If there’s one thing that sets professional photographers apart from the amateurs, it’s the sharpness of the photos they take. And I’m not simply talking about sharp. I’m talking about tack sharp photos — those that are so clear that there is not even the slightest hint of blurriness, even when zoomed in 100%.
It turns out that there isn’t really a whole lot of magic to achieving tack sharp photos. I’ve compiled a list of 12 tips below that you can use regardless of your skill level. It just takes some practise, but you’ll notice the results right away!
Use a Tripod
This is rule #1. There really isn’t any exception to this rule. To get tack sharp photos you simply, absolutely, MUST use a tripod. Any unintentional movement at all when taking a photo — it doesn’t matter how little — will result in a slight about of blur in your final image.
And because it’s virtually impossible to avoid small movements when hand-holding your camera, a tripod must be used. A tripod provides a stable base for your camera to sit on, and is required in order to take advantage of several of the remaining tips to getting tack sharp photos below. The quality of the tripod you use makes a difference as well.
Make sure to check out my guide to buying a tripod as well, if you don’t have a tripod already or you’re looking to upgrade.
Turn OFF your lens’ vibration reduction
If your lens has a vibration reduction (sometimes called anti-shake) feature, make sure to turn it off when using a tripod.
Yes — I said off.
While vibration reduction works wonders when hand-holding your camera, it can actually decrease the sharpness of your photos when using a tripod. It’s because the camera is anticipating some amount of movement and will occassionally try to counteract this.
When using a tripod though, there won’t (or shouldn’t at least), so there is no benefit to having vibration reduction turned on.
Use a remote shutter release
Keeping on with the theme of avoiding camera movement, it’s also critical to use a remote shutter release if your desire is tack sharp photos. A cable release or electronic version will both work equally well, but the goal is to avoid that slight amount of camera movement that you get when pushing down the shutter release button on the camera.
By using a remote shutter release, that movement or shake is avoided.
Don’t have a remote shutter release? In a pinch, you can get the same benefit simply by using your camera’s self-timer. Set it to 5 seconds at least to allow enough time for the camera to stop moving by the time it takes the photo.
Shoot at your lens’ sharpest aperture
Every lens has a sharpness sweet spot as far as aperture is concerned. It’s usually about two f-stops above wide open but is best determined through experimentation. A google search for your particular lens model along with keywords “sharpest aperture” will usually bring up the aperture that others have found best.
Like pretty much anything else in the world, you often don’t get the best results at the extremes, and aperture is no exception. Shooting at either your camera’s highest or lowest f-stop introduces a slight amount of blurriness (along with some other undesirable effects such as distortion and/or vignetting). To get tack sharp photos, shoot somewhere in the middle of your lens’ range.
Lens quality matters
Using a high quality lens (known as good glass in photographer speak), really does make a big difference. A quality lens uses better components, has more precise autofocus, and is a requirement if you want the absolute sharpest photo possible.
The downside of course is the price. You will pay several hundred dollars more at least (possible much more), for a high-quality version of a lens at the same focal length.
BONUS: You may get additional benefits as well such as a higher maximum aperture.
Use Mirror Lock
So we’ve already covered using a tripod and a remote shutter release… but there is still that ever so tiny amount of movement that occurs when the mirror raises up out of the way when DSLR cameras take a photo. The blurring that occurs because of this movement can be avoided by using your camera’s mirror lock feature.
It may seem a bit extreme to avoid even this small amount of movement, and to be honest the sharpness lost because of mirror-induced camera shake is pretty minimal, but it does actually make a difference. Note, that it makes no sense to use mirror lock unless you’re already using a remote shutter release, because the vibration caused by the mirror is far less than that from pushing the shutter release by hand.
Always zoom in to check sharpness
Everything looks sharp when viewed on that tiny LCD screen on the back of your camera. That is, until you zoom in and take a closer look.
You should make it a habit of frequently using the camera’s zoom feature to check for sharpness at actual 100% size to see if the photo truly is tack sharp or not. What looked sharp when zoomed all the way out may be anything but when you take a closer look.
While this tip won’t make your photo sharper on its own, it will allow you to keep taking more photos until you actually do take a tack sharp photo.
Use your camera’s lowest ISO when using a tripod
When using a tripod, you don’t need to be concerned about slow shutter times like you would when hand-holding the camera. If you’re using a quality tripod, even exposures 30 seconds or more should be rock steady.
Using a higher ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light, and therefore allows a faster shutter speed at a given aperture. It has the undesired effect of adding additional noise to the photo though, which is why you should avoid increasing ISO unless it’s necessary.
While noise is actually a bit of a different phenomenon from sharpness, it does have the effect of lowering image quality which is somewhat related I suppose, and the reason I’ve included this tip. Use your camera’s lowest ISO (usually ISO 100), unless there’s a reason to increase it further.
Always sharpen your photos manually in post-production
This tip applies more-so when shooting in RAW format than JPG, but in any case you should be applying sharpening to your photos manually using software such as photoshop to achieve absolute tack sharp results. Your camera will apply some amount of sharpening automatically to JPG images, but RAW is just that — “RAW” and includes no processing of any kind.
Any good photo post-production software will include some form of sharpening option. I prefer photoshop myself, but there are plenty of free options available as well. Usually there are several different parameters to choose from when applying a sharpening filter, and it’s best to find the best results for you and your camera through experimentation. There’s no one setting which works best for every situation. Key though, is to make sure you don’t over-sharpen because this will add noise and make your photo look less realistic.
DO be mindful of shutter speed in some cases
If you’re using a high quality tripod and taking advantage of the other tips above to reduce the chance of camera movement when taking your photo, the camera itself should be rock-solid. There is another consideration though as far as movement is concerned.
And that’s movement of the elements you’re actually taking the photo of. When photographing people, animals, or anything else that can move, you run the risk of losing sharpness if they do so. In these cases, you may want to ignore the tip above regarding the use of a low ISO, and bump it up a bit to achieve a faster shutter speed. This will reduce the risk of blurriness arising from movement of your subject.
This is also a problem on windy days. Again, a solid tripod should be able to withstand moderate wind-induced movement, but the same can’t be said for the trees, grass, and other more flexible elements in your scene. Use a faster shutter speed in this case as well.
Avoid using filters
We already talked about how using the best possible glass will give you the best chance of taking a tack sharp photo. So why put another [likely inferior] piece of glass between your camera and your subject?
That’s exactly what happens when you attach any kind of filter to your lens. Granted, in some cases you might need to use a filter to achieve some kind of effect or reduce the amount of light entering the camera, but I suppose what I’m really referring to with this tip is the removal of the UV or neutral color filter that most people have on their lens full time to prevent damage to the lens.
While these filters do have benefits, if your primary goal is tack sharpness — take them off.
Use burst mode if you absolutely must hand-hold the camera
This tip pretty much flies in the face of almost every tip we’ve talked about so far. If you absolutely don’t have any choice but to hand-hold the camera however, you run a better chance of achieving at least one tack sharp photo by using your camera’s burst mode. Digital film is essentially free, so take advantage of this and don’t take just one or two photos — take dozens.
With any luck at least one of the photos you took will be absolutely tack sharp. You’ll also want to ensure you’re using a fast shutter speed.
I took the photo above using all of the tips covered in this article to achieve a tack sharp photo. It all starts with the use of a good quality tripod. The key theme with all of the tips I’ve discussed is eliminating or reducing the amount of movement in the camera and the subject you’re shooting.
Have I missed any tips that you use to get tack sharp photos? Let me know in the comments! I plan to update this article regularly with any new tips received.