Taking Sharp Photographs

An Introduction To Taking and Printing Sharp Photographs.


Horses in Pasture, Tetons and Storm light
Horses in evening pasture, storm light. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming


Taking sharp pictures is an art. There is a lot to it and whole books have been written on the subject. However, the basics are not all that hard. This article is an introduction to the basics of taking and printing sharp pictures.

A Good Camera:

How good does a camera have to be to take sharp pictures? Well, that depends on how big you want to make the pictures. Almost all digital cameras, even the three and five megapixel varieties will take sharp pictures up to 8x10 and 11x14 sizes. However, if you want to make pictures in the 20x30 or 24x36 range you are going to need something bigger, like a ten to twelve megapixel camera. Professional photographers who want all the sharpness they can get and who often print picture in the 40x50 size range, use cameras in the 16 to 22 and larger megapixel range.

Tiny BlueBells and Black Tail Ponds, Tetons, WyomingHowever, sharpness isn't all about megapixels. It is also about the kind of algorithms that the camera uses to turn digital signals into pixels and then into pictures. How do you find the camera that does this the best? You can't really depend on brand as all the big camera makers like Nikon and Canon and Olympus make cameras that range all the way from horrible to tremendous. Price is something of a guide but there are some expensive cameras that take bad pictures and cheap cameras that are pretty darn good. So how do you choose?

One good way to choose a camera is to go to dpreview.com online and read their in-depth reviews. These reviews on dpreviews are very objective and professional. Here is an article that I wrote about how to use dpreview to find a good camera. To find a camera that will take sharp pictures, look for cameras that are rated as 8 or 9 out of 10 in the sharpness category that you will find in the conclusions to the dp in-depth reviews. Read my article mentioned aove on how to do this, and you won't go wrong.

If you are only interested in taking snapshots or in printing small pictures, I would leave the sharpening setting in your camera set to its default setting, ie where it was when you bought the camera. This will work pretty well for small pictures.

However, if you want to make larger pictures or get the best possible sharpening of pictures, I would turn this off, even set it to a minus setting if your camera allows this, and then sharpen your pictures in Photoshop later. Camera built-in sharpeners will destroy pictures if you plan to print them in large sizes. Here is an article about setting up your camera for sharpening that I wrote a while back. Read it to find all about setting the sharpness control in your camera.


A Good Lens

A good camera is not the only thing you need to take sharp pictures. The lens has to be a qualitly lens also. I learned this lesson the hard way this year. I bought a Canon Rebel camera last summer because I wanted a small light camera that I could use for backpacking. I bought a Tamaron 17-270 zoom lens for the camera thinking that I wanted to use just one lens for this camera since the whole point of this camera/lens setup was for it be small, light and easy to use. In short, I didn't want to be bothered by changing lenses.

However, I took a little too big of a shortcut here. After using this camera and lens for a while I came to the conclusion that it just wasn't quite good enough for taking professional pictures, the enlarged sizes of the pictures were just not sharp enough. So I quit using this camera and lens.

Then, just the other day, I was editing a bunch of pictures I took last summer and came across a bunch taken with the Rebel. I almost skipped over them, thinking they would not be good enough. But for the heck of it I enlarged one to 33x50 and to my surprise the sharpness was terrific. When I looked at the camera data a little further, I discovered that the picture was indeed taken by the Rebel but I had been using one of my excellent Canon lenses on it, a 28-70 professional Canon lens. The problem was not the camera but the lens. Now I shoot the rebel with only professional lenses and get terrific results. Unfortunately I screwed up a thousand or so pictures using a not-so-good lens before I discovered this.

So, if you want to take really sharp pictures make sure the lens as well as the camera will do the job. The kit lenses that come with many less expensive cameras when you buy them are usually not very good lenses. If you buy a camera with a highly rated sharpness, you are never going to see this sharpness if the camera is mounted with a poor quality lens.

Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National ParkHow do you find a good lens? The same way you find a good camera. Look in dp review. Here is a link to their lens reviews.

