How To Take The Sharpest/Clearest Image Possible

Canon 5D Mark IV,  24-105mm | f/4, 1/400, ISO 400

Canon 5D Mark IV, 24-105mm | f/4, 1/400, ISO 400

In the past couple of months I have been taking a lot of time to read books and take online classes on photography.  One part that I have found most interesting is how to capture the sharpest or clearest image possible.  For a long time I have wondered why some of my photos are super sharp, while others are a little fuzzy.  I recently did a photoshoot with my friend Josh Cast from Four Guys Guns.  When we got done we both submitted our completed photos and I was instantly jealous of the sharpness and quality of his images over mine, even though he was using what is considered a lesser quality camera (he had a Canon 6D, I had a Canon 5D Mark IV).  This kicked of a quest to figure out how to make the sharpest images possible.  

Through reading Stunning Digital Photography, The Scott Kelby Series and taking the Fundamentals of Photography Class through Creative Live, I have been able to dramatically increase the clarity and sharpness of my images.  Because my goal is to blog about what I have learned I will put together a list of something that helped me and would hopefully help you to achieve the best quality image possible. 

1. Choose the Right Aperture For Your Depth of Field

Aperture plays a huge part on the quality/sharpness of your image since it deals directly with your depth of field (what part of the photo is in focus.)  Basically the higher up you go to the top end of your lens' aperture scale, the more of the photo will be in focus.  This is important if you want more of your photo to be in focus (usually for landscape) or if you want to focus one something specific like a flower, bird or person (uses a large aperture/low f-stop).  One of the mistakes I used to make was that I thought since a high f-stop, such as f/22, offered a big depth of field that the majority of the photo would be as clear as possible and would also be as sharp as possible.  However, this isn't entirely true.  I will get more into this in a second.  The reality is that if you want a sharp landscape photo you should be using an f-stop of around f/8 or higher and if you want a sharp close subject where the background is out of focus you will want a shallow depth of field by reducing your aperture, to say f/5.6.  I know this is very general and possibly a little confusing, but bear with me. 

2. Know Your Lens' Best Aperture/Focal Length

While a lens may have a focal length of say 24-105mm or an aperture of f/2.8-22 it doesn't mean that they maintain the same quality or sharpness through the entire zoom or aperture scale.  This means a lens that has a zoom of 24-105mm and an aperture of f/28-22, may be the sharpest around 50mm with an aperture setting of f/8.  

Generally your lens will be sharpest in the middle.  So if you have an aperture scale of f/5.6-f/22, your sharpest point will be at the middle (f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22) at f/11.  This also rings true for the zoom of a lens.  If you have a lens that zooms from 24-70mm, your sharpest shot will be around 50mm.  

3. Use Prime Lenses

A prime lens is a lens that doesn't zoom and has a fixed focal length.  These are lenses like a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm etc...  Because the manufacturers don't have to worry about the zoom capability they can focus on making a much sharper lens.  

Prime Lenses like this fixed focal length lens tend to be the sharpest

Prime Lenses like this fixed focal length lens tend to be the sharpest

 

4. Use Top Grade Lenses

Most of the major camera manufacturers also make their own lenses.  Of these lenses they usually offer a professional grade and a hobby grade.  The professional grade lenses tend to out perform the hobby grade lenses, although you will pay a premium for them. 

5. Use Mirror Lockup

In a DSLR camera there is a mirror that flips up and down every time you take a photo. The flip of this mirror causes vibrations, that can alter your image if you are using a very slow shutter speed.  If you go into the camera settings, you can opt to have the mirror in the locked position which will keep it from flipping up and down when you take a photo.  

6. Use Live View

Live View is when you aren't using your view finder and the photo live image is displayed on the back of your camera (not always an option in all cameras.)  This also causes your camera to go into mirror lock. 

7. Use Manual Focus, While in Live View.  

When you are in live view you will most likely have the ability to zoom in on your desired object and manually focus on one particular part. The problem with auto focus is that it can be difficult for the camera to know what exactly what you want it to automatically zoom in on.  For the sharpest image, put your camera in manual focus, then zoom in on your subject.  Once the subject is in view you can start to focus the camera to the sharpest point. 

A camera in Live View, Image from Wikimedia

A camera in Live View, Image from Wikimedia

8. Turn Stabilization On... Or Off

Lots of newer cameras have a stabilization, either on the lens, camera or both.  This is an internal mechanism that helps reduce your body's movements.  Turning this on when you are operating the camera by hand will dramatically increase your clarity, especially when shooting around 1/30-1/80. 

On the contrary, an auto-stabilizer can also cause your image to be slightly blurred if you are using a tripod with a long exposure.  This is because if you are using the stabilization the motor will still be trying to move while your camera is still on the tripod.  Those internal motors can cause minor vibrations that can create a less than perfect image when you use a long exposure setting.

9. Use a Tripod

If you want a very sharp image, use a tripod.  Even if you are shooting at faster shutter speeds, 1/60 or higher, a tripod is going to give you that distinct advantage.  With this make sure your tripod isn't moving, this is especially important with wind.  If you're doing any sort of long exposure very minor vibrations can destroy your image.  Using sand bags, rocks or anything else in the area to weigh down your tripod will help if there is a lot of wind.  Another tip is to take off your camera strap because if it's flapping in the wind it can also vibrate your camera.  

There are some very lightweight tripods on the market.  I prefer the Manfrotto Be Free Tripod for Traveling

There are some very lightweight tripods on the market.  I prefer the Manfrotto Be Free Tripod for Traveling

 

10. Use a Fast Shutter Speed

This is one that I am bad at.  I consistently underestimate what shutter speed I need for a photo and it ends up coming out slightly blurred.  I wrote another blog on shutter speeds that sums up what best speed to be at.  The bottom line is that if you want a crisp photo and you are shooting handheld you will need to likely bump up your shutter speed.  1/60 is generally a good stopping point to maintain for handheld shots.  Any lower and you will risk getting a blurred image due to your own body's movement.  

11.  Use a Lower ISO

The lower your ISO, the better your sensor will perform...  Generally speaking.  The higher you bump up your ISO the more noise (the grainy stuff) is added to the photo.  This is because as you increase your ISO you are asking more of your sensor.  Eventually the sensor starts to miss important information regarding the photo and has a blank spot, this is noise.  (If you're sitting there saying "that's not technically correct", know that one, I don't care and two, I don't have a whole blog to write about why noise occurs and I don't feel like putting someone to sleep because I need to adhere to your technical knowledge of sensors, pixels and noise theory.  Just go back to being "that guy" at the party.) By shooting at a lower ISO your sensor, in theory, will offer a clearer/sharper photo.   However, the more you lower your ISO, the more you will have to get light by either opening the aperture or slowing down your shutter speed, it's always a trade off.  

12.  Use a Better Camera

I know this seems like a no brainer but it actually can make a huge difference.  The difference in quality between a full frame camera like a Canon 5D Mark IV and a 1/3s sensor like your iPhone is big.  While your iPhone may take good photos it lacks when you want to alter the image in post editing or when you want to blow it up for a large print.  The iPhones are also lacking in any sort of low light and or zoom setting.  If you're looking to get some high quality shots I'd recommend either going with an APS-C like the Sony a6500 or Full Frame camera like the Sony a9.  

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