Every spring I await the migrating Bufflehead ducks to stop by northern Michigan on their way to Canada. In my opinion they are the cutest of the diving ducks, and they present a fun challenge in capturing a sharp image while they frolic in the water during their mating season.
Sitting outside in a collapsible blind for hours in hopes of capturing the perfect image of these hyper little ducks is testimony to a photographer’s love of the game. Besides obtaining the right lighting for the male’s iridescent head, taking a sharp image of these bouncing, diving, flying targets is a tough gig!
Not a gambler by nature, I compare this ‘hunt’ to one with a gambling addiction. Occasionally, I capture an image so exciting that I can’t wait for the next lucky break. Every image could be a little better in my mind. A bit of a perfectionist, I strive for extraordinary images of these little cuties, and set the bar higher every year.
That said, capturing sharp images of these little dipsy-divers is one of my biggest hurdles, and having used many techniques to improve the odds, hopefully there will be something here for you to try, too!
So here it goes… 5 ways to make your images sharper.
1. Use a Rest
Hand holding the camera may seem sufficient until the photo is enlarged to 100% magnification to reveal just how fuzzy the photo is. Believe me when I say use a rest of some sort. Otherwise, your perfect shot may end up being a disappointment, and waiting another 12 months to try again at the Bufflehead ducks is sometimes too long of a wait.
I understand not wanting to drag along a cumbersome tripod, but you can’t beat it when it comes to capturing sharp images. What I’ve discovered about tripods is, some are easier to use than others.
My first tripod was a cheap hunk of junk! The mount was difficult to get onto the camera and it loosened up all the time. The locking mechanism for holding the camera at a specific angle would either not hold or was tightened to the point I couldn’t get the dang thing to come loose. Most importantly when shooting birds and wildlife, this tripod would not track a moving target smoothly and would often tip over! It wasn’t until my favorite lens got smashed that I googled a list of ‘must haves’ to find the best tripod for me.
I purchased a pistol grip model with gimbal head for ease of tracking a moving target. It also had a quick mount/release for ease in capturing moments on the go. I could slap the camera onto the mounting pad so much faster than finagling the old tripod. The only problem that remained was an ability to carry it on long hikes, so the next piece of equipment I purchased was a monopod.
Although the monopod isn’t nearly as rock-steady as a tripod, it offers a light alternative to take on hikes. The monopod I purchased also had a quick mount and release for ease in getting the camera mounted.
The only trouble with hiking around taking photos is hauling all the gear you might need!
I learned from being a mom that it was best when you had everything you needed in the diaper bag. Likewise, I try to have everything I might need in a backpack or camera case, but it’s hard deciding what to take. Packing too much makes for a cumbersome walk. Therefore, I started shooting from the windowsill of my car using a beanbag rest.
I love the beanbag rest! There are all shapes and sizes, and one perfect for YOUR needs. Just remember to turn your car off when taking photos, or the engine vibration will still cause blurry photos.
When you don’t have a tripod, monopod, or camera rest with you, try leaning against a solid object such as a building, a tree, or rest the camera on a handrail, the hood of a car, or any other flat surface. You can’t beat a good tripod for sharp images, but aside from this type of stabilizing equipment look at how your lens can help next.
2. Use a Sharp Lens
Lenses are a big deal when it comes to sharpness, and there is such a thing as a ‘sharp lens.’ Unfortunately, the less expensive the lens, the harder you will have to work at capturing a super-sharp image. Fast, fixed-aperture lenses, telephoto lenses, and professional grade glass are all ways in which to guarantee sharper images from your camera.
If you must settle for the entry-level stuff for a while (like me), think about removing lens filters that the camera store salesman may have sold you to protect the lens from getting scratched. Although the lens filter is a great idea for the beginning photographer, the more glass your camera needs to shoot through, the less sharp your images will be.
Find your lens’s sweet spot – as photographymad explains, this is usually 2 to 3 stops down from the widest aperture of the lens
Using auto-focus settings makes life a little easier for the photographer, especially if there are difficulties in getting a good focus using manual settings. If you do use the auto-focus settings, make sure to set an auto-focus mode suited to your subject matter. For example, my Nikon offers auto-focus area modes from a single point to a dynamic area offering several focus points. Some modes also offer 3D Focus Tracking – a cool option for moving subjects but putting your camera on Auto Area AF might not work the best for ALL subject matter. That is why I like to use manual focus.
Manually focusing the camera takes practice. Especially if you’ve been using the auto-focus all along. For me, it wasn’t until dozens of photos proved the auto-focus fixated on something in front or behind the subject that I made the switch. Using manual focus is one of the only ways I know the subject is in sharp focus exactly where I want it to be.
Besides the type of lens you use, simply keeping the camera and lens clean and free of debris will make a world of difference. And don’t forget to use the clean function on your camera occasionally, too. To find out more about cleaning the sensor in your DSLR, take a look at Alex Morrison’s article, “How to Clean Your Camera Sensor in 3 Easy Steps.
