I’ve gotten a few questions about how I get sharp photos, so I thought it was worthy of a post. Want the simple answer: My camera is awesome. Kidding, totally kidding. It’s because I’m awesome. Again, totally kidding. I only tell my kids I’m awesome, but otherwise I’m not. I’m your wallflower type. Shy and quiet and trying to avoid confrontation. Back to sharp photos…it’s all because of the camera. No, it’s not. I rock one of the cheapest, low end DSLR’s out there. So, if I can get sharp photos….you can get sharp photos.
First off, I don’t always get sharp photos. Plain and simple. I’ll get into that. I also look at other photographer’s work and wonder how they get such sharp photos. I’m sure we’ve all wonder that at one time or another. Even the photographers that only display super sharp photos have their fair sharp of unsharp ones. They really don’t need to show their unsharp ones. Most of us dump those ones anyway (some can be saved, so hold on). Frankly, if you ask, I’m all about showing and telling. I’ve shown outtakes of myself and my kids with unfocused shots. My anniversary shots had unfocused photos. I had so many unsharp photos when I did my kids’ portraits. And the outtake photos that you see here that I say are “unsharp” have been “sharpened” for the web. So they’re even sharper than they were when they came out of the camera. Believe me, they weren’t sharp at all.
So I’ll share what I’ve learned about sharp photos and you can glean what you want from it. I’m still learning and practicing.
The Probability of Error
You will fail. Your camera will fail. No one can achieve 100% sharp photos 100% of the time. (If someone can, they must share their secret). Also, cameras cannot achieve sharp focus 100% of the time even if the human could. There is a rate of failure. After one of my few paid sessions, I was lamenting the fact that I had unfocused shots to my husband. He’s an optical engineer. He works with light, lenses, glass, sensors, and stuff. He kindly told me there was no way I could get focused shots 100% of the time. The camera can’t achieve focus all that time and there will be a certain percentage of unfocused shots no matter what I do. Okay, that made me feel a little better. But why is it that the unfocused shots are always my best shots where everyone is looking at the camera? I’m cursed that way, I tell ya. Anyone else in that boat?
Aperture makes a difference, at least for most of us. Some photographers can nail focus at F2 with 3 people and that’s awesome for them. If you’re using a wide open aperture (low F number) and you have more 2 or more people, you need to make sure that they are all on the same plane. Otherwise, someone is going to be out of focus. Using a wide open aperture doesn’t work so well when you’re working with wiggly, young kids. A good rule of thumb is to have your aperture relate to the number of people you’re shooting. So F2 for 2 people (though I go to F3), F3 for 3 people, F4 for four people, and so on. It’s just a suggestion. I use F2.2 or F2.5 for newborns, F3 to F3.5 when I shoot mom and baby or 2 kids. I use F3.5 to F4 for 3 kids and you get the drift. I did some aperture experiments in the past and wrote about them. In those posts you can see what happens when everything is on the same plane at different apertures and you can see what happens when you start to stagger your subjects and put them in different positions.
Lenses make a difference. They really do. There’s a reason some of them cost a lot! I don’t have any expensive lenses, but I have found that my prime lens (35mm) achieves much sharper photos than the kit lens (18-55mm). I love that 35mm lens. It’s my favorite piece of equipment that I purchased. Less than $200 for a lens that I keep on my camera 85-90% of the time has been worth it.
Your Body Position
How are you holding the camera? If you want to achieve a sharp image, you need to have a steady camera. That means having a steady handy. You may have to brace your elbows into your sides, use the ground as a tripod, or brace your body into something. Use a tripod if you find your hands shaking a bit. At F2 you’re going to need to be way more steady than at F8. Keep that in mind.
Post Camera Processing
People will say to “get it in camera.” And yes, you need to get a sharp image in camera, but there are things you can do to the photo in Photoshop or equivalent editing programs. No amount of sharpening in a program will save an out of focus photo. If it’s a precious photo that means something to you, try and sharpen it as best you can. That’s not a photo you would give to clients, but I think you knew that. There are plenty of ways to sharpen your photos in Photoshop. I’ll just quickly share my favorite way (I think I’ve mentioned it many times now). I like to use MCP Actions free sharpening actions. I use the Web Sharpening action for all the photos that you see on this website and my facebook page. I use the High Definition Sharpening Action at 50% on photos I save at high resolution for myself or others. Search “how to sharpen photos” if you’d like to learn about other ways to sharpen photos. I sometimes use the unsharp mask, but I love the actions for quickness. I’ll also gently sharpen features such as lips, lash lines, and eyes. Swoon…squishy baby lips are the best.
Using Focus Buttons
With many DSLR cameras you have different focus point options. I prefer to use the single point focus, especially when I am taking portraits. You also have to select a focus mode. A focus mode will depend on if you have a moving subject or not. If you’re using a single-point focus mode and your subject moves…you’re going to lose focus and have an image that isn’t sharp. I wrote all about using different focal points in this post. That will may help you visualize what happens when you focus on different people who aren’t in a straight line or on the same plane.
Oh, what a big subject with vast opinions. You can read a little about it in the post I mentioned in “using focus buttons.” Basically, if you’re using single-point focus, and especially if you’re using a wide open aperture, don’t recompose. You’ll end up with subjects out of focus. Toggle your focus points until you come closest to the area you want to focus on. I try to use the eye (or skin nearest the eye) that is closest to me. If you have a family of 5 standing with parents in the back and kids in the front, I’ll usually focus on the kid in the middle front.
There’s something called back button focusing that I’ve read about more than one time, but I haven’t tried it yet. I may have to venture there someday and give it a shot. Some people swear by it and say it helps them achieve a sharp photo. Have you tried it? I’ll try and find a resource to it and will list it below.
One other thing…sometimes it is camera failure. As in, your camera just isn’t working correctly. It happened to me. $250 worth of repairs. My photos were consistently unsharp and out of focus in areas, with all my lenses. After getting repaired, it was better. Sometimes it might be just as easy as a firmware update. Sometimes it might be something more. Keep that in mind.
I love to glean info from other sites. If you want to spend some time learning and reading about photography, I’m here to share what I learn from other places. You’re going to want to put on your fuzzy jammies, grab a favorite drink, and plunk down in a comfy chair while you clicky the linkies. Here’s a few of my favorite articles about achieving sharp photos:
- Sharp Images with Extremely Shallow Depth of Field at Clickin’ Moms
- Back Button Focusing Tips at Clickin’ Moms
- Focus and Recompose at Clickin’ Moms
- Out of Focus Photography at Clickin’ Moms (Do it on purpose or say you did!)
- Tips for Getting Tack-Sharp Images at Everyday Elements
- Advanced Tips for Tack Sharp Images at Digital Photography School
- 7 Tips for Sharper Photos at Improve Photography
- 5 Factors for Stunning Sharpness at Elizabeth Halford Photography
- Shooting Tack Sharp Images at SLR Lounge
- How to Take Tack Sharp Action Photos at Kevin&Amanda
Since I’m not the expert and I have given you more than my 2 cents, you can fill in what I left off. Give your tips or resources for getting sharp images, cause I’m pretty sure you’re all a sharp bunch of photographers and people who love taking photos.