How to shoot sharper pictures, Part 3: Technique

(This is the last, and longest, post in a 3 part series.  Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2)


Shooting technique is perhaps the most important and easiest to improve factor.  It doesn’t require you to spend more money and it can be achieved through practice.  We have already touched on some techniques, like using appropriate shutter speeds, but there is a little more to it than that.  And if you want to shoot your fast primes wide open, it is your technique that will determine whether your pictures are sharp or sh*t.  This requires some patience and perseverance.  And since so many of our ranks are tempted to just buy nicer gear, I talked about the technical stuff first and saved the best for last.


Let’s talk about some practical exercises to help you understand a little more about how your camera and lens behave.


We already discussed using your camera’s single servo mode in conjunction with just one focus point.  If you put that point on your subject’s eye, press your shutter half way down until your camera beeps, then take your picture without recomposing, you will get a sharp subject. Well, at least the eye will be sharp, but that’s the goal, right?  If you shoot this picture at f1.8, you will trade some sharpness for a shallower depth of field and that’s OK. If you shoot the same picture at f8, your picture will probably be tack sharp but there may be some distracting elements in focus in the background.


But you want your pictures to be skillfully composed and that usually means that your subject isn’t smack in the middle of the frame.  So, to obtain proper focus, you have two options.  You can practice the technique described above using the center focus point, but then recompose before you shoot.  The other option is to change your focus point and use one that is closer to the subject.  This is a matter of preference and there is no wrong way to do it, but if you botch either one, you’ll lose focus.


That’s because when you recompose, you are ever so slightly moving the focal plane relative to where it was when you first locked focus.  This might not be a big deal, but if you’re shooting with very shallow depth of field, this is enough to make your subject’s eyes soft while making the bridge of the nose sharp.


Changing the focus points also has its disadvantage: pressing more buttons and changing more inputs between your pictures.  Personally, it slows me down, but I have friends that can rock this technique.  Also, as you leave the center focus points, you start dealing with less sensitive focus points, like we discussed before.  This can cause your camera to hunt for focus or miss it all together, especially in low light, low contrast situations.


We can put all of this together into some practical exercises.  For example, and I still do this, when watching TV, take your camera out and shoot the display on the DVD player.  This usually works best from the couch and with a longer lens as it will magnify camera shake.  Take a picture of the display at a low shutter speed.  Maybe 1/30th of a second.  Zoom in and check your focus.  If the image is soft, try it again and really concentrate on holding your camera steady.  Plant your elbow’s into your torso, exhale, and shoot again.  Check focus and repeat.  Once you start getting sharp pictures without the camera movements introducing motion blur, slow the shutter speed down by 2/3rds of a stop or use a longer zoom and do it again.


The above exercise may seem silly but it helped me out tremendously when I first started and I still do it every now and again.  It teaches you how to keep your camera stable in a very low stress, low pressure environment.  This way, when you find yourself with in a desperate situation, and you will find yourself in this situation, where you’re shooting wide open, your ISO is already in the stratosphere, flash is not an option, you have to deliver for your client, you will be able to reach deep down inside, steady yourself, slow down your shutter speed, and then create sharp images.  You’ll be able to do this because you practiced and you know your limitations, the limitations of your equipment, and most importantly, you’ll know how to work around those limitations.  All of this comes through practice.


Now that I’m done preaching, another helpful exercise is one that you can actually do on the job.  Say you are shooting a wedding.  You got the pictures that you were hired to create, you’re now in a dimly lit reception, and the last 50 frames of the dance floor are starting to look the same.  This is when you start working for yourself instead of the client.  You already have the safe shots, so experiment.  Use lower shutter speeds instead of higher ISO values and try to create images that tell the story.  You’ll be forced to hold your camera rock steady.  You will also learn about how deliberate motion blur (from the dance floor, for example) might give your images a sense of action and movement.  You’ll definitely learn something about your craft and your limitations, but you’ll also learn how to shoot at low shutter speeds and you might even create an image that will make the final cut and diversify your portfolio.


And while you are learning about techniques, here is one more that you should master early: Keep your lenses clean.  Do this religiously.  It is easy to do, it takes very little time, and it will help you get sharper results.


The last note that I want to leave you with is this: All of the factors we discussed in this 3 part series can compound and conspire against you.  For example, if you’re shooting wide open (f1.8, shallow depth of field, outside of the lens’ sweet spot), and you focus than recompose (focus the camera then move it slightly before you take the picture), while using a slow shutter speed (say below 1/125th of a second), and a high ISO, with a dirty lens, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get a razor-sharp image.


Being aware of these factors will help you create razor-sharp pictures consistently.


So practice and learn the limitations of your equipment.  Lastly, remember that there is a huge difference between razor-sharp and usable.  You can still have usable pictures that are not the sharpest.  But you have to define that for yourself because my definition of usable is not the same as your definition of usable.


I apologize for the long-winded post.  I’ll keep future entries shorter…  If you have questions, leave them in the comments or ask me on Twitter.

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