Wildlife and Nature Photography

3 Simple Ways To Achieve Sharper Images

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Achieving sharper images has far more to do with the person behind the camera than the price of your lens.

One of the biggest misconceptions in photography is that in order to achieve sharp images you need an expensive lens. I often hear people say “if I had this or that lens I could get pictures like that too.” I myself shared this same belief when getting started in photography, but quickly learned that this simply is not true. While expensive glass does have its advantages it certainly does not guarantee results. In reality, several factors are to blame for images that lack sharpness none of which are the fault of the lens.

When reviewing my images after a day of shooting rather than blame my lens for the images that are not sharp (yes there are plenty, but I don’t share them), I always take time to analyze each one and ask myself what I could have done differently in order to have obtained a sharp image. By doing so, I have learned how to adjust my settings and technique and implement those changes the next time I am in the field under similar conditions, which results in sharper images. Learning form my mistakes has helped improve my photography tremendously over the years. 

Not everyone can afford a top of the line super telephoto lens, and even if you can unless a significant portion of your income comes from photography it’s hard to justify spending over $10,000 on a 500 mm or 600 mm prime lens. If you currently own or are thinking about purchasing one of these lenses, you are still unlikely to get sharp images unless you follow these three simple tips.   

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Whether photographing birds in flight or stationary subjects, shutter speed is one of the keys to sharper images.

The Importance of Shutter Speed 

Motion is regularly the biggest reason images are not sharp. Motion can be caused by either camera shake (not holding the camera steady) or the speed of your subject. The general rule in photography to eliminate camera shake when shooting hand held is to make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/focal length of your lens. This is known as the reciprocal rule. For example, with my Canon 100-400mm lens fully zoomed at 400mm I want my shutter speed to be at least 1/400th of a second . If you are shooting with a 250mm kens, make sure you are shooting at 1/250th of a second, 1/300th of a second for a 300mm lens and so on. This is one of the quickest ways to achieve sharper images, so adjust your aperture or ISO accordingly to achieve a faster shutter speed. 

As mentioned, motion can also come from the speed at which your subject is moving and is a huge factor in wildlife photography. Unfortunately the reciprocal rule only applies to stationary subjects. When photographing birds that are constantly flitting or birds in flight, a much faster shutter speed is required. My goal when photographing any type of wildlife stationary or moving is to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second as this has consistently delivered sharp images for me. I always start every shoot at ISO 800 even on sunny days as this typically gives me my desired shutter speed. 

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Holding your camera steady is paramount to achieving sharper images.

Steady Your Camera And Lens

Holding your camera and lens steady are crucial to sharp images even with a fast shutter speed. Keeping a focus point on your subject becomes more challenging at longer focal lengths and when your subject is farther away. Even with fast shutter speeds, good technique is key to sharp images. When holding your camera, keep your arms bent and your elbows close to your sides. Place on foot in front of the other and bend your knees. The closer your camera is to your centre of gravity the easier it will be to keep a focus point on your subject. 

Most people, especially those using zoom lenses, hold their lenses at the 9 o’clock position while rotating the zoom ring with their thumb, index, and middle fingers. This method may seem the most comfortable, but inevitably is setting you up for increased camera shake. Rotating your wrist in this manner puts it in an unnatural position and increases tightness on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in your forearm. After a few minutes of holding a lens like this arm fatigue will set in and your hand will start to twitch. This twitching will present a real challenge when trying to hold a focus point on the subject, especially at great distances or with long focal lengths resulting in blurry images. 

If you wish, you can experience the effects of holding a lens like this while reading this post. Hold your arm straight out in front of you with your thumb up. Rotate your wrist 90 degrees clockwise and you will instantly feel tightness in your forearm. Continue to hold your arm outstretched like this with your wrist rotated for several minutes and you will notice your hand start to twitch. Remember this will be amplified while supporting the weight of a camera and lens. To correct this, try supporting your lens from underneath at the 6 o’clock position with the palm of your hand facing up. This technique has helped me tremendously to steady my camera and lens, thus achieving sharper images.

Other helpful techniques for steadying your camera and lens would be to drop down to one knee while using the other to steady your elbow or sit down and use both knees to steady both elbows. Using various objects as supports including trees, fences, park benches, and picnic tables will also lead to sharper images.        

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Stopping down adds depth to an image keeping more of the subject in focus, resulting in sharper images.

Shoot At A Narrower Aperture

All lenses regardless of price point are sharper one stop either side of their widest and narrowest apertures. For this reason I always try to shoot at f/8 whenever possible. This is known as stopping down. Fully zoomed to 400mm, my lens’ widest aperture is f5.6. By stopping down to f/8 my images are noticeably sharper. Not only is my lens sharper at f/8 than at f/5.6, the narrower aperture gives my images more depth. Since getting close enough to my subject to fill the frame is rarely possible, most of my images are cropped at least slightly. This added depth really helps improve the sharpness of my images by keeping more of the subject in focus. 

For those of you shooting with a kit lens in the 250mm to 300mm range, you too will have f/5.6 as your widest aperture when fully zoomed. Stopping down to f/8 will yield sharper images for you as well. If you are using one of the new Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm lenses, your widest aperture at 600mm will be f/6.3, so stopping down a full stop will put you at f/9. Keep in mind stopping down will cost you one stop of light in terms of shutter speed, but in decent light with your ISO at 800 you should still achieve a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. 

If you already own a 500mm or 600mm f/4 lens, these same tips apply and will result in sharper images. If you don’t own one of these lenses, give these tips a try before you rush out and drop five figures on a new lens. By doing so, I’m certain you will be impressed by the capabilities of your current lenses. The blame for previously unsharp images will shift from equipment to photographer and the onus of sharp images will be on you.

Getting to know and understand your current gear is the biggest investment any photographer, professional or amateur, can make when it comes to achieving sharper images. Next time you are out in the field give these three tips a try, I think you will be pleased with the results.

Good birding,

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10 Responses to “3 Simple Ways To Achieve Sharper Images”

  1. Theresa C. Binkley

    Thank you Paul. This is my greatest struggle and I’m sure this information will help!

  2. Mario Aquilina

    You’ve hit my major issue on the nail. Images that aren’t focused or sharp. I generally always shoot in AV mode because I don’t have time to shoot in manual when photographing moving subjects (birds mostly). I use a Sigma 150-600mm lens with a Canon Ti5. How do you know what your shutter speed is when shooting in the AV mode?

    • Paul Roedding

      I love shooting in AV mode too Mario as it will adjust shutter speed automatically, which helps capture fast moving birds. To see your shutter speed in AV mode press your shutter button halfway down while looking through the viewfinder and you will see your shutter speed before a shot. You can also see your shutter speed for shots already taken by looking on your LCD screen when viewing your images in the playback.

  3. Lizzie

    Wow, this could not have come at a better time!! Have not been taking my camera with me of late and was starting to forget a few basic things!! Thanks Paul!! 😉


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