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How to Ensure Sharp, Detailed Photographs Every Time

Capture Detail in your Images

Photographers, both amateur, and professional spend thousands of dollars on their cameras and lenses to be able to create stunning images that are rich with detail. However, poor technique can negate all the money in the world. Gaining a fundamental know-how of how to use even basic equipment, on the other hand, can elevate its abilities, and allow you to produce stunning images.

Detail means different things to different people, and our understanding of what a “detailed” image is can change as we progress down our path of learning. So, let’s start off by defining what exactly we mean, when we say that we want to create an extremely detailed and sharp image.

Defining the Challenge

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “Detail”. Do we mean getting everything in sharp focus, or getting more contrasty images, with well-defined elements? I think that both interpretations are valid and go hand-in-hand with each other, and we will deal with “Detail” to mean both, for the purposes of this article.

So, you don’t like blurry edges framing your subject… You shoot in bright sunlight often, pointing away from the sun, or keeping the sun at a 30-degree angle… You’re often not happy with your lens – it’s never sharp enough… Did you agree with me on at least two of these points?

If you did agree with me, then you probably love detailed images, and the tips that follow in this article give you a great foundation to be able to create images that are chock-full of detail and are sharply in focus.

Learning how to make the most of your current equipment will give you an appreciation for your equipment, and provide a great starting point to make the most of high-end equipment too.

Focus Carefully

Today’s cameras do a wonderful job of focusing automatically. But often enough, the autofocus point is not exactly where it should be. This could give you a slightly out-of-focus point of interest. This is especially apparent in photographs with a shallow depth of field where correct focusing is super-important. Double-check your camera’s focus point before you click.

If you’re shooting a portrait, using the eye focus mode could allow you to offload this responsibility entirely to the camera. With sufficient light, a modern camera will always be able to pick up the subject’s nearest eye and focus on it sharply.

If you’re shooting a street scene, be more careful about where you place your focus point. The same goes for landscapes. To maximize the depth of field, you could use the hyperfocal distance of your lens to extend the depth of field even further than expected.

Don’t Stop-down Your Lens Fully

Using a small aperture increases the area of the scene that is in focus (depth of field). However, there’s a threshold beyond which a small aperture will actually start to soften your image.

Very often your lens will perform 2 or 3 f-stops down from its widest aperture. This means that you should set your camera to photograph with your highest aperture number (smallest aperture size) minus 2 stops. The small aperture size gives you greater depth of field.

So why should you not use the smallest aperture? Because of a phenomenon called diffraction – read the complex explanation here. In short, the aperture that gives you the most depth of field isn’t always the sharpest option.

Don’t Open up Your Lens Fully

A wider aperture will result in a shallower depth of field, causing more of your photograph to be out of focus. While this doesn’t equal low sharpness, it can give the impression of not much detail being present in your scene. However, shooting at the widest aperture of a lens presents other challenges too…

Unless your lens is an expensive professional-grade lens, it’s likely that the design and quality of its elements will be unable to keep up with the large aperture resulting in a slightly soft image. Most lenses have a sweet spot. A range of apertures that produce the best resolution images (in terms of edge sharpness, not the number of pixels) with the highest contrast. In regular consumer-grade lenses, these are usually NOT the smallest and largest apertures.

The same rule applies to expensive professional lenses too, but even at the extreme apertures, they usually produce better images than regular consumer lenses.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed

Often, people find that their images are blurry even though they’re using a small aperture. Using a small aperture requires an appropriately low shutter speed to ensure that your image is well exposed.

If there is blurriness, it’s most likely that either the camera or subject is moving, causing the image to move on the sensor during the time that the shutter is open. This causes blurriness in your images. You can freeze your subject in the frame with a fast enough shutter speed.

How to Determine an Appropriate Shutter Speed?

I like to use a simple reminder 1/’focal length of your lens X 2′. This means that if you’re using a 100mm lens, you should set your shutter speed at anything faster than 1/200th of a second to avoid shake. Depending on your subject, you may have to go even faster.

