Five Tips for Getting a Sharper Image

Bringing focus to your photos

01-04-2010 // Rob Sheppard

There are few moments more disappointing for a nature photographer than coming upon the perfect subject in the perfect setting—and failing to get a sharp photograph. Some photographers are inclined to blame this on their equipment. Amateur photographers are often impressed by the results of pros and believe this is because of their professional cameras and lenses and are surprised to find that pros sometimes shoot with other cameras, including point-and-shoots, and still get sharp photos.  Here’s how.

Photo of orb weaver spider in web by Rob Sheppard

Don’t blame the lens—blame movement. Lenses today are really quite good. It is possible to take excellent, very sharp photos with any camera and lens on the market today. The biggest cause of unsharpness is not poor lens quality, but camera movement during exposure. That’s why…

When you can, use a tripod. The absolute best way to minimize that movement is to use a good tripod – that’s a true pro secret. For serious nature photography, a tripod is a necessity. But not everyone wants to carry a tripod, and even pros can’t carry a tripod all the time. So…

When you can’t, hold steady. It is very easy to hold a lightweight pocket digital camera in front of your face with one hand and punch the shutter. But this will almost guarantee less sharpness. Instead, hold the camera with two hands, bring your elbows into the sides of your chest, then gently squeeze the shutter. If you are using a digital SLR, position your left hand palm up, then place the camera onto that palm. Next grip the right side of the camera firmly with your right hand. Now squeeze the shutter, never punch it. This way of handling a camera is far more stable than the common way people do this, grabbing the lens palm down with the left hand. And remember: Never shoot one-handed.

Watch your speed. I asked several people—not pros, just average folks—to photograph a scene using a common camera, an average focal length lens and a variety of shutter speeds. My findings: Most people can match the sharpness of a tripod-mounted camera at 1/125 sec. However, drop to 1/60 sec., and half can no longer match it. At 1/30 sec., no one but the practiced photographer can do it. The point is that you need to watch your shutter speed. If your photos are not sharp, shoot at a faster shutter speed. It is better to use a fast shutter speed (even if that means using a higher ISO) so that your subject is sharp than to try using small f-stops for depth of field when the shutter speed then goes too slow.

When you zoom, think fast. Achieving sharpness is particularly difficult when using a telephoto lens or when zooming in on a detail. That magnification not only magnifies your subject, but also any camera movement. You must shoot with even faster shutter speeds—as fast as 1/500 or 1/1000 sec. If you can’t quite manage this with your camera, try setting it to a higher ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed.

Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in the Los Angeles area of Southern California. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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