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Q&A: How to Get Sharper Photos

I received a question from a reader about how to make his photos sharper, which I think might apply to a lot of people. With his permission, here is his question and my response:

Jim, I am enjoying your interesting and helpful articles on outdoor photography.  I am shooting a Canon 30D and enjoy using my 75-300mm IS lens with it to shoot birds and deer that I see along the walking trails near my home. However, it seems that I can never get my photos to be a sharp and outstanding as I would like.  Perhaps it is my lens, the camera settings I am using, or my post-processing.  I am taking the liberty of attaching a RAW image of a hawk that I shot recently and I would be most appreciative if you would advise me as to whether my camera settings are wrong or what else I can do to make my photos better. The hawk was about 200 feet away from me and I had the zoom extended to 300mm. Any advice you can provide will be very much appreciated.  Thanks in advance. 

Getting Sharper Photos - a comparison of photos before and after post-processing

On the left is the original picture (cropped) to see the hawk better. To the right is the photo with some processing to make the hawk stand out.

The settings for this picture were:

  • Shutter speed: 1/400th of a second
  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • ISO: 400
  • Focal length: 300 mm (420 mm after the crop factor resulting from using a camera with an APS-C sensor)

How to Improve Image Sharpness

The bad news is that I don’t have one simple answer to this problem. The good news is that there are three things you can do to, each of which will incrementally improve the sharpness. Here they are:

Increase the Shutter Speed

In the future, increase the shutter speed a bit (i.e., make it faster). When you are zoomed in to a great extent like you are in this picture (3oo mm), even the tiniest of movements will create some softness in your picture. The best way to combat this is to make the shutter speed so super-fast that there is no opportunity for the camera to move during the exposure. A 1/400th of a second shutter speed, which is what was used here, is ordinarily plenty fast. At first glance, I was surprised to see any softness at all given how fast of a shutter speed was used. It appears to comply with the Reciprocal Rule, which states that the minimum shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your focal length. Using a 1/400th of a second shutter speed with a focal length appears to comply with the rule, with a little margin for error added in.

Then I was reminded that this camera (Canon 30D) is an APS-C camera, meaning there is a 40% crop factor. That means what would be a 300 mm focal length on a full frame camera is actually a 420 mm focal length. So this shutter speed does not actually comply with the Reciprocal Rule. In any case, I find that barely complying with the Reciprocal Rule is often not enough, and you need an even faster shutter speed to get a really sharp picture. Therefore, I would speed up the shutter speed in the future. For this focal length, try to keep it above 1/500th of a second.

Upgrade Your Equipment

People always want to blame their equipment when their pictures are not sharp, and I normally caution against that. In this case, however, I think things could be helped with a better camea and lens:

  • Camera: The 30D is getting long in the tooth, and there have been some pretty dramatic improvements since that camera’s hey-day (it came out 9 years ago). That is particularly true in the area of low-light performance. This picture is already starting to show some noise, so I can see why the the ISO was kept at 400. With a new camera, you could bump up the ISO to 800 or even 1600, which would allow you to shoot with a faster shutter speed.
  • Lens: I think this lens is also an issue. I actually like this lens (75 – 300 mm f/4.0 – 5.6) as a walking-around lens because of the wide range of focal lengths. However, it is known as a soft lens. Check out the review from The Digital Picture. A different lens may add some sharpness.

I hesitate to write that you need an equipment upgrade, because you can do a lot to improve the image quality with what you are using now. In addition, so many people are so quick to blame their equipment and this could encourage that. But honestly I think it might help a bit here.

Have Realistic Expectations

Before we get to how to improve this picture, I want to make sure you have realistic expectations about what to expect from pictures coming straight out of the camera. You have to accept that pictures straight out of the camera – particularly Raw files – often lack crispness and saturation. (I know you purposefully sent the Raw file and you may already be planning to do some processing to this photo, so pardon me if I’m telling you things you already know.) You have to be prepared to enhance the photo in post-processing. If you are comparing your photos to the great photos you see in magazines or on 500px, understand that there is processing added to all of those.

