Taking sharper pictures – 9 quick fixes

Imagine you stumble into an event that is totally unique, and you’re lucky enough to have your camera with you (since you never leave the house without it, maybe it’s even built into your phone). An alien ship is landing in your backyard, your secret love is walking naked down the street, the robbery of a century goes down right in front of you – I don’t know, it’s your imagination.

You pick up your camera and start shooting frame after frame, and you know that one of them is going to be the picture of your life. This is your chance to enter the tiny room of great photographers. It’s a fantastic photographic opportunity and you know it will not come around a second time. Not ever. Which is a good thing, otherwise it wouldn’t be as great.

Once the aliens have landed and killed everybody around you, you run home with your camera in a grip so hard your knuckles turn white. You plug in the USB cable, turn on the Bluetooth, slip the memory card into the card reader – whatever your method is, you download the photos to your computer featuring a huge calibrated screen and an even huger bulky photo printer. You sit down in your working chair and just can’t wait to see those fantastic pictures which will change your life.

But the pictures are blurred. Each and every one of them suffer from unsharpness. Sure, they may be proof that you were there, that the aliens actually did land, that the love of your life is actually a guy (or girl or whatever you had not expected). That the robber is actually your aunt Petulia.

But they will not be great. Those unsharp pictures will never be great. There is only one sense in which they may be called great – they are a great failure of your photographic method.

Luckily enough, another photographer were there too, so the event is saved for the afterworld. And that other photographer enters the photographers’ hall of fame.

Isn’t that lucky! No, it’s a disaster. Unsharp images are a disaster. They represent a wasted photographic opportunity. Which will never come back. Forget about it and move on.

Next time, better make sure you get the pictures sharp right from the start, right? Okay, but how? Hang on, I’ll tell you.

Hold still

The single most important thing you need to understand is this: camera movement is not good.

It’s bad!

You must learn to hold the camera still. A shaking hand is a wasted photographic moment. It’s gone forever.

Holding still is the primary skill for the successful photographer. You can tatoo that on the back of your hand. As long as you quote me as your source.

So how do you do it? It may come as a surprise, but great photographers know a handful of techniques to this end, and they put them to use routinely. Part of their greatness resides in this fact. Super sharp photographs is not about buying super expensive lenses.

The most obvious technique is to support your elbows against your belly. It’s a natural support that you carry around wherever you go, why should you not use it?

Every time I see a person shoot a frame elbows in the air, I think to myself “bloody amateur”. It’s a waste of good fortune.

In this respect, your preferred choice should be a big belly. Start building now if you haven’t already.

Once this photographic technique is second nature to you, there are other techniques that may or may not be available to you, depending on the photographic situation. We’ll move on to them in a little while.

Here goes.

Use a tripod

It may be a bit of a burden, and maybe it makes you look silly, but a tripod will get the job done when you really, really need it.

Why do you care how you look if there’s money involved? Or fame?

Or nudity.

Bring your tripod along!

Use a monopod

If a “three-leg” is not practical, at least bring one of the legs. A monopod is much better than no pod at all.

As long as you don’t stick it you know where. Anyone who tells you to do that is not to be trusted. (But they might still be a potential buyer of your art.)

Use other supports

Nature is full of natural supports for your camera. So is culture (by which I mean rooms, houses, streets etc.)

Use them to your advantage. Put your elbow against that chair. Lean your back against that door post. Heck, lie down on the sidewalk – as long as it adds to the quality of your art, why should you care what people think?

Ask people not to move

Even if you manage to hold the camera still, your motive may be moving. In a situation with insufficient light this may be more than enough to make sharpness a mission impossible.

If you really want a sharp picture of someone in a certain situation, ask them to sit still!

You know, in the midst of today’s spontaneous, natural looking, snapshot like photos, there’s still room for an arranged image here and there.

Place your subjects against a suitable background, tell them to sit still, find a good support for your camera and take a series of sharp pictures.

You may feel like an idiot, and the people in the picture may look a bit stiff when you scroll through your 400 frames from that family weekend, but later on – ten years from now, fifty years from now, the value of such images may be enormous.