One rule of thumb is that prime lenses, ie lens that do not zoom, will be better than zoom lenses. Also, lenses with short zooms will usually be much better than lenses with very long zooms. I knew all this when I bought the 17-270 zoom lens for the Rebel, but I decided it would work well enough. Photography is very unforgiving, everything has its price and short cuts almost never work. Another good rule of thumb.


Fast shutter speed

If you are hand-holding the camera, you are never going to get good sharp pictures unless you are shooting at fast enough shutter speeds. If you move the tiniest bit and you are shooting at a slow speed, the picture will be blurred and ruined forever. A safe speed to shoot at while handholding is 1/125.

There are a couple of ways to make sure your camera is set at this speed or higher. You can set your camera at "P" for Program and your shutter speed will automatically be set at a fast enough speed for hand-holding if there is enough light. There are a couple problems with the "P" setting though. Some of the more complex settings may not be available to you when using "P". Also, in able to attain higher shutter speeds the camera will usually have to sacrifice small f-stops and be forced to choose a very large f-stop which will give you a very short depth of field. Short depth of fields usually result in blurry backgrounds. More on this later.

You can also set your camera on shutter priority or "S" and choose a speed of 1/125. This will assure you are always shooting fast enough but again this will also result in a short depth of field and blurry backgrounds.

If all this discussion of shutter speeds and apertures and depth of field is confusing, click here to go to my digital camera 101 article which discusses all this kind of stuff.

Paintbrush and Grasses, Glacier National Park
Indian Paintbrush and Grasses on Black Background, Glacier National Park

Small f-stop

In order to get sharpness all the way through the picture you need to shoot at a small apertures. You can make sure you are always doing this by choosing aperture priority or "A" in your camera settings and then setting it for f-16 or f-22. However, this time your camera will sacrifice shutter speed in order to give you these small apertures and you will end up shooting too slowly and will thus blur the picture.

What is the poor photographer to do? Everything seems to conspire against getting sharp pictures.

There are several solutions to this problem. Read on.


Good Depth of Field

A good depth of field means having sharp focus all through the picture from very close-up foreground all the way to infinity which is sometimes miles and miles away. To do this, you must shoot with a wide angle lens like 28mm or wider and you must use a small f-stop like f 16 or f-22 or smaller. And since shooting at small f-stops means shooting at slow shutter speeds, you must use a tripod or else use a high ISO so your shutter speeds will be faster.

If I have confused you, go to my article on Depth of Field which simplifies this somewhat complex subject.

Columbines and Grasses, Teton National Park

Depth of Field, Tripods and ISO speeds

Let me repeat this important point. Since shooting at small f-stops means shooting at slow shutter speeds, you must use a tripod or else increase your ISO so your shutter speeds will be faster.

Increasing ISO speeds is the easiest way to get good depth of field and the sharpness that goes with it without using a tripod. You really need to be able to increase your ISO speed to 1000 to be able to hand-hold your camera and still shoot at the small apertures required by long depths of field. Almost all cameras are capable of increasing their ISO speed to 1000, but unfortunately very few of them will produce good pictures at this speed. Most cameras shot at ISO 1000 will produce pictures so full of noise they are worthless.

Only the very best cameras work well at high ISO speeds and unfortunately these are expensive cameras. Read the dpreview reviews to find how well various cameras work at high ISO speeds. My Canon 1Ds Mark II is quite good at high ISO's; I often shoot it at ISO 800 and 1000. Unfortunately this is an $8000 camera. My $600 Canon Rebel is OK at ISO 800 and 1000 but I try to limit it to 500 ISO. In general, Nikon Cameras are better than Canon at high ISO speeds but Canon is catching up in some of its later models like the 5D and the 7D. Again, these are pretty expensive cameras.

Test your camera by setting the ISO speed at 1000 and taking some pictures, particularly pictures with dark shadows in them. Blow these pictures up as much as you can and look at them on your computer. Look for luminance noise which looks like scales or choppy waves and color noise which looks like multicolored dots.

If you can't shoot at high ISO's without a getting a lot of noise in your pictures, the only other solution is a tripod. Decent tripods don't cost all that much these days and they aren't all that bad to set up and take down. Also there are other benefits of tripods. Read my two articles on tripods.

