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Getting Sharper Images

Disappointed in your new camera? Are you failing to live up to your own expectations, and are you completely unable to reproduce the crystal clear images you see other photographers take on a daily basis? Before you rush out to buy a new camera, lens or other emotional crutch it is worth considering two things, namely your technique and your camera settings. An expensive, top of the range digital SLR can produce decidedly average images that are far more blurry than those taken by a cheap point-and-shoot digicam. Hopefully this guide will right your wrongs and help you fix that annoying blur that keeps appearing on your images. I am of course assuming that you do want to be rid of blurry images, there are times when a certain amount of blur actually enhances the picture (when photographing a fast moving object such as vehicle whilst the subject should be in crisp focus it is often advantageous to leave a lot of motion blur in the background scenery). So if you are bothered by blurry images and want to learn how to capture sharper pictures please read on.

Before taking any pictures you should learn how to hold a camera properly. This may seem an intolerably daft thing to suggest (how hard can holding a camera be?) However many amateurs fall down at this first hurdle without ever realising they are making a mistake. It is important to consider posture when you are taking a photograph, choose an appropriate stance when lining up your shot. If possible you should lean against a building, tree, wall, or fence to steady yourself. Keep your elbows tucked in tightly by your sides, and if you are trying to take photographs on a windy day wait for a break in the gusts before depressing the shutter release. Many digital cameras now come with an automatic image stabilisation system (discussed later) that will help reduce your blurry images but it often only has limited effectiveness under certain conditions so it is important to consider proper technique before falling back on technology. It is also worth considering timing your shorts with your breathing; take a deep breath and hold it when you press the shutter release. This technique is used by everyone from hunters to Olympic biathletes and is equally applicable to photography.

Now let us consider the technology that you can use to help you capture sharper images. Adjusting the shutter speed is obviously the primary means of eliminating blurry subjects; the faster you set the shutter speed the less impact shaky hands will have on the finished photograph. If you do increase your shutter speed you must remember to increase your aperture as a means of compensation, although like everything in photography it is not that simple as increasing your aperture will make focusing far more difficult. Conversely if you make your aperture smaller then you will need to increase the shutter speed again; it is a delicate balancing act and you will have to practice under varying conditions until you find combinations that work for both you and your equipment. Eventually you will begin to know instinctively what settings work for certain conditions. You should also consider increasing the ISO of your shots, this will allow you to use a smaller aperture and quicker shutter speed but you will increase the amount of noise that is visible on your photographs. This varies depending on the conditions in which you are shooting, again you should attempt to balance the settings on your camera until you achieve a result you are satisfied with. Practice makes perfect, and if you are new to digital photography then you should experiment with these settings as often as you can until you are comfortable with their operation and can anticipate what result you will get when varying the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Many new lenses and camera bodies now feature a form of image stabilisation (Image Stabilization to Canon, Vibration Reduction to Nikon and MegaOIS to Panasonic), but it is important to remember than in certain cases these will not help correct "shaky hands" syndrome, whilst it will reduce it to some extent the main function of image stabilisation is to reduce blur that is caused by the almost imperceptible shaking of the lens during shooting. The proprietary versions are becoming more advanced with each revision and it is certainly worth enabling image stabilisation if your camera features this technology.

No manner how troublesome it may seem it is always worth investing in a good quality tripod or monopod if you are serious about taking sharp images. Whilst it was true in the past that they were bulky, heavy and generally annoying to carry over any distance modern alloys and construction techniques allow for far lighter, stronger tripods that will not break the bank. If you are new to digital photography it may seem counter-intuitive to carry around a tripod when you plan to use your camera, after all one of the reasons many people purchase a digital camera is for their portability and ease of use. However when you do finally take some shots using a tripod you will realise exactly what you have been missing out on and will not want to go back to hand-held photography. There are many times when carrying a tripod or monopod with you simply isn't practical, and you can still take perfectly sharp images without a tripod if you adhere to proper techniques and know how to use your camera settings effectively. However if you can carry a tripod with you I do recommend you give it a try. A good quality tripod will almost eliminate camera shake and allow you to more accurately predict how your image will turn out. When using a tripod you also have the advantage of being able to use either a remote shutter release or a timer function. Almost all digital cameras feature one of both of these functions that will go some way to helping you take far sharper images. The most obvious benefit of a tripod is that because you camera is far more stable you can relax your shutter speed and other settings somewhat as you will not have to compensate for shaking hands.

When taking pictures with modern digital cameras it is easy to rely on the auto-focus to take care of your focussing, and in many cases this will not hamper the image quality to any discernible degree. On occasion however the auto-focus does get it wrong, so learning how to focus your camera manually is an important skill that every photographer should possess. If you have increased your aperture and reduced your shutter speed to help you get sharper images then the auto-focus will often become less accurate; with a large aperture even being a small amount out of focus will result in your final image being very blurry. As with other settings on your camera it is important that you experiment with the focus settings on your camera and lenses, with practice and experimentation eventually you will be able to sum up your subject in an instant and focus accordingly. It is of vital importance that you keep your lenses and camera clean, a smudged lens will never allow you to focus correctly. Even if to your eyes the lens does not appear to be dirty if you are having problems producing sharp images this may be why; try giving your lenses a proper clean (or have them professionally cleaned if you do not feel confident doing it yourself). You should also check that your camera sensor is not dirty; this can produce blurry patches and blotches on your photographs.

If all else fails and your favourite photograph has still come out looking decidedly blurry you can always attempt to sharpen and correct it using image or photo editing software. Most of these packages feature a simple "sharpen image" function, however if you are correcting blur that only occurs in certain areas you will have to experiment with selecting areas of your image and only correcting those portions of the photograph. The "sharpen image" function often functions much like increasing the ISO of your camera does, however it will bring out the graininess of images far more than a simple ISO adjustment. Your mileage will vary depending on the quality of the original image and the software package you are using, however bear in mind that when you begin to apply lots of post-processing it becomes obvious to spot the areas that have been adjusted to even an untrained eye. If you intend to process your images after you have downloaded them to your PC then it is worth experimenting with your image editing software in the same way that you should experiment with your camera settings, eventually you will establish a "routine" of tools and functions that you will perform depending on the quality of the image.

I hope this guide was of some use to all of the budding amateur photographers who visit The Photography Website. It was not very long ago that I was new to photography myself and I know how frustrating it is to have to discard a beautifully composed image because it has turned out blurry and no amount of post-processing will remedy the problem. If you spend some time learning the more advanced functions of your camera and experimenting with different settings in different conditions you will be rewarded with images that are of a far higher quality than you imagined you were capable of. Practice as much as you can and your photographs will begin to reflect the time you have invested in learning the subtle nuances of digital photography.