21 Tips for Sharpness – How To Hit The Sweet Spot

A pair of newlyweds dancing their first dance.

It’s not often that photographers aim to have an out of focus shot.  Yes it can be done tastefully, particularly in artistic contexts, but by and large we aim for the sharpest shots we can get.  Here are 21 tips to help you nail the focus and get tack sharp shots every time.

 
 

1. Learn your Lens’ “Sweet Spot”

Every lens has a “Sweet Spot.”  It’s a point where the sharpness is optimal, and it’s generally about 2 stops below the widest aperture.  That means if your lens is a 50mm F/1.4 then your sweet spot is probably between F/4 or F/5.6.  Shots at F/4 or F/5.6 will be sharper than shooting wide-open at F/1.4.  One important thing to keep in mind though is though F/5.6 may be sharper, the trend DOES NOT continue beyond that! Don’t confuse focus with sharpness, past the sweet spot things start losing sharpness again.  That means that even though more things are in focus, they aren’t as sharp as they can be.

2. Budget for the Best in Glass

Lenses make a HUGE difference when it comes to image quality and sharpness.  Not all of us are in a position to invest $3000 on a lens, but try to make your budget focus as much as you can towards lenses above other investments.  Before you buy a lens research it, read some reviews, rent/borrow it to test it yourself, wait for deals, and make the most educated decision you can before you commit. Many people spend too much on the camera body itself, favouring it over investing in the lenses, but the reality is that when you're investing in a camera body you're generally investing into features and build materials.  Certainly there are huge differences in the image quality with higher end camera bodies, but unless you're a professional technical shooter lenses are generally a better investment.

3. Calibrate

Your camera is designed for the highest statistical likelihood that images will be sharpest at a certain point, but unfortunately there is a measure of “acceptable” manufacturer variation from lens to lens and body to body.  To that end it makes sense to calibrate your specific lenses and bodies to one another to eliminate any manufacturer variation and get the very best images your equipment is capable of.  Most higher-end camera bodies can be programmed to adapt focus for lenses and store profiles based on your lens EXIF serial number so that it intuitively adjusts when it detects which lens is on it.  I personally rely upon the Spyder LensCal, but if you're inexperienced in the matter then I'd recommend taking your camera to a professional.  Also, you may want to make this a part of your annual routine, as if you're travelling often like I do as a wedding photographer, then you may compromise your calibration as your equipment gets bumped around during use or travel.

4. Use a Tripod

If you've ever shot with a longer focal length than you'll understand how much of a role movement can play in image sharpness.  Your best bet is always to remove your body motion from the equation entirely and rest your camera on something more still and stable.  If it's an option, use a tripod with as steady and wide of a base as is possible.  Make sure it's heavy enough to resist wind or anything else that may impair its stability, many tripods come with hooks built in for sandbags to help keep them steady.

5. When Using Tripods Turn Vibration Reduction (VR) Features OFF

Vibration Reduction (Or IS for our Canon using friends) is phenomenal, and for how I shoot it's absolutely crucial most of the time.  However it doesn't play well when the camera isn't moving.  The nature of its design actively adapts to counter the photographer's movement, but when the camera doesn't move it actually still moves slightly struggling to anticipate motion that is no longer a factor.  If you want sharp pictures turn off VR when your camera is resting on a still object like a tripod or a table.

6. When Shooting Handheld Turn VR Features ON

This one goes directly with the previous one.  If you're shooting handheld use the VR (IS) features of your camera/lens.  They are becoming more and more responsive as camera generations progress, and can really pull you out of a tough shooting situation.

7. Stop Moving

If you can’t put your camera on a tripod, then try to turn your body into a tripod.  If you can’t do that, then follow the Reciprocal Rule: Set your shutter speed to 1/focal length.  That means if you’re shooting a 200mm lens then you need to shoot at a minimum of 1/200 of a second shutter speed to counter your own movement.  If you’re shooting a 50mm then you need 1/50, a 24mm needs 1/24... you get it.  If you’re still having issues, or you can’t get the shot because you literally can’t shoot that fast then try THIS BLOG POST.

8. Shoot Fast Enough

Just because you followed step 7 doesn’t mean you’re shooting fast enough for the subject.  If the subject is moving too fast when the shutter is open, then you’re not likely to have perfect sharpness.  Yes, you can track and move with the subject, but if you want to get a subject tac-sharp, then you need to shoot faster than it.  Most cameras will shoot up to 1/4000 of a second, some of the higher-end ones will go to 1/8000, but remember they come with a cost: if the shutter is only open for that short a time then not much light will get through.  It’s all about finding a balance.  Need help on understanding the fundamentals and adapting?  Read THIS BLOG POST.

9. Ditch the Filter

Filters can be great, and they certainly can serve valuable purposes, but they do tend to occasionally compromise image quality.  You don’t see it in most of the high-end filters, but some of the lower ones can really muddy the image up substantially.  So before you take the shot be sure you consider if any filter you’re using is absolutely necessary.