Use a Higher ISO if needed

You may have to use a slightly higher ISO setting to ensure that you can get the right shutter speed for your subject. Don’t be afraid to use an ISO between 1600 and even as high as 4000, because image noise is not as bad a problem to have, as a blurry image. In fact, I often welcome noise in an image. It gives the photograph texture and a certain mood that could add to the atmosphere of the photograph.

Use Optical Image Stabilisation and IBIS to Reduce Shake

If you simply can’t get the right exposure even after, and you are forced to use a lower-than-optimal shutter speed (as determined in one of the previous points), try to use a lens with an Optical Image Stabilizing technology (Canon calls it IS, Sony calls it OSS, and Nikon calls it VR).

These lenses sense the movement of the camera and negate it by physically moving the optical elements within them. Many mirrorless cameras go a step further, and have a technology that moves a sensor along 5 different axes, often in conjunction with the optical elements of the lens, to provide extreme correction of unstable camera movements.

These technologies are very useful when trying to take photographs in low light without a tripod or other means of stabilizing your camera.

Use a Tripod to Stabilize Your Camera

If your subject is not moving and you have the leisure of arranging and framing your subject, use a tripod. Using a tripod for your photograph ensures that no vibrations carry through, to the sensor. As an added benefit, you get to retain the exact same composition from frame to frame and make small adjustments that would be difficult or impossible with a hand-held camera.

You also get the option to take photographs with a small aperture (larger depth of field), but with low ISO (less noise), and a slow shutter speed to ensure that you get a correctly exposed image. In fact, many photographers use this technique to create images where moving objects are no longer visible in the image as they have not remained in one place long enough. This can remove distracting elements (for example, tourists at a popular landmark), allowing you to focus on the important elements of the scene.

Shoot in Sufficient Light – Add More Light if Needed

Small aperture + fast shutter speed means that you need to have enough light to correctly expose the image. Increasing the ISO isn’t always an option if you want low noise, so the only other option is to introduce more light. You could take photographs only in bright sunlight, or alternatively, you could use off-camera flash strobes to provide a brief, but powerful burst of light that provides the camera’s sensor with enough light to create a well-exposed image. You can also use continuous lights to boost the available light in any given scene.

Do Not Use A Very High ISO

Now, we’ve already suggested that you should not hesitate to push your ISO setting a little higher to get a sharp image with no shake/blur. However, pushing things too far could result in too much noise in patterns that are no longer appealing, but that interfere with our appreciation of the image.

High ISO can also cause degradation of the image’s definition as well as its color rendition. So what is one to do? The answer is: Experiment beforehand to get used to how your camera reacts in low-light high-ISO situations. With practice you will know how high of an ISO as you can comfortably use, while not being too low to make the most of today’s technology.

As always, higher ISOs increase the level of noise in your image, degrading the quality and level of detail. Stick to low ISOs, and you’ll always get smoother images with more image detail. Of course, the previous tip helps in this respect, if you are able to add more light.

Light Your Subject From an Angle

Angular lighting casts shadows, bringing out textures and giving surfaces a more tactile quality. Shapes are also rendered more pleasingly as the third dimension is also represented in the shading. Most things look better when lit from an angle rather than straight-on. The textures bring out the surface qualities of elements in your photograph, like the shine of polished metal, the smoothness of a silk garment, or the rough texture of a sandstone column.

If you’re using natural light, change the position of your subject, or move so that the light is not directly in front of them. Experiment with different angles of light, and you’ll get some very interesting results. This technique is best taught by asking the student to experiment with light themselves.

Use Textures and Patterns in Your Image

Textures and Patterns fill images with richness. They bring surfaces to life and give your viewer something to appreciate instead of a plain flat surface. Textures reveal themselves when light hits them at an angle, while patterns are more easily displayed in your images. Light them appropriately, and you will create an image with depth, detail, and life. Textures can tell a story.

Use the Largest Image Capturing Area Possible

By this, I mean your camera’s sensor. With mirrorless or DLSR cameras, this means using a full-frame camera or medium format sensor camera instead of a micro 4/3 or APS-C camera. If you’re shooting film, it means using a medium or large format camera.

