Photography Tip: Getting Maximum Sharpness

Maximum Sharpness – Beginning Photography Basics

All photographers at some point were completely ignorant when it came to photography. Think about that. At one time even Ansel Adams could not tell you the difference between an F-stop and a dark slide. At some stage of a photographer’s life something happens to spark the passion and drive to improve. Quite often beginning photographers focus their education on exposure, depth of field, film types, etc., and overlook the most basics of photography; one of which being creating sharp images.


I cannot tell you how many times a photographer has emailed a digital image, or shown me a print, of an image they have produced – of which they want feedback. Many of them have been creatively composed, perfectly exposed, matched with the right depth of field, but looked like there was an earthquake going on while they took the shot!

Let these words sink in: Nothing will place the stamp of ‘amateur’ on a photograph more than an image that is anything less than tack sharp.

For those of you with aspirations to shoot professionally, and receive compensation for your work, this aspect of image reproduction is crucial. Show an image to a potential client that is even just a miniscule out of focus, it is very unlikely they will become a client. They do notice!

So, with the point now being driven home, how can you produce tack sharp images – alive with dazzling detail? Unless you are running around with a camera that doesn’t even have a brand name on it, and is estimated to be a leftover from the dark ages – you can dismiss the notion that spending a big chunk of change on a new lens will solve your problem. While no experienced photographer will argue that all lenses are created equal – most all major manufacturers of lenses produce high quality results when used properly. Of course there are exceptions, but this article is not about product promotion.

About Lenses

Keep your lenses clean, and keep them protected!

Nothing will make me cringe more than seeing someone hiking around with their camera dangling without a lens cap! It takes very little to scratch them and once you do you can kiss a paycheck or two goodbye. Clean them with a high-quality lens tissue only…not the sleeve of your flannel hiking shirt.

The less glass between your lens and the subject the better!

Many photographers keep UV filters on their lens just to protect it. Take it off and protect that lens like it’s your baby! Adding anything to the lens will degrade the quality of the image. It may be miniscule, but do not settle for ‘close enough’ – ever. Besides, there will be times when you will want to use filters. Eliminate or minimize the extra glass!

About Tripods

Well you knew I was going to bring up the use of tripods, right? Don’t like to use them? Too bad! When you start shooting landscapes at the right aperture, with the right film or ISO setting – you will be working with very slow shutter speeds. In my earlier years I despised the idea of hauling a tripod around. Unfortunately I have a lot of very nice photographs from those days that I would not show except to prove my point!

Remember, there is no such thing as a lazy successful photographer. So if you are not using a tripod because they are a pain – get over it, and get on with improving your photographs.

Simply put, a quality tripod is one that is solid and will not allow your camera to move one bit. An elephant could sneeze on it and it won’t budge! Good tripod. Unfortunately good quality tripods like this are not featherlight. So you will burn a few more calories when you are hiking. The other benefit with using a tripod is that it will slow you down. By slowing down you will think more about your shot, get your visualization process going, and make less exposure mistakes. Therefore – less wasted film, and no more getting back to your PC and uploading images that make you want to cry.

Mirror Lock-Up

If your camera has a Mirror Lock-up feature – use it for these types of shots. When you typically take a picture the mirror slaps up so the shutter curtains can open to expose the image. Even with the best cameras this movement can cause your image to blur slightly when using very slow shutter speeds. Once you lock up the mirror you will not see anything through your viewfinder, so you do this after you have composed, focused, and set the exposure for your shot.

Shutter Release Timer

All SLR cameras have a timer – usually a choice between 2 or 10 seconds. I use the 10 second setting so that if I am shooting with shutter speeds at 1/4 of a second or slower it gives me time to lean my weight into the tripod to hold it extra still. Even using a timer at ‘normal’ shutter speeds will get my hands off the camera, so that even the slightest movement from pushing the shutter button will not affect the image.

Auto Focus

Automatic focusing is wonderful for photojournalism, wildlife, and sports photography – but has no place in producing fine art landscape photographs. I once watched a young man take about fifteen minutes to set up for what was probably a very nice shot. He composed, recomposed, measured the light, adjusted the tripod some more – then pushed the button which resulted in a ‘beep’ as the lens automatically focused – and shot. That’s kind of like polishing up your new car and then choosing to drive it down the dirt roads. Why??

While the best cameras have incredible auto-focus capabilities, they can be off just slightly when you are shooting landscapes (even with long depths of field) and being off even just slightly can mean the difference between ultra sharp details and a so-so image.

So unless you are dealing with uncorrectable nearsightedness, switch the lens to manual and focus yourself. You’ll enjoy the results!

In summary:

1- Keep your lens protected, clean, and with only the necessary filter attachments.

2- Use a tripod! If you are serious about producing professional quality landscape photographs, you cannot get around this.

3- Mirror Lock-Up: The first step at reducing camera shake at the time of exposure.

4- Shutter Timer: The second step at reducing camera shake at the time of exposure.

5- Manual Focus: for more accurate focusing!

Utilizing these techniques will enable you to take one more step towards producing rewarding, high quality fine art photographs!

About the author:
Chip Clark is a San Diego based professional photographer, with over 20 years experience in landscape photography, wildlife photography, sports photography, and portraiture.
Chip Clark’s online galleries can be seen at

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