8 steps to sharper photos

Razor wire? Well sharp!


So you’ve finally graduated from taking photos with a compact, and have your grubby little paws on a fantastic digital single-lens reflex. All good and well, but why don’t your pictures come out as fantastic as some of the ones you see on Flickr? Surely, they’re using the same camera as you – where are you going wrong?

That was essentially what Pieter asked me about this week. So, without further ado, 8 ways to make your photos jump off the screen.

Step 1: Use low ISO

If you want the highest possible degree of sharpness from your photographs (and if you don’t, you’re reading the wrong article.), you’re going to have to start by removing anything that gets in the way of being able to extract as much detail out of your photos as possible.

Step 1 is to ensure that your pictures at the very least are recorded with the least possible amount of noise. To do this, set your camera to the lowest ISO setting – most cameras have 100, some have 80 as the lowest setting.

How does this help?

At higher ISO, you can get photos with faster shutter times (we’ll get to that in a bit), but the trade-off is extra digital noise. Which we don’t want.

Step 2: Stop down your lens

Ooh, look at me using all sorts of photography terminology. In more readable English, ‘stopping down your lens’ means to not take your photos at wide-open apertures. You don’t have to take photos at f/22, but the sweet spot for most lenses is at between f/8 and f/11.

How does this help?

At a wide aperture (say, f/2.8 or f/3.5), your lens lets as much light into the camera as possible. “That’s good”, I hear you say but that’s not always the case: you’d be surprised how much fuzzier lenses can be fully open compared to being stopped down slightly. This is doubly true for consumer-grade lenses, such as the lenses that are sold in body-and-lens kits.

Stop down your lens to f/8 to get as much sharpness from it as you can.

Step 3: Get rid of vibrations

Now that the camera itself doesn’t degrade the image quality by adding extra noise, and your lens is operating at its very best, suddenly you, the photographer, are the issue. Try to make your subjects stand as still as possible, and use a good, sturdy tripod. Use as fast a shutter time as you can too – this counteracts the effects of any camera shake

If you’re shooting with particularly low light, you may even consider using a remote control or the self-timer to ensure that you don’t inadvertently shake the camera when you trip the shutter.

How does this help?

Any vibrations that are transferred through you to the camera cause a very slight blur. Some times, you can’t tell it’s actualy blurry, but trust me – it will affect the crispness of your photos (Why do you think that studio photographers use tripods a lot of the time?). Trust me, use a tripod.

Step 4: Get enough light

All the tips so far are incredibly useful, but you’ll notice that they all ruin your light: The combination of low ISO, small aperture and high shutter speed mean that you need an ungodly amount of light. Shoot out-doors, use studio strobes, invest in a flashgun and a reflector, set off a nuclear bomb – do whatever you have to to get as much light as you can.

Step 5: Always shoot in RAW

To maximise the amount of data you have to work with later on, when the time comes to edit your photos, shoot in RAW format.

How does this help?

We didn’t just spend all that effort just to let your camera screw up the photos by throwing away a lot of information and compressing it – which is what happens when you shoot in JPG.

RAW format gives you a load more flexibility, more data to work with, and is an overall better way to work with digital photos.

Step 6: Watch your exposure

It is positively amazing how much data an imaging chip actually captures – there is so much information in a photograph that you’re never likely to even look at. The secret lies in that all this information is in the shadow parties.

Obviously, it is always better to try and expose your photograps perfectly (See ‘how exposure works‘ to find out how to get it right)

If you have to hedge your bets, it’s always better to underexpose slightly than to over-expose: You can work with underexposure in Photoshop, but an over-exposed image (with areas that appear ‘burned out’ or completely white) is a write-off, sadly.

Having said all that, you lose definition if you have to fiddle too much with a photograph – so do your best to get your exposure as good as possible.

Step 7: Think about your workflow

Ideally, you want to treat your photos in this order:

  1. Take the photo
  2. Copy it to your computer
  3. Make any adjustments to colour and exposure on the RAW file
  4. Make any other adjustments in Photoshop
  5. Resize the image for your target medium (a flyer, the web, an e-mail, a photographic print etc)
  6. Sharpen your photo (but don’t over-do it)
  7. Save it down at the highest possible quality

Step 8: Sharpen your photos for the right medium

Now that you’ve done everything right, you can think about sharpening your photos. This is quite an in-depth process – so much so, that I could almost write a separate article about it. Oh, wait, I already did – twice!

Read a lengthy explanation for why you should sharpen your photos, and a separate one which treats the all-important question of how you sharpen photographs in the best way possible.

Last step: Ignoring everything we've learned so far...

Pin-sharp photos are great fun, but it’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all of photography (Don’t believe me? Check out the Lensbaby, for example…), and you don’t have to do all of the above all the time.

Pick and choose which techniques are convenient / viable given the circumstances – the more of them you implement, the sharper your photos come out!