PhotographyFocus

15 Tips for Taking Tack Sharp Photos


Figuring out how to take tack sharp photos is one of the hardest things for newbie photographers to overcome. My introduction to DSLR photography involved random blurry images in both automatic and manual focus modes. I just couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong… until I mastered these 15 tips.

While post-processing holds magical solutions to correct many photography flaws, there's not much you can do with an out-of-focus photo. Creating images with beautiful sharp contours requires nailing that focus in-camera.

If you struggle with blurry photos too, you've come to the right place. I've listed everything a beginner photographer needs to know about capturing tack sharp photos - no matter what environment you're shooting in.

Whether you need to adjust your focus mode, use the correct exposure settings, or figure out how to shoot in manual mode, taking crisp photos will be a breeze once you put these photography tips into practice.

Getting the right settings

1. Select the Center Focus Point

When using autofocus, it's best to tell your camera which focus point you want to use instead of letting your camera decide. The center focus point is generally the most accurate. But what if you don't want to position your subject in the center of the frame? To fix this, focus on your subject with the center point, then, while half-pressing the shutter button, recompose your shot - that means move your camera to position the frame the way you want it. Your focus will remain on the subject. To understand more about this, keep reading through the "Use the Correct Autofocus Mode" point below.

2. Use the Correct Autofocus Mode

Autofocus is generally easier to use than manual focus when trying to nail that sharp shot. In low-light situations, such as astrophotography (shooting the night sky), manual focus becomes necessary, but autofocus is usually better for day-to-day photography.

There are 3 different autofocus modes to choose from and you need to select the correct mode for what you're trying to shoot. Names may slightly differ for other camera brands.

  1. AF-S (Nikon) / One shot AF (Canon) - This mode is best used with stationary subjects. It allows you to focus on your subject, and then recompose without refocusing on something else in the frame. This is ideal if you are using the center focus point but don't want your subject to be in the center of the frame.
  2. AF-C (Nikon) / AI Servo (Canon) - This mode is for moving objects. The camera is continuously focusing on a subject as it moves as long as you have your shutter button half-pressed to focus.
  3. AF-A (Nikon) / AI Focus AF (Canon) - This mode is a hybrid of the single shot and continuous modes. The camera will detect if your subject is stationary or moving, and focus automatically. In general it's better to avoid using this option, as the camera might not always agree with what you're picturing in your mind.

3. Switch to Back-Button Focusing

This tip can be a real game-changer. I struggled with getting tack sharp focus in-camera, but switching to back-button focus instead of using the shutter button helped a lot.

Some cameras, like my first camera (Canon Rebel T5), don't have a button on the back of the camera dedicated to back-button focusing. For example, that camera uses the zoom out button to focus instead.

Here's why back-button focusing works better than shutter focusing: when half-pressing the shutter button to focus, you might press the button too hard and take a photo too early. Or if you don't leave your finger half-pressed on the shutter button, you will have to keep refocusing and recomposing in between every shot. If you separate the focus and shutter into 2 different buttons, you won't have that problem! Focus once, then keep shooting as many times as you like.

Back button focus

4. Focus on the Eye

For getting tack sharp portraits, it's especially important to focus on the eyes of your subject. Specifically, focus on the eye closest to you. When looking at a person's face, the first thing you notice is a person's eyes, so that is what should be in focus more than anything else.

This is very important when shooting with a wide aperture like f/1.0-f/2.0. The wider an aperture, the shallower the depth of field. In other words, if you are shooting at f/1.8 at 50mm focal length, only a sliver of the photo that will be in focus. Think of this focal plane as a tick sheet of glass. It can be easy to get the nose or the ear in focus instead of the eye when shooting with such a narrow depth. If your image is a tight crop of the face, aiming a higher contrast region, such as the eyelashes, can provide more accurate in-camera focus calculations.

Focus on the eye for animal shots too

5. Use Good Lighting

Although light is one of the most important aspects of photography, it may seem like it doesn't have much to do with focus. However, having enough light is essential to getting sharp focus, especially if you don't have a high-end camera. Help your camera out by shooting with a good light source so that it can easily distinguish your subject from the background. This might mean using the built-in flash, positioning your subject near a natural light source (like window), or position yourself to better utilize the existing light.

With flashWith flash
Without flashWithout flash
Compare the difference without and with a flash

You need to understand the manual exposure triangle - that's the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. It's not as complicated as it sounds! There are plenty of free guides out there about learning how to shoot in manual mode and how to use these 3 foundational aspects of photography, but I'll try to explain it simply and succinctly. If you already know about how to shoot in manual mode, you can skip ahead to the next point.

So how do these 3 things relate to sharp focus? Keep reading to find out.

6. Keep a Lid on Your ISO

In low light situations, it can be tempting to increase your ISO to increase the exposure of your photo. However, this can add a lot of noise and grain to your photo, especially if you don't have a high-end camera. A noisy photo loses detail and can appear fuzzy - even after using post-processing software to reduce the noise. If you have an entry-level camera, try to keep your ISO as low as possible and compensate for the low light by using a slower shutter speed or wider aperture. With a low-end camera, an ISO of 1600 is pushing your luck if you don't want a lot of noise. High-end cameras can still produce a crisp photo at ISO 5000 (or higher).

The flip side of this rule is that if your ISO is too low (and combined with a slow shutter speed), then you may get "camera shake" - undesired blur from small movements while holding the camera.

