How To Take Super Sharp Photos

Sharpness with every shot.

Achieving sharp images is incredibly important if we want to capture beautiful images. This can be a bit confusing when first starting out as a photographer, as our cameras have many different settings and adjustments that determine the sharpness of our images. Fortunately, taking sharp images is a lot easier than you might think! In this post, we will explore 7 tips for capturing super sharp photos with every shot you take.

READ OR WATCH: This blog post is also available in video form! If you’d rather watch me explain this content, simply watch the video below. Otherwise you can find the text guide below. Just keep scrolling!

Always Use Auto-Focus

Manual focus is a waste of time!

When we first start out as photographers, we so often hear the words “you need to shoot in manual”. You might think that this also means you should be using manual focus. In fact, this is a common misconception with new photographers. Manual focus is only used in very specific situations, and most of the time you should be using auto-focus.

Trust me when I say that manual focus is a waste of time. Cameras see things in a way that we don’t, and they can achieve incredibly sharp focus in a split second. These days, auto-focus is very reliable and can be depended upon even in the most crucial situations. We only use manual focus in situations where the camera is struggling to find focus, which isn’t very often (especially with newer camera tech!)

In terms of focus modes, I always recommend shooting in “single shot AF” or “one-shot AF” for all you Canon users. This focus mode will lock focus on your subject when you half-press the shutter button. Once focus locks, you can take the photo. This is great if your subject is not moving.

If you’re shooting a moving subject, I recommend using “continuous AF” or “continuous servo AF”. This will continue to adjust your focus as long as you continue to half-press the shutter button. 

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
Image displaying 3 auto-focus modes on a Canon camera. "One-shot" AF is recommended in most situations. Photo from Canon USA.

Use A Single Auto-Focus Point

Just one!

When we focus our cameras using auto-focus, the camera will select an auto-focus point where it will direct focus. When we allow the camera to choose this (using modes like “wide AF” or “zone AF”), it might select a focus point that isn’t ideal. It’s important we choose the auto-focus point so we can tell the camera exactly where we want it to focus.

You can either use a “center” auto-focus point, or a “flexible spot” auto-focus point. When you use a center AF point, your AF point will always be in the middle of your screen. If you use a flexible spot, you will have the ability to move your auto-focus point around the frame.

Personally, I keep my AF point in the center of my screen at all times. Once I lock focus on my subject, I will reframe my composition and take the photo. If you use a flexible AF point you can set your composition first, then focus on your subject by moving your AF point over that part of the image. This is also a great technique, however I find that it slows me down quite a bit. Moving the AF point throughout the frame can take awhile, and I am more efficient when I leave my AF point in the center of my screen.

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
This image displays the AF available on a Canon 80D. You can select your own auto-focus point in different parts of the frame. Or, simply leave your AF point in the middle like I do.

Use Back-Button AF

Preference, but it makes a huge difference!

Back-button auto-focus is when we use a button on the back of our cameras to set focus, instead of using the shutter button.

By default, cameras allow you to focus by half-pressing the shutter button on your camera. Once your focus is set, you can then fully press the shutter button to take the photo. This is great for most people, but many professional photographers opt to disable shutter auto-focus.

Separating your shutter button from your focus button can help speed up your shoots. When you use shutter auto-focus, you need to re-focus your shot every-time you release the shutter button. This is a hassle, especially when your focus is locked in and the scene isn’t changing.

Back-button auto-focus allows us to lock in our focus once, and keep shooting until our distance to our subject changes. You will need to re-focus only if the distance between your and your subject changes, as this will cause the focal-plane to shift. This is great, because often we are only slightly shifting our perspective from shot to shot, there’s no need to continuously re-focus after every shot!

If you’d like to give back-button AF a try (which I highly recommend!), you can disable AF with shutter in your camera’s menu.

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
A photographer using back-button AF while shooting a basketball game. Photo from Canon USA.

Check your Shutter-Speed

The most common mistake.

Shutter speed is the speed at which your shutter activates when taking an image. If you’ve read my other article on manual mode, you will know that shutter speed has the ability to freeze and/or blur motion. Using a fast shutter speed allows us to freeze motion, and using a slow shutter speed allows us to blur motion.

