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In order to take tack sharp photos your camera needs to have a stable support, the subject must be in sharp focus, and when the shutter is released additional forces of motion must be eliminated. I’ve covered the subject of camera support in other posts and here I’m going to discuss other things that influence image sharpness, and what can be done to get those tack sharp photos we all desire.
Lens selection and aperture
All lenses are not created equal. Higher quality, and usually higher priced, glass generally yield superior images. Yet I am not suggesting we all go out and buy more expensive lenses – working with what we have in an intentional way can improve sharpness in the images we capture with our current kit.
Test your gear!
Experiment! Gather up the lenses you currently own and test them. A simple subjective test will suffice. Choose a still-life subject around your home and shoot a specific photographic composition that you like of the subject. Please make sure that your camera is stationary – use a tripod, or at least have the camera setting on a table so that each shot is the same distance from the subject. Use each lens and shoot a frame using each available aperture for each lens.
After all of your shots have been captured for a lens, view each of the images and zoom in at and around the focal point that you chose. Compare and contrast the sharpness, as you perceive it, to determine if that lens has a sharpness “sweet spot.” You might be surprised at what you find! In most cases, the sharpest image will not be at the smallest aperture. While the smallest aperture will give the greatest depth of field, a mid-range aperture will likely be sharpest.
Keep a log of your lens experiments for future reference. When you shoot a portrait, refer to your lens/aperture log and recall the sweet spot for the lens you are about to use. Focus perfectly on the subject’s eyes. Get all of the portrait poses that you desire, and then later find some older portrait photos you may have taken and compare them to your most recent shoot. Better, worse, or about the same? Tell me about your results in the comments.
When shooting outdoors with a long telephoto or zoom lens mounted on your tripod, some extra precautions may be in order. A big lens may have a mounting plate of its own. In these situations the camera attached to the lens is not on the tripod. Using a long telephoto/zoom inherently means that your subject is highly magnified – and so is any mechanical motion or vibration.
A simple fix is to use a bean (or sand) bag. Laying a bean bag over the lens directly above the tripod head serves as a dampening device to absorb vibrations. You can easily make one (or more) yourself out of an old pair of jeans by cutting up the denim pant legs into sections. Fill up a denim section with some room to spare (80% – 90% should work) so you can mold the bag onto rounded surfaces – like a long lens. Add a securely sewn loop to one end and hang it from your tripod. Or you can buy one if you wish. “Corn hole” and other such family game toss bags are too small for this purpose.
Oh the lowly cable release! Perhaps the most often disregarded camera accessory ever, should become your best friend for getting tack sharp photos. You may have taken all the precautions up to this point, camera mounted on a sturdy and motionless tripod, etc. Then you release the shutter by pressing your index finger on the camera’s shutter button thereby introducing additional forces of motion. Don’t do this! (Although I have to admit I have done this – and I am now committed to take my own advice.)
Cable releases are cheap. They all used to be mechanical devices, but today many (most?) are electronic triggers. An electronic trigger introduces no additional forces of motion at all. My advice is to use one whenever you can to get the sharpest images possible.
So you have ordered yourself a new cable release but it won’t be delivered for a few days – and you have an opportunity to shoot an engagement party tonight. Now what? Use the self-timer function on your camera. These can be set for various time intervals such as 2 seconds, 5, 10, or even 30 seconds. Obviously if you are going to include yourself in the shot (family photos and such) choose something on the longer end of the spectrum.
When you are in a situation where you need to shoot relatively slow shutter speeds, realize that camera shake can be a problem. No cable? No worries – just use the self-timer set at 2 seconds. With your camera on a stable support you won’t be adding any additional force of motion when the shutter is fired.
Modern DSLRs (and older film cameras too) have a mirror lock-up function. Learn how to activate this feature on your camera(s) to mitigate any vibrations during image exposure. Each time we activate a shutter release (manually or with a remote release) the first action of a single lens reflex camera is movement of the mirror (that allows us to see through the lens) out of the way of the image sensor (or film plane) while the shutter itself is opening.
Without the mirror lock-up activated, it all happens in a concerted way seemingly at once. Therein lies the opportunity for additional forces of motion to come into play. The motion of the mirror itself does generate vibrations that can affect image sharpness.
When mirror lock-up is activated and the shutter is released, the mirror movement is succeeded by a short pause in a DSLR. This gives any vibration of mirror movement ample time to dissipate before the shutter opens. Try this with your camera. Compare what it sounds like when you take a shot in each configuration. Hear the difference? It could mean the difference between an OK shot and a great, tack sharp photo.
Oh, and if any of you dear readers are using one of those fancy new mirrorless Nikon Z-series cameras … you can disregard this section. 🙂
Don’t take my word for it
Some who have read this far may think that this is insignificant babble. If you are serious about taking tack sharp photographs then I urge you to read this much more detailed analysis of vibration by Dr. Charlie Kim. Here are a few quotes from this article:
- Use a good tripod (you only have two legs, the tripod has three)
- Use spiked feet in soft earth
- Use the minimum amount of leg extension needed for extra stability
- Add weight to your tripod by hanging a bag beneath it, placing bean bag(s) on your long lenses
- Use a good ball head
- Use a cable release or the self-timer on your camera
- Use mirror lock-up