Six Techniques to Get Sharper Photos Without Spending a Dime

Six Techniques to Get Sharper Photos Without Spending a Dime

Every photographer is always on a quest for sharper photos, but many only have a vague idea of how to actually create sharper images. The obvious is fairly well known such as high shutter speeds, closed down aperture, keeping ISO low, etc. There are also quite a few other minor techniques that can make a huge difference and are often ignored.

1. Don't Focus Then Recompose

The temptation is always present, especially when what you really want to focus on is in part of the frame that doesn't have any focus points. It's so easy to place the frame so that the focus can easily be achieved then recompose the shot to what you want before hitting the shutter. Unfortunately, this bad habit is also working against you when it comes to achieving critical sharpness, especially when working with a narrow depth of field or with a longer lens. Instead, always compose your frame so that your focus point can stay right on the subject until after the shot is taken. To learn more about why you should not focus and recompose check out this great article.

2. Shoot to Crop Later

It is no secret that most lenses perform best in the center of the frame, which is a problem since the rules of composition often mean keeping your subject away from the center of the frame. I may get some heat for this one, but I would suggest if you are after the absolute sharpest photos take a few steps back to wider the frame and snap the photo with your subject in the dead center. Then, in post, crop to the desire framing.

3. Toss Your UV Filter Out the Window

For decades there has been a myth going around suggesting that UV filters actually are important for keeping your lens protected. There is also a myth that they have no impact on image quality. Both are lies. Even the highest quality UV lens requires light to pass through it in order to reach the lens which ensures there is some loss in detail. If you don't believe me, throw your lens on a tripod and shoot a shot with a UV and without while leaving everything else the same, the file size of the non-UV will be larger because it has recorded slightly more data.

4. Refocus Frequently

There are certainly many merits to back-button focusing, but one major downside I've encountered is that some photographers will back-button focus then keep that focus locked for the next 20 or 30 shots without refocusing. Unless the camera and subject are stationary this will almost always lead to quite a few soft shots. Refocus constantly to ensure that you are always at critical focus.

5. Shoot in Bursts

When pressing the shutter release the pressure from your forefinger will actually create subtle camera movement, especially when shooting handheld. If you set your camera to shoot in short bursts of three or four images, the first photo may suffer from this movement but by the time the second or third shots are firing your finger will no longer be in motion.

6. Hold Your Camera Steady

While holding your camera with one hand and balancing a reflector in the other in some sort of strange battle stance may look impressive, it is a recipe for poor image quality. No matter how stable you think you are, a solid posture can always lead to an improvement in sharpness. I love to lean against walls when I can or even bring a stool or chair onto the set to sit in rather than trying to awkwardly squad. In a pinch you can also adopt a less conventional but more stable stance such as Joe McNally's grip (see video above).

Conclusion

Sharp images don't always require taking out a mortgage to buy the best lenses, tripods, and cameras. Rather, the choices made by the photographer while capturing the image are always the strongest factor when determining the sharpness of the image. If you find that your photos are often a bit soft, adapt your technique before pulling out the credit card, you might be surprised how big of a difference it can make.

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37 Comments

Am I the only photographer who isn't on a quest for sharper photos? (Better photos, yes always, but I learned a long time ago that sharpness does not equal better.) Personally, I've never had an image-quality issue with good quality UV filters and have saved my front element by using them. Good tips overall, useful article.

Reginald Walton's picture

I agree, I haven't had any "sharp-less" pics b/c of my UV filter. And they DO help to protect the lens, but I also use my lens hood to help with that as well.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I am of the school of thought that sharpness is a prerequisite that is required for an image to be usable, just like a decent exposure. It doesn't make an image great but without it I consider the image unusable, no matter how good it would have been otherwise. And the commercial world agrees with me. Go peruse the magazine isle, are the cover photos of any of them even remotely soft? They are always critically sharp. The industry expects critical sharpness.

