Have you ever wondered how to nail the focus every time, and have super sharp images, but didn’t know how to do it? In this article, I’ll give you tips and experiences I have gained during the time I have been photographing. You may find a lot of other articles about proper focusing, but I tried a more practical approach. No long theories or boring details. I’m gonna keep it simple, I promise! 🙂 And by the way, I tried to sort them by their importance.
9 Tips for Sharper Images – contents:
- How to focus on the correct object and no more blurry photos
- Choose the best aperture for landscape photography
- Do I need a tripod?
- Beware of moving objects and how to capture sharp images in motion
- Shoot RAW and sharpen smartly in the Lightroom
- What lens to choose to have sharp images
- Focus stacking for sharper photos
- Optical stabilization and IBIS
- Keep your noise levels as low as possible
- Short summary
How to focus on the correct object and no more blurry photos
As you have probably noticed your camera has multiple focusing modes, the basic three are – Manual (M), Continuous autofocus (AF-C), Single autofocus (AF-S). Since we are not shooting any moving objects (such as birds or other animals), the best option is to use the AF-S (we don’t need the camera to refocus every time a tree swings in the wind). To have the most accurate focus point, select the Single Point focusing mode.
If you want a sharp photo, you have to focus smartly. Help your camera, and use the joystick or touch-screen to focus on your main subject. Don’t just recklessly shoot and hope for the best, but it’s always an option 😃.
One of the basic photography composition rules is the rule of thirds. Simply said, if you focus around the bottom third of the photo, both the foreground and background will be sharp as a result. But it is pointless to blindly follow this “rule”. It always depends on the specific composition. If you are shooting with a wide-angle lens, you will often have several leading objects in the foreground. Let’s say that just a few meters from you, is a picturesque stone with grass on it. Behind the stone is a grassy landscape (in the bottom third of the photo) and behind it are beautiful mountains. In this case, it will probably be better to focus directly on this stone, as it is one of the main objects of interest in the photo – although it is not directly in a third of the photo, it will be enough to have a sharp foreground and background.
Of course, the above rule does not apply if there is a very dominant object in the photo. Like an animal (now the AF-C might be handy). For example, a puffin. Then we logically try to focus directly on the puffin (on the eyes if possible). And yes, I love puffins! 😃 A lone tree in the middle of a meadow can also be a good example. In such cases, there is no need for everything around to be sharp. We want the puffin/tree to stand out of the photo. Therefore it is a good idea to lower the aperture (for example from f/11 to f/3.2) and achieve a strong (if possible) bokeh (=blurry background) effect.
Choose the best aperture for landscape photography
You might didn’t know that, but the overall sharpness (not bokeh) of lens changes, depending on the selected aperture. Each lens has its own sweet spot, where images appear most sharp.
The rule says that the sweet spot is located two to three f/stops from the widest aperture. But in general, the f/8 – f/13 apertures give you the best sharpness. The best way is to test yoursef, or you can also try to Google the sweet spot of your lens.
If you use a higher aperture than f/13, the result will probably be that the edges of the photo will be slightly sharper, but the place where you focus (the object of interest) will be less sharp. In other words – the finest detail in your photographs will begin to blur. This is called lens diffraction. It happens because light begins to disperse (or “diffract”) when passing through a small opening (your small camera aperture). If there is a very dominant object in the photo (as we said above) and the goal is not to have everything sharp, use a much larger aperture (f / 2.8 – f / 8). This also means that a wide-angle lens is not always the best choice.
Do I need a tripod for sharp images?
When shooting handheld, the general rule says that your shutter speed should be at least double (or more) the lens focal length. For example, if you are using a 55mm lens on an APS-C camera, your shutter speed should be double the lens equivalent (for 1.53 crop factor it is 85mm) so, set the shutter to 1/170 s (or more). On a full-frame camera, the shutter speed would be 1/110 s.
