Digital Focus: Take Sharper Pictures

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Based on questions I get from friends, readers, and my wife, it appears that the most vexing problem affecting photographers today doesn't have anything to do with photo editing, flash media cards, or image sensors. Nope, the question I get all the time is, "How do I take sharper photos with my digital camera?"

When my wife asks, I often give her the same answer I'd give to a musician asking how to get to Carnegie Hall: "practice, practice, practice." She's getting tired of my snarkiness, so this week let's look at all the ways to shoot sharper photos.

Steady Hands

The single most important thing you can do to improve your pictures--especially if you're new to photography--is to keep a steadier hand. Specifically, press the shutter release more gently. It takes only a tiny amount of pressure to activate the camera's shutter. Try this: Look in a mirror while you take a picture and watch what happens when you press the shutter release. If you see the camera wobble or jiggle, you're pressing it too hard. The camera should not move at the moment of exposure. Practice in the mirror until you can shoot pictures with minimal camera shake.

Something to Lean On

As I'm sure you know by now, I am a huge fan of tripods; I recommend using them whenever possible. And here's a little secret you might not know: the more megapixels your camera is capable of, the more important it is to use a tripod to get sharp photos. New 10-megapixel cameras have problems with camera shake a lot more often than 4- or 5-megapixel models, because they record much finer detail. If carrying around a tripod is too much trouble, consider a monopod--my wife has a combination monopod/walking stick for hiking, and she loves it--or a bean-bag support like The Pod.

If all else fails, just brace yourself against something, like a door frame. Use common sense, of course, and make sure that what you're bracing against is stable. Trying to stabilize your camera against a sapling on a windy day could introduce unwanted movement. The ground is dependably stable--unless you happen to get caught in an earthquake, of course.

Last week, I wandered through a Japanese garden and snapped some shots of a waterfall at a fairly slow half-second exposure. I didn't have a tripod, so I got down on the ground and positioned my camera on a rock. Despite the agonizingly slow shutter speed, I managed to get some sharp photos, like this one.

Tweak Your Camera Settings

Don't forget that your camera is an ally in your quest for sharp photos. Take advantage of your camera's exposure settings. In general, the faster your shutter speed the better, so use your camera's shutter priority mode (if it has one) and set the fastest shutter speed possible. For tips on using this setting, read "Making the Most of Shutter-Priority Mode," one of my August columns.

If your camera doesn't have a shutter priority mode, then dial in its Action or Sports setting. You might also be able to choose Program mode and then use the camera's adjustment dial to increase the shutter speed while the camera keeps the aperture setting in sync. Of course, a fast shutter speed means you'll have less depth of field in your photos, but depth of field doesn't contribute much to sharpness unless you're taking extreme close-ups (macro photos) of tiny objects. For more on this topic, read "Master Your Camera's Depth of Field," one of my May columns.

In lower light conditions, when the shutter speed is too low to generate sharp prints, you should increase the camera's ISO setting. As you increase the ISO from, say, 100 to 200 to 400, the best available shutter speed increases from 1/15 to 1/30 to 1/60 second, for example. Remember that higher ISO settings add digital noise to your photos, so return the setting to the lowest position when the lighting improves. For more on ISO settings, read "Use ISO to Take Low-Light Photos," one of my January columns.

Sharpen Your Photos Afterwards

Finally, don't forget that you can add sharpness on your PC afterwards. Most digital cameras capture a slightly "soft" photo anyway, and you can use a tool in your favorite image editing program, like Unsharp Mask, to increase contrast and enhance sharpness.

In Corel's Paint Shop Pro, for example, open your photo and choose Adjust, Sharpness, Unsharp Mask from the menu. The default settings are generally just fine; click OK to sharpen your photo.

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