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).


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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Anonymous's picture

I was going to vote you up until you wrote about not using one in sea spray areas. It doesn't take a lot of sand to pit the front element. On the other hand, that may not be as bad as its affect, along with salt water, on the rest of the lens and camera.

Dallas Dahms's picture

I wouldn't shoot in a sand storm, but I have had a lot of sea spray hit the front element of my lens before. Never caused any damage that I could see. These days my main lens is the weather resistant Olympus 12-40/2.8 PRO which you could rinse off under a tap without issues.

Anyway, each to their own.

Anonymous's picture

A lens you can rinse off under tap water?? I've never heard of such a thing.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Prepare to be amazed...

Michael Murphy's picture

First, Keep the UV Filter; just spend the money for a good one. A protection filter is a better idea but I've for the most part use my UV filters because they are everywhere and I already had most from my film days. DSLR do not ‘need’ a UV filter to take a photo; that being said, it will save your front element. You never need it on your camera until you don’t have it there. New Lens anyone? I have too many lenses and too many filters if one filter got damaged I would toss it and not even notice it missing; I have backups. A damaged lens would be a different story, yes I can 'work around it' but I would have a fit latter. Lens hoods are also a great idea.

I've found over my many years of shooting film both 35mm and medium format (Hasselblad) to take sharper images, first zoom in onto one eye or the other. Of course it goes without saying use a tripod or mono-pod whenever possible. Either way, I usually focus on the eye farthest from the camera, depending on your depth of field by eye to eye should not leave the DOF. Once the focus is sharp I zoom back out. As long as neither you nor your subject moves out of your space relation your sharpness shouldn't change. I moved my focus to my cameras back button, took getting used to my now I don’t know how anyone could shoot otherwise. So much easier now and hitting the shutter release doesn’t trigger the ‘refocus’ every time I want to take a photo.

I stand as straight as possible or sit or kneel depending on where I’m shooting from, shooting angle. Then as I'm 'shooting' I use the breathing techniques I learned for actually shooting a gun or rifle. Breathe in, hold your breath slightly and then as you are releasing your breath that's when you fire off the shutter release. I do short burst at a time and usually have my second camera on a tripod.

I've found the best result is to use 2 cameras, one on the tripod and both triggered by a wireless trigger. The wireless trigger helps by taking any possible camera shake from your hand muscles flexing while hitting the shutter release while still holding the camera. I know its minuscule but every little bit helps. I've been known to take so many photos in a session that I burn through a battery on each camera before the 5 of 6 hour day is done, bring backups and keep them close either in your pockets or in a smaller bag nearby. I've been in the perfect zone and had to stop to run downstairs at a studio (and I’m on crutches permanently) and root in my bag for my batteries, definitely missed some great shots because of it.

Hope this helps, Good Luck!

stir photos's picture

From an amateur perspective, I'd say these are great points if you want sharper images, absolutely! I only subscribe to 2 of them sincerely, but if you're an amateur reading this, my suggestion is to give them all a try and just see if you're getting what you want from any of the tips. There's no controversy when you're sure you're getting what you want out of your shots.

The only thing I'd add is to manage your alcohol intake the night before a shoot. While you're at it, you might want to manage your coffee intake in the morning, as well. Personally, coffee is fine with me in the morning, but too much alcohol the night before does leave me a little shaky the next day. Alternatively, a friend of mine gets slightly jittery after coffee, so he forgoes it if he's shooting...

I think I'm right-eye dominant, or at least that's been the way that I've been focusing since 1980, so Joe McNally's left-eye technique won't work for me. Years ago, I found this link on a Pentax forum on various techniques for steady techniques:
Watching the McNally video, at the end, he demonstrates going from landscape mode to portrait mode and I laughed! My wife didn't do that; we were driving through the Tennessee River section of Alabama and she was taking photos of the scenery with her smartphone. I said "You can probably get better photos if you switch to landscape." She said "You're right" and flipped the orientation of the phone to landscape.