To begin, let me first cross off 2 of the most obvious things that you’ll need to know. They are: getting a tripod and using a cable release. For those of you who are struggling to understand why, a tripod is used to steady your camera so you can avoid any unnecessary camera shakes. In fact, if you are hand holding your camera shooting at shutter speed slower than ‘1 / lens zoom range’ then you will need to use tripod.
For the cable release, it is used to avoid you physically pressing the shutter release button on your camera. The less opportunity you get to touch your camera, the less vibration it may cause. Once you understand the concepts of using a tripod and taking picture using a cable release then lets get head onto the main topic for today.
1) Turn off IS or VR
As a quick introduction, IS means image stabilization and this term is used for Canon cameras. VR means vibration reduction and this is used for Nikon cameras. Turning off IS or VR may not be a big secret to some of you but unless you read a lot of photography related materials at the beginning you really wouldn’t know this technique’s existence. This is especially great for night photography where you take long exposure photos on a tripod. The reason behind turning off IS (or VR) is to eliminate the lens’ motor vibration in your camera. Most modern lenses nowadays have their own build in motor. Therefore, when your DSLR sends signal through the electrical contacts on the lens it is going to activate the motor and produce vibration occur. Even though the vibration is very minimal it tends to cause some blurriness to your photos if you are using a long exposure. So in order to take razor sharp photos (especially at night), make sure your camera is on a steady tripod, focus on your subject, and finally turn off IS/VR feature before taking the shot.
2) Use mirror lock up
The conspiracy behind mirror lockup has long been a hot debate among photographers. On one side it says mirror lockup doesn’t improve the sharpness of a photo and the other side says they saw slight improvements. What Mirror lock up does (Exposure delay mode for Nikon) is that it locks your camera’s mirror to the up position so that when you take the shot the mirror does not move until after the exposure is made. If you ask me does it make a difference? I’d say not really but there is no harm to try. For canon user please note that you need to press the shutter release button twice to take a picture. The first time is for lifting the mirror up and the second time is to take the shot.
3) Focus properly
If you are using a fairly new DSLR with lots of focus points you shouldn’t have this problem, however if you using an older DSLR you probably noticed there aren’t enough focus points for your camera. My Canon 5D MKII only has 9 focus points and many times I’ve seen people (including myself) focus using the middle focus point then alter the angle slightly to focus on the subject. This is generally ok if you are shooting in high aperture like f16. However, if you are shooting at f2.8 you will have depth of field issues. For example, if you took a picture of a person facing towards you then you may find that person’s nose is sharp but the eyes are blurry. Unfortunately, you cannot create the focus point yourself so the only way is to be careful not to move too much while changing your focus. Both newer Canon and Nikon DSLRs have a lot (in my opinion way more) focus points then you need so it shouldn’t be a big problem nowadays.
4) Tape your lens zoom ring
I mentioned taping your lens in my previous post here and it is by far the best method to get razor sharp photos for long exposure night photography. To give you a little background, if you are using a zoom lens and you are doing long exposure, your lens zoom ring will move a little bit during the exposure period due to gravity or weight factors. This movement may not be visible to our eyes but it is very noticeable in your photo during long exposure. Therefore, whenever you have a 10+ second exposure always tape your lens. By the way, do not use regular tape, as this will damage your lens coating. Use this one here.
5) Increase the ISO
Generally you would want to shoot at the lowest ISO settings to reduce noise in your photo, but sometimes a little bit of noise actually makes a photo look sharper. In fact, if you increase the sharpness of your picture in Adobe Lightroom you will see some noise and this could be a good thing. Use this noise to your advantage and don’t over do it for the best result.
6) Use your lens sharpest aperture
One quick way in getting razor sharp photos is to step 2 f stops down to get to the sweet spot of your lens. What that means is if you are using a f2.8 lens then step it down to f5.6 or f8 to get the maximum sharpness of your lens. This is not necessary true for all lenses and stepping down 2 f stops really depends on the make of your lens. However stepping down 1-2 stops is usually where I found the maximum sharpness for my lenses. To give you an example, my Canon 50mm f1.8 gets the best result around f2.8 and my Canon 24-105mm is f4 which is at its widest aperture. Test out different apertures and zoom range of your lenses to find out the sweet spot for razor sharp photos.
7) Check your diopter
Diopter is the little wheel next to your camera’s viewfinder. It is used to adjust the focus of the viewfinder so what you see is what the photo is going to look like. Often time people forget to adjust the diopter so the picture that came out does not look as sharp as they saw through the viewfinder. This is especially true if two people are sharing the same camera because one person may be wearing glasses while the other person doesn’t. To avoid this issue make sure you check your diopter focus before you head out for your next photo shoot.
8) Do post processing
If you tried everything above and your photo still looks a little blurry, the last line of defense is to fix it at post processing. To make sure I got this point clear, there is no software to my knowledge yet available to make a blurry photo look sharp. The post process secret I meant is to import and export out your photo using Adobe Lightroom merely for the sharpening progress inside the software. For those of you who might be confused at this point, Lightroom actually sharpen your RAW file two times. First time when you import the photo into Lightroom and second time when your export out the photo in Lightroom. It doesn’t work all the time but once a while I do see sharper images just by applying this technique. So if you have tried everything give this a shot and you may be surprised with the result.
I hope this provides you some insight of my secrets of getting razor sharp photos with your DSLR. Do you have any secrets or tips related to this topic? Please share with the community below!