How to shoot sharper pictures, Part 1: Camera settings

One of the most common questions I get about photography is: “How do I make my pictures sharper?”
I wish this there was a simple answer. As I started out listing the various factors that can affect obtaining razor sharp focus, I realized this wouldn’t be a short and sweet post. So I organized the different factors into three separate posts: camera settings, lenses, and technique. Now for the disclaimer: I don’t claim to have all the answers and this is based on my experience and my observations. I probably left something out or gave too much emphasis to a factor that has hounded me. Your mileage may vary.

Let’s dive in.

First, there are some camera settings that will help you out. Regardless of manufacturer, using a single focus point gives you the most control over where the camera looks for focus. The focus points in the center of the view finder are the cross-type sensors and are more accurate and faster than the focus points toward the edges of the frame. The amount of these points varies from camera to camera, but it is safe to say that the center most focus point is a cross-type focus point regardless of camera brand or model.

Also, setting the focus drive mode to single servo (usually marked with an ‘S’) instead of continuous servo or auto will enable your camera to find focus and then lock on to it while you take the picture. Don’t use this on moving subjects. Just don’t.

Next, try to use the lowest ISO value that you can get away with and still have a proper exposure. Artifacts and color noise in your picture won’t make it look any sharper, and when you go to remove the digital grain in post, it will soften your picture. This is a simplistic view and there are exceptions, but lower ISO values will help you get sharper pictures.

Lastly, the shutter speed you pick is also important. Most day to day human action can be stopped at 125th of a second. But if you’re shooting athletes, cars, birds, or anything that moves quickly, you’ll have to shoot with a much faster shutter speed. 1/1000th of a second might not be fast enough to freeze a fastball and 8000th of a second won’t freeze a humming bird. But if you’re shooting portraits and weddings and stuff like that, 125th of a second should do just fine. You can even use slower shutter speeds depending on how still your subject is, and how steady your hand is.

Another helpful rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed that is equivalent to your focal length. So if you’re shooting at 200mm, a shutter speed of 200th of a second should eliminate camera shake. This rule implies that the longer your focal length, the faster the shutter speed. The opposite is also true: you can shoot with a lower shutter speed if you use wider lenses because wider lenses don’t exaggerate movement (like camera shake) the same way telephoto lenses do. If your equipment has image stabilization, you can get away with much lower shutter speeds.

Your camera should be like a good and trusty old friend: reliable, predictable, and consistent. The more control you take over the camera’s inputs, the more reliable and dependable it will be. It will be easier to get sharp pictures consistently. However, if you let the camera think for itself, it will continue to disappoint you. This is not because the technology is flawed. It is actually quite remarkable. But your camera can’t read your mind. It doesn’t know your artistic intentions. As a creative, you are in charge and your camera is your tool. It’s not the other way around.

2 responses to “How to shoot sharper pictures, Part 1: Camera settings

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