The thing with UV filters is that they offer very little protection. If you watch the video linked in the post you will find a series of experiments showing that in almost all cases a situation that would have damaged the lens would not have been prevented by a UV filter. They are much more fragile than a front element so even if the UV is shattered it doesn't mean the front element would have been damaged. People are under the impression the greatest damage risk to the lens is the front element, which simply isn't the case. Especially if you have a hood. If you drop the lens face first the odds are higher than you will damage internal mechanisms from the force of the fall than hurt the front element. Everyone has stories where they broke the UV thinking it saved their lens, unless you quite literally dropped the lens face first on a spiky rock the front element was probably never in danger and unless the fall was pretty shallow the spiky rock probably will just punch through the UV and hurt the lens regardless. (and if the lens fell with enough force to damage the front element it probably means your focus mechanism is toast as well as it is more fragile and filters do nothing to protect it)

Also think of it this way. For the cost of putting a high quality UV filter on every lens I own I'd spend the replacement value of a lens. For the super rare situation where a UV filter might have saved a lens that may come along one, maybe twice in my career, probably never I would rather have just saved all the money spent on UV filters and used it to get a new lens or a repair.

The main reason I stopped using UV years ago was because it quite visibly did impact image quality, I did a series of tests, on tripod with the filters on and off in identical situations and there was always a loss in sharpness (though quite subtle) as well as other issues such as ghosting that can be caused by a UV. Personally, I would never use one again, even if it actually did protect the lens.

Jay Jay's picture

While you have a point, you may change your mind the first time you crack or scratch your lens and be without it for a week or two while you wait on it to get repaired and sent back to you, because you didn't have a filter of some kind on it. Can't get sharpness if you don't have a lens, ya know. The ultimate torture having your shoots on hold because it's being repaired. :)

Ryan Cooper's picture

Sure I can, I just use another lens, or I rent a copy of the lens thats in the shop. I would never be in a situation where loss of a single piece of gear could actually hold up a shoot. I always have a redundancy plan for every piece of gear in my kit.

Also, if I have dropped the lens with enough force to crack the front element, a UV filter would not have saved it. It would need to be replaced or repaired either way.

Jay Jay's picture

I can't imagine a photog having redundancy with their lenses- my 24-70 is great, but it cant hit the distances my 70-200 can get (and vice versa). I've cracked the filter twice on 2 different on-location shoots where something hit it as i walked past. Would you rather deal with losing the shots you couldn't do because your lens is out of commission (not to mention being without it for a good 2 weeks + the cost to ship/insure/repair it- and you can't exactly stop a shoot to go and rent a spare), or just unscrew a $50 UV filter and continue the shoot?

Just doesn't make any sense taking such a minor minor hit in IQ, if it's even barely noticeable, by using protective gear for your equipment.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Like I said, I would never depend on a single piece of gear to be necessary to make or break a shoot. Any photographer who calls themselves professional that could lose an entire shoot because a piece of gear broke is playing with fire. Personally, I have primes to cover almost the entire range from 24-200. (which I use most of the time, my 24-70 and my 70-200 ARE backup lenses)

All that said, you continue to assume the UV actually offers meaningful protection because you have damaged a couple UV filters. As is proven by the linked video the force required to crack a filter is much lower than the force required to damage a front element. In both situations where you cracked the UV filter you probably wouldn't have damaged the front element of the lens.

If you drop a lens, face first onto a hard surface the UV isn't protecting it at all, if anything, maybe, it protects the filter threads but the recessed front element never was going to impact anyway because it is recessed. The damage is going to be to the lens internals due to the shock of the fall. The front element might get damaged if you drop it face first onto a sharp rock but even then the force of the fall is still going to leave the lens unusable. In ~99.9% of fall situations, a UV filter is going to do nothing, and for that ~0.01% you want me to spent $500 on UV filters to cover all my lenses? Il save the $500 and take the risk. The odds of it ever happening in my entire life are super low.

Michael Murphy's picture

I agree, throwing a spear through your lens won't be stopped by a tiny UV filter but a deep scratch or rub mark is a lot easier to remove from the UV filter or remove the UV filter all together if needed in order to keep on shooting. I also would rather wipe the UV filter with a smudge on it rather than the actual front element of my lens. A UV filter is what? $10 to $13, my cheapest non-kit lens is $100 and most are over $300 and some upward to $1200. I like these people who use the all or nothing analogy to try to prove the UN-use of the UV filter.

