How to Get Your Images Pin Sharp

Pin Sharp Images Every Time

Getting pin sharp images / tack sharp images is a bug bear for many. The reasons your images aren't sharp can be many, so it's a bit like diagnosing a faulty car. We wrote this article to empower you to be your own photo mechanic, so that you can produce your very best and sharpest images. Enjoy! 

If you scroll down there's a video to accompany this article, but you'll learn far more if you both read and watch (plus we tend to put more Easter eggs in our text articles - it's just the way it works...). Scientific studies have been done on this - really! It's called multi modal learning.

What is it that makes pin sharp images / tack sharp images?

No one thing in isolation will give you sharp images. The best practices listed below however, when understood and used together will give you the sharpest images you can get with the equipment you have

1 - Focus for pin sharp images / tack sharp images

This is the most obvious issue, since you are not going to have sharp images if they are not in focus. Not pin sharp, not tack sharp. Nada. So how do you focus for best results?

Your camera will have various focussing systems, and the best one to use will depend on whether your subject is moving, or is still.

Focus for stationary subjects

If your subject isn't moving the best focus mode to use to get sharp images is single point auto focus (afs) or if you use Canon Manual af point mode.

This allows you to select which focus point you want to use so you can pinpoint which part of your image your camera focuses on. If you are photographing a person or an animal, always focus on the eye to give you the sharpest looking images.

This image shows a view through the viewfinder of a blacksmith. The white dots are various focus points which you can select. The red dot is the focus point which has been selected, and is where the camera will focus - so this will be the sharpest area of the image.

If you don't want to physically move your focus points around it is possible to focus lock (either by half pressing your shutter release button or allocating a button on the back of the camera to focus lock) and then re-compose your image.

The image will appear pin sharp / tack sharp exactly in the right place.

Focus for moving subjects

When a subject is moving to give you the best chance of pin sharp images / tack sharp images you want your camera to "focus track" them. You'll therefore want to select your camera's continuous focus mode - afc (nikon) AI Servo af (Canon).

These modes will focus track a moving subject when you either half press your shutter release, or press a button you have assigned for focus lock on the back of your camera (this is called "back button focussing).

With the huge advances we are having with focus technology your camera may even have a mode designed to focus track eyes - both human and animal. This image of the dog was taken using focus tracking.

You now know how to get pin sharp images / tack sharp images with moving subjects every time!

Be aware of minimum focusing distances

Each lens has a "minimum focusing distance, below which it will be unable to focus, and below which you have no hope of getting sharp images. To fix this all you have to do is physically step backwards until your auto focus can attain focus.

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2 - Choosing aperture for pin sharp images / tack sharp images

This issue ties nicely into focus, because the aperture determines how much remains in focus both in front of the focus point and behind it. This is called the "depth of field", and can be very important for sharp images. 

Depending on the aperture (and several other things), depth of field can be so shallow that even less than a centimetre in front of and behind your subject is in focus. That means if you've focussed on someone's eye and they are looking slightly sideways the other eye will be out of focus. This issue can be a killer for sharp images.

If you look closely at this image of Bailey the spaniel, his nose is in focus, but his eyes are not. He doesn't look sharp.

If you have a moving subject and are focus tracking I'd advise using a smaller aperture. This gives the focus tracking a bit more room for error. Cameras are getting better and better at focus tracking, but I always like to give it all the help it needs. This is exactly the issue that caused Bailey's eyes to be blurred in the above image. Had I closed down the aperture even slightly his eyes would have been in focus. I would have had a lovely sharp image.

If you want sharp images be aware of your aperture. It needs to be giving you a large enough depth of field for your subject to be all sharp - unless you are after a very specific effect. This may be at the expense of some bokeh, but you can always try and place your background further away to compensate for that.

Lastly, every lens has an aperture at which it shoots the sharpest images. As a rule of thumb this tends to be around f11. If you're shooting for just sharp images, and have no story telling depth of field issues, shoot at your lenses "sweet spot".

3 - Eliminating camera shake for pin sharp images / tack sharp images

If you want pin sharp images / tack sharp images you need to eliminate camera shake.

Camera shake happens when the camera has moved while the photo is being taken. Any movement or vibration within the camera can cause camera shake. Camera shake is exaggerated with longer focal lengths.

The following points will help you prevent camera shake to make sure you get sharp images.

Shutter speed for sharp images

The most common and easiest way to tackle camera shake and keep images sharp is to use a fast shutter speed, so that the movement of the camera doesn't have time to register on your image as blur. As you can see from the image of the blacksmith below a slow shutter speed is not the friend of sharp images.

Shutter speed 1.8 seconds - no human can hold

One rule of thumb here is to use a shutter speed that is reciprocal to your focal length. So if you had a focal length of 50mm you would use a minimum shutter speed of 1/50s. If you had a focal length of 100mm you would use a minimum shutter speed of 1/100s.