This is because no matter how hard you try, your hands will always be slightly moving. Let’s say you decrease the shutter speed to 1/30 s. On the first look, the blurriness in a photo might not be visible, but on a larger screen, you will see the edges of subjects in the photo not sharp. Therefore, the whole photo will look like it is not in focus and blurry. HOWEVER, if you want to be sure that the photo is super sharp, always use faster shutter speed. I hardly ever shoot handheld below 1/200 s, and I even have the IBIS. You don’t want to come home after your 3-day trip to discover that all your photos are basically unusable because they look blurry.
And as you probably know, when there is not enough light outside, you simply cannot take a photo without decreasing the shutter speed. And I suppose you want to take sharp pictures of sunrises and sunsets. Yes, you could (as with moving objects in a scene) radically increase the ISO and increase the aperture, but you don’t want to do that unless it is absolutely necessary (=> you don’t have a tripod with you).
Therefore, be sure to get a tripod. No need to buy it for a lot of money, you can get a solid tripod for up to $ 100. However, it must have a ball head (easy handling). I can recommend the Rollei C5i (Amazon). For beautiful landscapes, it is often necessary to take more pictures (exposure bracketing), which you later combine on a PC using the HDR function or blend them manually in Photoshop.
Finally, I would like to point out one fact – be aware of the environment in which you will use it most often. If in places where it will often be extremely windy (mountains), buy a really sturdy tripod. Will it cost more? Probably yes. However, it will last 10 years or more. It’s not part of the equipment you change every few years.
Beware of moving objects and how to capture sharp images in motion
The situation can be more complicated when there are moving objects in the scene, and you need to increase your shutter speed. For example, a floating boat or a strong wind in the treetops. These situations can be solved by increasing the ISO value, but it can also hurt the photo more than raising the aperture. In practice, it is best to change both settings – for example, increase the ISO value from 100 to 800 and increase the aperture from f / 11 to f / 5.6. Or sometimes you just have to wait a while!
However, keep in mind that capturing motion can also benefit the photo. It will breathe more life into your shot. In such cases, it is best to try prolonging the capture of motion by using ND filters – to take so-called long exposure photos. ND filters will “darken” your exposure, and allow you to compensate for it by having more slower shutter speed, for example, 10 s shutter speed. The result will be a smooth movement of clouds, a smooth water surface, or the possibility to capture car light rails at night. Of course, when using an ND filter the tripod is absolutely necessary.
There are different types of ND Filters depending on their ability to darken the image (optical density). The higher the ND factor the darker they are – e.g. ND 1000 is darker than ND 2. I’m using the Hoya ND1000 Filter. $ 60 may seem much for a filter, but when buying an ND filter the cheaper ones do usually have stronger vignetting.
Shoot RAW and sharpen smartly in Lightroom
For the best postproduction results, it is a good idea to shoot in RAW. From RAW photo you can get details you thought are lost. Plus, the RAW format also “remembers” your camera sharpening settings, which can easily be changed (and improved!).
Many of you probably use Lightroom or other photo-editing software. Surely you know that in the Develop module is a ‘Detail’ panel in the right sidebar. In the section ‘Sharpening’ you will find 4 sliders – ‘Amount’ (the amount of sharpening you want to apply to your image), ‘Radius’ (the size of the sharpening area around the edges => 1.0 will apply sharpening over 1 pixel around the edge), ‘Detail’ (the amount of sharpening on the edges or details of the image) and ‘Masking’ (masks out areas that should NOT be sharpened). I will now tell you what, in my experience, works best universally:
Especially ‘Masking’ is important to use properly. I’m gonna show you an example. If there are mountains or buildings in the photo, use less mask (20 – 30), because that sharpness suits such photos. If the main subject is a flower or person, and you want to achieve a better bokeh effect, you want to mask more (30 – 90) and keep the photo soft.
The problem can occur when you want to sharpen only a specific part of the photo (for example, one mere flower in a meadow that you have focused on – see my example below). Then you need to sharpen selectively using the Brush tool in Lightroom or use Photoshop.
