Sharpness Series Part Two: Settings in camera

In Tips and Tricksby Patrick

Sharp shots are usually pretty essential in photography. Of course there are times when you want a creative blur or effect, but the majority of the time, sharpness is king. Tripods are the best to ensure a tack sharp image, but what if you cannot use one or don’t have one. There are things that you can do at the point of capture with the camera to give you the best chance for sharp photos.

BRACE YOURSELF

In addition to the proper handholding technique, you can lean against buildings, trees, rest your arms on railings or rest the camera on something to reduce camera shake and increases your chances of sharper images.

TURN ON STABILIZATION

In Nikon cameras it is called VR (Vibration Reduction) and in Canon it is called IS (Image Stabilization). If your lens or camera body has image stabilization built in, you can use significantly slower shutter speeds when hand-holding. The degree of stabilization depends on the technology being employed and is usually quoted in ‘stops’.

UNDERSTANDING SHUTTER SPEEDS

You can get a good idea of what will work hand-held by using a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the number of millimetres of focal length you’re using. Let me explain: if you’re using a 400mm lens, you need at least 1/400 sec to hand-hold. That’s a nice simple rule for full frame sensors, but a lot of cameras have cropped sensors (so-called APS-C size) and this needs to be taken into account by multiplying the speed by the crop factor. Typical crop factors are 1.5x (most Nikon), 1.6x (most Canon) and there are others at 1.7x and even 2x and above. Taking a Nikon D3300 for example our 400mm becomes a 600mm (400 x 1.5) so 1/600 sec to handhold is the ideal. Of notes, there isn’t a 1/600 sec setting, so you’d have to set 1/800 sec. Now, with practice, practice and more practice, this rule of thumb is not set in stone and once muscle memory kicks in you can will be able to shoot at slower shutter speeds.

ISO SETTINGS

You may have heard or already know that using a high ISO setting on your camera can introduce unwanted noise into the resulting image. It’s another photographic irony that increasing ISO in order to obtain faster shutter speeds and a corresponding reduction in camera shake can soften the image due to the amount of noise present. You’ll have to experiment with what you find acceptable for your camera, but you’ll find that after a certain value of ISO, the camera will record less detail and dynamic range and your pictures will need more noise reduction in post-production. And, you guessed it, noise reduction reduces sharpness.

ADDING FLASH

OK, so it is not exactly in camera, but it can be added to the cameras’s hot shoe and today’s flashes are portable enough that they don’t add a lot of weight. Flash will instantly alleviate the problem of noise and can also give you an effective shutter speed far greater than that indicated on the camera.

CLEAN THE FRONT ELEMENT / FILTER AND MIRROR AFTER EACH USE

This one probably goes without saying, but making sure you take care of the gear prior to a shoot or assignment is essential and will prevent a lot of headaches regarding capturing a sharp image.

SHOOT BURSTS

Changing your cameras mode for single shot to continuous will help ensure at least one image is sharp and it is usually it is the one in the middle of the sequence.

HYPERFOCAL DISTANCE

Hyperfocal distance is one of those things that’s really only practical for static landscape type shots and not usually in hand-held photography. But you can maximize your chances of getting the best sharpness for the largest depth of field by focusing at or near the hyperfocal distance.

If you don’t have a lookup-table or smartphone app at hand to calculate this for you, a very rough guide is that about a third of the scene in front of the point of focus will be acceptably sharp and about two-thirds behind it. The actual depth of field depends on the aperture you’ve set and the focal length, but focusing about a third of the way into a scene is a good start.

LOCK THE MIRROR UP ON THE DSLR

Mirror lock up. When we take a photo, the mirror in our DSLRs slap up and down to let light into the sensor. This movement can shake the camera very slightly, which especially in longer exposures, can create a blurry image. This is usually found in the cameras menu settings.

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