Never Stop Improving Skills in Photography
One of the things that stands out as a genuine difference between using a mobile phone and using a proper digital camera is the ability to get really nice sharp images. Not that in themselves mobile phones do not give a reasonably sharp image. When you look at most images that you see taken on mobile phones in anything less than ideal lighting conditions there is no doubt that they do not compare to what can be produced using a real camera. And I make no apology for saying that mobile phones are not in any sense of the word real cameras when you think about what cameras with larger sensors and the ability to use interchangeable lenses are able to do. Mobile phones are trying to simulate what can already be done by cameras, not the other way around.
So how do you get sharp photographs? If it isn’t sharp it isn’t going to be used anything like as often as an image taken by a real camera.
Not so long ago you would read in manuals and they would tell you that you have to use a tripod. Tripods are good ideas. Using a tripod is one way to hold your camera steady. And there are many situations when a tripod will do a good job.
Some Misleading Thinking Has Become Popular
Here is an example – Shooting high ISO is fine these days….
REALITY Not so long ago it was true that cameras didn’t take really sharp images when the ISO setting on the camera was above around 400 ISO. We have come a long way since then. So while it is true that you want to keep the ISO setting down on your camera for most types of photography, you can go a little higher these days and still get very sharp images. Many cameras will shoot a sharp image that isn’t too soft up to around 1000 ISO and some argue that the very best cameras are able to shoot very nice images up to around 3200 ISO with the exception can go quite a lot higher. Stop! Don’t do it!
Stop! Don’t do it!
Stop! Don’t do it! It is true that many cameras will shoot quite sharp images at higher ISO settings than in the past that shouldn’t be taken as a license to just use automatic ISO settings all the time. You will get much better images if you use the following tips.
PRO TIP 1. Brace yourself or rest the camera on something solid. Or Use a Tripod
So, when taking images where a tripod might be the best option in order to keep the ISO setting down one of the best things that you can do is to brace yourself against something to make sure that you hold steady or balance your camera on top of something (like a wall for example) that will keep it nice and steady. The steadier that you are able to hold the camera then the better it will be. This includes situations where the image is one that can be taken at a relatively low shutter speed in order to maintain a low ISO setting on your camera.
So the first tip is to do what it takes, whether that is using a tripod or bracing yourself against something solid so that you stay nice and steady. Placing the camera on something that is fixed and firm so that you can take the image is a great idea. Keep the camera steady!
Many Pro’s user bigger cameras. These are easier to hold steady.
PRO TIP 2. Use a Relatively Low ISO Setting.
The second tip alluded to above is to use a relatively low ISO setting. Lower ISO settings have the benefit of a better dynamic range and also are generally cleaner. They are cleaner in the highlights and shadows. Use a low ISO setting and don’t be tempted just to use the auto ISO setting all the time. Note here, even in dim light you may be able to apply the suggestion noted above and avoid having to turn the ISO up on your camera.
Do some testing and work out what your camera is like as far as the upper level of ISO for really sharp images. Here’s a tip, manuals are often ambitious in terms of where they say you can go with ISO and some reviewers have different standards to what many professionals would regard as being clean images when it comes to the ISO settings used. So use your own eyes and make your own decision on this particular point.
For example with one camera we read that one reviewer said that the images were clean and usable up to around 3200 ISO and we tried it to see what they looked like: in a word horrible.
In the end we limited the camera to an upper ISO setting of 800. That means that we were happy with the look of the images up to 800 ISO and we knew we could get relatively noise free images that were nice and sharp within its range of base ISO and up to 800 ISO. All cameras are different. With some of our better ones we go quite a bit higher. With cameras with higher megapixels however we tend to really work hard to keep the ISO setting down. Don’t listen to the salespeople when it comes to this point with high megapixel cameras. Seriously do the test yourself! It will contribute to really nice clean sharp images.
PRO TIP 3. Use Burst Mode – Take a few shots
A friend of mine recently was deriding photographers that took lots of images of the same thing. He heard the shutter clicking away merrily at high speed and wondered what on earth was going on. Well here’s a tip that professionals understand. We do use rapid fire quite often. There are cameras today that will shoot with a mechanical shutter at 16 frames per second and with an electronic shutter at 20 frames per second. Forget the ideas that come from shooting film where every single image was going to have a huge cost attached to it and you only had a limited amount of film in your camera.
Try this experiment and you’ll see just how much it affects your photography. Use your camera on a particular photograph that you want to take and put your camera into continuous mode and take three or four images in rapid succession with auto focus on. Let me tell you exactly what you will find. In a number of instances you will probably find that the first photograph in the sequence is not as sharp as the second or third. And remember if you aren’t using this technique, that first image was probably the one that you would usually walk away with and wonder why it was soft. It’s just the way it works when you’re taking photographs.
I generally don’t have my camera set in the high-speed mode but I generally have my burst at around five frames per second on most of the cameras that I use and I let the camera take at least three or four shots. I don’t have to save them all as raw images but I can go through and select the ones that I want to keep and process those accordingly. It doesn’t take long these days and because I am shooting with good glass and have a reasonably fast processing system I find that it works well. [We will talk about raw speed soon.]
PRO TIP 4. Check the Rear Screen
Here’s another thing that you really must do. Use the screen on the back of your camera and zoom in and take a look. That’s right don’t give it a quick glance. Zoom in and take a look. It’s there for a reason. Sure it helps you to see your composition and if you have the highlight alert activated you can see whether you are over exposing the bright sections of your image.
But it’s there for the reason of checking your sharpness as well. Zoom in and take a look. Some cameras don’t have the best screens on the back but they will still give you a good clue as to whether or not you’ve got a sharp image. It’s not good to get home after you’ve done a day’s shooting and realise that the images that you thought looked pretty sharp were either not sharp or your camera’s autofocus had jumped to the wrong part of the image. A quick glance doesn’t cut it. We once went shooting some whales and we got some really good shots of the ocean behind the whale but not the whale itself. [Yes we got a lot of good ones but we missed a lot as well.] Something wasn’t working right and if we had looked at the screen more carefully we would have realized that this was the case. Lesson learned. Now we check carefully as 300,000 sharp images in our hard drives will testify to.
PRO TIP 5. Use Your Lens Stopped Down 2-3 stops
Do you know your lenses sharpest aperture? Look at the f-stop setting on your lens when it is wide open. Whatever it is, close it down 2 stops and you will find that that is pretty much the sharpest point as far as your lens is concerned. Sure you will have greater depth of field in focus if you go for the higher numbers in the f-stops but it won’t necessarily be the sharpest image. Most lenses are at their sharpest in terms of results when you stop down 2 to 3 stops. So if your lens is rated F2 .8 you will generally find that it is beautifully sharp at around 5.6 across the frame. It is true that some lens manufacturers are now making glass that is sharp even wide open. When you read reviews of most lenses it will say as some sort of pat phrase ‘the lens was soft near the edges but was sharp in the middle’ shock horror. That is pretty much true of most lenses when they are wide open. But when you stop the lens down by 2 to 3 stops you will find it is sharp from edge to centre. So that is the sweet spot on your lens and it isn’t a joke when people talk about sweet spots and lenses. It’s true. Unless you are purchasing some pretty amazing lenses and parting with some pretty amazing amounts of cash, you will find that this is a simple way to level the playing field in terms of performance.
There are other tips that we can talk about when it comes to sharpness and we will cover some of these in a separate post.