6 Tips for Sharper Photos

Giant disclaimer here that I am not the best photographer around nor do I think I’m some font of great photography wisdom.

But I do take a lot of photos, and one of my biggest priorities is that my photos are sharp. There is nothing more frustrating than downloading all your awesome photos and seeing that most of them aren’t quite in focus (I personally find alllllmost in focus more irritating than completely blurry).

Also, I’ve never read my camera manual. I love to read but that thing is boring. Basically, I just read a lot of stuff online and then google how to do it with my camera. Way faster and less likely to result in an impromptu nap.

Here are the things that have most helped me get sharp photos:

  1. Get a decent lens. I know. This is frustrating advice. But I used a 50mm 1.8 lens for three and a half years and no matter how much I read and practiced, I just could NOT get the majority of my photos to come out sharp. When I finally caved and bought a 50mm 1.4 lens, my photos improved instantly. 100% the lens – I didn’t gain any skills in the 30 seconds it took me to swap out my lens. Believe me, I’m the cheapest person in the world, but the difference of $275 over the course of many years, tons of frustration, and ten million blurry shots on my hard drive is just not that much. I wish we’d just sprung for the better lens at the beginning and not wasted our time. This is the only lens I brought on this trip and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. 
  2. Set your focal point. This was the single trick that most improved my photo sharpness. dSLR cameras have a setting where you can pick which point on the lens is in focus. It’s MUCH more accurate than that “focus in the center than recompose” trick. At first I thought “This is a giant hassle” but I just kept doing it and I’m super fast at it now and then the part of my photo I want in focus is ACTUALLY in focus practically every time. Life-saver. If you’re taking photos of yourself with a tripod and remote, this will definitely improve those. Because then it knows your HEAD is what you want in focus, not the tree behind you. 
  3. Keep your shutter speed high. I basically try never to shoot below a 1/60 shutterspeed because hand-shake is just too likely at that speed. And I learned from Samantha Kelly that if you’re photographing kids who, not to go below about a 1/200 or 1/250. Adjust your other settings as necessary. 
  4. Don’t sit at the lowest aperture. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. If you’re taking a photo that’s not a super close-up, you probably don’t want to be down at a 1.4 aperture. I’ve heard people say “I want all that nice blur and I paid a ton of extra money for that extra 0.4” but 1) you’ll get PLENTY of blur on a higher aperture (I shot this photo on my lens that only goes down to a 4.0 – plenty of bokeh there) and 2) who cares about nice blur when your whole photo is a blur with nothing in focus? If you’re trying to get a full body shot or a couple of people together without some of them being blurry, you need to go a little higher. (This one that Bart took last week has all of us in focus with some nice blur – it’s at a 2.6 aperture. Guaranteed the girls would have been out of focus if he’d tried it at a 1.4).  
  5. Set your focus mode to Al Servo. (I think on a Nikon it’s called Continuous Focus, but I’ve taken approximately 10 photos ever with a Nikon and I’m convinced that Canons and Nikons are designed as differently as possible to keep you from ever switching back, so don’t quote me on this). This mode means that once you focus on an object, your camera’s smart little brain keeps tracking it even if it moves. Very helpful when you’re photographing people or kids or moving objects. Less necessary when you’re taking a picture of cookies. Hopefully. 
  6. Sharpen your photos in an editing program. When my college friend Jess Curren came to visit last year (they sold their house in Utah and are traveling with their 3 kids across the country in an Airstream! Check out their blog because it’s awesome and the photographs are stunning), I asked her what the secret to sharp photos were and she said “Photoshop.” Since then, I always sharpen my photos up a little before posting them (whether I’m doing big photos for my blog in Photoshop or photos for Instagram in Afterlight). 
If you have other tips for getting crisp photos, I’d love to hear them! And if you have questions, I’m happy to try to answer, with my previous disclaimer firmly in place. 

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  • Reply Paige Flamm September 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Do you think the megapixels on your camera matter very much? I feel like my pictures on my camera aren't ever incredibly super sharp, and the DSLR that Derek got me for Christmas 3 years ago is only 12 megapixels, I've been contemplating changing out the body to an 18-megapixel but am wondering if it will make a big difference?

    • Reply Janssen September 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Mine is a 12.2 megapixels and I haven't noticed that it makes a difference. Everything I've ever read says the body is less important than the lens, so I haven't looked much into upgrading my body.

      I shoot my photos on the biggest image size (in JPEG though, because I'm too lazy to switch to RAW).

