In photography, the term “tack sharp” describes an image that shows the main subject in sharp focus, with clean lines, crisp details, and no blurring. Achieving this level of sharpness is one of the keys to a truly eye-catching picture. Taking tack sharp photos is all about reducing camera shake to an absolute minimum. There are many different ways you can do this. Some apply to all situations, while others can only be used in certain circumstances, but each one helps reduce the amount of camera shake by a small fraction. The more methods you can use, the sharper your shots will be. Getting sharp photos is one of the fundamental goals of photography. If your images aren’t as sharp as you’d like, take a look at our tips. We’ll help you minimise the possibility of returning home with blurry images that may not live up to your high expectations.
While the auto-focus in your cameras and lenses from Beachcamera.com are superb, nothing will get you consistently sharp images more than manual focusing, even in low light. The great thing is that it’s also very easy to do. Switch from using your Viewfinder to using Live View. Then find the magnifying button on your camera. By pressing this, you’ll zoom into a selected area of the scene. Once you’ve switched to manual focus, simply adjust the focus ring until the details sharpen. Then zoom out. That’s it. When you take a photo, the mirror in your DSLR slaps up and down to let light into the sensor. This movement can shake the camera very slightly, which can create a blurry image. Fortunately, this will lock the mirror up during shooting for most cameras if you’re already in Live View. On some cameras, the mirror still slaps down when using Live View. In which case, visit the in-camera menu and look for the mirror lock-up option.
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Before and during every shoot, you must keep your lenses clean. Any dust or smudges can not only soften images but can distort light and colours. This point goes without saying. Handheld shots won’t get you the sharpest possible image, especially in lower light situations.
How to Take Sharp Pictures
Set the Right ISO
Start with setting your camera to the lowest ISO “base” value (in my Nikon camera, ISO 200). Remember that the camera base ISO will produce the highest quality images with maximum sharpness. The higher the ISO (sensor sensitivity), the more noise you will see in the picture. I suggest reading my article on understanding ISO.
Use the Hand-Holding Rule
If you have a zoom lens beyond 100mm, I would recommend applying the general hand-holding “rule”, which states that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length set on the lens or faster. For example, if your lens zooms at 125mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/125 of a second.
Keep in mind that this rule applied to 35mm film and digital cameras, so if you own an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera with a crop factor (not full frame), you need to do the math accordingly. For Nikon cameras with a 1.5x crop factor, multiply the result by 1.5, whereas for Canon cameras, multiply by 1.6. If you have a zoom lens such as the 18-135mm (for Nikon DX sensors), set the “Minimum Shutter Speed” to the most extended focal range of the lens (135mm), which is 1/200 of a second. Here are some examples:
- 50mm on Nikon DX (D3500/D5600/D7500): 1/75 (50mm x 1.5)
- 100mm on Nikon DX (D3500/D5600/D7500): 1/150 (100mm x 1.5)
- 150mm on Nikon DX (D3500/D5600/D7500): 1/225 (150mm x 1.5)
- 200mm on Nikon DX (D3500/D5600/D7500): 1/300 (200mm x 1.5)
- 300mm on Nikon DX (D3500/D5600/D7500): 1/450 (300mm x 1.5)
Remember that this only affects blur from camera shake. If you are taking pictures of a fast-moving subject, you very well may need a quicker shutter speed than this to get a sharp image.
Choose Your Camera Mode Wisely
When I’m taking pictures in low light, 99% of the time, I shoot in Aperture-Priority mode and set the aperture to my lens’s widest setting – the maximum aperture, AKA the smallest f-number. This is usually in the range of f/1.4 to f/5.6, depending on the lens. (For example, with the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 lens, I will set the aperture to its maximum value of f/1.8.) The camera automatically meters the scene and guesses what the shutter speed should be to properly expose the image. You can easily adjust the camera’s guess with exposure compensation. So, set your camera to aperture-priority mode and set the aperture to the lowest possible f-number.
