Imagine 💡

Create 📸

Inspire ⭐

Taking sharp photos

Securing sharp photos is a dance of precision, balancing focus, stability, and the right settings to crystallize moments with breathtaking clarity...

How to get sharp photos

1. Proper lighting

The first tip I have to ensure sharp photos is to have proper lighting.

Hands down, I believe having proper lighting in your scene or on your subject is the most important factor when it comes to getting sharp photos.

Sharp photo of woman in black suit and hat.
Sharp photo due to good lighting

If you examine what “sharpness” actually means, you’ll find that it refers to the clarity of detail our eyes can notice and how well-defined the edges of subjects are within our image.

Graphic of definition of sharpness.
Sharpness definition in photography

Take note!

In other words, it’s the micro contrasts between the edges and transitions between different textures or colors within the image.

Examples of these micro contrasts can be seen in the detail in your subject's eyes, the pores on a subject’s skin, or the feathers on a bird if you take wildlife photography.

Woman with tattoos and wig in a sharp photo.
Can see sharpness in the skin texture and pores

So, if sharpness relies on these micro contrasts, then we need general high-level contrast in our image in the first place.

Contrast is created from the interplay of light and shadow, which creates depth and dimension. So, we need light in order to create contrast in the first place, but not just any light.

The quality, direction, and intensity of our light influence the contrast in our image, which then affects the micro contrasts in our image, which affects the overall “sharpness” of our image.

Graphic of the different types of lighting that influence contrast.
Type of lighting influences contrast

Speaking as a portrait photographer, I have been able to capture sharp images using purely natural light. But I’ve found that when I use artificial light, such as a strobe, speedlight, or other light source in my environment, I’m able to capture my sharpest images.

Two photos side by side one of natural light and one of artificial light.
Natural vs. studio light for sharpness

This is because I created the quality of contrast with artificial light, which allowed me to have all of these micro contrasts in my image.

Being familiar with the different qualities of light, such as hard light and soft light, the different directions of light, like side lighting, Rembrandt lighting, backlighting, etc., and the intensity of light and balancing your exposure with it is the most fundamental aspect of ensuring you get a sharp photo.

So all in all, if you want “sharpness,” then you need micro contrasts in your image.

Graphic showing how sharpness equals micro contrasts.
Sharpness equals micro contrasts

In order to have micro contrasts, you need general contrast in your image.

Graphic showing micro contrasts equals general contrasts.
Micro contrasts equals general contrast

To create general contrast, you need to have an interplay of light and shadow in your image, which can only be created by having a light source.

Graphic showing general contrast equals interplay of light and shadow.
General contrast equals interplay of light and shadow
Graphic showing the definition of sharpness.
Putting it all together

But you can’t just have a light source and call it a day. You need to be aware of the quality, direction, and intensity of your light source, as that will affect the quality of contrast. Now, if you’re wondering, okay, well, what type of lighting is best for sharp photos?

There is no “best” lighting, but my favorite as a portrait and headshot photographer that has always led me to have sharp photos is to use my speedlight with an umbrella or my studio strobe with a softbox for soft light.

Photographer taking photo of someone with strobe light placed 45 degrees from subject.
Single strobe light placed 45 degrees from subject
Man against gate with lighting from strobe.
Example image using that strobe light for sharp photos

2. Proper focus technique

The second tip I have to ensure sharp photos is to have a proper focusing technique.

You’ll want to ensure you are focusing on the camera on the most important part of the scene. If you’re a photographer who photographs live subjects, then this is the eyes.

Man against gate with a focus point on his eyes.
Focus point on eye for sharp portraits

If you’re a photographer who photographs inanimate objects, then this will be the point you’re trying to emphasize, such as mountains in a landscape.

Focus point on a mountain landscape photo.
Focus point on point of emphasis for landscape photography

Using a particular autofocus point or technique will allow you to maximize your chances for a sharp image. So, as a portrait photographer, I often use single-point autofocus, place the focus point on my subject’s eyes, and then compose my shot.

I’m not a landscape photographer, but I’ve seen the hyperfocal distance focusing technique will allow you to maximize the depth of field and sharpness in your landscape. So, based on what type of photography you shoot, there are focusing techniques that will benefit you more.

Hyperfocal distancing technique example.
Hyperfocal distance focusing technique

If you focus on a particular point, single-point autofocus will help you achieve sharp photos. If you do landscape photography, hyperfocal distance focusing or focus stacking will also help you achieve sharp photos.

3. Fast shutter speed

The third tip is to use a fast shutter speed.

Shutter speed is one of the key elements in the exposure triangle that controls the exposure in our images.

Exposure triangle elements.
Exposure triangle

Shutter speed controls how long your shutter is open and can be used to control the motion effects in your image, such as intentional motion blur:

Slow shutter speed example.
Slow shutter speed

Or a freeze-frame effect:

Fast shutter speed example.
Fast shutter speed

If you use a shutter speed that is too slow and you’re shooting handheld, then you can introduce motion blur or camera shake into your image, which will throw any hopes of a sharp image down the drain. This is especially important to remember as a portrait photographer, as I often shoot handheld and move around a lot.

