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Simple tips to
help you take better pictures

Tips for Better Pictures

This is the second of several
on how to take
sharper pictures

Today's e-tip:

De-Magnify or Stabilize
for Sharper Pictures

I've seen many images where the photographer shows me a picture and exclaims how sharp it is. Often, the reality is, that the image is just not sharp. It doesn't have the "crispness" that is so apparent with a "sharp" image. Most lenses are designed to take sharp pictures. Some lenses are sharper than others, but most are capable of taking a sharp image. If you've ever looked at images in magazines, and wondered why your pictures aren't as sharp, then this series is for you.

Learn to take sharp pictures like the Pros!
The rules for taking sharp pictures are relatively simple, and you can do it!

Part 2: De-Magnify or Stabilize for sharper pictures

Camera Movement is probably the single biggest factor for causing blurry pictures.

When you press the shutter button, you need to do it by holding the camera as steady as possible. It's impossible to hand-hold a camera without moving it just a little. Even a seemingly imperceptible movement can cause a blurry picture. Even the movement from the mirror in a DSLR raising and falling can cause blurring in an image. You need to be EXCEPTIONALLY steady for a sharp image - at any shutter speed.

People frequently ask me which camera they should buy. When I ask them what’s important to them, almost everyone responds that they want a camera with a lens that magnifies a lot (i.e., a big zoom range). These lenses have a broad appeal, but they are probably the single biggest cause of blurry pictures – because lenses that magnify a lot (telephoto lenses) cause blurry pictures!

When using a telephoto lens (i.e., "zoomed in" on a subject), it becomes increasingly difficult to hold a camera steady enough to take a sharp picture. It’s often humanly impossible to take a sharp picture with a powerful telephoto lens (i.e., 200mm or longer) without mechanical help.

There are several reasons for this:
  • Variable Aperture - Most consumer zoom lenses have a variable aperture. That is, the aperture changes based on focal length. For example, a popular 18-200mm lens has an aperture range of f3.5 to f5.6. This means that at 18mm (wide-angle) the maximum aperture is f3.5 but at 200mm the maximum aperture is f5.6 – which means the lens lets in LESS light at 200mm than at 18mm. That translates to having to use either a faster ISO speed and/or a SLOWER shutter speed when shooting at 200mm. The dilemma is that you NEED a FASTER shutter speed when using a telephoto lens (i.e., at 200mm) – in fact, you have to use a MUCH FASTER shutter speed with a telephoto lens to avoid blurring.

  • Magnification - As stated above, when shooting with longer lenses (i.e., higher-numbered focal lengths – 200mm, 300mm, etc.), you need to hold the camera steadier. Just imagine how difficult it is to hold powerful binoculars steady. The camera exaggerates this effect. With binoculars, your brain helps to compensate for the movement – but with the camera, there is no compensation. Some lenses do have vibration reduction (VR) or image stabilization (IS) – this can help, but often isn’t sufficient to allow taking a non-blurry picture with a telephoto lens. There's a popular rule that states you can hand-hold your camera using a simple calculation that determines the slowest shutter speed that you can hand-hold a camera without blurring:

    This rule is:  The Slowest Shutter Speed you can hand-hold = 1/effective focal length

                        (Note: "Effective Focal Length" is the lens focal length multiplied by the sensor crop-factor)

Using this rule, when shooting at 18mm, the slowest shutter speed that you can expect to hand-hold your camera is 1/18 of a second (with a full-frame DSLR) or 1/24 of a second (with an APS-C sensor-size). But when shooting at 200mm, the slowest shutter speed that you can expect to hand-hold your camera is 1/200 of a second (with a full-frame DSLR) or 1/300 of a second (with an APS-C sensor). And that assumes that you can hold your camera VERY steady! Most people will require significantly faster shutter speeds to avoid blurry pictures. VR or IS can help, but you shouldn't expect it to do miracles! (not only that, but VR or IS also tends to blur pictures a little!)

BUT... This rule is not very helpful if you want a truly sharp picture. It's just a guideline that allows you to take a minimally blurry picture - not a SHARP picture!!

And the current high-resolution cameras make this even more of an issue (more resolution means you have to hold the camera steadier!).

Take a look at these images (click images for full-size)

105mm Tripod vs Handheld with and w/o Vibration Reduction
(center portion of 100% crop w/no sharpening)
click image for full-size)
Handheld vs Tripod stabilized

300mm tripod vs Handheld
(center portion of 100% crop w/no sharpening)
click image for full-size)
Handheld vs Tripod stabilized

The images taken with a 105mm lens were shot at 1/100 second shutter speed; the images taken with a 300mm lens were taken at 1/320 second shutter speed - adhering to the above rule. I took 5 hand-held images (with and without vibration reduction) and am showing only the SHARPEST of these. Most of the handheld images were considerably blurrier!

