Why is sharpness such an elusive result for photographers– and why do everyone else's photos seem to be sharper than yours?
As with all photography, sharpness has everything to do with light. We can think of sharpness as the contextual contrast between light and dark areas. Less abstractly, it also has to do with clarity of detail, resolution, and depth of field.
Sharpness plays a huge role in leading the eye through the image – which is the goal of all good photographers. Mastery of sharpness can seriously elevate your photography – and you're on the right page to do just that!
There are some cameras with unreal out of the box sharpness – like the Sigma DP2 Merrill – but even your mom's point and shoot from 2008 has the potential to resolve the razor sharp images you're seeing all over Instagram. If you're not satisfied with the sharpness of the photographs you're creating, here's what you might be doing wrong.
#1. Your photos are blurry because you're ignoring the mathematical rule that prevents camera shake
Did you know you can take a hand-held shot at 1/30th without any camera shake whatsoever? Conversely, did you know that it's possible to get camera shake with a 1/400 shutter speed?
Here's something many photographers don't realize: the relationship between camera shake and shutter speed actually comes down to the focal length of your lens. The wider your lens, the lower your shutter speed can go before you start to notice any blurriness.
If you're noticing blur in your images, follow this simple formula:
For full frame cameras: Minimum Shutter Speed (sec) = 1 / Focal Length (mm)
For crop sensor/APC-S/mirrorless cameras: Minimum Shutter Speed (sec) = 1 / Focal Length (mm) x 2
For example, with a full frame DSLR like a Canon 5D Mark II and a 50mm lens, you don't want to lower your shutter speed past 1/50 or you'll begin to see blurriness in your photo.
If you're shooting with a 100mm lens on a crop sensor like a Fuji X-Pro 2, you'll have to multiply the focal length by two to eliminate camera shake – which would equal a shutter speed of 1/200.
#2. Your photos are blurry because your ISO is too high
ISO noise – the digital, uglier version of film grain – can obliterate fine details in your photograph and give your image a waxy, soft appearance.
A full-frame DSLR can comfortably shoot at 12800 ISO without too much noise. Smaller sensors – APC-S, Mirrorless, 1-inch, and iPhones – get progressively worse at handling ISO in low light.
So how do you get around this? First, take some test shots in .RAW with your camera body and learn where your ISO limit lies, and never exceed that. For my X-Pro 2, I don't like to exceed 3200 under any circumstance. Next, test the latitude of the shadows in Lightroom to see how far you can expect to boost your underexposed images in post without critical detail loss.
Once you know your max ISO and just how far you can push the shadows in post, you can experiment with opening your aperture, lowering your shutter speed, improving your shooting form and stability, breathing out when you take the photo, finding a stable surface... it's a delicate dance of balancing the exposure triangle and using what resources are around you to nail the shot.
#3. Your photos are blurry because you miscalculated your aperture value
Who knew there was so much math involved in photography?
When you lock focus on your subject, your camera is operating within a specific distance called the 'plane of focus'. Street photography masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson were masters of eyeballing this ratio in a technique called 'zone focusing'.
Depending on sensor size, aperture, focal length, and distance from subject (phew!), your range of focus can vary from millimeters (think macro photos of insects) to infinity (think astrophotography).
For a more comprehensive breakdown of the relationship between these aspects and the plane of focus, see this table:
- Sensor Size: Larger = smaller plane of focus
- Focal length: Longer = smaller plane of focus
- Aperture: Smaller = smaller plane of focus
- Distance from subject: Closer = smaller plane of focus
So if we want to maximize our plane of focus, we want to stand reasonably far back from our subject, close down our aperture, and shoot with a wide angle lens on a small sensor, right?
While that would definitely be overkill – after all, it's fully possible to get an intimate portrait shot with a 100mm f/2 lens on a full frame sensor with perfect sharpness – consider this your starting point of understanding for how to ensure maximum sharpness.
So what's the takeaway in the simplest of terms? Never overestimate a shallow aperture. If you want to keep the integrity of your composition, close down the aperture (if necessary, all the way to f/16 – then stop, to prevent diffraction)!
#4. Your photos are blurry because you're using the wrong autofocus mode
Digital cameras are generally equipped with three autofocus modes: single-shot focus meant for still subjects (called AF-S or One-Shot AF), continuous autofocus for tracking moving subjects throughout the frame ( called AF-C or AI Servo), and the fully automatic mode that will pivot between AF-S or AF-C (generally called AF-A or AI Focus AF) depending on the camera's assessment of the scene.
Did that seem like word salad? Here's what you need to know.
If you're shooting portraits or still life, you're going to have the best luck with AF-S mode. If you're shooting sports, wildlife, or anything that has subjects moving rapidly throughout your frame, switch to AF-C mode.
When shooting on AF-S mode, you leave it up to your camera to decide, which can occasionally cause a slight lag or misfire that could ruin your shot. Better to use your best judgement rather than trusting the camera's assumption, right?
#5. Your photos are blurry because your front element needs to be cleaned
This one may sound obvious, but I once spent a month becoming increasingly frustrated with the declining quality of my photos until I realized that the UV filter on the front of my lens had become splotchy when I was out shooting in the rain.
Tons of environmental factors – dust, humidity, temperature, wear and tear – can gradually degrade the quality of your front element over time. Cleaning your lenses regularly will not only save you hours of time cloning out dust from your images in Lightroom, but will also reduce the haze and flares that can wreck your contrast – and your sharpness.
Be very careful when cleaning your lenses. Pick up a trusted and well reviewed cloth like this one, as well as some specialty lens cleaner like this brand. You may also look in to grabbing a UV filter to protect your front element from scratches or blemishes like this one – just make sure you get one that fits the thread diameter of your lens!
#6. Your photos are blurry because you're using a tripod – wait, what?
Yup, it's true!
Many photographers assume that tripod will help them create razor sharp images, but there's an overlooked factor: the image stabilization (IS or VR) feature. This feature generates a subtle shake in your camera to counteract hand-held camera shake – but when there's no shake to correct, it can actually blur your images.
Double and triple check that your IS switch is turned off before you take your shot on the tripod – and of course, be as firm and stable as possible when pressing the shutter button on your tripod – specifically for long exposures – to prevent camera shake now that your IS is turned off.
#7. Your photos are blurry because you're using the wrong sharpening method in post processing
Dragging the sharpen slider in Lightroom up to +100 is a sure fire way to ruin your photos – and end up looking even less sharp than when you started.
A photo that's sharp everywhere is sharp nowhere. Sharpness is an illusion of context.
In a portrait, you want to sharpen the eyes – and often the lips – while removing local contrast from the skin, nose, and neck. Use local sharpening tools like the brush in Lightroom to increase edge sharpness only where you want the viewer's eye to go in the photograph, and consider reducing global contrast with the Lightroom slider to punch up the effect.
Lowering global sharpness to increase the sharpness of your image sounds counter intuitive, but it can be an insanely effective strategy.
Have you discovered any other causes of blurriness in photos? Sound off below, and we'll add your commentary in to an updated version of this article.
Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.