5 factors for stunning sharpness

Sharpness has got to be one of the most talked about, fretted over, debated, questioned topics surrounding digital photography. It seems illusive to the beginners and downright obsessive for the more seasoned photographers among us. Me? I’m obsessed with sharpness in all the right places. And I can’t believe what darkness I lived in before I understood the factors I needed to get tack-sharp images. So here we go: my 5 factors for perfect sharpness.

1.} The lens

For me, the #1 most important factor in obtaining sharp images is the lens. If you’re a photographer who has experienced a wide range of lenses like I have, you will know this to be true. I’ve owned 10 lenses over the last 2 1/2 years and have to say that nothing compares to Canon’s L series lenses. The sharpest non L series lens I ever owned was the 85mm 1.8. That was a sweet lens. Now, I know that this will be disappointing to those who aren’t in the position to have those lenses. And I only have them because I’m a few years into my business and they’re paying for themselves. But get the sharpest lens you possibly can. You will find that prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. Of the non L series 50mm lenses, the 1.4 is phenomenally sharper than the 1.8 in my experience. View a comparison here.

2.} The camera

Your camera is important. However, it’s not the most important factor in getting sharp-as-Sting {<—- that’s geek speak} images. Yes, the camera has factors like resolution but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

3.} The settings

Appropriate shutter speeds to prevent camera shake or motion blur is important. Appropriate aperture is also important.

4.} The focus

Focusing on the right spot in your image is an important factor in obtaining sharpness. Read this to learn about toggling your focus point and this to learn about back button focusing. You can learn about the different focus modes in your DSLR here. Having trouble getting a group in focus? Read this. Tip: when taking a portrait, toggle your focus point in between the eyes to get them both in focus. If your subject isn’t looking straight at you, make sure you’re not shooting with a wide-open aperture so you can get both eyes in focus.

5.} The editing

No matter how sharp an image is, it can always stand a little more! Check out these videos:

Tip: If you shoot in raw, EVERY IMAGE needs to be sharpened because sharpening only happens in-camera during the JPEG compression process. So if you’re shooting raw, you might be surprised to find that your SOOC images aren’t actually as sharp as you thought they’d be.

And you can get some free sharpening tools for Photoshop here: MCP Actions High Definition Sharpening Actions

So there you have it. Some things to get you started if you’re hunting for optimal sharpness!


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Elizabeth Halford

Elizabeth Halford


She blogs about photography and business with her unique plain English approach. Elizabeth has been-there-done-that with running a photography business that doesn’t profit a penny and loves teaching photographers how to get away from the starving artist model of running a creative business.
Elizabeth Halford
  • Katie O. - A friend turned me onto MCP’s High Def sharpening and web sharpening tools.  I almost cried when I saw the difference it made. 

  • Mark Miller - I honestly feel pretty stupid for not knowing this….

     Tip: If you shoot in raw, EVERY IMAGE needs to be sharpened because
    sharpening only happens in-camera during the JPEG compression process.
    So if you’re shooting raw, you might be surprised to find that your SOOC
    images aren’t actually as sharp as you thought they’d be.

  • Michelle B. - Thank you so much for your great site!! I’m loving it. 

  • bine - thank you so much!!! 

  • bine -  mark, you take the words right out of my mouth! I’ve never heard of that before and I always wondered what’s wrong… 🙂

  • Tracy Bedsaul - Thanks!  This is really helpful, I love your video tutorials!

  • AngelaB -  Yup!! I spoke with a guy at Canon about my 50L and as I complained about how the images were not as sharp as I thought they would be with an L lens that cost $1500 he laughed at me and said shoot a photo in JPEG and RAW and then let me know what you see. And he was right…same picture, JPEG was sharper, a little unsharpen mask and bam…great photo. Of course RAW same thing with some post processing but still…

  • Caterina Lay - I’ve seen a lot of photographers do a ‘High Pass’ on images and then mask out the bits that shouldn’t stand out that much. It’s a like a standard think I believe.

  • Elena - Great tips!  I’m a big stickler for sharpness!

  • Lisa - I use my 85mm 1.8 on my ‘old’ rebel xti (I  mostly shoot with a 7D now) and I love the images I can get with it!!

  • Mark Andrews - Fantastic thread my friend, I think we need all the help we can get to get those sharp images I really liked the tip about the raw images all needing sharpening. One question are you using adsense if so I would like some advice regards Mark Andrews.

  • Rapunzle - Can you elaborate on point 2?  What IS IT about the camera if it isn’t pixel count?

  • Tara - Exactly what Mark said! I am seriously sitting here taking a HUGE sigh of relief. This explains so much about my frustration I have been having. Load off my shoulders for sure. Now I know! YEAH!!!!

  • Stephen Scharf - Nice post, Elizabeth. I agree completely that the lenses, and then probably your AF setup and “technique” are most important for getting tack sharp images. I’ve shot a lot of pro motorsports as a track photographer for many years, and can attest that for sports photojournalism, practice, practice, practice is also key.

    I haven’t used any non-L lenses, but the sharpest Canon lens I ever shot with was the fabulous Canon 200/1.8L. If you ever get a chance to try this lens, I highly recommend it.


  • asd - does it mean good or bad?

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