Pro tip: When moving sharpening sliders in Lightroom, try pressing Alt (Windows)/ ⌥ Option (Mac) key. Sharpening will be much easier! And if you’re using Lightroom mobile, use one finger for sharpening sliders and with another press and hold anywhere on the screen.
What lens to choose to have sharp images
One of the things every photographer underestimated when he/she started shooting, even me. I took pictures with kit lenses for a long time. Then I bought good lenses for around $ 1,000 each. The difference in sharpness was huge. And not only that – since then I have seen almost no chromatic aberration in the photos. The quality of the photo is generally at a completely different level. However, choosing the right lens is a bit of science itself. You can buy an amazing lens, but its power and sharpness may not be reflected in your camera. It depends on whether you have a full-frame camera or not; if the camera has 20 megapixels or 50. Always do proper research before purchasing.
If you’re planning to buy whole new photography gear, remember – lenses first, body second. What I mean by that is that you shouldn’t be that guy, who buys super expensive camera body, and then the rest of the budget is for one kit lens. Be sure to always have a budget for a good lens!
Focus stacking for sharper photos
This is a bit of an advanced method, but it’s actually simple. The point is that you take more photos (3 or more), each time you focus on a different distance. And then you blend these photos in post-production. That’s all. The result will be perfect sharpness from front to back. The simplest example is to focus first on the bottom third of the photo, then on the center of the photo (horizontal line), and finally on the top third of the photo. The beautiful thing is that many modern cameras have focus stacking implemented as a feature. So you don’t have to set the focal points manually – just choose the number of photos and the camera will do all the work for you. Another advantage is that there is no danger of moving with the camera and composition when refocusing.
Optical stabilization and IBIS
Previously, I’ve told you that your shutter speed should be double the focal length of your lens. However, you will not always have a tripod with you. Or there will be no time to install it. At such moments, IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization), which are often used in modern cameras, is a great advantage – it offers compensation for more than 5 stops (1 stop halves or doubles the exposure of a photograph)! But lenses with IS (image stabilization) also offer similar stabilization! This allows you to take photos by hand during much longer exposures and keep the photo sharp. Is it a big difference in practice? Yes, it is. However, it’s not something you desperately need if you have sharp lenses with good (=> fast) apertures.
Keep your noise levels as low as possible
Noise is not your friend. The most obvious is it in situations where you take photos at night. You do not want to sharpen the noise. It is better to make 2 exposures and then blend them in Photoshop. Take a look at my example below. First I took a photo of the sky (star trails) and then I focused on the building and took another photo. Then I blended these photos. Such a technique has two major advantages. The first advantage is obvious – the building and the sky are sharp. The second advantage is that the exposure of the building was significantly faster because it was illuminated (and as you know, the longer the exposure, the more noise in the photo). So there is much less noise in this part of the photo – sharpening did not visibly degrade the building.
Short summary of how to make your images sharp
- Focus correctly – different situations require different autofocus settings. For landscape and still scenes choose AF-S. If you are shooting animals you might want to use the AF-C (but it isn’t always necessary)
- Help your camera focus correctly – choose single point autofocus, and move the focus point (with the joystick or touch screen) on to your main subject, or to the bottom third of your composition.
- Choose the sharpest aperture on the lens – each lens has its “sweet spot”. Usually aperture between f/8 – f/11. For the most accuracy Google it.
- Watch out for blurry edges – Shutter speed should be at least double (or more) than the lens focal length. For super sharp images, I don’t go below 1/200 s. Camera stabilization might help, but better use the tripod.
- Get a sturdy tripod – Well built tripod is always better than shaky one that doesn’t hold its position. Get a tripod with a ball head. Rollei C5i (Amazon) might be a good call!
- Use motion to your advantage – Be aware of rapidly moving things and increase your shutter speed. Or try experimenting with ND Filter.
- Shoot RAW and don’t skip postproduction – Raw format offers better image quality and is much easier to work with.
- Choose a good lens – Don’t underestimate lenses. A good quality lens will help you move to a whole new level.