When we neglect to pay attention to our shutter speed, sometimes it might dip a little too low. This can cause your images to be slightly blurry. The reason for this is because our hands shake! Using too slow of a shutter speed when hand-holding our camera can result in out-of-focus images.

What shoulder speed should you use? This depends on the focal length of your lens. It’s recommended that you use the reciprocal of your focal length. For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should not go below 1/50 of a second. If you are using a 24mm lens, do not go below 1/24 of a second, and if you are using a 200mm lens, do not go below 1/200 of a second.

This is a common mistake, but it’s crucial for making sure your images come out sharp!

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
As you can see, this image was shot at 200mm with a shutter speed of 1.80 of a second. This shutter speed is much too slow for this focal length, which is why the photo turned out blurry.

Dial In Your Aperture

Crucial for sharp images.

Like shutter speed, aperture has a massive impact on the sharpness of your photo. While you can achieve incredibly sharp images with all apertures, it’s important you choose an aperture that results in a focal-plane that is appropriate for your image.

Your focal plane (the focus depth in your image) is determined by two factors: your aperture and your distance to your subject. Using a wide aperture (such as f/1.8 or f/1.2) and standing close to your subject can create in an incredibly shallow depth of field, resulting in a very small portion of your image being in focus. You can increase the depth of field in your image by either stepping back and increasing the distance between you and your subject, or by “stopping down” and selecting a smaller aperture. You will need to do both of these things while out shooting in the real world.

This won’t be too much of an issue if you are shooting with lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6, but once you start to shoot with lenses that have maximum apertures of f/1.8. f/1.4 or wider, you will need to ensure that you select an aperture that gives you enough depth of field in your image. If you don’t, your image might be blurry.

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
This is an example of an image that was shot with an aperture that is too wide, resulting in an incredibly shallow depth of field. Only a very small portion of the photo is in focus. In this situation, it would be advised to "stop down" your aperture to achieve more focus throughout your frame (such as f/4, f/5.6, or even f/8)

Be Deliberate with your Focus

Know where you want to focus.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with beginner photographers is not being deliberate with their focus. In other words, just pointing the camera and focusing. This might work part of the time, but you will miss focus as time goes on. It’s important to know exactly where you want your focus to be and make sure your focus point is locked in on that area. Be deliberate about this.

If you’re shooting a portrait, focusing on the nose will result in the models eyes being out of focus (especially if you’re shooting with a wide aperture like f/1.2). Ensuring you are focusing on the eye will make sure you don’t miss focus. If you’re shooting food, make sure you are focusing on the part of the food you want to be in focus. If you don’t, you might miss the most aesthetic part of the dish, resulting in a sub-par photo.

Take a second before you shoot and think about which part of the image you want to be in focus, and which parts you want to be out of focus. Only then should you lock in your auto-focus and take the shot.


How To Take Super Sharp Photos

Minimum Focusing Distance

Are you too close to your subject?

All lenses have what’s called a “minimum focusing distance”. This is defined as the shortest distance in which a lens can focus. Some lenses have a very short minimum focusing distance which will allow you get very close to your subject and still focus, while others do not. This is not usually an issue unless you are getting close to your subject, but it’s definitely something you should be aware of. You should know the limits of all of your lenses.

Macro lenses typically have a shorter minimum focusing distance, allowing you to get very close to your subject and still maintain focus. However, many normal lenses also great very shallow minimum focusing distances.

The minimum focusing distance of your lens can be found on the front of the lens. However, these numbers can be hard to rationalize so it’s often easier to just test your lenses in the real world. 

How To Take Super Sharp Photos
This image (the blog post thumbnail!) was shot at the minimum focusing distance of my 35mm f/1.4 lens. I could not focus closer than this.

That’s it! Focus can seem like a daunting thing, but it’s actually quite simple when you really get down to it. Following these 7 tips will help you get super sharp images with every shot that you take, and I’m excited to see what you create. Feel free to leave a comment down below letting me know what you think, or feel free to share some of your own images! Catch you in the next one.

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