Set your metering to “Matrix” on Nikon or “Evaluative” on Canon so that the whole scene is assessed to estimate the correct shutter speed. We have an exclusive range of wedding photography Mornington Peninsula services. Check them out here.
Pick a Fast Enough Shutter Speed
After you set your camera to aperture priority and pick the correct metering mode, point it at the subject you want to photograph and half-press the shutter. Doing so should show you the shutter speed on the bottom of the Viewfinder.
- If the shutter speed shows 1/100 or faster, you should be good to go, unless anything in your photo is moving quickly (or if you’re using a long telephoto lens; remember the hand-holding rule). Snap an image or two and see if you are getting any blur in your image. I typically review my pictures on the back of the camera at 100% and make sure that nothing is blurry. If anything in your photo is blurry – the entire image, or just one fast-moving subject – use a quicker shutter speed like 1/200 or 1/500 second.
- On the other hand, if the shutter speed is below 1/100, it might mean you simply do not have enough light. If you are indoors, opening up windows to let some light in or turning the lights on will increase your shutter speed. It is still possible to capture sharp photos faster than 1/100 second handheld, but it becomes increasingly more difficult the longer your shutter speed is.
Use High ISO in Dark Environments
If you are still getting blurry images, try to hold the camera steady without shaking it too much and take another picture. If that doesn’t help, set a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp photos, and raise your ISO instead. You can do this via Auto ISO (described in the next section) or manually increasing ISO. In dark environments, it is not unusual to use quite a high ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed. Although this adds more noise/grain to a photo, that is usually better than capturing a blurry image.
Enable Auto ISO
Many cameras today have an “Auto ISO” feature that is very useful for capturing sharp pictures. So, set it to “On.” Set your Maximum Sensitivity to ISO 1600.
If you can select a minimum shutter speed, set it to “Auto” as well, which automatically applies the hand-holding rule! If you don’t have this option, set “Minimum shutter speed” to 1/100 second.
This is a helpful feature because if the amount of light entering the lens decreases and the shutter speed goes below 1/100 of a second, the camera automatically increases ISO to keep the shutter speed above 1/100 of a second or above the hand-holding rule.
If you have shaky hands, I would recommend bumping up the “Minimum shutter speed” to something like 1/200-1/250. Or if you have the “Auto” minimum shutter speed option, prioritise it toward “faster” just to be on the safe side. Also, see our separate article on how to hand-hold a camera as stable as possible.
Some cameras don’t have an Auto ISO feature. In that case, you will have to adjust ISO manually to do the same thing. Just raise your ISO in darker environments to keep your shutter speed at a reasonable level. I don’t recommend increasing the ISO above ISO 1600 or perhaps ISO 3200. Why not? Quite simply, anything higher than that in entry-level DSLRs produces too much noise, which harms overall image quality. On older-generation DSLRs such as Nikon D90/D200/D3000/D5000, you might want to keep the maximum ISO to 800.
Hold Your Camera Steady
While hand-holding your camera, there is a direct correlation between the camera shutter speed and blurry images. The longer the shutter speed (significantly below 1/100 of a second), the higher the chance for blurrier images. Why? Because while hand-holding a camera, factors such as your stance, breathing, camera hand-holding technique all play a huge role in stabilising the camera and producing shake-free images.
Think of it as holding a rifle in your hand. You wouldn’t want to move around while trying to shoot – you need to stand as steady and stable as possible, pull the stock tightly into the shoulder, exhale, and then shoot. The same technique works great for your photography, especially when you have to deal with slow shutter speeds.
I recommend holding the camera just like you would have a rifle (except your right hand goes on the shutter instead of the trigger), with one of your legs on the front and your body balance spread across both legs. I exhale when I shoot long shutter speeds handheld, like 1/10 second, which helps me get sharper images. Try it and see how it works for you. The difference between shooting a camera versus a rifle is that you can adjust the shutter speed to a higher number and avoid camera shake, whereas you cannot do the same on a gun.
