3 Simple Steps to Get Sharp Photos – All the Time!how to get sharp photos

Many photographers struggle with how to consistently get sharp photos within each and every photo shoot.  I was once one of those photographers too.  Sometimes I’d get an awesome winner and other times the photos wouldn’t be as sharp as I’d expect, or want. Once I “cracked to code” and figured out exactly what to do to improve my photo sharpness, I never looked back.

Today I am going to share with you exactly how easy it is to ensure that you camera is set correctly for you to get sharp photos shot after shot and shoot after shoot.

There are three major pitfalls that often hurt image sharpness.  Three.  That’s it.  Next time you get an image that you feel is not as sharp as it should be, or even blurry, I want you to go through these problems and see if you can diagnose what went wrong because without knowing what went wrong, you can’t fix the problem.

Problem 1: Shutter Speed is too Slow

If your shutter speed is too slow you are setting yourself up for a lower than normal “keeper” rate and certainly not putting the odds in your favor of getting a sharp photo.

Understanding Why a Slow Shutter Speed is a Problem

Shutter speed is what you use to control motion.  You want to use a fast shutter to freeze motion and a slow shutter speed to blur or “show” motion.  A slow shutter speed can give amazing results for landscape photographers with the right equipment as shown in this article, but unless that is your goal, you will need a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake (shooting handheld) and also freeze your subject if moving.

Example 1: I am at a wedding reception and taking a photo of the reception centerpiece using only natural light and my 50mm lens.  My subject, the centerpiece, is not moving so the only “movement” that I need to account for is camera shake from shooting handheld without a tripod.  My minimum shutter speed that I should use is 1/50th of a second, according to the rule: min shutter = 1/(focal length).  Note that this applies for full frame cameras only, if a crop sensor camera the formula becomes: min shutter = (1.5 x focal length), which would yield 1/75th, or 1/80th in my example above.

In the sample photo below, since our bride and groom are stationary at the alter, Nicole was able to use a 1/100th of a shutter speed and still get a tack sharp photo as shown by the 100% crop below.  1/100th of a second would not have been fast enough to stop them walking down the aisle though.  This photo was taken with the super sharp Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII lens, at 200mm, f/2.8 and ISO 3200.  Note – the only reason why we were able to still get a sharp shot with 200mm at 1/100th is because this lens has “VR” (Vibration Reduction) & the subjects weren’t moving.
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Example 2: Same wedding as above, same lens and now its time for the grand entrance, for purposes of this example lets assume I am still shooting natural light only.  This time my subject is the bride and groom entering the reception.  Now it is a bit trickier because I need to guess how fast of a shutter speed I need to stop their movement to make sure I get a sharp photo.  The wildcard though is simply, not knowing how fast they will be moving.  Sometimes 1/150th is fast enough, sometimes you may need 1/250 if they are really moving quick.  So I’d recommend using as fast as you can in this situation without compromising other exposure elements too much (crazy high-ISO, or too wide of aperture).

The key takeaway from these examples is this: when trying to determine how fast of a shutter speed is necessary, you first need to decide if your subject is stationary or moving, and if moving, how fast.

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Also with the 70-200 f/2.8 lens, but this time a shutter speed of 1/400th to ensure freezing motion as our emotional bride and father walk down the aisle.

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Reasons Why Your Shutter is too Slow and How to Fix It

Here is a list of a few reasons why your shutter speed might be too slow.

  • Not enough light / shooting indoors – Most of the time we are at the mercy of the location and elements we are shooting at.  If there isn’t enough natural light, using flash will be your best solution.  Read about easy on-camera flash techniques right here.
  • Aperture not wide enough – Lower your f/stop to let in more light.  Still using the kit lens?  That might be the problem – read about it hereLearn all about aperture here.
  • ISO too low – Raise the ISO to get a faster shutter speed.  Read this tutorial to learn all about ISO.

Problem 2: Not Using the Optimal Auto-Focus Camera Setting

Lucky for you I just wrote a very detailed overview of different auto-focus camera settings and which one you should choose depending on what specifically you are shooting.  If you want to read the full tutorial, go here.  Don’t feel like reading the entire post about auto-focus settings?  Here is the gist of it…

  • Never rely on the cameras auto-focus system to choose “where” you want to focus.  You should always manually select “where” to avoid missing focus.
  • Are you focusing moving subjects?  Use your cameras “continuous” focus setting.  On Nikon: AF-C and on Canon it is: AI Servo

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If I let the camera choose “where” I wanted to focus in this photo, how would it know?  It wouldn’t.  So if you were lucky, it might guess correctly.  But the odds are, it would have focused on one of the bridesmaids, or the back of the groom who is closest to camera.  Thus, the ONLY way to ensure the camera focuses where you want is to manually select the AF point in the viewfinder, in my case, the laughing bride.

Problem 3: Shooting at Wide Open Apertures

This technically isn’t a “problem” but rather a limitation of lenses in general.  But since we are discussing how to get sharp photos, all the time, I feel I must let you know that regardless of which lens you are using, lens sharpness is always best 2-3 f/stops  from wide open.  So if you have a 50mm f/1.4 lens, the lens will start to really perform best, in terms of sharpness, at f/2.8 or f/4 and beyond.

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How to Get Sharp Photos All The Time Closing Thoughts.

While it may be impossible to have 100% of your photos “perfect” in terms of sharpness and focus, keeping these common pitfalls in mind will dramatically help you get sharp photos more consistently, while letting you easily diagnose a faulty photo and enable you to correct it for the next shoot.  I hope that these ideas really help you on your quest of learning how to get sharp photos – all the time.

Chat soon,
Cole