Add Some Processing

You can make this picture much better by adding some post-processing in Photoshop. I have done a quick example of where I’d take this picture (admittedly a little overdone, for effect), which is displayed at the top of this page next to the original. Coincidentally, my latest article at Digital Photography School is all about some things that all clarity to pictures, several of which I would do to this picture. Check it out and apply your own processing to this one. The point is just to make sure you know that nobody is getting super-sharp pictures right out of the camera.

In particular, what I would do to this photos is to:

  • Add some Clarity using the ACR screen in Photoshop or the Lightroom Develop module;
  • Create a curves adjustment layer, selecting only the hawk, and increase the contrast on the hawk;
  • Use the High Pass Filter to add additional clarity to the hawk.

Those three moves are described in detail in my DPS article, so be sure to check that out. After that, if you want to bolster the color a little bit, I would use the LAB color move to do so.

Conclusion

It is not too late for this particular picture, and you can make it better with some post-processing. In addition for future shots, just shoot with as fast a shutter speed as you can. If you find yourself able to fund an equipment upgrade one of these days, that won’t hurt either.

Hope that helps.

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  • Higbe33

    Your words are gold Jim. If money is a factor, I would upgrade the lens first. The 70-300 IS is a nice upgrade, however still a little soft after 250. I would suggest the 70-200 f/4L IS. That’s a lens you will keep forever. I keep that lens on an old Rebel XTi and love it for walking around.

    • Thanks! Yeah, that is a nice lens. And, in general, I agree that you should upgrade lenses first. Since the advent of digital, people have been saying that the camera is here today, gone tomorrow, but the lens stays. I have to say that I think that camera advances are not quite as fast or dramatic as they used to be, so that may change. But it is still true for now. I’d buy a mediocre camera and nice lens before a nice camera and mediocre lens. So good point.

  • skipc43

    Thanks for another great and helpful article, Jim. I am familiar with the post-processing part of the article, but I didn’t know that there is such a difference between advertised focal length and the applied focal length due to the APS-C sensor. I’ll be keeping that in mind in the future.

    • Thanks! Like I said, I missed it too when I was first thinking about it. But yeah, it is basically a 40% difference for APS-C cameras. It is 100% for Micro 4/3 cameras (so you would double it).

  • Theo Finucane

    Great stuff! I’m excited in particular by the mention of LAB color space, which was new to me. I wonder, though, if a sharper image of the hawk might have been captured with a smaller aperture? Shooting at f/32, say, instead of f/7.1? Sure and such a small aperture would necessitate compromises in shutter speed and ISO, but what about one not quite so extreme, f/9 or f/18?

    Also, I wonder if the image was focused as sharp as it could have been. I’ve recently discovered the miracle of back button focusing! It’s allowed me to capture subjects in sharp focus that were denied me before (admittedly, it’s moving subjects that back button focusing has allowed me to capture, and the hawk in this example is motionless, but nevertheless :-)

    • Thanks. LAB is awesome. I have 2 articles about it on Digital Photography School, so check out my author page over there (or just search LAB).

      I love your question because it seems so intuitive – and I would have wondered the same thing. At first blush, it would seem that reducing the aperture would give you a larger depth of field. That would keep more of your picture in focus. While that is true, it wouldn’t help here (and in fact it would hurt, as I will explain in a second). It wouldn’t help because the depth of field is not a problem here. He was far away from the bird when he shot the picture, and once you get beyond a certain distance (about 30 feet or 10 meters), everything is at infinity (check the top of one of your lenses to see the scale). So the bird was within his plane of focus. Now, that could be an issue if the photographer was very close to the bird and was using a large aperture, but given the distance would not be an issue here.

      Using a smaller aperture would actually hurt the image here because the smaller aperture has to be taken into consideration in exposing the picture. There are only two ways to make up for the light lost by using the smaller aperture. First, you can use a slower shutter speed. However, one of the problems with this picture is that the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough. An even slower shutter speed would hurt the image further. Second, you can crank up the ISO. That would be ok on some cameras, but not the 30D that was used here. Noise is already starting to creep in at ISO 400. Therefore, a smaller aperture would force the photographer to make a compromise in other areas that would ultimately hurt it.

      Of course, there are those that say you should never shoot at f/22 (or beyond) because of something called diffraction, which makes the images slightly softer. I am still looking into that topic though, and I don’t know if that is true or not yet. But it is something to consider as well.

      Thanks for the good question!

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