10. Pick Your Focus Point

Don't use group focus modes.  When sharpness is paramount switch from the auto focus modes that use more than one focus point (Auto, 3D, D51, Group, etc.) Even using AF-C (Auto Focus Continuous) can complicate things, so get as precise as you can with a single focus point in AF-S (Auto Focus Single).  This way you can truly nail the focus.

11. Pick the RIGHT Focus Point

Not all focus points are created equal.  Most cameras feature their most sensitive cross-type focus point in the center, however it varies from model to model.  Research your model, determine which of the focus points are cross-types and which are single plane.  Try to adapt your composition so that the subject's most critical sharp point is aligned with your sharpest point(s).  Remember, they are often more accurate if the subject has strong contrasts or clear lines, and also the light conditions can impact ability to focus.

12. Control Your Light

Just because you may want a darker photo doesn't necessarily mean the scene needs to be dark when you're focusing.  Carry a flashlight with you.  If you're in a dark environment then you can light up the subject and lock in your focus before you turn the light off and shoot.  Beware though, that a bright light in the eyes in a dark room may disorient your subject and cause them to move, so use some common sense.

13. Use a Low ISO

Camera noise is no good, and it can really get in the way of seeing how sharp an image truly is.  For crystal clear imagery try to keep your ISO as low as possible.  Sometimes this will mean that your exposure triangle will have to adapt, so make your choices wisely.  If it's at all an option I'd recommend adjusting your light levels, or supplementing with flash to offset your lighting and give you a bit more room to move in your ISO range.

14. Don't Touch Your Camera

If you're looking for your most stable and sharp shots then you'll need to understand that pushing the shutter release moves the camera itself.  That small vibration can affect your image, so stop it!  Set your camera on a timer, or use a cable shutter release.  If you use a cable release then I'd recommend tying it to something off of the camera, so that even any inadvertent motions in the cable itself don't impact photo quality.

15. Lose the "Click"

In keeping with the previous point, even the mirror moving up can cause vibration in your image.  Many cameras now offer the option of locking your mirror up prior to shooting.  If your mirror is already up then you're just exposing the sensor and letting the mirror come down when the image is already exposed.  One downside to this method is that it needs to be reset after the image, which is one of many arguments for using something like a mirrorless camera.

16. Shoot Lots

The old adage of, “If you don't know how to tie knots, tie lots,” can sometimes apply to photography.  If you're uncomfortable with your situation, but you need the sharpest shot you can get, then up your chances by shooting a series of photos.  There are just some shots you can't afford to miss, such as when you're shooting a bride coming down the aisle.  Don't take chances on shooting too few and leaving yourself with limited options, shoot a series of shots in a burst mode such as Continuous High.  This way even if your first one or two miss the mark there's a better chance that one of the burst of images will nail it.

17. Confirm and Adapt

Unless you're shooting film, then you probably have an LCD screen on the back of your camera.  Use it.  Zoom in closely to your subject and ensure after taking the shot, because if the shot is soft then there may still be time to adapt and re-shoot.  However don't get carried away.  You can't spend an entire wedding with your head craned down over your screen or you'll miss all the other candid shots.  Watch, shoot, confirm, quickly move on.

18. Bracket Your Focus

Just because it may look “sharp enough” in your tiny view screen, doesn't mean it actually is.  Sometimes if you have time, or if the shot is absolutely critical, you may want to switch out of your automatic focus modes and manually focus and take a series of shots while making micro adjustments to your focus.  That way if the auto focus isn't nailing it, you'll have (hopefully) an option that does.

19. Freeze Your Subject

You may have expended all of the options available for you to stop moving, but consider if there's any way you can control your subject.  If it's a bride and groom during their posed photos it can be as simple as respectfully telling them to, “hold it right there,” but if you anticipate difficultly during sections where they're moving then I'd recommend discussing it with them before the date and cautioning them not to sprint down the aisle at break-neck speed.

20. Over-Prepare

Just because you're comfortable freezing a person walking at 1/250 of a second doesn't mean they won't speed-up.  Also, newer cameras like the Nikon D810 and Canon's 5D Mk IV have such crazy-high resolutions that at some points the reciprocal rule simply isn't enough!  Play on the safe side and shoot faster if possible, so long as it won't compromise your ISO or aperture too much for how you need to shoot.  It's better to err on the side of caution in achieving the sharpness you need, than to miss the shot!

21. Process Well

Processing is a complicated thing that is very subjective, but there are a few tips you can do to make your images their sharpest.  Things like minimising crop to avoid showcasing any motion or missed focus, using clarity or contrast to really make edges strong, and particularly the use of Unsharp Mask tools in programs like Photoshop and Lightroom.  Lightroom CC's sharpening features are phenomenal, and the masking slider really takes the spotty bite out of over sharpened images, so you really can resolve a great deal of the sharpness issues you may experience.


There you have it!  Pretty much everything you'll need to ensure your shots are at their sharpest.  I'm always interested in hearing your feedback and ideas, so feel free to add anything else you might suggest in the comments!

 
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-Wes.