Thanks for that lengthy reply, Ryan. You're right about commercial photography's emphasis on sharpness, but I think you'll agree that even there it is not a universal look. As for art photography, the type that makes it into galleries, books and art museums, you'll find plenty of examples where sharpness is secondary to other qualities. I'm not knocking sharpness per se, it is an important component, but it is not the overwhelming be all and end all that some photographers adopt as a mantra. A mantra that is, in my opinion, a limiting one.

As for UV filters I reiterate my point - they have protected my lenses and I don't find any image detriment. As a frequent black and white film photographer I use colored filters much of the time. I am very comfortable with filters but I appreciate you may not be.Each, as they say, to his or her own.

Again, thanks for your article. Good stuff.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thats fair, though the way I look at it is simple. If I walk into say an Apple store and look at one of their normal, non-retina, computers the landscape wallpapers looks great as far as I can tell. If I then walk over to a retina screen and look at the same wallpaper it is objectively better. The only difference between the two is that the retina screen is sharper because it is higher resolution. If looking at the non retina screen on its own I'd never really notice that it isn't as sharp as it could be but put it side by side with a retina screen and it feel obviously lower quality. Myself, along with many other photographers are looking to make their images as sharp as possible because they want that comparison. They want their images to look objectively sharper when compared to others. It makes their work stand out.

My position is that, at the end of the day, making sure your image is critically sharp doesn't take away from a photo. Its not a compromise in most cases. All the aspects of a photo that make one great can live in harmony with sharpness. Its one of the few aspects of photography that isn't a balance of technical vs creative compromise.

Michael Murphy's picture

When I go for sharpness I go for 'pin' sharpness. But I agree there are times when you want a 'soft-focus'. Many people do not even know about the term, obviously from reading you are familiar with it. Let them be them and we will be us. Most people will never dare to venture out of the mainstream media.

David Bengtsson's picture

I just want to mention why I use UV-filters. I shoot a lot of sports and action stuff in bad weather but mainly in situations where there is a high chance of getting dirt and small rocks "thrown" at you and your camera. In theses situation I would always use an UV filter even if it impacts the IQ a tiny bit because there is quite a high change to get small damages on my front element by the dirt.

However if you shoot in studio or are mainly doing portraits or things where it goes kinda slow and you aren't taking any "risks" I would try to stay away from them as in that case they are not as useful anymore. As it won't really help if you drop your lens, however it helps to prevent scrathing and such in harsh conditions.

Zach Smidt's picture

I agree with your opinion on UV filters. I shoot a lot of light painting and nighttime photography, and even the highest grade UV filters create awful ghosting and flare in even the most simple light painting situations.

I'll take as much sharpness as I can get within my budget. I can blur an image but I can never make it truly sharper without a sharp lens.

@Jay In nearly every case a lens hood is more than enough to protect the front lens element.

Photographic Memory's picture

I just don't understand some of the caliber of photographers around here? A lens Hood is more than enough to protect you from the elements? Wow you must only shoot out on calm summer's days.
Personally, I live on the coast and when we have weather alerts warning of over-topping waves I rush out and chase those storms! On another other day the weather can change dramatically. And that's the keyword here, dramatically. Makes more more dramatic photos. Sometimes I can taste the salt in the air even if it's not raining. A lens hood does NOT protect you from air, let alone miniscule flying projectiles out in the wild. There's another keyword there, wild.
But hey ho, to each their own.
My photos are sometimes too sharp, with the UV filter on. Case in point, photos with lots of leaves (trees), I noticed that this evening shooting dafodils. But that's just being argumentative, of course you can never be too sharp. Yet it proves to me my UV Filter is still sharp.

Actually I had mentioned other reasons in another post where a lens filter can come in handy. The reason why I asked about the lens hood is based on the way he said the lens filters were damaged. It was specific to his case. That's all.

Michael Murphy's picture

A UV filter will keep out moisture and salt if you are near the ocean from penetrating your front element of your lenses. Ever heard the tern 'salt air'.

Dave McDermott's picture

It may be a prerequisite in the commercial world but that doesn't mean every photographer is a sharpness freak. It's something I'm usually very fussy about myself but for personal work its not critical. I have occassionally posted photos on social media that were a tad soft but I don't think anyone noticed it.

There's a pretty big gap between "sharpness freak" and "a tad soft".

Dave McDermott's picture

Indeed there is. My point is, if I really like a photo and its only for personal use, then I'm not going to bin it just because it isn't tack sharp.

