Sharpness is one of the things that people think about most, and obsess about most when it comes to their photography. And while having a sharp photo is no substitute for a good one, it’s still an important factor to consider when taking any photo.
You want the subject to be as sharp and clear as you possibly can every time. Not getting this right can ruin a photo for you – and while others might even say it’s good, you’ll always think that you could have maybe tweaked things in-camera to get it to look even better.
You don’t need to obsess too much voer sharpness, as you’ll always be your worst critic – and a good photo with interesting subject matter will overcome whatever it lacks in sharpness or other technical elements – whereas a dull yet technically perfect photo isn’t going to interest anyone.
However, get it right – or as close to right as you possibly can – and you’re giving yourself a much better chance of getting a great shot, with everything perfectly clear, visible, and recognizable. You’re also giving yourself one less thing to worry about if you figure this out ahead of time – after all, fixing sharpness issues after the fact in software is a hit and miss affair to say the least. Get it right in camera, and so much of the work is already done for you!
With this in mind, if you want to learn about how you can help yourself to get the sharpest images you can from your camera and lens – then this handy guide is perfect for you!
What Affects Sharpness?
There are actually so many factors that can affect the sharpness of an image, and quite a few that are impossible for you to have much, if any control over.
However, most of the power is in your hands – and in the settings of your camera.
There are two really crucial things that affect the sharpness of an image – and although they have slightly different causes, they can interplay with each other too – meaning that correcting for one can possibly cause an issue with the other!
This doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to get a pin-sharp image from your lens and camera – but it’s important to be aware of these two key issues!
The first thing that can affect the sharpness of the image is your own steadiness. If you’re taking photos and you find that they often come out a little less sharp than they should be, it may be possible that you’re shaking a little when taking the picture.
This is perfectly normal – and if you’re trying to keep as perfectly still as you can, and still getting a slight blurriness, then it’s a sign that your shutter speed may be a little too low.
It’s not really possible for a person to keep perfectly still beyond a certain point. Depending on your lens, you’re likely to find anything beyond 1/80 pretty unforgiving when it comes to blur. This isn’t really your fault – we’re not machines, or made of stone!
We just can’t keep perfectly still like that – even our heartbeat and breathing make us move a little. You won’t be able to help moving a little bit – and if your subject is a person, an animal, or even a bush in a gentle breeze, then you won’t be able to stop that movement either.
So, if your shutter speed is any slower than that 1/80 at most (and with longer lenses it’s likely to be an even faster speed needed before blur becomes an issue), you’re likely to have trouble getting a perfectly sharp image unless you can use a flash to illuminate your subject, or a tripod.
However, the aperture setting is also crucial to getting the right amount of image sharpness! If you’ve got the wrong aperture setting on your camera for your subject, then you’re going to affect the sharpness of the end image.
The aperture setting you’ll need to get perfect sharpness depends on each photo that you take – it changes depending on what you’re taking a photo of, your distance from the subject, and exactly how much depth of field you want for your shot.
It’s also affected by, and affects, the shutter speed you’re using – both change the amount of light that gets through the lens and hits the sensor, and changing one affects what you’ll need to do to the other.
A really fast shutter speed won’t give the sensor much time to pick up any light – which can mean that in order to get the best amount of light in, you might need to widen your aperture. This of course can affect the sharpness of your photo.
Likewise, if you find you need a smaller aperture to have the perfect amount of depth of field, then you’ll have to consider the shutter speed too – will you have to change the shutter speed to get the result you need?
And how far can you slow the shutter before human limitations kick in, and you’re shooting too slow for you to realistically stand still for?
And, of course, these are all affected by, and affect, the ISO setting you’ll be using too. So, it’s important to learn how to use your camera, and all of its functions – it’s the first step, and one of the most important, to learning how to make your pictures sharper.
And, of course there are other things out of your control – such as manufacturing tolerances, and the limitations of your equipment. However, pretty much everyone should be able to get good quality, sharp images, with even inexpensive equipment.
Finding The Sweet Spot
All of these factors mean that it can be difficult to find the sweet spot when it comes to image sharpness.
There’s no replacement for experience, and your particular equipment setup and shooting conditions might mean that it’s hard to find a precise guide that suits you perfectly – which means that the most important thing is to take photos, make mistakes, and push yourself to actively work towards learning from those mistakes.
This is one of the great advantages of digital photography – you’re not wasting film with each shot, so if you’re struggling to get the image you’re after, the only limitation is your time – and of course, your subject’s time too!
If you spend some time beforehand figuring out a little bit about your equipment, then you’re saving yourself time in the long run – and teaching yourself about your equipment, and how to get the most out of it.
You can run some tests on your equipment by taking the same photo repeatedly with different settings. Pick a subject, and shoot it from the same distance, with the same zoom level – change only the aperture and shutter speeds.
Inspect the photos, and see how the sharpness is affected by the different aperture and shutter speed settings. Make sure to look at the metadata for each photo so that you can see the settings used for each shot.
Try using slower shutter speeds such as 1/60, 1/40, and 1/5 – and even slower ones such as 1 second for a really extreme demonstration of how shutter speed can affect image sharpness. And, likewise, try out different aperture settings!
You’ll quickly see how different aperture settings change the sharpness of the image. And you’ll also see how changing one affects the other – and how they both interact with the ISO setting on your camera too.
Try this test out with different subjects, at different distances too. You’ll learn a lot about how your equipment works. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a better idea of how your camera and lens combo perform at a certain distance.
For a good rule of thumb, your sharpest aperture setting is usually 2 or three stops down from its widest setting – you’re usually in pretty safe territory here. However, if that doesn’t cover the distance you want for your chosen depth of field effect – then you might need a different setting.
For a really handy way to see exactly what your depth of field limits are – meaning exactly which parts of the photo are in sharpest focus – then you can use a depth of field calculator, such as the one in this link.
Tools like these are fantastic, and can really take a lot of guesswork out of getting the sharpest images. However, these aren’t ever going to be a replacement for learning how your equipment works – so you should always use them in combination with a process of learning how to change the settings on your camera to get the effect you’re after.
Getting the sharpest images possible from your camera is a great thing to strive for. It won’t make a bad photo good, but it will definitely make a good shot better. The only real way to learn how to do this is by using your camera – but there are of course tools that can help to guide you along the way.
Put the work in – do some practice with your camera, with the intention of learning how to use it. Whether you get any good shots isn’t a problem – just try to see exactly how changing the settings on your camera affects your shots, and take that knowledge with you so that you can take better photos in the future.