How do you get the most detail in photos? Ever ask yourself: why aren’t my images sharp?
While sharpness and detail aren’t quite the same thing, both factors are affected by many similar issues. Faulty equipment, for example, and inappropriate technique are common culprits, but even when you’re doing what you ought to be with properly functioning kit, there’s room for error.
Here, we run through the 23 most common reasons why your images might be a little less than perfect, whether that’s a little bit soft or noticeably blurry. Armed with these, you’ll quickly learn how to take sharp photos with plenty of detail and clarity, whatever it is you’re photographing.
1. Use image stabilization
Image stabilization is a standard feature on modern cameras and lenses, and this can help you to keep images sharp.
This feature is particularly useful when you’re holding the camera by hand (as opposed to using a tripod) and using slow shutter speeds. It can also help when using telephoto lenses, where camera shake becomes more problematic.
2. Use a faster shutter speed
Shutter speed is the length of time that your camera’s shutter is exposed when capturing an image. As a general rule, the faster the shutter speed, the less chance there is of blur in your images.
3. Keep the shutter speed appropriate for your subject
Subject movement can easily introduce blur into your images if your shutter speed isn’t fast enough.
As a general rule, stick to shutter speeds of around 1/1,000sec and above for fast-moving subjects, and shutter speeds of 1/250sec or so for subjects moving at a more moderate speed.
4. Crank up your ISO
Higher ISO settings tend to introduce more graininess into your images, an effect known as image noise. You should stay away from the highest settings, such as ISO 6400 and ISO 12,800, unless absolutely necessary.
If you can’t get a fast enough shutter speed to keep things sharp, however, it’s worth considering raising your ISO. You should stick to low ISO settings where you can, but consider venturing up to ISO 800 or ISO 1600 if you need to, such as when light levels aren’t ideal.
Most cameras allow you to use an Auto ISO mode, which takes the hassle out of adjusting this for each shot. You can usually set an upper limit to help stop image noise being too much of an issue too.
5. Use a smaller aperture …
When used at their widest apertures, lenses will admit plenty of light – great for keeping shutter speeds high enough to freeze motion and keep everything sharp. The trade-off here is that many lenses are slightly soft at their widest apertures.
This might be perfectly suitable for portraits and other natural subjects, but if it’s sharp details right across the frame that you’re after, you’re likely to be better off using a smaller aperture such as f/4 or f/5.6.
6. … but don’t use too small an aperture
Very small apertures, such as those around f/16 – f/22, can make an image-softening effect known as diffraction more obvious. On most lenses, sticking to an aperture wider than f/13 or so should help to minimize this.
7. Use a tripod or a similar support
Tripods aren’t always practical but they allow you to use lower ISO settings and slower shutter speeds than if you were hand-holding the camera. These are essential for some scenes, such as long exposures, but they also allow you to slow down and check your focus and depth of field are exactly as they should be.
8. Weigh down your tripod
Some tripods have a hook on the underside of their center column, and you can use this to hang a bag or another heavy object. This should keep your tripod more stable, which is useful when it’s windy, or when shooting next a busy road.
9. Use your tripod collar
Longer and heavier lenses are often fitted with tripod collars, which allow the lens to be mounted on the tripod instead of the camera body. By doing so, you’ll be mounting it closer to the center of gravity of the combination than would be otherwise the case.
This helps to create a more stable setup as your camera won’t be as overwhelmed by the size and weight of the lens mounted to it.
10. Use a remote release or an equivalent app
It’s important not to disturb your camera in any way while it’s capturing an image. Even the act of triggering the exposure by pressing the shutter-release button can end up slightly blurring your image.
The good news is that you don’t have to trigger the exposure by pressing this button. One option is to use a remote release, which plugs into the side of the camera and allows you to trigger it from a slight distance. Wireless alternatives are also available for many cameras.
Another option is to use an app on your smartphone or tablet. There are apps designed to work with many different cameras, although modern cameras also work with apps developed by their manufacturers, which are free to download for iOS and Android devices.
11. Use the self-timer option
Don’t have a remote release or an app to trigger the exposure? Pretty much every camera has a self-timer option, which can be used to the same effect. You can typically set this to trigger the exposure after two seconds or ten seconds, and you can even program some to take a number of images at once.
12. Magnify your preview
Before you capture your image, you should be able to magnify into the scene to make sure the most important details are sharp and in focus.
If you’re using a DSLR, you won’t be able to do this when using the viewfinder, although you will when using live view. If you’re using a mirrorless camera with a viewfinder, you should be able to use this with either.