Another solution is to just give up on depth of field and shoot at a good fast speed using a large f-stop and let the background blur. Pictures like this can be very nice. Focus on something in the foreground and get it razor sharp and don't worry about the background. Their are billions of pictures like this and many are very nice.

One final solution is to forget about close-up foreground and shoot nothing but middle ground and background. This will work fine, everything will be more or less sharp, but unfortunately, pictures like this tend to be very blah and boring. You will never get really striking photographs this way. Excellent photographs require sharp foreground and sharp middle ground and sharp background. OK photographs have sharp foreground and blurry background. Bad photographs have no close foreground at all even though they may be quite sharp.

And then there is the fact that sometimes you just need a tripod no matter how well your camera shoots at high ISO's. In dark dawn and dark sunset shots I usually use a tripod if I want to get some shadow detail. Sometimes nothing will do except a tripod. If you want to be a real photographer, you just have to have a tripod for those times when you really do need one.


Tripods and spontaneity

The real down side of tripods is that they tend to eliminate spontaneity and creativity most of the time. They certainly do for me. I got so concerned about this lose of spontaneity in my pictures last summer that I began shooting without a tripod (which I have used religiously for the last forty years) and began hand-holding my cameras most of the time. The result of this experience was that I wrote an eight part article on the joys and problems of hand-holding cameras. Here is part one of that article.


Sunset in the hanging gardens of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
Sunset and Peaks from Logan Pass, Glacier National Park

Digital Sharpening:

Once you have taken your picture as sharply as possible, you still have to sharpen it digitally if you want to get everything out of the picture that you can. All film and digital cameras take pictures that can be improved by digital sharpening. The process of turning images into pixels and then back into pictures blurs all photographs somewhat.

As I mentioned above, if you don't want to mess with editing pictures in Photoshop or some other digital editor, just leave the sharpening function in your camera set on its default setting. But if you want to get the most out of your pictures, turn the sharpening off in your camera and sharpen them later in Photoshop. This is very easy and works exceedingly well.

You can take this digital sharpening a step further. Photoshop CS4 has a pre-sharpening module in Camera Raw, the program that opens and pre-edits digital camera images before bringing them into Photoshop. You can pre-sharpen using this module and then finish the job with the regular Photoshop sharpening tool. This two step sharpening procedure does a very good job.

Or you can go even further. You can do all your digital sharpening with a tool called PhotoKit Sharpener made by PixelGenius which is a Photoshop plug in. This is a really sophisticated tool that does a great job of sharpening. Many advocates of this sharpener claim that the regular Photoshop sharpening tool destroys pictures almost as badly as in-camera sharpeners. I don't think I would go that far, but Photo Kit Sharpener is a very good and very sophisticated tool.

Goose Island Sunset, Glacier National Park
Goose Island Sunset, St Mary's Lake in Glacier National Park


When you don't want sharpness in a picture.

There are actually times when you don't want pictures, or at least parts of pictures to be sharp. One such case is moving water.

The quickest way to ruin a picture of a rushing stream or a waterfall is to shoot it so that the water is very sharp. In my opinion and in that of most professionals rushing water looks best when it is blurred. This is easy to do. Just shoot the picture with a very slow shutter speed, like 1/2 second or even 1 second.

The only way to do this is with a tripod. You just cannot shoot at one second and handhold the camera. When I was hand-holding my camera on a month long shooting trip last summer I was forced to shoot several nice creeks and water falls at high speeds so as not to blur the whole picture. The water in these pictures turned out to be full of sharp points and drops of water suspended in air instead of looking nice and blurry and steamy. Needless to say, I ruined every water shot by doing this. I was really wishing I had my tripod with me, instead of back in the car on many occasions last summer.

So it goes.


Fred Hanselmann
December 20, 2009

Logan Pass, Smoky Sunset, Glacier National Park

Logan Pass, Smoky Sunset, Pines and Snag
Glacier National Park, Montana


All of the pictures in this article were taken in Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks last summer.

None of these pictures are in any of our galleries yet, but if you are interested in purchasing one, give me a call at 207-604-2661