You can tell when you've become a serious photographer when you start to obsess about the s word – sharpness. Enter any photography competition, or submit images for feedback at any camera club, and sharpness is one area that's really scrutinised.
While most competent photographers know how to avoid very blurry softs, it's much harder to get absolutely pin-sharp results that still stand up when viewed at 100% on the camera's screen or in software. Here five ways to sharpen up for the summer...
Get a grip
Obviously, grip your camera firmly, but not so firmly that you tense up and actually end up making camera shake worse. If you are shooting a slow shutter speeds or narrow apertures (say higher than f/16), a tripod is essential. Use the thickest leg sections first to get the right height, and avoid raising the centre column. Use a bag to add weight to the centre column if there's a hook.
Don't try to stabilise the tripod by holding it, and make sure you use a cable release or remote release to fire the camera. Switch your SLR to mirror lock-up mode for even more stability.
Choose the right shutter speed
When shooting handheld, a good rule of thumb is to choose a shutter speed that is at least 1/your lens focal length or faster. So this would equate to a shutter speed of at least 1/50 sec if you are using a 50mm lens on a full frame SLR, and 1/80 sec or higher on a camera with an APS-C sensor. These are only starting points, however, and obviously very fast moving subjects will need faster shutter speeds.
Increase the ISO
Higher ISOs are not just good for shooting in low light, they can also give you faster shutter speeds. So you can use a higher ISO to enable you to pick a faster shutter speed when shooting in Manual mode, for instance. Yes, there is a greater risk of noise at higher ISOs, but it's easier to remove noise from an image in raw than it is to sharpen a soft one.
Skilful use of AF is also essential here. Rather than relying on your camera's default AF choice, use single point AF for static subjects, such as portraits. Place the AF point on the subject's eyes to ensure they are sharp. You can either move the AF points around manually, choosing the point closest to the eyes with the AF selector, or lock AF over the eyes with the central point (usually the most sensitive), then half press the shutter button to lock focus and then recompose.
For moving objects, select continuous (servo) AF. Again though, keep the active AF point where you need it to be – over a flying bird's head for example. For macro shots and landscapes, you can try using Manual focus for consistent results; switch to Live View on the rear camera screen and zoom in to check sharpness where you want to focus.
Set the right aperture
When shooting at a wide aperture, don't always choose the widest setting (e.g. f/1.4) as it makes it harder to keep a face sharp (soft looking ears and jewellery are a tell-tale sign). Often f/2.8 or even f/3.5 is a better choice, depending on the lens. With narrow apertures, while it's true that bigger f numbers give deeper depth of field, a process called refraction can actually make images softer at very narrow f numbers, e.g. f/22. Experiment with a tripod to see what works best for you.
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