Here comes the shock: you can get extremely sharp photos with cheap gear. Let’s have a look at what sharpness is and how we can improve it.
What Is Sharpness?
We all want to get sharp photographs. But what is sharpness, actually? Let’s forget about all the compositional methods and light for a moment. Let’s have a look at the image below, which is just a quick snapshot of a fly. The left image is sharp, the right one is blurry. But what is the difference? Moving the slider to the right will show you the original size of the image. Moving it to the left instead will show you what happens when we zoom in very close with Photoshop. Interesting are the edges of the fly, the wings and the feet, in this case. While the pixels in the sharp version have more contrast with each other, the pixels of the blurry version seem to have got inherit information from their neighbor pixels, which leads to an unsharp appearance.
So, when we break it down, sharpness is not more than just contrast between pixels. Let's have a look at which methods we can use to get sharper photos.
A Good Tripod Is More Important Than a Camera
A sentence that is well known for many years already, and it is still true. When our camera moves while we expose, the images is blurred. I am not talking about long exposure over multiple seconds, as everyone is careful with long exposure shots. In my experience, most troubles with shaky images occur at shutter speeds between 1/50 and 1/2 of a second. A good tripod is useful here, and using a remote release or at least a two-second timer avoids shakes due to touching our gear.
Same as it is important that our camera is sturdy, it is also important that the elements in our composition don’t move, unless we want to use this to support the story our image should tell. Therefore, we need to choose a short enough shutter speed, which depends on the speed of the element’s movement. The faster an element moves, the shorter we have to go with the shutter speed to avoid motion blur.
When we work in a studio or situation with enough light and slow or immobile elements, this will not be an issue, but if we want to photograph woodland scenes, for instance, without artificial light sources, with foliage that moves in the wind, we will have to increase the ISO to get the shutter speed short enough, or we open the aperture to get more light onto our sensor.
Aperture: Friend or Enemy?
Opening the aperture a bit more is a good tip to get rid of unwanted motion blur, as we get more light on the sensor. But there are two more things we should consider about aperture to get pin-sharp photographs. First of all, lenses are not equally sharp at each aperture. So, if we open the aperture too much, the images could become softer. What’s happening here is that the optical elements inside your lens simply mix the information between neighboring pixels. So, we lose sharpness. This can be desirable, of course, especially when you want to get soft bokeh, to isolate a subject from the backdrop.
On the other hand, when we close the aperture too much, we get diffraction, which makes the entire photo look softer. The aperture is a very important stylistic instrument. It allows us to define the depth of field, or in other words: what range of your composition is sharp.
Sharp light? There doesn’t exist something like sharp light, of course. But let’s remember what sharpness is: it is the contrast between the pixels. And how can we increase contrast? Light is our friend here. Especially when the light comes from the side, it will make all the tiny elements visible, all the structures and textures in our scene. The image starts to look sharper, just by using nice sidelight.
I’m sure it will not surprise you when I tell you that you get blurry images when they are out of focus. But when you have read this article attentively, I’m sure you also know why this is the case. Out of focus simply doesn’t mean more than the focal point is too far in front or too far behind the sensor. The pixels get information from their neighboring pixels. This is why it is really, really important that you always try to nail the focus.
Many more tips and more details about how to get razor-sharp images are revealed in the above-linked video.