Precision is one of the most important aspects of photography. From the careful alignment of a series of glass lenses all the way through to the detailed attention required for proper post processing, precision is the guiding principle. So it’s naturally pretty frustrating when you have all that power of precision literally in your hands, but your photos aren’t turning out quite as sharp as you want them to.
With that precision in mind, today we’re going to take a look at some of the simplest ways you can improve the sharpness of your photographs at every stage in the process, from your choice of photo gear to your final Photoshop adjustments.
One of the most important points to remember is also one of the most obvious – but like many obvious things, it can still sometimes be overlooked by even the most careful people. Keeping your lenses and filters clean is crucial, because it’s something that can’t be fixed by any amount of work later on down the line. A shot that has been blurred by a dirty lens may as well be thrown out. It’s a mistake you probably only make once, but better to stay ahead of the game.
The simple fix, of course, is to keep a bottle of lens cleaning solution and a microfibre cloth handy in your camera bag. Check your lenses regularly, clean them regularly, and you’re well on your way to sharper photos immediately.
The next biggest problem that can cause blurry photos is camera shake. This issue is a bit more complex, as there are a number of factors that can cause it, so let’s take the potential causes and solutions one by one.
If you’re shooting handheld, then obviously camera shake is going to be an issue when your shutter speed is 1/60th or slower. A good lens stabilisation system can allow you to shoot handheld as low as 1/30th or even 1/20th of a second, but even then you’re running the risk of a blurred photo, unless you have very steady hands.
For maximum sharpness, the best solution is to shoot using a tripod. If you need something with a bit more rapid mobility, you may be able to get away with a monopod to help you steady your shots, but a tripod is still the number one choice.
If you’re already using a tripod but still getting blurry photos, there could be a couple of issues preventing it from doing its job properly. Check to ensure that all your tripod legs are firmly locked into position, that the screwhead connecting to your camera is firmly attached, and that each foot of the tripod is set on solid ground.
Tripods come in many different weights and sizes, and smaller and lighter tripods are more prone to stability problems. Fortunately, many tripods come with hooks for hanging your camera bag as a stabilising weight, and even if yours doesn’t, you can brace your bag against one of the legs to improve stability.
Even when shooting with a tripod, you still have to be aware of the potential shake caused by pressing the shutter by hand. For the sharpest photos, shoot with a firmly-positioned and well-stabilised tripod, and trigger the shutter using a remote so that you don’t have to touch the camera at all while the exposure is taking place. Some photographers are even wary of the mirror-lockup system that shifts the light path from the viewfinder to the camera sensor, but that goes a bit beyond the scope of this post 😉
After those major points, the next best way to get sharper photos is to skip your autofocus system altogether. Autofocus systems have improved dramatically over the last ten to fifteen years, but they still can’t read your mind (yet!) so they don’t know what you want to have in focus. They’re useful when you’re shooting snapshots and other kinds of images that have fairly simple layouts, but they have a number of pitfalls that can make them more trouble than they’re worth. We’ve all lost a great snapshot before thanks to an uncooperative autofocus system, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Stick to manual focus and save yourself the hassle. It’s a good habit to be in!
If your manual focus doesn’t seem to be working quite properly, double-check your viewfinder. Many cameras have diopter adjustments on their viewfinders for photographers who wear eyeglasses, and if you’ve accidentally bumped the adjustment dial you may find that your manual focus setting doesn’t quite match up with your view.
Of course, an introduction to taking sharper photos wouldn’t be complete without a bit of post processing advice. Even after you follow all the best practices listed above, you can still improve things with a little bit of quick Photoshop work.
As with almost everything in Photoshop, there are several different ways you can sharpen your photos. When you import your RAW file into Photoshop, you can apply sharpening in the Camera RAW options, but this isn’t always the best way to handle it unless your workflow requires it. (If you’re not shooting in RAW format, stay tuned for an upcoming post about why you should be)
The best choice for sharpening is to use a Smart Filter. There are several excellent sharpening filters including Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask, and either one is fine for basic sharpening. Convert your photo into a Smart Object by right-clicking on the background layer and choosing ‘Convert to Smart Object’. Once that’s done, any filter you apply to the image can be adjusted at any time down the road, even if you’ve closed and re-opened the file. (For more on Smart Objects, check out this post to see why it’s a good idea to incorporate them into your workflow.)
The last point to remember is that if you’re doing any more complex edits to your image such as cloning, spot removal, or anything else that should be done on a separate layer, always apply the sharpening to those layers too! An extremely crisp photo that has a few blurred areas will make your edits stick out like a beacon at night, so it’s usually a good idea to apply your sharpening at the very end of your processing phase.