Sharp photos are a must-have in photography. There’s nothing that says “bad picture” like an out of focus one. And while we can fix or improve most aspects of our photos (think exposure, white balance, contrast, etc.), there is nothing we can do in post-processing to make a blurry photo sharp.

So, what should you do to avoid blurry images? This is a huge topic of course and it overlaps other photography objectives like good exposure. In fact, the person who asked for more information about this subject actually asked me how to get “sharp & clear” photos. While sharp and clear seem to go together when we describe successful photos, analyzing each separately will produce better photos. Granted, the lines between sharp and clear are, ummm, blurred. 😉

Sharp photos have distinct details. Each pixel provides important and unique information. A blurred photo, on the other hand, might have a group of contiguous pixels that look the same, which reduces the visible detail in an image. Sharp photos are driven primarily by focus points and appropriate aperture and shutter speed.

We’ll talk about clear photos in another article.

How to Take Sharp Photos

  1. The most important thing you can do to get sharp photos is to take control from your camera over where focus points are set. If you let the camera choose what to focus on, it’s likely to choose the area of your subject that is closest to you. Newer cameras are getting better about identifying faces and focusing on them, but if you want to be 100% sure of focusing right, you need to tell the camera exactly where to focus. Use this method to choose focus points on camera. I use it for every image I take. Once you get used to it, it doesn’t take long.
  2. For instant feedback on where your camera focused, use this method. It displays a red dot over the part of your photo that your camera focused on. Note that this setting won’t be useful if you use the focus & recompose method of shooting.
  3. Shutter speed is the element of the exposure triangle that controls whether the motion of your subject is frozen in your image or whether it’s dragged out to emphasize the motion. The shorter the shutter speed, the more frozen your subject will be. To freeze a moving toddler, you might be ok with a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. To free a hummingbird’s wings, on the other hand, you would need a shutter speed of something closer to 1/2000 of a second. However, if you wanted to show motion blur behind the kid on the swing or the running superman, use a shutter speed of 1/30 a second, or even 1 second. sharp photos
  4. Aperture. Many of us are drawn to blurry backgrounds and use either AV mode or manual mode on our cameras to blur them. But just because your aperture can go as large as 1.8 or 1.2 doesn’t mean you need to go that far to capture the blurry background. Shooting at those huge apertures can make for one blurry and one focused eye, which isn’t ideal. It’s best to dial your aperture down to maybe 2.8 or even 4. Note that there is not one right aperture here – it depends on how close you are to your subject when you snap the photo. Being closer to your subject magnifies the effect of aperture: a very close lens at 2.8 is more likely to blur one eye than stepping back a few feet & shooting at 2.8. In this photo, my aperture was too large – some of her hair is in focus, but her eyes aren’t. Not good!composing to the rule of thirds focus recompose close up
  5. Tricks to keep your subject still – if you are taking photos of your own kids, this can be easy. You know them best. Do they have a favorite song that requires them to “freeze” or stop moving to take a breath? Use that to time your photo. Make up a red light/green light game and give them a treat when they are super still for the red light. Older kids will benefit from a simple explanation about how being perfectly still makes better photos and reduces the amount of time they have to spend in front of the camera.
  6. Use a tripod when possible. The longer the shutter speed or the longer the lens, the more likely you are to need a tripod. I know – you’ve all heard this before. And sometimes, it’s just not practical. But don’t forget that a table or wall can often stabilize your camera as well as a tripod. Think about the best way to keep that camera perfectly still whenever you shoot – it might be that you can hold it a bit tighter or lean against a wall while you shoot. And remember this rule of thumb: if the focal length of your lens is great than the inverse of your shutter speed, you’ll need a tripod. For instance, with a 50mm lens, you will need a tripod when shooting at 1/50 a second or longer.

Now, there are tons of other ways to make your photos sharper. These are going to give you the biggest bang for you buck, and are the most practical and easy to incorporate into your daily shooting & editing process. And remember, we’ll talk about the other side of this equation (clear photos) soon.

Sharp Photos Summary

  • Choose your own focus points on camera. Don’t let the camera do it for you.
  • Check the LCD display on the back of your camera to make sure it focused where you wanted it to.
  • Shoot with a shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion.
  • Don’t go overboard on large apertures.
  • Use a tripod or other stabilizer for your camera.

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