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9 Tips for Tack Sharp Photos (+ 2 FREE Sharpening Photoshop Actions! )

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive about my work is how I manage to get my images so sharp! There are 9 techniques that I bank on to ensure tack-sharp images that I can count on every time, which I am going to share with you here. I'm also including a Tack Sharp Checklist and 2 FREE Photoshop Sharpening Actions below - check it out! 

 

 

1. Use a quality lens

If you use sub-par equipment, you will have sub-par images. Nothing can replace a quality piece of glass, and the sharpest lenses out there tend to be prime lenses (in other words, lenses that do not zoom in and out). I always recommend shooting with a high quality, prime lens to achieve tack sharp images. Some great ones are:

 

  • 35mm 1.4
  • 50mm 1.4
  • 85mm 1.2
  • 135mm 2.0
  • 200mm 2.0

 

If you're strapped for cash, the 50mm 1.4 is a great lens to start with. It's generally affordable. Is a great portrait lens, but also wide enough to capture scenery, and it's very sharp. You can nab this lens for around $350 from Canon and $415 from Nikon.  

 

2. Focus on the pupil

When choosing your focus point, focus on the pupil. The eye is the window to the soul and you want to draw the viewer in with the eyes. Don't miss this opportunity, leaving the centerpiece of your image blurry or out of focus.

 

FocusPoints

 

3. Proper Exposure

Make sure to nail that exposure for the best clarity and sharpness possible. If your image is too underexposed, you will lose clarity when trying to brighten it post processing. Trying to recover underexposed images will leave your details grainy and muddy. For the best clarity possible, expose properly, or slightly overexpose (by one stop). When you bring it down in Photoshop, you will find much clearer, cleaner sharpness in your images. Here's an example of the degraded clarity from underexposure (LEFT) compared with properly exposing or slightly overexposing then correcting (RIGHT).

 

ProperExposure-EXAMPLES-SIDEBYSIDE

 

4. Set your Shutter Speed to 3x's the Focal Length of your Lens

Ok, right-brainer - don't let the numbers turn you off! This is actually pretty simple. Just follow me for a minute!

In order to reduce shake/blur when hand-holding your camera, set your Shutter Speed to 3 times the focal length of your lens.

For example, if I'm shooting with a 50mm lens (the lens' focal length is 50), I will multiply that by THREE, and use that number to set my Shutter Speed.

50mm x 3 = 150 Shutter Speed

So, I set my Shutter Speed to a minimum of 150 ss

What does this do? It's going to reduce hand-held blur and give you sharper results. I use this every time I shoot and it has transformed my image quality.  

 

5. Back Button Focusing

Another thing that has absolutely transformed my image quality is back-button focusing. So what is back button focusing? Back button focusing allows you to quickly set your focus while looking through the view finder, reducing the chance of missing focus during a shoot. I'll be honest, when I first heard of BBF, I thought, "I don't have time to learn that right now!" and put in on the back burner. Oh, how I wish I had learned it sooner! Being able to toggle my focal points while viewing my subject (rather than looking down at the back of my camera, and missing valuable shots), was a game-changer. Each camera has different steps to set up Back Button Focusing, so I suggest that you Google your camera model + back button focusing instructions! And don't wait as long as I did!  

 

6. Elbows In

Start viewing yourself as a biological tripod! :) Keeping your elbows in and firm while you shoot gives greater support and reduces shake/blur. Plant your feet while, shove those elbows in and shoot!  

 

7. Use a Reflector

Using a reflector to cast light upon the face adds more clarity to your images. We suggest using a simple pop-up circle reflector or a white polystyrene board (my fave). Here is a zoomed in example of the clarity without a reflector (LEFT) vs. with a reflector (RIGHT). Big difference, right? This is why I heart reflectors.

 

20140529-IMG_1702-LS-SHARP-SIDE-BY-SIDE

 

8. Shutter Release Upon Exhale

Another way to reduce shake is to click the shutter release upon exhale, rather than while you breath in. When I shoot, I lock in my focus (eh hem...on the eye ;) ), then exhale gently, hold that exhale and take the shot. Shooting upon exhale further solidifies your "tripod" stance, and prevents your camera from bobbing up and down as you shoot.

 

9. Sharpen in Photoshop

I always bring that final touch of sharpness to my image in Photoshop. Ideally, you are working with full size images, around 5616 x 3744 in size when editing (give or take).

 

First, I do a general sharpen of my image using the following steps:

 

OVERALL SHARPEN STEPS:

  1. Create a blank layer (Layer > New > Layer)
  2. Merge Visible (Shift + Ctrl + Alt + E)
  3. High Pass Filter (Filter > Other > High Pass) at 2.0 Radius
  4. Change Layer Blend Mode to Soft Light

 

Then I do a targeted sharpen on the eyes only, using the following steps:

 

SPOT SHARPENING STEPS:

  1. Create a blank layer (Layer > New > Layer)
  2. Merge Visible (Shift + Ctrl + Alt + E)
  3. Unsharp Mask (Filter > Other > High Pass) with the following settings:
    • Amount: 90
    • Radius: 2.0
    • Threshold: 0
  4. Create a Black Layer Mask to hide the effect (Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All)
  5. Then using a soft, white brush, paint on the black layer mask over the areas of your image you would like to spot sharpen (eg. eyes, lips, etc.)

 

BONUS!

I created a special action that does exactly what I described in the previous two steps to speed up the process for you, as well as a printable "Tack Sharp Images" checklist for my readers!

Download it below!

 

ContentUpgrade1B

 

When you combine all of these tips, you'll instantly find that your images are clearer and sharper than ever before! Happy Shooting (and sharpening! ;) ) ! Do you have any tips for sharper photos? Share them in the comment section below!

Tags: Photography

Comments

  • Posted by Khanh on

    Yes! Like you said I hope I know back button focus sooner, thanks for the underexposed tip.

  • Posted by Jenny on

    Love these tips! Thank you!! The sharpening tips really helped. Easy to understand. One question, when you refer to polystyrene board do you just mean the styrofoam rectangle board? And why do you prefer this to a pop up reflector? Thanks!

  • Posted by Loren on

    If it’s a free download, just give us a link. If it’s a scam, give us a form to fill out. Oh…never mind.

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