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Way too often on workshops I see techniques being used (or not being implemented) that it creates no doubt in my mind why people comment about their images not seeming as sharp as they could be. Or I see images they are happy with because that's what they're used to and I think that would be a tosser because of the lack of sharpness. Every reason for the lack of sharpness is correctable, it's just a matter of which steps the photographer's willing to take in order to obtain a sharp image.

In essence, there are four issues that effect sharpness. These are Stability, Resolution, Lens Choice, and Depth of Field.

great egret with shrimp
Fine detail throughout is a result of four key factors.

CAMERA STABILITY:  This is by far the biggest culprit workshop leaders come across in the field when it comes to lack of sharpness when looking at images either on the camera or on a computer. Everything you read or hear, the first three rules when it comes to getting a sharp photo is to use a tripod. Using a tripod is the first step in getting a sharp image but it can't just be any tripod. A sturdy tripod that fits the photographer is important. Many people want to save money or weight and get an inexpensive tripod but more often than not this will not get the job done. The proper tools are needed for the job. Many inexpensive travel tripods are not going to be tall enough for the photographer and when the center post is raised a good amount pretty much all stability is gone when pressing the shutter button on the camera.

If your tripod is one where you have to raise the center post, do this simple test. Have the center post lowered and tap the camera to see how much camera shake there is. Next, raise the center post and tap the camera again and notice how much movement there is. Quite a bit. This transfers to the image being taken and you will know why shots seem a little soft compared to others.

If a center post has to be raised, part of the problem can be reduced by using some sort of cable release, either wired or wireless, will help offset the pressing of the shutter button. Using the in-camera 2-second timer will also help offset some of the camera shake.

A sturdy tripod is a sturdy tripod. I had someone recently tell me about how great a certain tripod is because a photographer takes the best macro images of anyone they've ever seen. The tripod is one you never see in the field because of all the gyrations needed to set it up. While it might be a great tripod, it is not what makes the great images. It's all about the photographer and their techniques and part of that is a stable tripod, no matter the model.

summer tanager bathing
Using a tripod is the first key step to getting sharp images, especially for longer exposures.


If your preference is to not use a tripod at all and to hand hold the camera, there are a few things to do to help get a sharper shot. While a tripod would be the first thing, the first step other than this is choosing a shutter speed to help with sharpness. The main rule of thumb I tell people is to use the double-double setting. Take the focal length of the lens being used and double it twice to see what the minimum shutter speed that should be used. So, if a 200mm lens is being used, that would equate out to 1/800th of a second. 200 double = 400 and double 400 = 800 or 1/800th of a second. You may have hear not to hand hold less than the focal length, but to help ensure a sharp image, the double-double rule will help even more.

How the camera is held is also important. Holding it by the sides of the camera is poor technique and give no support to the camera and lens combo when pressing the shutter button. Use the left hand to cradle the lens if it has and length to it and try to tuck the left elbow into your body to help create a platform for the camera to rest on. It might seem uncomfortable at first but it will help keep the camera much more steady than other ways of holding it. If you're able to tuck the right elbow in before pressing the shutter this will add to making your body a living tripod. The final step is to spread your legs a little bit to build a wider base from which to stand. Just like a tripod with the legs spread wide, spreading your own legs will create more stability. If able to lean lean against a solid object, do so as this will help even more.

fall color old cabin
Newer high resolution camera help provide great detail with the images. This was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III with 22.3 megapixels. I currently use the Mark IV with 30.4 megapixels.

CAMERA RESOLUTION:  The higher resolution camera bodies of today add a whole new dimension in the determination of sharpness within an image. We're at the point and beyond the amount of detail a 35mm film body could capture. This means that any small amount of out of focus pixels in a shot are magnified compared to images from a lower resolution camera. This means that technique and equipment is more important than ever. It also means that if a higher resolution is used images that are sharp are of a better quality than the 6 to 12 megapixel cameras of just a few years ago. For awhile, camera had the megapixel wars to see who would come out with a higher megapixel range. That benefitted everyone as most manufacturers now have numerous bodies over 30 mo and some up to 40 and even 50.

Going hand in hand with resolution is sensor size. A full frame sensor is going to produce finer quality pixels than a crop sensor and much better quality than the small sensors found in some cameras and all tablets and phones. While some of these are good for website and very small prints, they won't reproduce well for larger prints and publications.

LENS CHOICE:  With higher resolution bodies on the market now, it places even more importance on the value of high quality lenses. Photography is not an inexpensive hobby and if wanting to get quality results then quality equipment is required. Saving money or weight is not an option when wanting to produce quality results, even if it's just trying to win a ribbon at the local camera club level. For Canon users, the lenses to get are the "L" series and with Nikon it's the "ED" lenses. These are the low dispersion lenses that light travels through more efficiently where the glass is ground and polished better than the consumer lenses creating higher quality results. Some of these low dispersion lenses can mean the difference of close to a full stop of light helping result in faster shutter speeds making for a better chance of freezing the action of a moving animal or bird.

Know that if you don't want to spend the money or carry a heavier lens, then be happy with the results your lens produces and don't complain that someone elses images look better than yours even if standing next to each other. Lenses within these lines also have better diffraction than consumer lenses. Everyone wants maximum sharpness to go with maximum depth of field, but these two desires can be mutually exclusive. As you stop down the aperture on a lens the light passing through tends to diffract, reducing sharpness, though DOF is increased. The definition of diffraction is an optical effect which limits the total resolution of your photography — no matter how many megapixels your camera may have. It happens because light begins to disperse or "diffract" when passing through a small opening (such as your camera's aperture). The low dispersion lenses help this, but only to a certain degree.

leaf dew drops sun stars
All of my lenses are of the L variety allowing for better light distribution for good details throughout.

DEPTH OF FIELD:  Which leads to the final element of sharpness. No matter what lens is used, there is a loss of sharpness the more the lens is stopped down (f/22, f/28, f/32). Diffraction is the main culprit with this. All lenses have a sweet spot where the sharpest focus is and when trying to get maximum sharpness it's usually about 1 to 2 stops from either end of the spectrum.

I tend to use my 600mm f/6.1 at f/7.3 or a bit more depending on how much depth I want to carry through whatever animal I'm shooting. This allows me to get more than one stop from the widest aperture for sharpness and some added DOF. For landscapes when trying to get maximum DOF, I usually use f/22 for lenses that stop down to f/32 and f/18 or f/16 for an f/22 lens.

Some studies show the best aperture is 2 stops from maximum, especially on the stopped down end due to the increased amount and angle of light. Any loss of sharpness is offset by the size of the subject being looked at. For landscape images, small things in the distance are not as critical as objects close to the camera. They need some amount of sharpness but a tiny loss is usually not noticeable.


great sand dunes and shadows
Stopping down from wide open give both a bit more depth of field along with hitting the sweet spot.