  • Reply MommySizedHeart September 22, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    One of the reasons (there are several others) that I have been so drawn to your blog is that you have a very sweet family and you capture is so wonderfully! I've always enjoyed looking at your photos of your girls! That's really good to know that the lens has been more beneficial in improving your photos than the body. We're currently searching Craigslist in hope for a decent Canon/Nikon and I will be sure to include a high quality lens in on my search. 🙂

    • Reply Janssen September 22, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      Thank you so much! That's so so nice of you to say.

      We bought our camera body-only and then got a separate lens, which I think is a pretty good way to go. Usually the kit lens isn't that great.

    • Reply MommySizedHeart September 24, 2014 at 4:39 am

      Great! I'll keep that in mind! 🙂

  • Reply Abundant Blessings September 22, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    What camera do you use? I'm in the market and sick of my 8 year old Nikon that I don't know how to use.

    • Reply Janssen September 22, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      I have a Canon Rebel XSi (which they don't make anymore). I think the current version is a Canon Rebel T3.

      I've been really really happy with it.

  • Reply Janet September 23, 2014 at 4:35 am

    I have a similar Canon. What mode do you shoot in? I must admit I'm lazy because I pretty much just shoot in P and let the camera make decisions for me. I change my light metering and my ISO as needed. I need to try this Al Servo thing — didn't know about that. Also, I'm totally devoted to Lightroom. For me, it's 1000x easier/more intuitive than Photoshop, but maybe that's because I never properly learned Photoshop?

    • Reply Janssen September 24, 2014 at 6:44 am

      I do almost exclusively manual. Occasionally, if it's super sunny outside and lousy shooting conditions, I'll turn it on auto, but that's about it.

      Everyone I know loves Lightroom more, but I need Photoshop for some of the other projects I do, so I just don't want to fork out for another one 🙂

    • Reply Jenn September 28, 2014 at 7:51 pm

      I just switched to shooting RAW and one of my most pleasant surprises was that when I open a RAW image in Photoshop, it automatically pulls up the Camera Raw plug-in, which is sort of a mini version of Lightroom, with really easy to use sliders to adjust white balance, exposure and lots of other things. You can also open jpeg images in Camera Raw, if you go to open as… and change the file type to raw.

  • Reply Tamsin Lim September 23, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Great tips, Janssen – thank you! I didn't know what Al Servo meant up til this point, super helpful 🙂 I really love your photography, especially of your sweet daughters. Going to bookmark this for future reference! x

  • Reply Jenn September 28, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Good tips! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who can't seem to nail the focus with a 50mm 1.8. I'm still so glad I got that lens over the kit lens, but I'm already looking forward to upgrading.

  • Reply Leesa October 12, 2014 at 3:07 am

    I enjoyed this post. I have the 50mm 1.8 and like to use that lens a lot. I would be interested in learning more about how you shoot in manual modes (since there are many options), if you write anymore blog entries with photography.

  • Reply The Kentucky Gent October 28, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Couldn't agree more on two of the tips especially. I recently learned to never shoot on the lowest aperture, and have started shooting between 2 & 2.8 and have already seen a HUGE difference in clarity of photos. It's like a the heavens opened up and light poured in, maybe not quite that great, but it's still a notable difference.

    Secondly, setting a manual focus point is a life saver also!

    Great post.

  • Reply Cynthia Hoyt October 29, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Love these tips! I have a Nikon and couldn't agree more with the Canon Nikon comment, they are entirely different most likely for that reason! I am biting the bullet and buying the 50mm lens soon, we don't have a fixed lens and it would be nice to have one! Thanks for the tips!

    Sensibly Sharp
    Find me at : bloglovin' | facebook | instagram

  • Reply Sarah Murphy November 1, 2014 at 2:03 am

    This is fabulous advice! I've been getting frustrated with this issue – it's hard when 1.) You're a perfectionist (me) and 2.) You're a beginner photographer (also me). Not a great combination and I've been trying to figure out ways to improve my photos! Thank you!

    x Sarah

  • Reply José Carlos Silva April 2, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Why did you say your photos improved after you changed a 1.8 50mm by 1.4 as everyone says both are almost the same?

    • Reply Janssen April 3, 2015 at 12:31 am

      It's definitely a better lens. The 1.8 is fine, but I just don't think it compares with the 1.4.

    • Reply Jenn April 14, 2015 at 1:38 am

      I was wondering the same thing. I am currently shooting with a Cannon 1.8 and am noticing a lot of my photo do turn out blurry. Could you by chance post a comparison pic?

    • Reply Janssen April 14, 2015 at 12:26 pm

      Unfortunately, I sold my 1.8 lens, so I can't but I feel like you can see an almost instant difference in my pictures before Feb 2014 and after.

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