Unless you haven't learned your photography basics yet, every photographer knows that you typically need a high shutter speed for taking sharp photos. You also have to make sure that your subject is in perfect focus, and with modern autofocus systems, this isn't very hard.
So what if you have an appropriate shutter speed, and solid focus and your photos still look soft? If this is the case, try some of these more advanced techniques to help you obtain super sharp photos.
Use Mirror Lock-up
There is a mirror in your camera, just in front of the shutter. This mirror allows you to see through the lens. When you take a photo, the mirror flips up, the shutter opens, the image is captured, the shutter closes, and the mirror flips down. A problem that occurs, especially with long exposures, is that when the mirror flips up, it slaps the top of the mirror box causing vibrations which can blur the photo. In the image above, this kind of blurriness would be especially evident in the buildings in the background. The movement of the mirror can also be an issue when using a longer focal length lens.
To avoid mirror-induced blurriness, you can use your camera’s mirror lock-up feature. This means that the camera flips the mirror up and locks it in place, waits for a period of time that you pre-determine, and then fires the shutter. By waiting before firing the shutter, the vibrations caused by the movement of the mirror are allowed to dissipate, resulting in a sharper photo.
Diffraction occurs as you stop down the aperture. As the aperture opening gets smaller, light waves spread out more, causing the waves to interfere with one another more and more. This results in less defined lines and a generally softer image. Higher quality lenses will reduce the effect of diffraction, but it cannot be eliminated.
This is a problem particularly for landscape photography. Since landscapes benefit from a large depth of field, and smaller apertures provide a larger depth of field, images can be on the soft side. Diffraction can be controlled to a certain extent, however. Because the effects of diffraction are most pronounced at smaller apertures, you can simply avoid stopping down the aperture to the maximum. This is why some photographers will not shoot at very small apertures such as f/22 and f/32.
Using the image above as an example, rather than shooting at f/22, you might shoot at f/16 or even f/11. You will still have a good depth of field, but the image will be noticeably sharper as a result of avoiding the most pronounced diffraction.
Check out Steve Perry’s video to learn more about diffraction and how to take sharp photos:
Avoid Noise Reduction and High ISOs
When shooting at a high ISO, noise can become very apparent in your photo, which has an appearance similar to grain in film photography. To compensate, most cameras have a noise reduction setting. While it often works well in creating a less noisy picture, it does so by smoothing out the image and making it a little softer. For the best sharpness, you can turn the noise reduction off. However, noise will be much more apparent.
Another option is to do your best to avoid shooting at high ISOs, as the higher the ISO used, the more prevalent noise will be. Today’s cameras have much better ISO performance than just a few years ago, but it can still be a problem. So, rather than shooting at ISO 6400, for example, shoot at ISO 3200 and adjust the aperture and shutter speed to maintain a good exposure. Granted, this isn’t always possible as some situations will simply be too dark unless you push the ISO. However, it’s a good rule of thumb to try to minimize ISO to avoid noise.
Avoid Unnecessary Optical Stabilization
Optical stabilization (OS) systems are great for helping you get super sharp photos. Some of the newest lenses with OS even claim that you can use shutter speeds up to 4 stops slower than normal and still achieve the same level of sharpness.
However, there are two situations in which OS can actually make an image less sharp. The first is when you're using a tripod. If your camera is perfectly still, there's no reason to use any kind of OS. Leaving it on will only confuse the lens, which is expecting movement, and may unnecessarily make minor adjustments.
The other instance in which you don't want to use OS is while panning at high shutter speeds. Since the lens is looking to correct movement, it will try to continually correct your panning motion, and if you press the shutter button at just the wrong moment, you will take a photo right as the lens elements are shifting to adjust for your motion. It may not be a blurry image, but it will be softer. Keep in mind though that many lenses now have a special OS mode dedicated to panning which only adjusts for movements perpendicular to your own movement.
Change the Picture Control Settings
Most cameras have some kind of setting (often called Picture Control) that will let you adjust a few of the ways that the photos are processed. This typically includes saturation, contrast, and sharpness. Some photographers will choose to leave the sharpness setting low and adjust it later in post-processing. Most, however, will change it so that the photo is maximally sharp right out of the camera. Most Nikon cameras are set a bit lower on the sharpness scale as a default, so you may consider bumping it up a few clicks for taking sharp photos.
Learn how to access the Picture Control settings on Nikon cameras in this quick tutorial from Camera Guides:
AF Fine Tune
Though rare, it's possible that your lens may have a front-focusing or back-focusing problem in which it consistently focuses just in front of or behind the focusing point, causing your subject to be out of focus. To find out if you have this problem, it's best to take your camera to a professional or send it back to the manufacturer to have it checked out. If calibrated wrong, the manufacturer will often either fix it or send you a replacement. However, if you want to check for yourself, just search online for an AF fine tune chart that you can print and use to test your lens. If it's off, you may be able to adjust it using the AF Fine Tune setting on your camera. Not all cameras have this option, though.
With that, you now know how to take sharp photos, no matter the subject! These methods aren’t overly complicated, but can have a significant impact on the way your images appear. Remember - you can have gorgeous lighting, excellent composition, and technically perfect execution, but if the image is soft or blurry, its visual impact will be greatly reduced. Practice using each of the techniques discussed above, and discover which one best suits your workflow and has the greatest impact on your images.