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

The tips mentioned here are valid and i find it more so true when shooting macro extreme closeup of insects and maybe some wildlife.

I usually use external flashes in most of my macro shots and keep my shutter most of the time at the fastest my camera allows (i.e 1/200).

Breathing is a factor not to be missed yes. In archery, swimming, shooting in the range and now photography. Depending on how still my subjects are sometimes i take a deep breath and hold it or just take a short breath in before pressing the shutter.

Supports can be used creativity. Not only can a camera be mounted on it for sturdiness, it can also hold your flashlights or allow secondary supports (e.g joby's gorilla pod) to be fixed onto it. Just that sometimes framing may be inconvenient to the photographer. One with a ballhead should add more flexibility. Yes the tripod can also be something you can lean or rest on at the correct angle and positioning.

Comment by Ronvid on January 27, 2010

Petar ... I could read your Blogs all day long. I think I just might :D

Comment by Freedomphotos on June 04, 2009

Thanks for the great tips and information in your article. I find the breathing technique helps stabilise and gets the mind focusing on the job I have used this also, while playing golf. One other point that is probably well below most of you, but worth mentioning, is when depressing the trigger, to use the flat of your finger not the tip, it is easier to control and there is a lot less movement. Hope this will help someone.

Comment by Matt6t6 on May 20, 2009

Very interesting I used to shoot guns and this is the same principal if you control your breathing you can control your aim but by not controlling the pressure on the trigger you can ruin your aim even if your mind wonders so can your aim ... Great article and yes very usefully.

Comment by Fleyeing on May 19, 2009

The breathing control is indeed almost never mentioned. I learned it in my sniper training in the army (when Belgium still had the military draft).

The technique involves a little bit more than holding your breath and it is perfectly transferable to camera shooting. It actually becomes a second nature to do it this way and a sniper will use the procedure instinctively when photographing.

1. Position yourself firmly with all body parts possible (head, elbows) and hold the gear (cam/gun) firmly to your face/shoulders with the maximum contact points. Select only the bony parts since muscle, ligaments, tendons or non-bony parts will involve hearth beat. Foreheads and protruding parts of your cheeks and nose will be bony. If not, push hard till you hit the bone. Snipers need to find the second hard rib of the shoulder under the clavicula (not on it, it might snap from the rebound).

2. Take the first resistance of the release button/trigger just close to the point you will shoot.

3. Take a deep breath, hold it, intensify the contact, while keeping your target perfectly in focus.

4. Very smoothly (no brisk push) push the trigger/button further till you've shot.

Another method that can give crisp shots as low as 1/10, like inside dark cathedrals where no flash and no tripod are allowed, is to do bracketing while shooting. Most of the time the second frame will be very sharp. Inspect the LCD at 200% and if you can't find a single sharp shot, repeat the procedure.

Comment by Onime on May 14, 2009

thanks for sharing your trick. good article.

Comment by Petarneychev on May 14, 2009

Hi Arun, if you look down in the comments you'll see a link to a video on YouTube with Joe McNally - watch it; he talks a bit about how to support with shoulders in order to avoid the heartbeat shake. In general I try to avoid supporting the camera or my hands too much with my chest.
Thanks for bringing up yet another important aspect!

Comment by Ronibgood on May 13, 2009

Intersting article. Thanks for your info.

Comment by Jmphoto on May 11, 2009

I loved the video...I had never though to balance on my shoulder before, works great! Thanks!

Comment by Noonie on May 07, 2009

Hey, I'm not too old to learn a new trick...I can change to the left eye if needed in some situations until I learn to do it all the time. I had to learn to breathe on both sides to swim long distances and that was with fear of drowning!

And where did you say I'd find all that spare cash?

Comment by Petarneychev on May 07, 2009

@ Brad - thanks for the link to the video. I hadn't come across it, but it sure is useful.
@ Sorin - I guess I've been doing it wrong all the way :D Now you gave me something to try out as well. So far I've found that holding my breath w/o breathing out at all while fiddling with the shutter button gives me the support I need. Your comment is very useful though, as for different people this might work differently. Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Fotogeek on May 07, 2009

Petar, I believe the breathing technique is: you breathe in, then let half the air out and then you hold your breath while taking the "shot".
This is the sniper technique to the best of my knowledge.
Thank you for the article.

Comment by Northlan on May 07, 2009

useful idea, thank you.

Comment by Tacrafts on May 07, 2009

Do you find carrying a tripod a hassle and you hardly use it? Same with a monopod, which you never have with you when you need it? You tripod socket is a standard screw thread, get a bolt from your local hardwear store to fit, tie a length of string around the bolt with a loop in the end. Put your foot through the loop and pull up tight on it. and there you have a 'tension monopod' small enough to go everywhere with you.

Comment by Zenotri on May 07, 2009

Thank you for this, lots of important tips to consider & remember!

Comment by Linqong on May 06, 2009

Good article!

Comment by Komar on May 06, 2009

Thanks for blogging. Useful indeed.

Comment by Bradcalkins on May 06, 2009

Joe McNally has a video on hand holding at lower shutter speeds - but works better if you are left eyed, and have a large camera:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDsx3-FWfwk

Comment by Creativei on May 06, 2009

Another good article, thanks for sharing.




Comments (19)

This article has been read 3308 times. 9 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Intst, Raywoo, Spauln, Steven Davis.

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