Many people outside of workshop settings often ask me how I get such sharp, crisp images. Seriously, they do – and I usually tell them that I just have a really smart camera. Although that might be true, there is certainly more to it than that. In a not-so-formal essay, today I will outline some basic tips and techniques that I employ in order to achieve crisp photographs. You can try them too, if you like.
While in workshop sessions, and people ask me how I get sharp photographs [particularly landscape & architecture shots] this is what I tell them:
- I tripod mount my camera
- Attach my cable release
- I set my camera to the lowest native ISO
- I close down my aperture approximately 2-3 stops from the widest opening (usually f/5.6-f/8).
- Compose, meter, and focus the scene
- Enable mirror lock-up
- Depress my cable release
- Capture Sharpen (assuming of course, RAW capture)
- Output Sharpen [for printing] We’ll save this for a later discussion.
I ultimately get comments and questions to the effect of:
‘Doesn’t that take too long?’
‘I don’t feel like carrying a tripod around’, or
‘Does it really make that much of a difference?’
Well – yes, it really does make that much of a difference.
Why can’t I shoot hand-held?
Most of the time, we have no choice but to shoot hand-held due to the shooting environment or we are on-the-go. But if you have the opportunity to use a tripod, you most definitely should. Every beat our heart makes, every inhale & exhale, our blood flowing through our bodies, nevermind that some people just naturally have a shake or drink too much coffee. All of these movements will cause a detriment to image quality when shooting hand-held.
Can’t I just increase my ISO?
Sure you can. Just keep in mind that image quality and overall image sharpness begins to decrease and then begins to exponentially decrease on most cameras once ISO 800 is eclipsed. Do this is if you need to get the shot, but just know that image quality is affected.
Can’t I just open up my aperture to get more light?
Absolutely – but also keep in mind that not only will you lose what might be critical depth of field, but the performance of your lens will be compromised as well. In general, lenses perform at their peak when stopped down 2-3 f/stops from their widest opening.
Can’t I just go into Shutter Priority to get a faster shutter speed?
Generally speaking – yes. You can assign the camera a shutter speed you want to use, but then it will choose the aperture. It may be fine for most situations, however if the light levels are too low and the lens you are using cannot open to a wide enough aperture to get a proper exposure with your selected shutter speed, you will get under-exposed photographs.
What if my camera does not have mirror lock-up?
Not all cameras do. In fact, most don’t. Instead you should definitely use a cable or wireless remote release to trigger the camera. Even when the camera is tripod mounted, downward pressure on the shutter button can cause movement of the camera that may be indiscernible even to the photographer.
What if I don’t have a cable release, or my camera can’t accept one?
When all else fails, use the camera’s self-timer function. Even though it means waiting for the shutter to release, after you press the button to actuate the shutter, the 8 seconds or so it takes for the camera to actually collect the data should be enough time for any shake and movements to dissipate.
But I have a VR lens – I should be fine, right?
VR (or IS) lenses are great. Also, it’s great if you have a camera body (Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax) with stabilization built into the camera itself. Two things to remember: 1) Lens stabilization can only correct for up to 3-stops and in-body stabilization only corrects for 2-stops, and 2) if you are going to use a VR (IS) lens, or stabilized body on a tripod, remember to turn off all instances of ‘anti-shake’ within your system.
Of course, as mentioned above, the use of a tripod is not always a possibility. There are many tricks to increase the chances of image sharpness and clarity without the use of a tripod, but I have outlined the use of two here:
Use ISO-Auto. I am a true believer in the use of ISO-Auto. This is not to be confused with Auto ISO which is the camera’s default setting out of the box. ISO-Auto is a function that allows the user to set a parameter for when the camera should bump the ISO to the next 1/3, 1/2, or full stop. The parameter for minimum shutter speed should be set for what you think is the slowest shutter speed you can safely hand-hold without producing noticeable camera shake in the image. What happens if your shutter speed drops below this threshold? The ISO climbs (in small increments) until the shutter speed is attained again. The ISO-Auto functions of the Nikons are so smart, so accurate and so reliable. But remember, if you are using the method (tripod method) outlined at the beginning of this article, make sure you turn this function off and set your ISO manually.
Flash. Many people are afraid of flash, but shouldn’t be. The TTL capabilities of today’s flash units worry about the flash power calculations and let the photographer do what he or she does best – take photos! Using flash even just as a small burst of light to fill-in shadows will assist in the overall look and feel of sharpness in a photograph. Flash ‘freezes action’. This technique can be particularly useful when you as the photographer have done everything correct on your end to get a sharp photograph, but based on the lighting conditions, you have too slow of a shutter speed to freeze movement that might be occuring. Use the flash to add your own light to the scene which will not only allow for a faster shutter speed, freeze the movement of the subject, but will also allow you to tune the lighting to your desired results as well.
Until next time, may you find comfort in your three-legged friend.