Hell, two hundred years from now, those sharp images of a group of people can be of immense pleasure to people who may not even be born at the time you make this extra effort to achieve a sharp photograph.

Ever seen a really good shot of your parents as small children? It’s a really sweet experience that also gives you a fantastic perspective on your own person, or that of your children.

Use your flash

Most people don’t carry around huge flash torches msot of the time. It’s true that you can get wonderful results if you use a really strong flash and bounce it off the roof or a nearby wall. (If you haven’t tried this, definitely give it a chance.)

The built-in flashes of compact cameras and camera mobiles are not quite there. What they deliver is not a soft and warm indirect light to bring out the finer details of your motive. They give you a hard, or harsh, direct light smack in the face of your unexpecting subjects, oftentimes creating those scary red eyes that make people look like aliens.

But they will be sharp aliens.

In the right situation, a built-in flash may make out the difference between a spoilt photographic opportunity and a sharp image that you can slide into the history of mankind (or at least the history of your own family) and that can push you into the history of photographs that made a difference.

When light is bad and people won’t be still, switch on your flash and shoot a few frames with the hard, direct light. They may save your day tomorrow.

Find a decent light source

If the light is bad and you definitely cannot use a flash as suggested above, see if you can find another source of light, a natural light source or an electric one. Here you may have to get creative.

The most common light source is probably the window. When inside, unless it’s dark outside and your lamps are on, the best light is usually the one coming in through the windows.

Put your back to the window and hae your subjects look your way. This can create a really nice light that is both soft and strong enough.

Note 1: Never ever shoot with the subject between you and the window! You will end up with a blurred photo of the building across the street obstructed by human silhuetts.

Note 2: Remember that a coloured light source may fool your camera and result in some not so balanced colour pictures. While this may be a real problem at times, it may also be quite insubstantial and sometimes it is really easy to fix. If you go B&W, colour balance isn’t that much of a topic. Just keep this in mind at the time of shooting, so it doesn’t bounce up and bite you at the time of printing.

Image sharpening

In order to achieve fully sharp digital pictures, most of the time a certain amount of sharpening is required. The digitalization of an image has a tendency to soften sharp edges.

The tool to be used is called Unsharp Mask. If you learn to use it, it can work true wonders for your pictures. We’ll talk about that in another place.

Other tools should be used with precaution since they don’t discriminate between sharp edges and other parts of the image. You certainly don’t want to sharpen things that should be soft, such as the facial tone range in a portrait, and you don’t want to make the noise stand out better. With Unsharp Mask, you can control both of these issues.

Note: No sharpening tool can fix an image that suffers from motion blur – either because of a moving camera or a moving subject.

Optical image stabilisation – OIS

Today, many cameras and lenses come with a built-in system for image stabilisation. Small motors move the image sensor in such a way as to counter balance the movement of your shaking hands.

This is a good thing that can allow you to shoot sharp pictures in a situation that would otherwise be impossible or at least require you to use (the ugly) direct flash light.

Optical Image Stabilisation is helpful, but only so far. It gives you an extra full stop or two, which makes a huge difference when you’re running out of ligt.

But it won’t prevent motion blur completely. If light is really bad, or if you forget to support your camera as much as possible, your pictures will be as blurry as ever. OIS cannot prevent your subject from moving either.

So, by all means, use OIS to your advantage, but don’t be fooled into sloppiness. This will lead to missed photographic opportunities. They never come back.

The good blur

With that said, let’s not forget that blur itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Used with care and consideration it can lift your image that last kilometer into greatness.

Two types of blur are standard equipment in the photographer’s toolbox: distance blur and intended motion blur.

Distance blur is a natural part of many images, and it can lend a very nice sense of depth to the image. Typically, the suibject is sharp while the background or the foreground is blurred – or both.

Intended motion blur in an otherwise sharp image gives an impression of movement which otherwise is kind of impossible to show in a still photo.

Motion blur
The motion blur draws the eye of the observer to the eye of the baby, one sharp island in a blurred ocean. Blur as a way of enhancing the figure to ground relationship and make the motive stand out.