There are several remedies to this:
  • Use higher-ISO speeds that allow you to use a faster shutter speed - this may cause additional "noise" degradation in your images, but that's generally better than a blurry picture!
  • Don’t zoom in so much – get closer to your subject instead. There’s no extra gear you have to carry, it’s cheap and it can help immensely!
  • Stabilize your camera. Lean against a pole or tree or use a mechanical method to stabilize your camera. Popular solutions include:
    • Tripod and head – a 3-legged device with a "head" that holds your camera steady.
    • Bean-bags - a pouch filled with "pellets" that let you stabilize and position your camera, assuming you have something to lean the bean-bag on – and you can make your own, or purchase a commercial one.
    • A SteadePod – a device that lets you stabilize the vertical motion of your camera.
    • A Mono-pod - a device that lets you stabilize the vertical motion of your camera (but not the lateral motion).
  • Take lots of pictures when shooting with limited light or using telephoto lenses - set your camera on continuous shooting and hold the shutter down until you've taken about 4 or 5 images. Then you can select the best one and delete the others.
  • Always be conscious of what shutter speed your camera has selected for you. Use the above easy-to-remember formula to make sure that the shutter speed isn't too slow - if it is, either use a wider lens and get closer, or use a faster ISO speed. But remember, that formula calculates the BARE MINIMUM that you should use - consider using a faster speed for sharper pictures.

Tripods are the best, assuming you have a "steady" tripod. Unfortunately, a "steady" tripod is often very expensive – a "cheap" tripod consisting of legs and head (i.e., less than $150) generally isn’t worth investing in. In our classes, we’ve seen some pretty bad tripods that people have spent a lot of money on. The disadvantages of tripods include weight, size, and the fact that many places (most major cities and parks) don’t allow using a tripod unless you pay for a "permit" in advance. The advantages of a tripod include the ability to stabilize your camera so you can use lower ISO and shutter speeds. Using a tripod also gives you more time to "think" about the picture you’re about to take – which means you generally take better pictures!

A tripod can be the best way to stabilize a camera. There are two caveats here:
  • You must be allowed to use a tripod – this isn’t as easy as it seems. Most major cities don’t allow tripods in public – you can actually get arrested for using them without a costly permit (that almost happened to me in New York City!). Same goes for many parks (Denali being the one that comes to mind first). This is the same in the US as well as abroad - I was recently in a park in Italy where several tourists weren't allowed to enter with their tripods.
  • You must have a tripod capable of handling your camera/lens. I’ve taught a lot of photographer groups, and have seen far more useless tripods than useful ones. Most tripods – the variety that you might buy in your local camera store for under $200 – is generally pretty useless from two standpoints. First, they can be awkward to use, generally because of the “head” – thus, you might choose not to use it. Second, it may not be very steady. By “steady” I mean ABSOLUTELY NO movement.

What to look for when buying a tripod and head:

  • You want to buy the legs and head separately. This gives you the ability to get the best tripod and head for your needs.
  • The legs should contain 2 extension sections (3-sections total) – not 3 extensions (4-sections total). Fewer extensions translate to more stability, but more extensions generally mean that the tripod compacts to a smaller size.
  • Also, you shouldn’t care, or even want, a center column that can be cranked up. The whole idea behind a tripod is that it has 3 legs for stability – the center column defeats this and makes the tripod unstable. Most tripods come with a center column – but that doesn’t mean you should use it!!
  • Unless you’re shooting video, we recommend a ball head with an Arca-Swiss style quick-release. Ball heads can be very stable, and are much easier to use than the old-style pan and tilt heads, that require 2 or 3 adjustments to aim your camera properly. Ball heads typically only require a single quick and easy adjustment. The Arca-Swiss style quick-release bracket is an industry standard – supported by many manufacturers. It’s a reliable, fast way to mount a camera to a tripod. It requires two brackets – one on the head (it’s usually built into the head) and one on the camera. Some of these brackets are custom-made for each camera or lens, while others are “generic” and fit just about any camera or lens. The generic ones are usually much less expensive.
  • Price vs weight: As a rule, the lighter the tripod, the more expensive it is. This is because the lightest tripods are made of carbon-fiber – an expensive material to mold into tripod legs. Aluminum is the next best choice – and some aluminum tripods are light enough for travel – such as the one we carry. I personally own two set of tripod legs – one cost over $500 and one less than $100. The $500 carbon-fiber set is significantly heavier than the $100, basically because it’s significantly larger and has a heavy steel ball-head base (between the legs and ball head). I tend to use the $100 tripod more than the $500 tripod, because it’s so much more portable, plus it’s rock solid for most of my needs.

A mono-pod is similar to a tripod, except it has one leg. It only supports your camera vertically. The SteadePod also does this, but has the advantage of being portable (fits in your pocket), but it won’t be quite as steady as a mono-pod. The Bean-Bag is my favorite method, assuming you have something to lean it on. You can make one yourself or purchase a commercial one. It can be as solid as a tripod, but you have to have a solid place to rest it on (tree, rock, table, etc.).

Personally, I use all of these, as every situation requires a different approach.

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