A Guide to Taking Sharp Photos

The secrets to pin sharp pictures!

By David Fleet

(Image Copyright: David Fleet)

There's no big mystery to taking sharp photos. A few handy little tips and techniques will ensure your shots are crystal clear and pin sharp every time.

You know those beautiful images where everything look so crisp and real that you can almost feel it? Well those are the shots you're going to be taking soon. So let's run through the things you need to do...


The Essential Basics

In order to achieve sharp results it's essential to avoid 'camera shake'. Camera shake is simply the slight movement of the camera as you take a photo that leads to blur. It happens all the time if you're not careful about eradicating it.

Thankfully, there's an incredibly simple and effective solution. All that you have to do is make sure your shutter speed is the reciprocal of your focal length.

I thought you said simple! Well, in English all this means is that the number for your shutter speed is at least equal to the focal length. So, when shooting with a focal length of 100mm, you should always ensure that your shutter speed is at least 1/100th of a second. When shooting at a focal length of 60mm, you'll need a 1/60th of a second shutter speed and so on.

Doing this ensures that, when you're hand-holding your camera, the shutter speed opens and closes quickly enough to prevent any camera movement from causing blur.

If you're new to shutter speed, review the basics in this article: 'What is Shutter Speed?'


What About Image Stabilization (IS) Systems?

Lots of lenses now have brilliant 'Image Stabilization' systems (Canon use this term, whilst Nikon use 'Vibration Reduction').

What this does is to counteract tiny movements of the camera, when hand-held shots are being taken, and so negate the blurry effects.

Some IS systems even claim to enable you to shoot at 4 stops (on the exposure value scale) slower than would be possible on a lens without the system.

That would mean that where 1/100th of a second shutter speed was previously needed for a sharp photo, 1/15th of a second would now be sufficient with IS!

I have found that the IS on my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS offers an improvement of about 3 stops when hand holding. Although, I don't have particularly steady hands and, to be honest, living in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland the wind is more of a problem than my hand holding technique!


Taking Sharp Photos In Low Light

So the above tips are all well and good when it's nice and bright outside, but what about when the light is fading and I've reached the limit of my ISO speed (i.e. any faster and images become too noisy; here's a quick guide to ISO).

Well, there are really 2 options here. You could think about investing in a more expensive camera that performs better at really high ISO speeds. But that's not really very practical. So the second, better option, is to purchase a really nice tripod by a reputable manufacturer like Manfrotto, Vanguard or Gitzo.

A sturdy tripod that easily supports the weight of your camera and beefiest lens is one of the best tools for any photographer. For me as a landscape photographer it's especially essential, and I never go on a shoot without mine.

I'd suggest finding one with a separate head and legs, so that you can buy a head to suit your purpose exactly. Also look out for easily adjustable legs - both in terms of height and angle.

When you have got yourself a tripod you are well on the way to taking sharp photos. But even then there are a couple more tricks you can use to create fantastically crisp images.


Extra Tricks For Shooting On Your Tripod

Count to 10 before you take your shot! What good would that do!? Well, when you put your tripod down and fiddle around with the camera's settings it creates vibrations that reverberate around the camera. Believe it or not, cameras are sensitive enough that this can actually affect the sharpness of your photo!

With my tripod, a Manfrotto 055xprob , these vibrations seem to disappear within about 6 seconds, so I count to 6. But to begin with, be on the safe side and count to 10.

Another handy technique for taking sharp photos is to use 'mirror lock-up'. This is a function available on most DSLR cameras and is accessed through the menus.

It allows you to lock the mirror in its open position before you take a photo. The result is that when you actually take the shot there are none of the tiny vibrations normally caused by the movement of the mirror, which slightly affect sharpness.

Finally, to achieve the absolute best, pin sharp results, get hold of a remote shutter release device. These enable you to fire the shutter release button without actually touching it, an action which normally sends tiny vibrations through the camera. They are available either with a cable or wireless, and it doesn't matter which version you choose.

(Image Copyright: David Fleet)

I made use of all the techniques in this article to take this shot.

So that's it! If you follow the above practices you'll be on the way to taking sharp photos every time. It's worth also mentioning that a little bit of careful sharpening in Photoshop can go a long way to finish off an image. So here is a quick tutorial for you on sharpening in Photoshop.

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

Guide to Tripods for Digital Cameras

The Ultimate Digital Photography Course

Understanding Digital Cameras

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