A flower’s delicacy, color, texture smell and shape generate in me, as in many of us, feelings of wonder, awe, connectedness, elation and even spirituality. That is the major reason that I photograph flowers so much. The more distinct and sharp the details of the image, or at least of the area of primary importance, the more effective it is in rekindling the emotions we were experiencing when we took them. A brilliant, sharp enlargement of a dahlia or hibiscus (or myriad of other flowers) hanging on the wall can quickly lift my spirits.
One of the most common photographic issues that people have is a lack of sharpness. Sharpness (along with color and composition) is a major determinant of the viewer’s perception of an image as “reality”. To help with this I put together a list of recommendations for maximizing photographic sharpness. Please don’t let the length of this list be intimidating. Adding proper handheld technique, a tripod and just one additional item from this list, will greatly improve the sharpness of most photographer’s images.
Lens sharpness: An image can be no sharper than the lens’s maximal capability. Lenses that come with a camera are usually not particularly sharp. The more expensive the lens, the greater its sharpness. Companies usually have at least 3 levels of lens quality and sharpness. Inexpensive lenses have inadequate sharpness. The most expensive lenses are beyond the financially capacity of many of us. The mid-level is usually a good balance between quality and affordability.
Macro lenses: some lenses, called macro lenses, are designed exclusively for close-up and macro work. For this they provide excellent sharpness. However, they will not provide adequate focus at a distance. They are just not designed for that.
Clean lens surface: Substances on the surface of a lens (fingerprints, smudge, droplets) obviously scatter some light, producing blurry areas of a photo. Obviously cleaning these off will improve the sharpness of your images. However, I am frequently surprised by the amount of fine powdery dirt, sea breeze haze or smog grime that is on my cleaning cloth when the lens surface appears to be clean to begin with. Therefore frequent lens surface cleaning is recommended. However, lens cleaning needs to be done carefully to avoid scratching the lens itself.This is best done by first blowing off debris with an air bulb or canned air (Don’t blow on the lens. That will leave lots of tiny droplets of saliva which further impair a lens’s sharpness). Second, use a lens cleaner made for your specific type of lens and , either lens tissue, or clean microfiber cloth. It’s important for everything that is used to clean the lens be very clean itself.
The camera sensor: An image’s sharpness is limited by the sensor’s capabilities. Sharpness is dependent on pixel size and number, efficiency of tiny lenses over the top of the pixels and quality of in camera processing of data. Some independent labs, such as dpreview.com, provide trust-able information about specific cameras. A sensor does not have to be large to be very sharp. Some smaller cameras have excellent sensors. However, essentially all current generation DSLR’s provide excellent sharpness. It’s important to note that sharpness decreases as enlargement size increases. If you want only 4 inch by 6 inch prints, essentially any digital camera, except for phones cameras and web cams, can give excellent results.
The most common cause of unsharp (soft) images is motion of the camera while the shutter is open. This is called “camera shake”. It is common when the camera is being hand-held. An imperceptible movement of the hand while the shutter is open is all that it takes to blur a photo. Here are some ways to eliminate camera movement.
1) A hand-held camera technique that a lot of pros use is to take in a breath, let it out slowly and at the end of the exhalation, squeeze (don’t jerk) down on the shutter release button.
2) The best method to eliminate camera movement is to mount your camera on a tripod. I use a tripod almost all the time. It’s somewhat inconvenient at first, but the quality of the images will soar. A far more convenient, but not as effective, alternative is a monopod. This is basically a metal or plastic stick that your camera is attached to at its top. It is light weight and most collapse down like a car antenna to 12 inch length when not in use. (Most expand to at least 5 ft tall when extended.)
3) When using a tripod, also use a shutter release cord or remote control so that you are not touching the camera when the shutter is open.
4) When using a tripod, also use the mirror lock-up option (DSLR’s only). DSLR cameras have a mirror that slaps up to the top of the camera internally immediately before the shutter opens. This causes an internal vibration which can slightly blur your images, particularly during close-up and macro work. This “mirror slap” is remedied by operating in “mirror lock-up” mode and using a cable shutter release or remote control. Mirror lock-up is a setting that is usually hidden in the menu of custom functions. I suggest checking your camera’s instruction manual to find it. (Not all DSLR’s offer the “mirror lock-up” mode.) When this option is activated, the first press of the shutter release cable raises the mirror up and away from the sensor. The mirror stays up until your second press of the shutter release, which activates the shutter. If there is a pause of 3 seconds between raising the mirror and opening the shutter, usually both the internal vibration and any tripod or lens vibration, from having touched the focusing rail or camera, will also be avoided. Camera’s with full size (35mm) sensors, heavy camera/lens combinations or economy tripods may need a longer delay. (luxborealis recommends a 5 second delay between mirror-up and shutter release in order to accommodate all camera/lens/tripod combinations. The vast majority of my work is done with tripod, mirror lock-up and cable shutter release.
