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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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