1. Use a tripod. Even if I’m shooting portraits in a studio situation, I contend that my pictures are actually sharper if I use a tripod. Useful for much more than just long exposures, tripods eliminate handshake completely—and that makes for sharper pictures, period. No, they’re not always practical, but when they are, you should definitely use a tripod. (Add a cable release and eliminate any movement from the camera, and your long exposures will most definitely get sharper too.) The photo below is the compact Manfrotto BeFree travel tripod, perfect for sharp pictures on the go.
2. Invest in a lens with vibration reduction. For all those times when you can’t use a tripod, you should use a lens with vibration reduction, also called image stabilization, built in. When handholding a camera, vibration reduction will provide at least two stops more stability. That means instead of shooting at, say, 1/125th and getting sharp pictures, you can handhold two stops slower, at 1/30th, and get pictures that are just as sharp. Pictured here is the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom from Sony, featuring OSS (optical SteadyShot) technology for image stabilization.
3. Speaking of shutter speeds and handholding the camera, you should use the rule of thumb that says the slowest shutter speed that will still produce sharp pictures is 1/the-focal-length-of-the-lens. So a 50mm lens, for instance, should be handholdable at 1/50th. A 200mm lens will require a faster shutter speed to produce sharp pictures, and a 500mm lens needs an even faster 1/500th shutter speed. Anything slower and you’re risking blurry pictures—as evidenced by the blurry example shown here, which was made with a 50mm lens at 1/30th shutter speed.
4. Change your focus point. For years, I was a “focus and recompose” photographer, where I would focus on the subject using the center focus point, hold the focus and recompose the frame before firing the shutter. Eventually, however, I got tired of the increasing percentage of missed focus. I learned to change focus points so that I could focus off center without recomposing (you can also do this on many cameras with eye-tracking that focuses either where your eye looks or even on the subject’s eyes) and sure enough, my percentage of sharp, in focus pictures went up dramatically. If you’re not already, start playing with the focus point controls and watch your pictures get sharper too.
5. Use your sharpest aperture. Lots of new photographers think about apertures only as they relate to depth of field. But did you know the aperture you use can actually impact the sharpness of the photo? It’s true. If your lens has a maximum aperture of ƒ/2 and a minimum aperture of ƒ/32, I can guarantee you this: Pictures you take at ƒ/8 and ƒ/11 will definitely look sharper than pictures you take at ƒ/2 or ƒ/32. You see, those ends of the aperture range are typically not as sharp as apertures two or three stops from wide open. So, on this hypothetical ƒ/2 lens, the sharpest aperture should be ƒ/8. When you don’t have depth of field reasons to choose one of the extremes, make sure you choose one of the sharpest apertures on your lens.
6. Check your focus. This is particularly true when working on a tripod with a subject that’s not moving—like a still life or landscape photo. Shoot a picture, then zoom in on the back-of-camera LCD to check the focus. Is the ideal focus point set? How’s the depth of field? In any case, if the focus isn’t exactly right, the best time to fix it is when you’re taking the picture—not later, after downloading when you discover your error.