5) Many cameras, or their lenses, have a built-in mechanism to counteract small camera movements. Canon calls theirs “image stabilization”. Nikon calls their “vibration reduction”. Other brands have their own names for this feature. This feature is excellent at counteracting small camera movements, but cannot compensate for large movements. If your equipment has this feature, use it whenever the shooting with the camera hand-held. It is important to remember that these mechanisms require at least one second with the shutter button one half of the way down, in order to take its measurements and start working. If the shutter is quickly pressed all the way down, these stabilization mechanisms may not work. It is best to combine this image stabilization feature with the hand-held technique noted in #1 above. (If you are using a tripod, this feature does no good. So you can turn it off. It just wastes your battery.)
6) Another effective approach for sharper images is shortening the amount of time that the shutter is open.
- Most cameras have a shooting mode called “sports” or “action”. In this mode, the camera will try to pick a shutter speed of about 1/250 sec. in order to “freeze” the motion of a moving subject. The camera then adjusts the aperture size and ISO speed to get a correct exposure. It is usually very effective, even without bright light. This program or shooting mode is usually indicated by a tiny picture of a sports figure on the program/shooting mode wheel or menu.
- Cameras without a specific sports/action program, often have an option in the shooting menu called “sharper” or “more sharp”. This has a similar, although usually not as strong, effect as a sports program/mode.
- Another way to create a fast shutter speed is to use the “shutter priority” program/mode. This allows you to set the shutter speed and ISO manually. Then the camera chooses the appropriate aperture. Shutter priority works well when your subject is in bright light. But there’s a large limitation. In low light, the camera may choose a large enough aperture that the background and foreground are blurred even though the subject is in focus. If you want sharp subject, background and foreground in dim light, increase the ISO until you get an aperture of f/11. What shutter speed to choose? If the subject is stationary and your hand-holding technique is good, a shutter speed or 1/60 sec or higher works well. If you are using an image stabilization option, the shutter speed could go slower by 1-2 stops. A person walking will generally be sharp at a shutter speed of 1/125 sec or higher. A person running will be sharp with a shutter speed of 1/250 sec or higher. With most image stabilization options, you can go 2-3 stops slower with excellent result. However, when in the “sport” or “action” mode, your camera will make the ISO adjustment for you.
Here are some camera settings that help to increase sharpness. They are usually in a shooting/recording menu.
- File size/resolution: Choose the largest numbers that your camera offers.
- File format or file type. There are three file types/formats of which to be aware. The first is jpg (pronounced jay-peg). Most cameras offer this option. When using this format, the shooting/recording menu usually offers at least 3 levels of sharpness. Choose the highest level for maximal sharpness. The major drawback to jpg files is that they lose a little detail and sharpness each time the file is opened. The remedy is to change your jpg files to a tiff file format as soon as the images are in your computer. Tiff files do not lose any data when opened repeatedly. The third file format of importance is called a “raw” file, although it is not available in all cameras. “Raw” means that the recorded information is not processed within your camera (as are jpg files). Canon calls their raw file CR2. Nikon calls theirs NEF. Other companies have their own initials. Raw files are analogous to the photographic negative from film days. Any changes that are made to a raw file with editing software, can be erased, giving you back the original image. Raw files are inherently not very sharp. However, excellent sharpness is achieved by processing them in your computer with editing software that allows you to add sharpness to it. This can be done either with the software that came with your camera or with the “raw converter” in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or an equivalent. If you have Photoshop Elements’ Raw Converter and do not know how much sharpening to add, try sharpening amount 40, radius 1 and detail 60. At the same time, you can decrease noise which acts like haze. You might try (for Photoshop Elements Raw Converter) luminance noise reduction of 40 and color noise reduction of 20. These settings will probable not overdo it. But the nice thing is that your original image information is always there to adjust differently if you wish to.
I hope that this will be useful information for someone. In my next blog post I will go over additional ways to get sharp images.
Comments, suggestions and even criticisms are welcome.
I am available at NaturePhotoRehab.com assisting clients to transform their nature images into works of art that they will be proud to either hang on their own wall or give as a gift. I offer photo retouching, complex processing and enhancements, enlargements, prints up to 12in x 18in and framing.
J. Michael Harroun(c)2012