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.


shooting a wedding: survival tips

As a general rule, I’ve shied away from shooting weddings because I always thought that they were just too stressful. I hesitantly say that I’ve enjoyed event photography, but I definitely don’t enjoy the stress that goes along with it.

I worry myself sick that I’m going to miss something so I’ll “machine-gun” it like a mad-woman trying to capture e v e r y t h i n g. This usually leaves me with a stomach-ache and roughly one million and eight photos to go through later.

So when my first friend from college asked me to shoot his wedding, I immediately said yes, but then panicked. I told Vasily he had to shoot with me and of course he agreed. We also recruited the lovely Ashley Danaila to assist us. You can check her out on Facebook.

To make sure I didn’t develop stress ulcers, I tried to think of every detail beforehand. And it worked: No ulcers!

These were some of my tactics:

1. Meet with the bride and groom in person way before the big day. (Ideally a good month or two.)

Here you might talk about a “first look” v. waiting til the aisle to see each other. I would also recommend recommending they have a wedding coordinator to channel the bridal party to the right locations. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it usually doesn’t hurt.

2. Plan, plan, plan.

Vasily and I drew out diagrams of where each of us would be during the ceremony and who would shoot what. We also had to coordinate the groomsmen & groom and the bridesmaids & bride so the bride and groom wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse. Lots of pre-planning, but as I learned in my tv production days– this is what makes your shoot a success.

3. Play to your strengths.

Vasily knows gear. So I deferred to him for all lighting, lens and crop-sensor questions. And it was great! I didn’t have to worry about any of the stuff I would normally worry about.

And I think that about sums it up– basically plan ahead, ask for help and let everyone play to their strengths. Your stress level will drop and I’m convinced that the less stressed everyone else is, the less stressed the bride is and therefore everyone has an awesome day. Win-Win-Win.

How to shoot sharper pictures, Part 2: Understanding your lens

(This is the 2nd part of a 3 part series.  If you missed the first post, you can find it here)


Now that your camera is dialed in, let’s talk about that lens you have stuck to the front end. Not all lenses are equally sharp. The same is true for aperture values and focal lengths. As you should know by now, a smaller aperture gives you more depth of field. And the greater your depth of field, the easier it is to get pictures that appear sharp. But that’s not why you bought your 50mm 1.8. You also don’t lust over Canon’s 85mm 1.2 because you care about how it looks at f8. But you have to realize that every lens you have is not its sharpest when shot wide open. Your 50 1.8 is sharper at f2.8 and sharper still at f4. This is also true for zoom lenses. The mighty 70-200mm 2.8 is sharper at f4 then it is at 2.8. And speaking of zooms, this brings us to yet another point: Zoom lenses, especially telephotos, tend to get softer as you approach their maximum focal length.

All lenses have a performance sweet spot. With zoom lenses, it is usually toward the middle of the zoom range, and with both zooms and primes, it is usually 1 or 2 stops slower than the maximum aperture.

Now if you have made it this far and you think I’m suggesting that you not shoot wide open or at your maximum focal length, you might miss the whole point of this conversation. More on this in part 3.

Naturally, higher end lenses are usually sharper, especially at the maximum aperture, and have a sweet spot that covers a greater percentage of the zoom or aperture range and higher end cameras have better ISO performance. Spending more money, however, isn’t the solution because there is so much room for human error.

That’s what we will cover next time: shooting technique.

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.

Rolls Reception

Ryan and Lindsey got married on Monday and had their reception on Saturday. (Sounds like a sweet plan to me!) The photographer who shot their ceremony went to India on Tuesday, so Vasily and I shot the Saturday reception! It was fun and exciting to swoop in and just start shooting. And it didn’t hurt that they were such a fun couple.