This rule of thumb starts getting complicated at the higher focal lengths where camera shake tends to be exaggerated. You start to need to multiply by a factor of 3 so for example if you shot at 400mm you would need a shutter speed of 3x 400 i.e.  1/1200s.

For this reason I tend not to use this rule of thumb. I'm mindful that anything slower than 1/125s I may get camera shake, and if I'm shooting over 2-300mm I may need to go faster. I keep checking my work, and am mindful of all the other factors below to keep shake in check. Its easier to remember and gives me sharp images. You tend to quickly become familiar with what you can get away with with every given lens you own.

Hold the camera steady for sharp images

There is more than one way to hold the camera steady. If you want to explore this subject in more depth click here.

At the simplest end you hold it steady against your body, and if possible find something to lean against to keep your body steady. I tend to hold my arms in against my chest.

The next on the scale of steadiness for sharp images is using a beanbag to steady your camera like the one in this image. 

After that we're looking at using a monopod or a tripod. As a monopod only has one leg you still have some of the work to do in holding the camera steady, but it is far less bulky to carry than a tripod

If you are looking at long exposures the tool that is best built to help you is a tripod.

Cable releases and self timer for sharp images

When you have a slow shutter speed you need to be mindful that the very act of pressing the shutter release of your camera can be enough to mess up your nice sharp images.

In such cases you might want to use a shutter release cable. These avoid contact with the camera as you take the image and therefore the wobble that you might cause, ruining your chances of a sharp image. Cable releases can be wired to your camera or be operated by remote control. If you'd like to read more click here.

Alternatively you can set your cameras timer to take the picture, say, 2 seconds after you've pressed the shutter release. 2 seconds should be enough for any wobble caused by pressing the shutter release to have ceased, and thus give you a lovely crisp sharp images.

Mirror up mode / mirrorless camera for sharp images

Again when you have a slow shutter speed the act of the mirror flipping up as you take the picture can cause the wobble inside the camera which is going to ruin your nice sharp images.

For this reason the DSLR has a "mirror up mode" that you can use. When in this mode a single press on the shutter release will move the mirror up and out of the way, while pressing it a second time will take the image and replace the mirror. This prevents the mirror's action ruining your sharp images

A mirrorless camera for obvious reasons doesn't have this problem. It's done away with the mirror entirely!

4 - Eliminating motion blur for pin sharp images / tack sharp images

Motion blur is where something in front of the camera has the chance to move through the frame while the shutter is open. The camera records it at every stage it was while the shutter was open creating what we know as "motion blur". Motion blur can ruin your nice sharp images.

Sometimes motion blur can lead to stunning effects, but other times it just ruins what would otherwise have been a lovely sharp image. You can see this demonstrated nicely by Bailey and a young puppy.

Eliminating motion blur is down to one thing. Shutter speed. If your shutter speed is fast enough that nothing has time to move through the frame while the shutter is open, you will eliminate motion blur. By way of example a shutter speed of, say, 1/2000s will be fast enough to freeze the action of a flying bird. 1/1000s will be fast enough for most sports.

Fast shutter speeds give sharp images.

5 - ISO for pin sharp images / tack sharp images

Much "digital noise" is visible on this picture when zoomed in like this. This can easily happen if you are shooting on a high ISO.

The ISO you use can affect the sharpness of your image. Granted this is becoming less of a serious issue as technology (and editing software) improves, but be aware of it.

The higher ISO you shoot at the more prevalent the "digital noise" will be in your images. The image here has quite a lot of digital noise present and as a result is far from a sharp image. This can be lessened in editing, but the result doesn't always look good.

On the other hand, an image with noise is far preferable to an image with blur, which can't be edited out. Given that's the case if you're after sharp images, or even if you're after advice generally, ISO is likely the setting to compromise on.

6 - Kit

If you have the budget and want to upgrade your kit, please know that it is the quality of your lens (or glass as we like to say) far more than your camera body that is going to make the most difference your the sharpness of your images. Compare the images of the moon below. Both were taken on the same night with the same camera body - just with different quality lenses with a 600mm reach. Good glass = sharp images.

Even more than that, the most expensive kit in the world is not going to give you sharp images if you don't take care of it or don't clean it.

Conclusion on sharp images

When getting sharp images knowledge is power. Knowing where to compromise is also power. We can't all carry around with us NASA approved kit, and a portable lighting system so that we have enough available light to use the fastest shutter speed, the smallest aperture, or the lowest ISO.

As with all photography getting sharp images is about you far more than the quality of your kit. 

  • You make the decision where to focus
  • You make the decision on how much of the image you want in focus - aperture
  • You make the decision on your shutter speed
  • You have made the decisions that have eliminated camera shake and motion blur

In short - all the decisions you make along the way lead to your amazingly sharp images. It's you who are absolutely awesome.

Here's the Video!

Here's the video we teased you with, all the way from our YouTube channel.

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