ISO at 200

7. Use a Faster Shutter Speed

Let's say you have plenty of light but your subject is still a little blurry. If your subject isn't completely still, you may need to use a faster shutter speed. In sports and wildlife photography, a fast shutter speed is necessary to eliminate motion blur and achieve a sharp image. Remember, using a fast shutter speed means that the image will be darker, so you'll need to either boost your ISO or choose a wider aperture.

Too slow - 1/800 sec
Much better - 1/1600 sec

8. Use the Sharpest Aperture

Most people want to use the widest aperture their lens is capable of because of "bokeh". Bokeh is the out-of-focus portions of your image which give an artistic and professional look. Wider apertures not only let more light in, they also produce more bokeh. However, the widest aperture is typically not the sharpest aperture.

The most accurate way to find out the sharpest aperture of your lens (or the "sweet spot") is to look it up on the internet and find the exact specifications for your lens. Or to make it easier you can just estimate. Most lenses' sweet spot is 2 or 3 f-stops up from the widest aperture. So, if your widest aperture is f/4, the sharpest aperture would be between f/8 and f/11. An f/2.8 lens sweet spot would likely be around f/4.

Find the sweet spot for your lens

9. Use a Tripod

A sturdy tripod makes it easier to keep your camera completely still, eliminating camera shake. This is especially important when using slow shutter speeds. Remember the earlier rule about minimum shutter speed for handheld shots? A 1-second shutter speed at any focal length is guaranteed to create camera shake.

Photography Tip

If you don't have a tripod with you, use a makeshift tripod such as a table, a railing, or another stationary object.

It's important to note that even on a tripod, a little bit of movement can still happen. Simply pressing the shutter button can cause a small amount of vibration and camera shake, but there are ways to compensate for this. Press the shutter button softly or use a 2-second timer or remote shutter to ensure maximum stillness.

10. Learn How to Handhold Your Camera Correctly

tack_sharp_photos_handheld_technique.jpg

Sometimes a tripod just isn't available, and you don't have anything to set your camera on either. This is when you need to know the right technique for handholding your camera. Your left hand should be supporting the lens from underneath rather than holding the top or the side of the camera. Keep your elbows pressed against yourself, and if possible, brace yourself against a tree or a wall to keep steady. Try to steady your breathing and only press the shutter after an exhale.

Turn on image stabilization (Canon) or vibration reduction (Nikon) on your lens, but only when handholding. On a tripod, this should be turned off. The stabilizer won't work as well if your camera is already stable on the tripod.

In natural light you can use this simple rule to decide minimum shutter speed while handholding the camera - 1/focal length. This means if you use a 50mm focal length, the shutter speed should be 1/50 or faster. A 16mm focal length would result in a minimum shutter speed of 1/16 or faster. Any speeds slower than that will likely introduce undesired blur from camera shake - unless you have hands like a surgeon!

11. Adjust your Viewfinder

Most photographers look through the viewfinder of their cameras instead of at the LCD screen. If you are consistently taking slightly blurry photos and can't figure out why, your viewfinder might not be adjusted to your vision. You can calibrate the viewfinder easily on most cameras by rotating the small dial next to the viewfinder until the view looks sharp. The reason why this is customizable is that wearers of prescription glasses may find it more comfortable to take off their glasses while using the camera, and the diopter-adjustment dial can be tweaked for long or short-sightedness.

Diopter dial

12. Use Mirror Lockup Mode

If you're using a DSLR camera (and not a mirrorless camera), you can change the settings to shoot in mirror lockup mode. When you capture an image, the mirror inside the camera flips up to expose the sensor to light, creating a photo. In some cases, even this minor movement of the mirror can cause internal vibration which decreases the sharpness of your image. This setting is primarily useful at very slow shutter speeds (such as long exposure astrophotography), and can help you squeeze every bit of sharpness in low light conditions.

13. Keep Your Camera Clean

If you have dirt on your lens, sensor, or filter, it can make your image muddy. To get that crisp focus, clean your lens and filter regularly with a dry microfiber cloth. The sensor takes a bit more effort, and you should only clean it after cleaning the lens and filter hasn't fixed your problem. You shouldn't clean the sensor without the proper tools, because a damaged sensor is difficult if not impossible to replace. For your specific camera, look up tutorials for cleaning your sensor properly or take the camera to a service center for professional help.

Only use professional lens cleaning equipment

14. Use a High-Quality Lens

If you purchased an entry-level camera as your first foray into photography, it may have come with a lens known as a "kit lens". These beginner lenses generally aren't the best quality even though some can produce decent images. Prime lenses, on the other hand, are known for producing sharp images because of their high-quality glass. A prime lens is just a lens that can't zoom in or out; it's fixed at one focal length such as 50mm. Less internal elements result in these being smaller and lighter.

Canon 50mm f/1.4 EF lens

Zoom lenses can produce sharp images as well, but usually the high dollar zoom lenses are the only ones that can compare to prime lenses. Zoom lenses also have a focal length that produces the sharpest photo, and that focal length is usually somewhere in the middle of the zoom range. So, if you have a lens with a zoom range of 18mm-135mm, you won't get the sharpest possible image at 18mm or 135mm.

15. Find Out Your Minimum Focusing Distance

If you've ever tried to get really close to an object but found that the picture is blurry, it might be that you are too close for your lens to find focus. This is known as the minimum focusing distance, and it's specific to each type of lens. For example, the minimum focusing distance of a 50mm f/1.8 lens is 1.15 feet (0.35 meters), so if you're lens is closer than 1.15 ft to an object, it won't be able to obtain focus. You can fix this by buying a macro lens. Macro lenses are designed to shoot extremely close to small objects such as insects, jewelry, or flowers, but some can also work well for portraits and landscapes.

Next: Photography for beginners
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