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Perhaps the most sought-after technical achievement in photography is sharp photos!
Think about it: prospective lens buyers won’t make a purchase without first inquiring about sharpness; countless photographers analyze their photos at 100% checking for sharpness; most people who take a photo that doesn’t meet their sharpness standards will discard the image.
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Sharpness, it seems rules all. Of course, not everyone obsesses over sharpness — to some, it really is a bourgeois concept. But image sharpness does matter, particularly when you intend to make a sharp photo.
When you excitedly transfer photos from your camera to your editing screen, it’s pretty disappointing to discover that some of them aren’t sharp.
If you are like most people, you’ll probably agonize over your unsharp photos for a moment or two, wondering what went wrong.
There are several possible answers to that. Below, we’ll discuss 5 common reasons you aren't getting sharp photos and what you can do about it.
1. Wrong Aperture
If maximum sharpness is what you’re after, avoid shooting either wide open or stopped all the way down. Neither extreme will provide optimal results.
Lenses aren’t uniformly sharp across apertures nor across focal lengths (in the case of zoom lenses).
Ideally, you want to shoot at your lens’ sweet spot. The basic rule of thumb is that the point of optimal sharpness on just about any lens is found 2.5 to 3 stops down from the lens’ maximum aperture.
If, for example, you have a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4, the sweet spot is between f/2.8 and f/4.
Or you could just spend the rest of your life shooting everything at f/8.
2. Wrong Shutter Speed
If your goal is to freeze motion you need to use a relatively fast shutter speed. How fast, of course, depends on how fast your subject is moving.
Capturing the swing of a baseball bat might require a shutter speed of 1/1000th sec., while a shutter speed of 1/125th sec. may be enough to freeze the motion of someone leisurely walking by.
3. Camera Shake
Camera shake is caused by the movement of the camera and the result is blurry images. This most often occurs when trying to handhold your camera at too slow of a shutter speed.
How slow is too slow? The reciprocal rule can help you determine that.
If you are shooting with a 200mm lens, for instance, then the shutter speed you need to avoid blurry images is at least 1/200th sec. Any slower than that (not accounting for image stabilization or superhuman steadiness) and camera shake will ruin your shots.
If you want maximum stabilization, use a tripod. But make sure it’s a good quality tripod. A tripod of questionable build quality won’t withstand a strong gust of wind and you’ll still be lamenting blurry images.
4. Focusing Error
The obvious culprit here is manual focus, right? Manual focus can be a fickle and frustrating venture. Focus just a little behind your subject or just a little in front of your subject, and sharpness is a wash.
But while autofocus would seem to eliminate such focusing errors (and it usually does), it doesn’t always work perfectly. There are certain conditions, such as low light or very low contrast, that can render AF virtually useless.
When AF isn’t cooperating, use manual focus in conjunction with whatever focusing aids your camera provides (magnification, focus peaking) to achieve sharp focus.
5. Problematic Lens
In my estimation, this is the least likely offender you’ll encounter. While there are certainly differences between so-called professional grade and consumer grade lenses, it’s a stretch to say that there are many — if any — lenses being made today that are so optically poor that they are incapable of producing sharp photos.
If you can’t seem to get sharp photos, your lens may need to be calibrated. Or it may simply need to be cleaned. Or you may be an unlucky someone who received a bad copy of an otherwise good lens, in which case you’ll have to take that issue up with the retailer or manufacturer.
Final Thoughts On Sharp Photos
To be sure, there is more to a photo than sharpness (this applies more comfortably to some genres of photography than others) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Odds are, you expect to be getting sharp photos each time you use your camera. If you’re having trouble realizing that expectation, no need to fret. Some of the most common problems are listed above and, as you have seen, are easy to fix.