Image sharpness to us photographers can be an obsession, a secondary concern, or something that’s just plain tricky to achieve. I used to rate it as secondary to the stories my images were telling until I realized it’s easy to consistently have both.
Most articles on this topic are aimed at landscape photographers, but most of the tips below are geared towards handheld photography. Whether you’re a portrait, travel, documentary, street, or any other kind of photographer shooting without a tripod, these tips will help you get sharp images every time.
1. Choose a Shorter Lens and Focal Length
A solid place to begin your quest for sharp images is to use a shorter lens and focal length. Longer focal lengths are more sensitive to camera shake, whereas shorter ones are more forgiving. You might have noticed a lot of prime lenses, even the expensive ones, don’t come with built-in optical stabilization. That’s because of their increased ability to deal with camera shake plus the faster shutter speeds their wide apertures allow. My personal prime of choice is the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, which I used to take the photo below. I love the image sharpness it produces in both daylight and low light conditions.
2. A Clean Lens Is Crucial For Getting Sharp Images
This isn’t just about developing a good practice or being fussy. An unclean lens can have far-reaching implications for your images. Marks, prints, and blemishes translate into soft blurry images, cause color and light distortion, and can generally result in not capturing the true scene in front of you. Invest in a lens cleaning kit. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one. I recommend removing as much dust as possible with a blower and a brush. Next, take a soft cloth of the kind you clean a pair of glasses with combined with a tiny amount of cleaning fluid, then use gentle circular motions on the glass.
3. Perform Microcalibrations on Your Lens
Did you know all lenses aren’t created equal in the factory? Two Canon 24-105 f4 L lenses look identical, but they might come off the production line with tiny differences in focal calibration. One may front focus (i.e., focus in front of your intended focus point by a few centimeters or more) while the other could back focus (i.e., focus behind your intended focus point). Small front or back focusing issues can result in big losses in image sharpness. Find your camera’s microcalibrations menu and follow a Youtube tutorial, such as this one by photographer Matt Granger. Something to note is Sigma Art lens has an optional USB dock accessory and software to help you with the process. I’ve microcalibrated a few lenses from different manufacturers, and can confirm it’s worth it for image sharpness!
4. Crank up That Shutter Speed for Tack Sharp Images
Other tips in this article can fall into line because the speed of your shutter is the critical factor behind sharp images. When I first started out eight years ago, my priority when shooting portraits was all about shallow depth of field. I’ve since bumped faster shutter speeds up to the top spot. I recommend a minimum shutter speed of 1/125 for sharp results when hand holding your camera, but much faster works incredibly well and will pick out tiny details on your subject’s face. Experiment to find your preferred shutter speed and aperture combinations
5. Ignore the ISO 100 Brigade
You don’t need to keep your camera set to ISO 100, no matter what some people will tell you. Yes, it’s recommended for shooting at midday in bright sunny weather, but since when is that time the best conditions for photography? ISO 200, 400, even 800… go for it! Modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras crush noise and eat it for breakfast in daylight images. You’re just not going to notice any, and the increased shutter speeds that higher ISOs allow will get you sharp images every time.
6. Spot Focus on Your Subject Then Lock It In
Often when you’re shooting handheld, you’re not after sharpness across the whole frame. We’ll leave that to the landscape photographers. It’s the subject that’s important, or the eyes of your subject if you’re shooting portraits. This tip will ensure you get sharp subjects every time. Set your camera to spot focus on the center AF point at all times. After that, aim the center point at the subject you want in sharp focus. Next, use the focus and recompose method, or better yet, the back button focus method. I like to lock in the focus on a person’s eyes so they’re sharp and glistening in the final exposure.
7. Find the Aperture Sweet Spot of Your Lens
Each lens, no matter the focal length, has an aperture sweet spot at which it produces the sharpest images. This is rarely wide open. Slightly subjective and not written on the side of the lens box, knowledge of your lens’ sweet spot comes from experimentation and time. For example, I swear that my Canon 24-105 f4 L lens produces the sharpest, most beautiful results at f5.6 – f6.3. Others will say differently. I’m currently getting great portrait results with my Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art lens set to f2.8, but I admit I need to experiment more with this recent addition to my kit bag. F8 is a classic aperture for handheld landscape photos. I would avoid going above f11 handheld because of the slower shutter speeds it will force. Don’t forget to tell me about your lenses and their sweet spots in the comments section below!
8. Step Into the Light
When I’m shooting portraits at an event with low light, I scout around the venue perimeter for well-lit spots. I want to find a place with bright enough light that I can use fast shutter speeds, but I also need even light so strange shadows aren’t cast on my subject’s face. I met this girl at a festival in the remote Indian state of Manipur. The temple was poorly lit but this one corner had perfect lighting. I asked her to step into the light and she happily agreed, allowing me to achieve a shutter speed of 1/125 and a beautifully sharp image. The blue of the tiles and the orange of her dress also worked as complementary colors, but that’s a point for a different article!
9. Step out of Lightroom Because Photoshop Wins at Sharpening
First up, you should work on achieving sharpness in-camera instead of relying on post-processing techniques to rescue poorly exposed images. However, once you’ve mastered that, it’s natural to want to make your images as presentable as they can be before sharing with your audience. Lightroom does a fine job of sharpening, especially if you’re using the masking slider correctly, but Photoshop is the true image sharpening powerhouse. The tool you’ll want is the high pass filter.
Follow these steps to sharpen your images with Photoshop:
- Export the image from Lightroom to Photoshop.
- With the image open in Photoshop, create a duplicate layer by pressing Ctrl + J.
- Click on the ‘Filter’ menu at the top of the screen, select ‘Other’, then ‘High Pass’.
- Set the radius to 10.0 pixels and hit ‘OK’. The image is now sharpened but appears gray.
- Find where it says ‘Normal’ over on the lower right-hand side of the screen and click it. Select ‘Soft light’ to revert the image to color.
- Now blend the background layer and duplicate layer together using the opacity slider. You’ll probably find somewhere between 40%–60% gives beautiful sharpness.
- Hit ‘Save’ and carry on working on the image back in Lightroom.
These are my best tips on how to get sharp images every time. I hope you learned some new things and cemented some other fundamentals in your mind. It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below. Why not practice the points from the article and post your images? I’ll check in regularly and respond promptly. Happy shooting!
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