Focus Carefully on Your Subject
Learn how to focus correctly and deal with focusing issues. This one is significant, as your camera focus directly impacts image sharpness. The first thing you need to learn is how to differentiate between a camera shake/motion blur and a focus problem.
If the subject in your image is blurry, something closer to the camera or farther away is ideally in focus and sharp. It is most likely a focus issue. If the whole image is blurry and nothing is sharp, it is generally due to using too long a shutter speed handheld. And lastly, if a fast-moving object in your photo is blurry/streaky in the direction of travel, then your shutter speed is not fast enough to eliminate subject motion. That isn’t a focus problem; use a faster shutter speed.
If you are having problems acquiring a good focus, here are some things that I recommend for you:
- Lack of light can cause auto-focus malfunction, resulting in inaccurate focus acquisition by the camera. Make sure there is plenty of light for your camera to properly focus.
- The centre focus point is generally the most accurate in cameras. If you have problems acquiring focus because your focus point is elsewhere, I recommend moving it back to the centre, focusing, and recomposing.
- Many cameras let you select a separate button for focusing without touching the shutter release button. I set my camera this way, focusing exclusively on my thumb while pushing the shutter trigger with my index finger. This is known as back-button focusing. It takes some time to get used to back-button focusing if you’re familiar with half-pressing the shutter button instead. However, you may find it helpful once you try it out.
- The camera autofocus system works by looking at the contrast around the focus area. For example, if you try to focus your camera on a clean white wall, it will never acquire focus because the camera will not see any areas of contrast. On the other hand, if you have a white wall with a dark object on it and put your focus point in between the wall and the thing, your camera will instantly acquire the correct focus. My recommendation is to place the rectangular focus point on an area with the most contrast. Examples are edges of objects, lines separating different colours, numbers and letters printed on things, etc.
- Focus multiple times until you can see in the Viewfinder that the object is in focus. For this one, you need to have a good viewfinder and a good vision. Some entry-level DSLRs have a tiny viewfinder, making it hard or sometimes even impossible to see if you are getting the correct focus. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do if you cannot tell if the subject is in focus by looking into the Viewfinder, so just take multiple pictures while constantly re-adjusting the focus and review images on the camera LCD.
Reduce Motion Blur in Your Subject
If you photograph a person, tell them to freeze and not move while you take their picture. When you work with slow shutter speeds, your images might still come out blurry just because your subject moved while the shutter was open, even if you do everything right. This is called motion blur. Sometimes people like the effect of the motion blur, especially for high-speed objects like cars. To reproduce this effect on your camera, set your camera to Shutter-Priority mode, then set your shutter to 1/100 of a second or less. Ask your subject to move his/her hand quickly while not moving the body. The result should be a sharp picture of the person’s body while having a motion blur on his/her hand.
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So, if you want motion blur, use a long shutter speed like 1/10 second or even several seconds (if you’re using a tripod). But you’ll usually want to avoid motion blur when taking pictures of people or action, so make sure to use a fast enough shutter speed. The hand-holding rule doesn’t apply if your subject moves very quickly because it is all about eliminating camera shake blur, not motion blur from your subject. For example, for photos of hummingbirds, I might set 1/1000 second or 1/2000 second and still get some blur in the wings!
Turn On Vibration Reduction
Make sure that your vibration reduction (VR on Nikon) or image stabilisation (IS on Canon) is set to “On” on your lens if you have it. Many consumer zoom lenses have some sort of anti-shake/vibration reduction technology, allowing one to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get sharp images. If you have one of those lenses, go ahead and try lowering your shutter speed to a lower value. You can even lower down the “minimum shutter speed” in your Auto ISO settings to something like 1/50 of a second and still get sharp images.
Use a Faster Lens
Get a good fast prime lens such as the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX or 50mm f/1.4 / f/1.8 lenses. These prime lenses are relatively inexpensive, ranging between $200 to $400 for the f/1.4 model.