Eyes on subject that are blurry due to camera shake.
Blurry eyes due to camera shake

If you shoot handheld like me, they say a good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is at least 1/the focal length of your lens. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens, you will want to use at least 1/200 of a second.

Graphic of the focal length rule.
Focal length rule

Personally, I like to photograph a bit faster and usually shoot 1/two times the focal length.

You’ll want to make sure this is enabled, especially in low-light scenarios or if you are using a long lens.

Proper camera holding posture

The second way is to use proper camera holding posture.

If you photograph handheld like me, then it’s important that you develop a proper camera-holding posture. One that gives you a solid base while also being comfortable.

A tried-and-true holding posture is to hold the camera firmly in both hands, brace your elbows against your body to minimize any shake, and use your camera’s viewfinder instead of the LCD to add another point of stability.

A correct and incorrect camera holding posture.
Correct vs. incorrect camera holding posture

Another tip I like to use is to press my shutter button slowly and control it down instead of fast, slamming down motion so as not to introduce any jitter or shake when I’m taking the photo.

Pressing shutter button on camera.
Press slowly and controller on shutter button

Tripod or propped up surface

The third way is to use a good old tripod or prop your camera on a surface. Tripods stabilize your camera, and you will have the safest image stabilization when you use a tripod.

Camera on a tripod on rug.
Camera on tripod for stabilization for sharp photos

Certain photography styles, such as landscape photography, night photography, or long exposure photography, often require photographers to use a tripod as they have no choice when they use slower shutter speeds.

If you don’t have a tripod and are in a situation where you can’t raise your shutter speed to a fast enough setting for handheld photography, then you can also find a place to prop up your camera:

Camera on a stool for stabilization.
Prop your camera on a surface for sharp photos

This could mean placing your camera on a ledge, a rail, or even sitting down and placing your camera on your knees.

Camera on knee for stabilization.
Prop your camera on knee for sharp photos

Just be sure you are using a camera strap so you don’t accidentally drop or break your camera!

5. Know Your Lens Sweet Spot

The fifth tip for sharp photos is to know your lens’ sweet spot.

Many lenses have a “sweet” spot regarding aperture and the f-stop range in which the lens will produce the sharpest images. For example, for my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, the sweet spot is around f/2.8 to f/5.6, so since I like to shoot with a wide aperture, I usually use f/2.8 for my portraits and headshots.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens
Portrait of girl taken with Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens.
Portrait taken with Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens

For the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM, which is more of a zoom lens, the sweet spot is within f/5.6 to f/8.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS lens.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS lens beach photo.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L beach photo

So, I recommend searching online to find out your lens's sweet spot and shooting within that range, if possible, for sharp images.

One thing to also remember: There are quality levels in lenses, with some being more expensive which can impact the sharpness and distortion of the lens.

There are also different types of lenses better suited for your particular style of photography. There are lenses better suited for portrait photography, landscape photography, macro photography, etc.

Before you go out and drop thousands on a lens because you can’t get sharp photos with your current lens, be sure not to blame your lens, and first take into account all the tips in this guide. I usually shoot with my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens which only cost me $125 and has produced some of the sharpest images in my portfolio, so if you can’t get sharp photos, first ensure you’re following all these tips.

6. Watch your ISO

The sixth tip for sharp photos is to watch your ISO settings.

Like aperture and shutter speed, ISO is one of the three elements of your exposure triangle.

Exposure triangle elements.
Exposure triangle

ISO controls how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. Increasing your ISO makes it more sensitive, and decreasing it makes it less sensitive.

As mentioned in my exposure guide, higher ISO settings can introduce digital noise in your image, reducing perceived sharpness.

Man wearing suit in a no noise photo.
Low ISO (No grain/noise)
DJ in a bar.
High ISO (High grain/noise)

Each camera has an ISO level, and if you surpass it, lots of noise will start to show.

It’s important to know your ISO levels because if you’re approaching this level, you may want to make sure you made all the exposure adjustments in your aperture and shutter speed settings so you don’t introduce any unwanted noise.

While there are noise reduction features in many post-processing software, these tools can make the image appear a little “blurry,” reducing any perceived sharpness.

Here's an image with high noise:

Example image using Canon EF 50mm at ISO 6400.
Canon EF 50mm at ISO 6400

Here's an image with less noise:

Example image using Canon EF 50mm at ISO 3200.
Canon EF 50mm at ISO 3200

7. Check equipment

The seventh and final tip for sharp photos is to check your equipment.

You’ll want to ensure your camera sensor and lens are free from any dust or smudges that can affect your image quality.

Lens with dust and smudge on it.
Check for dust or smudge on lens

Every once in a while, especially if I shoot at a beach or where there is dirt, I check my camera lens to ensure no dirt has smudged over it.

There are sensor and lens cleaning kits that have cloths and mini air blowers to blow any dirt out.

Lens cleaning kit.
Lens cleaning kit

I got a kit from Amazon, and it has made cleaning so much easier. I wear glasses as well, so sometimes I use the cloth I use to clean my glasses to clean my lenses.

Glasses cleaning cloth.
My glasses cleaning cloth

And in conclusion, those are my seven steps and tips if you want to get sharp photos! I hope you learned a new tip to help you capture sharp photos every time.

© 2024