a22 March 2014

Tutorial: Tack sharp photos in 10 easy steps

Crazy Mayan Dance in Xcaret park
Razor sharp, tack sharp, ultra sharp or simply sharp. Whatever you call them - sharp photos are great and attractive to your viewers (and a proof of your technical expertise!). As a few people asked me for this, in this tutorial I will give you some general tips on getting sharp results. Please note that applying a single tip from below list won't change your photos from a little soft ones to tack sharp ones. If you want to take razor sharp photos you need to follow all of them (or at least majority).

If you want to learn more about sharpening you can read my sharpening tutorial: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

So here are the tips:
  1. Use a steady tripod
    It should be self explanatory - tripod greatly reduces camera shake. When you're shooting hand-holding your camera there is always some movement even if you have steady hands. Tripod lets you eliminate this movement completely. What you have to remember is to use a really sturdy tripod. Some I used in the past were shaking so they were a little useless.
    What's more when you're using tripod you don't need to use faster aperture nor increase the ISO to get steady photos.
  2. Use manual focusing
    Although Auto-Focus is great most of the time it often doesn't work that good in dim light (or no light situations) and these are the ones landscape photographers have to deal most often (sunrise/sunset, blue hour, evening).
    And even if it works, it might produce images that are slightly out-of-focus (due to slight back- or front- focusing).
    If you still prefer to use Auto-Focus make sure to use central point single focus. It's the most accurate one in most cameras.
  3. Use your lens sharpest apertures
    This may surprise you but not all apertures are equally sharp. For most lenses, fastest and slowest apertures are usually the least sharp ones, with apertures between f/4 to f/11 usually being the sharpest. And the difference between sharpest and least sharp aperture can sometimes be really huge. To learn how to find sharpest aperture for your lens, read my tutorial about it.
  4. Disable Image Stabilization
    When using a tripod disable image stabilization system if your lens or camera has one. The way image stabilization works is by trying to find and reduce vibrations. If it doesn't find any, it can introduce a little shake on it's own - not much but it can still cause your photos to look a little softer than they could.
    Please note that it's not true for all image stabilization systems. Some (especially newer systems) don't introduce movement when mounted on tripod. To check if it's the case for you, refer to manual of your camera or lens.
  5. Use remote shutter release
    Even using the most steady tripod under the sun won't produce tack sharp photos if you will press shutter release button with your finger. Why? When you press this button you introduce vibrations that can result in a blurry photo. It might not be very noticeable when shooting with short exposures like 1/500s but when you will shoot with longer ones (eg. 1/8s or 1s), you'll definitely notice that. For this reason it's good to use remote shutter release. It doesn't need to be anything fancy - simple shutter release cable or pilot will work. You can get one for a few bucks normally. If you don't have one, an alternative is to use delayed shutter release - most of the cameras allow to set 2 or 10 seconds delay.
  6. Use native ISO of your camera
    The higher the ISO, the more noise you'll see in the image. This way details start to look fuzzy and what's worse when you denoise the image you will loose even more of its sharpness. With sharpness of images in mind it's better to use faster aperture (eg. f/2.8 instead of f/4) than to use higher ISO.
  7. Use good quality lenses
    Unfortunately not all the lenses will produce same sharpness (the price differences are about something more than "L" in the name or cool white look :) ). Some are more blurry (or softer), other produce ultra sharp photos on their own. The problem is that most of the kit lenses, ones you get when buying your camera body, belong to the first category. So that's the reason you should invest in good quality glasses. They are more important for image quality than camera itself. If you're about to buy photo gear - it's better to buy better lens with a bit worse body than opposite.
  8. Check sharpness on LCD screen
    Review sharpness on LCD screen just after taking a photo. I lost tens of potentially good photos for not doing this. I was happy after photoshoot, got back home, copied my images to hard-drive just to find out they are soft... To avoid this, after taking a photo zoom in to 100% and check its sharpness. If it's not perfect, make adjustments and retake your image. This tip is especially important when you're using manual focusing to confirm you set focus correctly. However, you should also use it when using Auto-Focus to confirm it was set correctly.
  9. Apply sharpening in post-processing
    Always apply some sharpening in post-processing, even if you don't apply any other post-processing. It's because your images won't probably be viewed at 100% magnification and due to the way images are rendered on our computers, at smaller magnification (like eg. 25% or 33%) they will appear less sharp. One more thing. If you plan to post the images online and to downsize them, make sure to apply sharpening after reducing size! Not before.
  10. Avoid oversharpening!
    And the last tip which is related to #9: avoid oversharpening! Oversharpened photos don't look good. If there are halos around the edges, edges have aliasing problems or there is too much detail you will ruin the illusion. Your photos won't be tack sharp anymore. They will just look unnatural. For me oversharpened images are as bad as out-of-focus ones.

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