8 Tips for Sharper Images
“How can I get my photos sharper?” is one of the most common questions I get asked during my workshops and seminars. There are no shortcuts to getting sharp images, so here are my eight suggestions for staying in focus:
1) Use a tripod
Nothing will keep your camera and lens fixed and steadier than a good quality tripod. There are lots of choices when purchasing a tripod system and there are basically two types you can choose from:
1. Tripods that are cheap, light weight, and easy to carry.
2. Tripods that actually work…
I’ll discuss tripods in detail in a future newsletter, but you should be prepared to spend from $500+ for a carbon fiber model with a ball-head and quick release system.
2) Use a remote shutter release.
It makes no sense to secure you camera to a tripod only to jab the shutter with your finger. Use a remote release.
Bonus Tip: If you forgot your remote release, use your DSLR’s 2-second timer.
3) Capture in Live View Mode
The old-school advice for shutter speeds that are 1/4sec and slower was to enable “mirror lock-up” to reduce vibration. With Live View, the mirror is already secured since you’re viewing directly off the sensor. Bonus Tip: Enable Silent Mode 1 or 2 on Canon DSLRs. The simulated electronic shutter action reduces the vibration even further.
4) Achieve Critical Focus
Check and double-check your focus. In Live View, magnify the view on the LCD monitor to ensure that you’re in focus. Use a small aperture (f/11, f/16, f/22) to increase depth of field. A piece of blue painters tape or gaffers tape is perfect for securing the focusing ring and prevent it from slipping.
5) Select a Fast Shutter Speed
If you’re shooting sports, (or ignoring Rule #1 above) select a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and reduce camera shake. For sports I recommend shooting at least 1/500sec, but 1/1000sec and faster is preferred. To reduce camera shake with a hand-held cameras, select a shutter speed that is the inverse of the lens focal length. Example: if you’re using 200mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/200sec or faster.
6) Enable Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction
Canon and Nikon both have lenses that feature technology that compensates for slight camera-shake from hand-holding a camera. Although it’s no longer required, I still recommend turning off this feature when using a tripod.
7) Minimize Filter Usage
The more glass you add to the front of the lens, the more the image may suffer degradation. There are proper times for using filters and I only carry three in my bag; a polarizer to reduce glare, a vari-ND to cut down light, and an IR filter for infrared photography. Many photographers affix UV filters to protect their objective lens, but in that case I strongly advocate buying a top brand UV (Heliopan, Hoya, B+W).
8) Invest in “Pro” Lenses
There is huge difference in quality (and price) between consumer lenses and the Canon L series and Nikon ED/N lenses. Glass quality, coatings, and construction all contribute to higher overall quality. Most experts will advise you to invest in “glass”. Camera bodies come and go, but a good lens can last forever.
For the sharpest images possible, I recommend that you follow all of these tips whenever you can. It takes time, patience, and effort; but that degree of diligence is what turns a snapshot into a great shot…
I get a lot of questions from customers, workshop attendees, and even random strangers when I’m out shooting. Most folks ask about basic photography techniques or ask for equipment suggestions and, since these questions usually have broad appeal, I thought I would share my answers each Friday here on the blog.
This week, an attendee from last month’s Canon Live Learning seminar in Los Angeles asks:
I have it on my list to buy a neutral density filter. Should I get a regular one or a graduated one? What are your thoughts on the matter?
I enjoy taking close up images, such as insects on or in flowers. Is a macro lens the way to go, or is there a different lens with a tripod that works just as well?
OK, that’s two questions. A bonus this week…
Neutral density filters are a valuable accessory when you need to restrict the amount of light entering the lens. This is necessary when the photographer finds there is too much ambient light and requires a slow shutter speed to record motion blur. A shutter speed of 1/2 second or slower is a very effective means of blurring streams, waterfalls, or ocean waves for a dramatic and ethereal effect that illustrates the motion and flow of water.
Another application is when a photographer desires minimum depth-of-field for portraits or selective focus and must use the lens’ widest aperture to obtain that degree of isolation. In normal daylight this might not be possible without filtering some of that light from entering the lens.
Neutral density filters are classified by their optical density and transmission values.
The most widely used are:
ND2 (-1 stop)
ND4 (-2 stops)
ND8 (-3 stops)
These three filters can be used separately or together to produce the desired amount of light transmittance. A more convenient and precise, but costly, option is to consider a so-called “black glass” variable neutral density filter. This type of filter is offered by several manufacturers and is a single ND filter that offers varying degrees of density within a 9-10 stop range. By simply turning the front filter element, the photographer can dial in the precise amount of neutral density needed.
A gradual neutral density filter is a rectangle or square filter that has a gradient tone ranging from dark to clear and is offered with the same optical values listed above. It is commonly used to maintain detail in the sky when exposing for the foreground detail (or vice versa). For still photographers, Photoshop not only eliminates the need for gradient filters, but it also enables photographers to selectively darken or lighten specific areas of their image in a very precise manner. That being said, neutral density gradient filters are still widely used by videographers who wish to achieve the same effect while filming, but want to avoid spending long hours correcting tonal values in post processing.
“Yes, a macro lens is the way to go”.
The simple reason is that macro is widely regarded as images captured at 1:1 life size or larger. Most lenses are incapable of achieving that degree of magnification unless they are a true “macro” lens. I’m a Canon shooter and my favorite macro lens is the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro. It is incredibly sharp and the “L” series glass produces excellent color, contrast, and tonal values. For Nikon shooters, the Nikon AF-S 105mmVR Micro f/2.8 is a comparable choice for macro.
There’s a couple of alternatives if you’re not quite ready to invest in a macro lens. One affordable option is a set of close-up filters. These filters are simple diopters that come in magnification powers of +1, +2, and +3 and screw on to the front of the lens. These filters magnify the subject and decrease the lens-to-subject distance which enables close-up focusing.
Finally, a set of extension tubes might be all you need for getting closer to your subject. They are typically sold in sets of three tubes with different lengths (12mm, 24mm, & 36mm) and can be used separately or together between the lens and camera body. By extending the distance of the rear lens element from the camera’s imaging sensor, you shorten the camera’s minimum focusing distance. Again, this allows you to leverage the magnification properties of a long focal length at very short distances.
When shooting close-ups of flowers, my favorite technique is to attach the 36mm extension tube onto my 200mm lens, then compose by filling the frame with the flower, and exposing with a wide aperture to blur the background. This isolates the flower and eliminates any distracting background elements.
I hope you find these answers useful. If you have a question you would like answered on the Omega Photo Blog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give it my best shot…
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