Very few zoom lenses can achieve the same optical quality as the prime lenses because prime lenses have a simpler design and optimised to perform only one focal range. Although you lose the ability to zoom in and out, prime lenses are much faster than most zoom lenses and are excellent choices for low-light and portrait photography.
Because of the shallow depth of field, prime lenses can produce pictures with beautiful bokeh (nicely blurred backgrounds). When I got my hands on my first prime lens, I just could not believe how much of a difference it made in terms of sharpness. If you have never used a prime lens before, give it a try, and you will not regret it.
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Use Depth of Field Strategically
When photographing people or animals, always focus on the closest eye to you. This is very important, especially when dealing with large apertures between f/1.4 and f/2.8 because your depth of field will be very shallow. As long as the eye of the subject is sharp, the image will most likely be acceptable.
Normally, I delete images like this, but I’m glad I kept it for this article. As you can see from the above image, I failed to acquire the correct focus on Ozzy’s eye and somehow focused on his hair instead.
Pick a Sharp Aperture
Aperture also plays a role in achieving optimal sharpness. For landscape photography, I mostly use apertures between f/8 and f/11, while for portraits, I use apertures of f/1.4 to f/8, depending on what I want to do with the background. Most lenses are sharpest between f/5.6 and f/8, so if you are shooting during a bright sunny day, try setting your aperture to a number between f/4 and f/8 and see if it makes a difference. Just keep in mind that playing with aperture changes the field’s depth and will impact the lens bokeh, which is usually more important than the sharpness effects.
Clean Your Lenses!
An amateur photographer approached me once and asked for advice on what he could do to bring more contrast and sharpness to his images. When I saw the front element of his lens, I immediately suggested cleaning his lens. It was so dirty that I couldn’t believe he was still able to take pictures. A dirty and greasy front element of the lens guarantees inaccurate camera focusing and poor image contrast. If you don’t know how to do it properly, check out my article on cleaning DSLR lenses.
Use a Tripod in Low Light
Get a tripod for low-light situations (see my article on how to choose a tripod). For shooting lightning storms, fireworks, city lights, and other cool stuff at night, a sturdy tripod is a must! Don’t buy a cheap tripod designed for point and shoot cameras, but rather invest in a heavy-duty, sturdy tripod that can handle your DSLR or advanced mirrorless camera. Having a self-timer mode or a cable/wireless shutter release is also very helpful to minimise camera shake.
Shoot a Burst of Photos
Set your camera to a “continuous shooting” mode (also known as burst mode), then photograph your subject in bursts by just holding the shutter button. Especially if you photograph a moving subject like children, burst mode helps improve the odds that you’ll get a spot-on shot. With most cameras today, you can fire off at least three photos per second, and often more like 4 or 5. With a bit of planning to follow along with your subject, you can get sharp photos even when your subject doesn’t stay still!
Common Problems with Focusing and Solutions
Sometimes, focusing will give you a hard time. I’m referring to autofocus and manual focus, which is difficult to achieve under certain conditions. So here are a couple of tips for when you can’t manage to get the focus right!
Low Light Conditions
One of the most common situations where focusing isn’t easy is shooting with low light. Some cameras and lenses will perform better than others, but they will all fail below a certain degree of light. Cameras just aren’t able to autofocus in darkness, and neither can you!
The live view comes in handy in these situations. You’ll be able to zoom into the scene when focusing. If it’s too dark and you can’t see a thing in the Live View of your camera, then you might want to light up some of the subjects with a headlight, torch or lamp. You can then check the Live View again to see if you can properly focus.
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Fast Moving Subjects
We already spoke about this earlier, but fast-moving subjects are often a pain in the back to focus. The best possible way to frame them while getting the focus right is to use the continuous autofocus with the auto-area mode selected. If you are standing still with your camera, choose the dynamic area mode to track and follow the subject by moving your camera. Create lasting memories through your Yarra Valley wedding photography that will be cherished forever.