Things I’ve Learned About the Craft of Photography: Image Sharpness & Shooting Technique

Foggy Morning, Marine Railway, Historic Lifeboat Station, Point Reyes National Seashore

Foggy Morning, Marine Railway, Historic Lifeboat Station, Point Reyes National Seashore

This is the first of a series of posts through which I hope to share some of the things I’ve learned about the craft of landscape photography with digital SLR cameras. Two terms are operative. First is craft which refers to techniques and approaches employed to produce an image (rather than the aesthetic questions of what to capture and express in the image). Second is landscape which is wholly different from other types of photography (photo journalism, wedding or portrait photography, etc.) in terms of subject (inanimate), lighting (generally the sun), depth of field (generally to be maximized) and other considerations.

From the perspective of craft and like most landscape photographers, I want to produce images that are well-composed, well-lighted, critically focused, and sharp. While there are technical definitions of sharpness, in my mind maximizing the sharpness in an image enables me to reproduce much more of the fine details and texture in the subject. Sharp images catch the eye and the sharpness is apparent even in small prints or screen images. You don’t need esoteric measures to know the image is sharp.

The sharpness of an image is fully determined by the time the shutter closes. I believe it is basically determined by two factors: i) shooting technique and ii) lens choice. I will talk about lenses in a later post. Suffice it to say that careful shooting technique with an average lens produces an image that is noticeably sharper than one shot with the finest lens but without regard to technique.

Careful technique starts with use of a tripod. Sharpness will be lost if the camera and lens are not held absolutely steady during exposure. No amount of ‘vibration reduction’ or ‘optical image stabilization’ in lens or camera body will beat the use of a rock solid tripod.

Through trial and error (common among photographers when it comes to tripods), I have learned to use the most rugged tripod that I can carry into a shooting location. Most of the time this means I use a Gitzo series 3 tripod, meant to support many times the weight of the gear I have mounted on it.

The camera and lens need to be solidly attached to the tripod. I have adopted the Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head as my standard. The 55 mm (about 2.16 inch) diameter ball is again intended to support many times the weight I place on it. I use Really Right Stuff L-brackets designed specifically for the camera models I use. In addition to being solid, the dovetail mounting system makes for rapid camera mounting and change of perspective (switching from landscape to portrait mode).

Single Lens Reflex cameras are great: what you see in the viewfinder is (almost) what the sensor is going to see at exposure time. Pressing the shutter release on the camera does two things: 1) raises the reflex mirror to clear the optical path and 2) opens and closes the shutter. The drawback of the SLR is that quickly raising the mirror invariably means the mirror will slap against the pentaprism housing. This slap induces vibrations in the camera body that persist for many, many tens of milliseconds before they damp out.

I always use the mirror lock-up function on my camera (and would not own a camera that does not have mirror lock-up). An exposure requires two steps: the first actuation of the shutter release raises the mirror while the second actuation fires the shutter and allows the mirror to return to the down position. Have the patience to wait three to five seconds between raising the mirror and firing the shutter and you will be rewarded with noticeably sharper images!

Keep your hands off the camera! No matter how steady you think you are and no matter how carefully you press the shutter button, you are going to rock the camera. Use a remote shutter release.

Finally, wind will vibrate even the most rugged tripod and camera. Try to avoid shooting in really windy conditions. If you must, try adding some weight to the tripod (partially suspend your camera bag) and by all means remove the neck strap (aka wind sail) from the camera.

What if the shooting location is a long hike from the car or you are traveling by air and you are not able to carry a large, heavy tripod? Do the next best thing and carry a smaller, lighter but well constructed tripod. I have many sharp images shot with a 200 mm focal length lens mounted on a Gitzo series 1 tripod. To gain stability, I carry a one kilogram (two-pound) bean bag, hang it from the center post of the tripod and use extra care in my technique.

With digital photography and tools like Photoshop, we have the ability to examine our images in fine detail (at 100% where camera pixels and computer display pixels are mapped one-to-one). I urge you to run a controlled experiment. Start with an image that uses none of the technique I’ve outlined and then take a series of images adding successive levels of care. Look carefully at the images – you will quickly be convinced that shooting technique really does matter.

Aside from significantly improving sharpness, the techniques I’ve talked about here all slow down the process of shooting. And that is a good thing. Our best landscape photographers, to a person, all tell us that slowing down brings a much more contemplative approach to photography, producing images that are much more compelling and evocative.

Note: I published an earlier version of this post on my old website in 2011. I think the material is even more important today. For better or worse, camera sensor pixel density continues to grow. 24 megapixel is the entry point for full frame DSLRs with top of the line cameras now boating 36 and 50 megapixels. To achieve prints as large as these sensor sizes suggest are possible, you MUST have a rock-solid, absolutely steady camera. Any camera shake whatsoever will limit the size of your prints. If you want to continue to hand-hold your camera, save your money and avoid the highest resolution cameras. Conversely, if you are able to eliminate camera shake, you will be able to print even modest resolution images (e.g., 12 megapixels) to sizes larger than you might expect.

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