Agreed. If I get a photo of Nessie dancing a jig with Bigfoot, I wouldn't care if it was soft, noisy and had a magenta color cast! :-)

Edit: I like to know who I'm talking to and just saw you live in Ireland. I just want you to know I hate you and disagree with anything you've ever said! I've always wanted to visit Ireland (for somewhat obvious reasons) and all I have are countless misdirected emails intended for other people who also live in Ireland!! ;-)

Jay Jay's picture

Hate to tell you this, but i've cracked 3 filters in my life when something hit it. Cost to replace a good quality BW filter: $40-50. Cost to send in a 24-70L lens for repair, including insurance on shipping? Let's just say, it's a LOT more than $50 bucks. Will i sacrifice a miniscule amount of sharpness that i can bring back in through photoshop in order to protect my lens? YES.

Not definitive but...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0CLPTd6Bds

Oops. Didn't realize this was already linked.

@Jay Did you have a lens hood on when those lens filters were damaged.

It's impossible to *truly* add sharpness through software.

Photographic Memory's picture

I don't think you understand the purpose of some of us using UV Filters. It is not to stop the Lens from breaking if we drop the Camera, although if it came to it then anything can happen. I use a UV Filter to protect from the elements, dust, rain, sea spray, that includes salt water!
If I am out shooting and the UV Filter covered Lens gets any sort of marking on it I have no qualms wiping if clean/dry with my T-Shirt or something. If the Lens was naked I would have OCD and probably make any accidental finger-print smudge or dust far worse.
A $20 UV Filter on a $300 Lens is a no-brainer.

They make sense in certain situations but not generally. I'm not trying to make you feel bad or anything but I'd never put a $20 filter on my $1000+ lenses.
As an aside, no matter what else you do, don't use a UV filter when photographing the Northern Lights. "You wouldn't like it. It isn't pretty." ~Genie from Aladdin.

Photographic Memory's picture

Rain on my brand new Nikkor AF-P 18-55mm Kit Lens. Good job we have a UV Filter on there, right?

Rob Mynard's picture

The comment thread seems to have just turned to a UV or not UV discussion, so I'd like to throw in my two cents worth. Not all UV's are created equal. I think the article could have read, for sharpest images don't use a filter (as even the best filter will have an effect on your image, although you might not be able to see it other than file size) but if you do need to use a filter dont use a UV.
UV filters were common with film cameras as film reacted to the UV light spectrum, digital cameras are already built to ignore this range so the UV reduction is moot. For protection, most companies that make UV filters also make Protection or Clear filters which are designed to protect a digital cameras lens and offer better light transmission than a UV filter. The only reason I can see of a store selling you a UV filter for a digital camera is that they cost more and have a higher profit margin, if a salesman in your store suggests a UV filter I would wonder what other misleading info he's giving you in favor of his commission.
I personally use filters but not for protection (although that is a nice, bonus, side effect), I use high quality protection filters because they have anti fog coatings and I shoot weddings in a tropical environment. This means that as I'm following a bridal party in and out of air-conditioned rooms, I dont have to worry about my front element fogging up.
Maybe that cauld be tip 7 for sharper images - Don't shoot with a fogged up lens.
Also if you've ever shot around the Mediterranean you may have encountered the mid afternoon dust storm that regularly rolls in from northern Africa, a high quality filter should have an anti-static coating that will repel a lot of that dust.

I also don't use protective filters. Even the best can affect image quality under the right conditions. If one is careful and uses the proper cleaning techniques they can maintain their lenses without any damage at all. The only exception I would consider is in very dusty and dirty and watery environments.

Dallas Dahms's picture

UV filters are what they tell newbie photographers to buy when they get started in photography. Do they degrade images? In my opinion unless you are buying very expensive filters, of course they do. Why on earth would you spend thousands of $$$ on a professional lens and then go and put a cheap piece of glass in front of it? So then you spend loads of money on an expensive protective filter to protect a lens. I fail to see the point, especially if that filter is not improving the IQ in any way.

I shoot in dust, sea spray and serious humidity. In 17 years of shooting in these African conditions I have yet to damage the front element of any lens I have ever owned (and there have been plenty of them). I always, always use a lens hood whenever possible though.