On most cameras, the way to do this is to press the same button you use to magnify into your images when you’re playing them back, which is usually marked with a magnifying glass and a plus icon.
13. Squeeze slowly
Too many images are ruined by pressing the shutter-release button too forcefully, which has the effect of shaking the camera slightly during the exposure.
Instead, press this down halfway to focus and then gently press it down all the way to capture the image. The more steady your camera is at the point of capture, the higher the chances of you achieving a sharp image.
14. Check your depth of field
Depth of field is the extent to which different elements in your scene at different distances away from the camera are rendered sharply. And what works for one scene won’t necessarily be appropriate for another.
A portrait, for example, will typically have a sharp subject and a blurry background (shallow depth of field). A landscape, however, will typically have everything from the foreground to the background sharp and focused (deep depth of field).
If you’re reviewing an image you’ve taken, and you can see that some subjects start to blur as you travel further away from – or closer to – the camera, it may be that your depth of field is too shallow. If you need to increase this, try using a smaller aperture (higher f/ number), and experimenting with exactly where in the scene you focus to get everything looking as you want it to.
15. Check your lens
Lenses are delicate – and improper care can translate to issues in your images.
They can easily get bashed around when carried without sufficient protection, and their front and rear elements can pick up grease and scuff marks if the protective caps aren’t always used.
Look after your lenses and give them a gentle clean when you need to. First, use a blower of some sort to banish loose dust particles, before dealing with more stubborn marks that may be affecting your images.
16. Try a camera without an anti-aliasing filter
It’s traditional for cameras to be fitted with anti-aliasing filters in front of their sensors, which stop unwanted effects known as aliasing from appearing in images. They do this, however, at the slight expense of detail.
Many more modern cameras have this effect canceled out, which can deliver slightly finer detail in images. That’s not to say you need to rush out and buy a new camera, of course, although this is one benefit you’ll likely realize if you do.
17. Use the right focusing mode
Because of the way they are designed, DSLRs tend to focus differently to mirrorless cameras. They can focus in the same way when you use live view, but ordinarily, when using the viewfinder, they use a separate sensor to perform autofocus. And it’s this that can lead to slight inaccuracies in focus, which can make subjects appear less sharp.
This difference is typically not so great that you need to use live view all the time, and it’s something you’re likely to see more when using wider apertures. But if you’re working on a tripod, and when shooting static subjects, you may wish to use live view to see if it makes a difference to the end result.
18. Micro-adjust your focus
If you find your focus to be consistently off – and particularly when using wider apertures – it may be that your camera and lens combination needs a little fine-tuning.
Many modern cameras offer a feature called AF fine-tune or AF microadjustment, which allows you to apply a very slight bias to the focusing system so that the lens focuses very slightly ahead of, or behind, where it would naturally focus.
This is more of an issue with DSLRs than mirrorless cameras, as mirrorless cameras focus using their main sensors. That said, many mirrorless cameras do now offer this feature too.
19. Manual focus? Use focus peaking
Sometimes you need to use manual focus, such as when autofocus systems struggle to get a lock. Typical examples include particularly reflective subjects, as well as scenes that are low in contrast and when there is very harsh light.
If you do choose to use manual focus, enable the focus peaking feature if your camera offers it. What does this do? As you adjust focus, subjects that increase in contrast take on colored highlights, which give you a better idea of what is and isn’t in focus. Without this, it might be difficult to appreciate these constant changes as you focus, particularly with an older camera that has a low-resolution rear display.
20. Stand properly
The way you stand with your camera can affect how steadily you hold it, and, in turn, how your image turns out.
Place your feet at least the same width apart as your shoulders, and tuck your elbows into your body. Alternatively, find a low wall or ledge to lean on when it’s practical to do so.
21. Wrap up warm
A drop in temperature can affect how steadily you hold your camera. Wrap up warm and consider wearing gloves that allow you to access your camera’s physical controls while being worn.
22. Take a break
Fatigue can also cause problems here. This is a particular issue when holding longer lenses and heavier cameras for extended periods of time, so take a break if you can to get your strength back.
23. Consider turning off image stabilization at higher shutter speeds
It used to be the advised to turn off image stabilization systems when using a tripod, as their action could vibrate the tripod, which they would then try to correct, leading to a constant vibration/correction loop.
Modern systems tend to notice when you are using a tripod and adjust themselves automatically, so this isn’t the issue it once was, although these systems have been known to introduce slight blur when using particularly fast shutter speeds. If you don’t need it – such as when using wider lenses, where a stable view through the viewfinder is easier to achieve – you may find it better to turn it off. Just remember to turn it back on again when you do!