More recording area automatically means that it can capture more detail because each individual photosite will be larger, and thus be able to capture more light. As an analogy, think of the amount of detail that can be painted into a miniature painting versus the detail in a 20ft giant painting.

Do Not Use a Cheap Lens

We’ve tried our best to bring a lot of detail into our images using many techniques and photography best practices. However, sometimes the subject at hand simply deserves to be treated with respect, and so we must use the right equipment that is needed to deliver a high-quality image.

Expensive professional lenses cost an arm and a leg, and then some… because the lens designers made sure they got it absolutely right. They picked the best materials, they combined these in the best way possible. They also picked the finest workers to build them, and spent a lot of time researching and developing the technologies that go into producing a quality product. These do not come cheap.

If you need a very high level of detail in your images you won’t be using a cheap-ass lens. The same goes for a filter.

The easy way to do this is to rent a lens that would suit your needs. This is a good option if a lens rental company is easily accessible to you. If not, see if you can borrow one until you earn enough money to buy one yourself. Don’t get into debt if you aren’t already earning a tidy sum of money from photography.

Use a Wide-Angle Lens

Lenses with a shorter focal length generally have a greater depth of field. This means that you will get sharper photographs because there is more of the image in focus. If you use a telephoto lens at the same aperture, you would have less of the image in focus (less depth of field).

A wide-angle lens also allows you to include more of a scene in your photograph, giving the impression of a busy space, with many things to be looked at. A wide-angle lens sweeps all of this into its field of view, demanding that we ensure that everything is just right. A telephoto lens isolates, while a wide-angle lens brings things together ina scene.

Shoot in RAW Image Formats

When your goal is to output sharp photographs, the journey doesn’t stop at capturing the images. It continues well into post-production. One of our readers left a comment to that effect and reminded me of this fact. Shoot RAW. Don’t be shy about it. Storage media is cheap these days. Once you bring your images into Adobe Lightroom or your other favorite RAW photo editor, you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, and clarity sliders to coax the most out of your images. Thanks for the tip, Adilson.

In Summary:

Finding detail in an image can go far beyond technical sharpness of an image or lens. Detail could ultimately mean the level of care taken in your composition, the choice of moment when the shutter is released, the design of the set, the sitter’s costume, and much more. I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret this charter as you like, and to create richly detailed images no matter your skill-level.

Do you have any more suggestions on how to get detail in your images or how to make them? Do add them in the comments.

Photo Credit: Alex is Late

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Published: June 9, 2011 | Last Updated: December 2, 2022

4 thoughts on “How to Ensure Sharp, Detailed Photographs Every Time”

  1. Hello All,
    I loved all your tips and hints on getting tack sharp images. Really great tips. You could also have added that after all that one could take the image either to Camera Raw or Photoshop and get even more definition and details:
    In Camera Raw one could play with the Clarity slider to get more details in the midtones. By pressing Ctrl+Alt+3 one should open the detail panel and play with amount, radius, detail and masking. If one move the sliders while pressing Alt on a PC, one should have a better control over the applied changes. I always use a very low radius, around 0.6 or 0.7 and from 60 to 90 in the amount.
    In Photoshop one could go to filter, sharpen and play with the one that suits one´s needs best. I always use “smart sharpen”.
    One culd also learn to get more detail through the use of the highpass filter: Filter, other, high pass.
    Last, but not least, use Calvin Hollywood´s technique called “Freaky Details” (you may google for it).
    After all that, your images will POP and Shine getting an almost tridimentinal look.
    Greetings from Brazil.
    I humbly remain yours

    Adilson Andrade

    1. Hi Adilson,

      Welcome to Beyond Phototips and thank you for that tip. It’s almost an article in itself. :D I’ve focused on techniques to use while taking the photograph itself, but yes, this excursion into detail must continue into the post processing as well.

      I look forward to seeing more comments and suggestions from you.



  2. Yeah exactly, I also don’t like blurry edges framing my subject. Thanks for your useful tips. I’ll surely keep those in mind ….. :) :) :)

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