Digital SLR photography — Getting sharper pictures
It can be frustrating to have the latest, greatest gear yet still get a bunch of soft images. If your camera isn’t producing the tack-sharp photos you were expecting then here’s a rundown of the usual causes.
You don’t need to see every strand on every feather in a bird photo to make it a nice shot (see the sample detail from this photo in the image below). In fact I’d say other factors are much more important. But it’s nice to get things sharp when you want it. The bird is a Welcome Swallow.
This is the first thing people think of, but it’s usually not the culprit. Most camera gear these days works like it should. That’s not to say quality control is always perfect. I’ve experienced the frustrations of a camera that focused unreliably. In my case, the problems disappeared after a firmware update.
So I don’t want to suggest that equipment is never to blame. But in the vast majority of cases a soft photo is the result of one or more of the things I describe below.
Fast-moving, nervous tiny birds darting about in very weak light, like this Silvereye, can represent a huge challenge for photographers. Yet it’s even possible to consistently get tack-sharp photos of these reluctant subjects if you understand the potential problems and know how to work around them. In this case, I used a strong flash, which put enough light into the scene to make things easier for the camera.
Image stabilization allows for hand-held photography at slower shutter speeds.
In a perfect world our hands would be as steady as tripods. But they’re not. Which is why we invented tripods. An awful lot of soft shots are in fact the result of tiny amounts of camera shake, especially when your’re working at maximum zoom (a long lens).
What do about it
- Find a way to keep things still. When I take a shot my elbows are leaning against my chest and I hold my breath a little as I squeeze the shutter button. And I keep that stance until the shutter has properly closed again. If there’s something solid around I might lean against it. Or stand with feet apart and knees slightly bent, for more stability.
- Kneeling down and using your elbow on one knee like a sort of tripod is another way of minimising camera jiggle. Using a tripod, a monopod, or resting your camera in a small bean bag will obviously help too. Otherwise, you can look for something solid to sit your camera on.
- Never jab or tap the shutter button. Instead you should squeeze it or roll your finger onto it. Jabbing that button is going to cause vibration in the camera that will almost guarantee a blurred shot.
- Use the image stabilization system if you have one. Whether it be called Image Stabilization (Canon), Vibration Reduction (Nikon), Optical Stabilization (Sigma) or whatever, it helps reduce the blur caused by the camera shake that comes from our unsteady hands. If your camera gear does have it then it can be worth the effort to read up about it in your manual. That’s because it often needs different settings for things like panning or when using a tripod.
A long telephoto lens can bring you ‘closer’ to small wildlife like this Restless Flycatcher, but it also brings a need to be much more vigilant against camera shake.
The longer your telephoto lens, the more noticeable camera shake becomes.
What to do about it
Here’s a rough rule to keep in mind when you’re working hand-held: use your focal length number as a minimum shutter speed number. In other words, if you’re using a 200mm lens hand-held then you shouldn’t have a shutter speed any slower than 200th second.
Even if your camera’s on a rock-solid tripod, that’s not going to stop motion blur if your subject is moving. For example, a car driving past at 60 kph will travel about 27cm during a 60th second exposure. That’s 27cm of motion blur. And some types of birds are forever jerking their heads backwards and forwards when they walk.
What to do about it
- Panning (following the action by keeping the lens pointed at the moving object) will reduce the amount of motion blur in the subject. And it will help contrast the subject from its background by blurring the background
- Selecting a very fast shutter speed will also help to reduce motion blur. For example, I often use a shutter speed of between 1,000th and 2,000th second, for small, twitchy birds.
The shutter speed for this photo of a swooping Masked Lapwing was 800th second. I could have perhaps gone a bit faster but the light wasn’t all that strong. Also, I was happy to allow a little bit of motion blur around the wings to emphasise the sense of movement.
A Water Dragon turns its head. I admit this is an extreme example of this type of motion blur but I include it for two reasons — one: because head movements in animals result in an awful lot of blurred shots, and two: I thought it was funny.
This Brush Turkey chick was constantly moving on the floor of a dark rainforest. Getting a sharp image without the use of a flash can be difficult under those circumstances.
Shutter speed too fast
Huh? Isn’t a fast shutter speed supposed to make things sharper? Not always. In low light a fast shutter speed can reduce image quality. You see, in low light, a shutter speed that is too fast is going to do two things:
- It’s going to force the aperture to open up to its maximum. That will reduce depth of field, which means you might not get all the important parts of the scene in focus
- And it’s going to encourage your camera to reach into its high ISO levels. When that happens your images can start speckling with noise.
What do do about it
If you’re working in weak light then resist the urge to use extremely fast shutter speeds. And you should also think about locking your camera’s ISO at a setting no higher than what you know it can realistically handle.
Not enough light
In the previous section I talked about one of the difficulties of working in weak light. I’m talking about losing depth of field and noise getting into your photos.
Seriously, you’d be surprised how often I see photos taken in weak light that turn out to be soft, which is why I’m making a big deal about the subject here.
What can you do about it?
If you know that weak light is your problem then you’re just going to have to find a way to get more light into your lens. That might mean using a flash powerful enough to reach your telephoto’s subject, or it might mean mounting your camera on a tripod and using a slower exposure (and hope your subject doesn’t move too quickly for your slow shutter speed).