Let's talk a little bit about image sharpness

posted on 5th of may, 2009

Few things are more impressive than a full blown image with spot on focus and perfect optical sharpness. Unfortunately, few things are as hard as accomplishing this on regular basis, especially when you shoot under natural light and you're trying to squeeze your equipment budget even tighter. Nevertheless, there are several things which you can do to improve the sharpness of your images without necessarily spending more money on equipment (the spending-related solutions are at the bottom).

1. Mind the shutter speed. The lower the shutter speed, the higher the chance of getting an out of focus image due to camera shake. Some solutions have been mentioned on the message boards in the past.
Remember, most people can hand hold a non-image-stabilized camera without shaking too much down to about 1/60sec at short focal lengths (ie. 24-70mm, 35mm equiv.). As mentioned in the thread, try to follow the general rule of having your shutter speed at least as high as the 35mm equivalent of your focal length (thus, 50mm = 1/50sec or faster).

2. Mind your breathing. It's surprising that this is not talked about so much and most people don't care, but breathing is important when taking photos. Very important. Take a deep(er) breath right before you press the shutter and hold it until after you've released it. The air will fill your lungs and support your body. Try it out if you haven't yet and you'll see for yourself how much easier it is to hold the camera still while you're holding your breath. It takes some time to get used to, but soon you won't even be thinking about it as you do it.

3. Got a tripod/monopod? Use it. If you'll be shooting the sunset/sunrise, a moody indoor candle-lit silhouette or a simple portrait with limited window light, chances are you'll most likely be needing a tripod or at least a monopod. Don't have one? Set the camera on something solid or in the worst case - lean against something yourself. But if you want to get serious about this photographing stuff - put the tripod on your to-buy list.

4. Play with the camera settings. If you think you'll get by with using Auto mode on your camera to make appealing commercial images - good luck (although we know well it won't help you). ;) If you're just starting, sit down and read your camera's manual. Then read some basic articles on photographing.
If you're into it for a short while - use slightly higher ISO when needed, and open up the aperture (to smaller values). This will provide you with more light, so that you can keep the shutter speed high enough to compensate for camera shake.

5. You're doing well and have some spare cash? Re-check your equipment, your photographing /subjects and if you're still experiencing out of focus images - get a more expensive zoom or even a prime. There's only a few low-range kit lenses that are very good. Perhaps you want to look into a body/lens with image stabilization? Get a more decent tripod or perhaps a monopod - either one with a solid but smooth head.

6. My photo isn't sharp. How do I fix it? Stop here. Perhaps you don't need to fix it.
© Intst (Help)
Certain shots are better utilized with the blur present. Keep in mind that this needs to fit the subject - as the example on the right. When you're having intentional motion blur - don't forget to mention it in the description of your image, especially when it's not really obvious from the thumbnails.
If you do need to fix it you can try to downsize slightly and apply some unsharp. So far that's the least damaging and most efficient technique, other than using specialized software/plug-ins, which work with variable success.
Whichever option you choose, do not bump up the in-camera/RAW software sharpness settings. Always have these set to neutral. Increasing them will simply distort your image so much that it will be refused for that reason alone. In the majority of cases it won't even fix your out of focus problem.
Is your photo only partially on focus and smeared around the edges? That's most likely caused by your lens. Consider getting a better one, or try to find the sweet spot on your current lens and work not too far around it. When possible and appropriate, crop the image in such a way that you have the sharp areas only.

7. Bear the subject in mind. Different subjects handle image sharpness differently. Portraits could generally be accepted with some slight softness. For architectural shots you'll need a sharp lens and sturdy camera support - these photos need to be cutting sharp to be impressive. Macros need to have the focus point well chosen and sharp. Unless you're doing something creative with the focus, do keep the landscapes sharp. If you're stitching panoramas - carefully examine the edges of the originals and when necessary shoot with a larger overlap between the different frames.

If you have further tips or tricks, DIY solutions or ideas that you've tested and know to be working - share them in the comments section below.

Comments (19)

Comment by Unteroffizier on April 14, 2010