How to Ensure Tack-Sharp Images

Blurry Image

How many times have you captured images that look sharp and detailed as a thumbnails only to have them lose that sharpness when the files are opened in Photoshop? If you’re like me, TOO MANY times. It happens to all of us all too often. But it doesn’t have to. You probably know many reasons why and how to avoid the problems. Here are some of my most careless focus mistakes, and how I’ve learned to avoid them.

Clean the lens

First and Foremost- Clean the lens. Fingerprints and dust on the lens are the most obvious hinderances to sharp pictures and are one of the most commonly overlooked causes. Carry a small clean microfiber cloth (or packets of lens cleaning wipes) in your camera bag at all times, and keep the lens cap on the lens when it’s not in use.


Stopping Down LensFind the optimal f-stop for your lens. Lenses are at their sharpest toward the center of the ground glass. It is widely known that 3-4 stops down from wide open produces the sharpest results. When you stop down a lens, you effectively eliminate the soft nature of the outside edges of the lens. If your shot doesn’t require an extremely shallow depth of field (to blur the background), close the lens down several stops and compensate for the exposure with either an increased ISO number or a slower shutter speed. Closing the lens will also guarantee that more of the subject will stay in focus.

Canon_f_1.4Canon Zoom lens

Use faster lenses. Buy the fastest glass you can afford. THE most critical equipment in your camera bag is not your camera body, but the quality of your lenses. Economy lenses produce mediocre results. Save your money and invest in great lenses (2.8 or faster). A 1.4 prime (fixed length) lens will always produce sharper images, though it will certainly cost more money. Most of us carry at least one zoom lens, but zoom lenses are seldom faster than 2.8, and many are 4 – 5.6. The lower the number, the more efficiently light passes through the lens. Efficiency equals speed.


DOF ButterflyCalculate your DOF. Choose an f-stop that will keep your entire subject in sharp focus. Remember the 1/3-2/3 rule ( If you want to keep your subject in full focus while blurring the background, do the math to figure out the depth of field that will remain in full focus at a particular distance. Each length lens has it’s own “pocket of precision” or focal zone for each subject-lens distance. Take the time to explore your lens’ capabilities so that you will be prepared.


Manual Focus

Switch to Manual focus. Unless your subject has a high level of contrasting edges and is located in the middle of your field of view, try switching to manual focus. Auto focus is a life-saver most of the time, but a higher contrast non-subject item in the scene could steal the camera’s attention. Camera Auto Focus is designed to zero-in on high contrast. The highest contrast in the scene will always grab the camera’s focus. If your subject is located in subdued lighting, switch to manual.



Avoid hand-held shots below 1/125 sec. No matter how still you hold your camera, your body will always be in motion to some degree. The fact that we all breath and have a heartbeat means that even the slightest human motion will most likely become an issue.


Shutter SpeedIncrease your shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds in hand-held conditions always present problems. Even the slight motion of pushing the shutter button is a contributing factor in this process. While the accepted rule is to avoid hand-held shots below 1/160 sec, I personally make it a point to not shoot below 1/125 sec when hand-held.


ISO-ScaleCompensate ISO for speed. If your shot requires more light, try dialing up more image sensor light sensitivity (increased ISO). Most ideal lighting situations work at 200-400 ISO, but low lighting scenarios may require you to set the camera to a significantly higher sensor setting. But keep in mind that the ISO setting determines how sensitive the image sensor is to light and darkness. Very high ISO will display higher levels of electronic noise in you picture. Noise is the polar opposite of “signal.” Make your choice of ISO carefully if the image is to be enlarged at all.


Tripod with remoteUse a tripod and a remote trigger. The ultimate preparation for capturing sharp and detailed images is to take human motion out of the equation altogether. Once you mount your camera on a tripod, frame the scene, set the focus, set the appropriate f-stop for the depth of field, switch to the electronic shutter (if available on your camera) and set up a remote trigger using either a cable release or smart phone app. Then sit back and be ready to pull the trigger when the scene is right on the LCD display.


SquirrelyIf you’re shooting animal life, move away from the camera and monitor everything remotely. Also consider shooting in small bursts to insure against Murphy’s law.

There are only a couple of reasons for purposely soft images. Portrait lenses are designed to be soft in order to minimize flaws and wrinkles in skin and ethereal or fantasy scenes are best recorded in a wispy or hazy focal point. However, most pictures are intended to produce sharp and detailed results. Try to keep from excessive sharpening of your images in the editing process in an attempt to bring out detail. Every time you sharpen an image in post production you also enhance the non-subject elements in the scene.

Get disciplined about capturing detail in your original shot. Take the time to learn each of these precautions, practice each of them and then review them mentally before you take your shot.

Get bright about light and stay focused.

That’s the way eye sees it. Feel free to leave a comment and enter the conversation. Thanks for joining me. If you like what you read, let me know and tell your friends. Click on the Follow The Way Eye Sees It button at the top of the page to join the regulars. Visit the website to see examples of how to improve your image(s).

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If you really want to understand what makes color work, you must understand how light behaves. And I’ve developed a very entertaining and easy-to-understand video series that will teach you these fundamentals and get you on track to capture and produce amazing color.


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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