1. Use a Tripod
Suggesting the use of a tripod is a little bit like no-fun parental advice along the lines of “don’t stay out too late” and “make good choices.” Using a tripod slows things down, requires carrying an extra piece of bulky equipment and simply isn’t as freeing as handholding a camera. But it’s also perhaps the best thing you can do to ensure sharp photos. Not only does it eliminate camera shake from handholding, but it also allows you to get more precise with composition and focus and to take the time to dial in settings for optimized sharpness. Even at relatively fast shutter speeds, believe it or not, using a tripod will make a visible difference in the sharpness of your photos. And for goodness sake, if your lens has stabilization built in, turn it off when using a tripod or it will introduce movement where there otherwise is none.
2. Know When to Manually Focus
In tricky lighting situations like low light, backlight or rapidly changing light, it’s easy for a camera’s autofocus to be fooled. In these instances, I first try to solve the focus issues with lighting but often resort to turning the camera to manual focus. Sometimes a constantly searching AF lens is bad enough, but when that lens isn’t able to actually find tack sharp focus it’s simply unacceptable. Instead, I’ll switch to manual and use focus indicators to ensure I’ve achieved sharp focus. When possible, particularly with a tripod and stationary subject, I’ll use the LCD magnifier to zoom in and check focus to be sure I’m getting it right.
3. Make Sure Your Shutter Speed is Fast Enough
For years, I operated under the misguided assumption that as long as I was handholding at 1/60th shutter speed or faster, my photographs were bound to be sharp. Unfortunately, this fails in so many ways! First, people move. So if your subject is human and you’re human, there are literally a lot of moving parts in each picture and that’s a surefire cause of motion blur. Instead, when I handhold even with a wider than normal lens, I use a shutter speed of 1/250th whenever possible. Not only does it freeze a subject’s normal movements, but it also takes my own handshake out of the equation. With longer telephoto lenses, ensure you’re using an even faster shutter speed equivalent to the focal length of the lens—such as 1/500th or faster with the 500mm end of a zoom.
4. Choose the Right Aperture
Apertures impact sharpness in two primary ways. Everyone knows about depth of field and how a smaller f-number (which correlates to a larger aperture) allows more light in and creates shallower depth of field. This depth of field can be too shallow to allow the entirety of the subject to be sharp. This is particularly difficult when working close to a subject with a telephoto or macro lens. Ultimately, the aperture that will make the entire subject sharp varies widely with the size of that subject and the photographer’s lens and position. Still, when you’ve got something with some front-to-back depth that needs to be in focus, err on the side of stopping down in order to increase the depth of field and therefore the amount of that subject that’s correctly in focus. Along with depth of field issues, some photographers might need a reminder that wide open and fully stopped down apertures are simply not as sharp as the apertures in the middle of the spectrum. When I need critical sharpness, I never shoot at ƒ/2 or ƒ/22. Instead, I’m looking for something about three stops from wide open, in the ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8 or ƒ/11 range. These apertures are sure to be sharper than those at the extremes.
5. Know When to Move Your Camera
This contradicts the idea that your camera should be held stable and rock steady with a tripod whenever possible. The thing is, sometimes your pictures may actually be sharper without the tripod so that you can move the camera. Namely, this happens when photographing a fast-moving subject—a bicyclist, for instance, moving horizontally through your frame is going to create motion blur if the shutter speed isn’t fast enough to stop him. But there’s another approach that can produce interesting special effects or make moving images appear even sharper. It’s panning the camera in tandem with the movement of the subject, such that the subject’s image moves more slowly across the pixels on the camera’s sensor. The slower the subject is moving relative to the sensor, the easier it will be to render that subject sharp. It may blur the background, but this simply serves to reinforce the sense of movement and underscore just how sharp the subject is when you keep him centered by panning your camera.