3. Use Helpful Camera Settings
If you haven’t cracked the camera manual open in a while, you might be surprised at the features that could help capture sharper images. Here are a few to keep in mind.
Shoot in burst mode.
Allowing your camera to shoot multiple shots in a row may very well help you capture at least one perfect shot. Especially if photographing wildlife since they won’t stand still and pose. The only downside to using the burst mode setting is all the time needed in post-production to weed out the good from the bad.
Use Mirror lock-up.
Did you know that many digital cameras offer a feature called mirror lock-up? Besides using mirror lock-up when cleaning the camera sensor, this function is often used when using long shutter speeds or a telephoto lens to reduce the slight vibration caused from the camera. The only downside to using this function is not being able to see through the viewfinder after the mirror is locked up. But used in the right circumstances, it might very well insure a sharp image.
Use image stabilization if you’re not using a tripod.
The trick with using image stabilization is knowing when to use it. Flipping the switch and leaving it on all the time could leave you with blurrier images than you hoped. Plus, it depletes battery life quicker.
Image stabilization is meant to be used when hand holding the camera to compensate for any movement. Using it while on a tripod confuses the sensor into fixing the slight movement caused by the shutter mechanism, thus blurring the photo when it would have otherwise been tack sharp. This function does not work to still moving objects in your photograph, and works best when photographing still subjects or when using slow shutter speeds.
Vibration reduction is another cool function offered by some camera and lens manufacturers that helps to minimize camera shake to produce sharper images. Meant for use in low light, windy conditions, and when using larger lenses, vibration reduction can offer stabilization when hand holding the camera, and in specific models like Nikon, may aid in panning while using a tripod, or even while shooting from a moving vehicle.
Making sharper images is directly related to faster shutter speeds, so having too little speed if hand holding the camera, shooting moving objects, in low-light, or when using a long lens will cause the image to be blurred. To increase shutter-speed one may try adjusting the aperture but doing so may reduce the depth-of-field to an undesirable degree.
By increasing the ISO instead, you halve the amount of light needed to achieve a good exposure. This increases the amount of shutter speed available and helps to avoid blurry results.
The downside to increasing ISO is it can add a certain amount of graininess to the photo depending on how much is used. Since keeping ISO within the lower limits will produce the best outcomes, adjusting ISO just enough to achieve faster shutter speeds may very well offer one of the best tools in a photographer’s toolbox to eliminate blur.
4. Be Mindful of Conditions
Atmospheric conditions will always play a part in the ability to capture sharp photos.
- Wind will make handheld shots blurry, so be mindful and use a rest if possible.
- Precipitation such as rain, fog, mist, and snow will soften images. If you want crisper photos in these instances, increase shutter speed and light coming into the camera, zoom in on the subject whenever applicable, and again… use a rest.
- Limit shooting in the cold, as the camera will malfunction by taking slower and slower shots. This guarantees blurred images until the camera quits functioning, or the battery is completely depleted from the cold.
5. Take Your Time and Focus
Are you rushing the shot and causing camera shake? Gently depress the shutter release button, or use a cable release, shutter remote, or timer to avoid excess camera shake.
Are you dressed for conditions? Shivering can cause a punchy shutter release which causes camera shake even while using a tripod. Make sure to dress warm enough to ensure a slow and steady depression of the shutter button.
Are you wearing your glasses? Shooting using manual focus is a skill that needs to be honed every day. Not achieving clear focus on the subject offers a bad batch of botched images.
I hope this list helps you to capture sharp images.
Do you have another tip? Let me know by posting a comment below.
Thanks so much for reading!
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Morrison, Alex, 2006, How to Clean Your Camera Sensor in 3 Easy Steps, https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-clean-your-camera-sensor-in-3-easy-steps/
Nikon USA, 2021, ISO Sensitivity, https://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/dslr/basics/13/index.htm
Nikon USA, 2021, Vibration Reduction, https://www.nikonusa.com/en/learn-and-explore/a/products-and-innovation/vibration-reduction.html
Photographymad, 17 Tips for Taking Tack Sharp Photos, https://www.photographymad.com/pages/view/17-tips-for-taking-tack-sharp-photos
Roberts, Dawna M., January 6, 2021, 10 Best Free Photo Editor Apps in 2021, https://launchberg.com/10-best-free-photo-editor-apps/
SLR Photography Guide, 2007-2019, https://www.slrphotographyguide.com/mirror-lockup/
Steiner, Shawn C., 2015, Lens Diffraction; What It Is and How to Avoid It, https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/lens-diffraction-what-it-and-how-avoid-it
Steiner, Shawn C., 2015, B&H Photo Video, Image Stabilization: When to Use it and When to Turn it Off, https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/image-stabilization-when-to-use-it-and-when-to-turn-it-off
Vorenkamp, Todd, 2017, 21 Tips for Getting Sharpter Photos, https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/21-tips-getting-sharper-photos