, I suggest replacing your camera’s stock eyepiece with a deep rubber eyepiece cup. These are available for most cameras. These cups help to push the camera tightly into your face. The rubber compresses and stabilizes the camera to your face.
I also suggest leaving your camera strap on for 2 reasons. First, with the strap around your neck, you can pull in the slack and tightly wrap it around your hand to help push your camera into your face. Reason 2 is pretty basic, it saves your camera from hitting the ground on any occasion. I’m surprised how many seem to discard them, but they’re the best insurance against damage.
Regardless of what type of vibration reduction your lens has, I don’t recommend using this feature when your cameras locked in a tripod. Use it only if you’re on a boat or you’re physically being bumped around. Providing your shutter speed is high, 250fps-500fps or more, you should be fine without clicking this feature on. With some high Megapixel full-frame cameras, 36MP or more, 500fps is essential if handheld for sharp images.
Additionally, always be aware of your ISO. Adjusting this as the light changes. This will help keep your shutter speed up. I always shoot for the best quality. I always start at the low end at 100 ISO and work my way up. I’m always considering larger than normal mural-sized prints with my work.
When hand holding I always select continuous focus. I avoid pushing directly down on the shutter, I roll my index finger over the shutter button in continuous shutter mode and fire off 4 to 5 shot bursts. Normally, The first 1 or 2 will not be as sharp as 3,4 or 5, because the small waves of vibration of shots 1 and 2 have settled down in a DSLRs camera body by then. These small vibrations can affect sharpness.
Now that we’ve covered my suggestions on handheld sharpness issues, let’s move onto what works when you are using a tripod in Landscape Photography. I have used the following tips for architecture as well. I have been saying this for years, but if you truly want sharp landscape images, it all starts with a solid well-made tripod and Ball Head. Make sure it won’t rock when you move it when fully extended. Don’t skimp, invest in a quality mid-sized unit! If this is all you get out of reading this, you’ll be miles ahead.
Additionally, avoid pan heads. These are for filmmaking, where panning is needed, not still photography. Ball Heads are designed for still photography.
You have a few options for sharpness these days depending on your camera’s design, form, and function. We will start with the basic DSLR without live view. All DSLRs operate using a prism. The light comes through the lens and bounces off a mirror into the eyepiece. Once you roll your finger off the shutter, the mirror slaps up revealing the sensor. Then back after the sensor is exposed to light, and the photo is taken! This process causes a slight vibration and can impede sharpness. The best way to alleviate this is to use the mirror lock-up mode available in most DSLR cameras. Paired with a cable release, it will hold the mirror up with one click, exposing the sensor to another. This eliminates any shutter vibration.
Most modern DSLRs have a live view mode. This option exposes the sensor and the image is seen directly in the back of the camera. This is mostly used in video mode. While the mirror is not engaged, providing real-time viewing. This option can also be used for still photo capture while selecting the Camera and not the Movie mode. To assure sharpness when pressing the shutter you’ll select the Exposure Delay Mode in your camera’s menu. (Some cameras have a pre-programmed time, while in others you can select a 1 to 5 second or more time frame. I normally select 1 second). The key is to pull your hand away quickly as not to shake the camera with your fingers movement.
When it comes to Mirrorless Cameras, you have fewer vibration issues because of their construction. There are no mirrors, hence no mechanical movement, if any. Any issue with movement is when you’re physically touching the camera upon exposure. I would suggest the using the shutter delay mode, set for 1-2 seconds. This would be found in your Mirrorless Camera’s menu as well. You might also want a cable release and not use the shutter delay mode to avoid camera contact with your hands.
There is a mathematical calculation for achieving sharp photographs. These days we have many Apps that will provide you readable formula you can dial in your camera on what the optimum settings are to achieve the sharpest focus.
I’m not a fan of using them. Too much fussing around. As I’m mostly shooting wide lenses a know where know where I need to focus. Normally a third up from the bottom of the scene. Unless I have something extremely close and low in my frame and I want it to be tack sharp. along with any distant subjects, mountains, etc.
Focus Stacking For Sharpness
Focus stacking has been quite popular with Macro Photographers for years. Using the above methods to steady your camera does the trick for the most part using higher quality lenses known for their sharpness at their widest focal view. These lenses normally have little issues with lens diffraction (Focus dropping off at the edges using small apertures of f-16 to f-22). What’s great about focus stacking, you can optimize any lens at its Sweet Spot (The sharpest focus point that any given lens, of moderate quality, will have in most cases) With most all lenses this will be in its mid-range of focus. Not at its widest or most distant. Using Focus Stacking and Photoshop, anyone can optimize almost any lens and get a tack sharp landscape photograph, close up and distant within the same frame. The only drawback is this takes some time and a little thought. Additionally, you’ll need to be aware of any environmental movement (moving leaves,etc.). keeping your shutter speeds is important with grass and blowing trees, water etc. Each adjustment takes a few moments. Some newer cameras, such as the new Nikon D850 has this feature built in.
You’ll take 5 to 10 multiple photographs of your landscape Scene. Focused at different depths into the photo. First starting at the near foreground, the most important. Then followed by another. Concluding with the background. You’ll then load them into a file and blend them together in Photoshop. Photoshop will align each photo. Then your completed landscape photograph will be sharp throughout. From foreground to background.
This is the way to process your Photo Stacked Images
You first all your 5 to 10 photos. You then import them into a single stack inside of Photoshop. So if you’re in Lightroom, you select all your photo’s. You’ll then right click, open as Layers in Photoshop. You select all your chosen photos in Photoshop. You’ll then need to align them all because of the slightly different focus distances. So you’ll select them all, you’ll then go to Edit>Auto Align Layer (This will compensate because of these ever so slight focus distances). Then with all of them still selected, you go up to Edit> Auto-Blend Layers. This will scan all of your captures and only use the sharpest most focused photographs in your stack.
I hope these tips will help you create sharper images. If you would like to join one of our private or group photography workshops, subscribe to our email newsletter for workshop information, and updates on this blog. You will also receive our e-book, “Landscape Photography and the Light”.