Take your sharpest pictures

Take your sharpest pictures

Take your sharpest pictures

The 50 megapixel Canon 5DSR, the 43 megapixel Sony A7RII, and the 36 megapixel Nikon D810 – these and other cameras are megapixel behemoths that can capture every last ounce of detail present in a scene. Unfortunately, much of the resolution (and money you spent) is wasted unless you know how to push your camera to its limit.

In this post I’ll talk about some ways you can push your camera to obtain the sharpest possible pictures, regardless of what you’re shooting with.

Use a high shutter speed

For handheld photos, we used to be able to select 1/focal length as our minimum shutter speed – if you used a 50mm lens you’d want a minimum shutter speed of 1/50.  Today’s high megapixel cameras show vast amounts of detail, visibly displaying even the slightest amount of camera shake in your pictures.

To maximize sharpness I’ll typically double the focal length and use that as my new minimum shutter speed – with a 50mm lens I’ll shoot handheld no slower than 1/100 sec. Each of the Sony, Canon, and Nikon high megapixel cameras allow you to fine tune your auto shutter speed to faster or slower values. Unless you have particularly steady hands, using the default 1/focal length will result in too many blurry pictures.

Use a tripod

Tripods in use at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Tripods in use at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

The higher quality tripod the better. Aluminum is heavier and transfers vibrations. Carbon fiber is lighter and absorbs vibrations before they reach your camera.

Think about where to place the tripod. A high traffic overpass or bridge may seem sturdy but vibrations from the road will transfer to your camera. Buildings also routinely move – shooting from a high floor on a windy day will leave your photos looking blurry.

If you’re outside in the wind you’ll want to weigh down the tripod, fully extend the base, and avoid extending the center column. You might also try standing upwind of the tripod to use your body to block the wind.

USE A HIGH QUALITY LENS

Prime lenses are the best choice for obtaining maximum sharpness. That’s because prime lenses only shoot at one focal length, so design compromises need not be made and image quality excels. Zooms need to be good over a range focal lengths, adding versatility at the expense of compromising their design at any given focal length.

I’m partial to Sigma’s new Art lenses because they tend to offer the highest sharpness levels for both zooms and primes, and they cost a lot less than manufacturer lenses. Don’t take my word for it, check DXO Mark‘s lens sharpness results for your specific camera.

USE THE BEST Focal length, APERTURE, AND ISO SETTINGS

Shoot at your camera’s base ISO for maximum image quality. For Canon and Sony, it’s 100. For the Nikon D810, it’s 64.

The easiest way to figure out your sharpest aperture is to estimate: Maximum sharpness begins a stop or two down from your wide open aperture, and it ends around f/8. If your prime lens shoots wide open at f/1.4, maximum sharpness will begin at between f/2 to f/2.8. If you’re shooting with an f/4 lens, maximum sharpness begins at between f/5.6 to f/8. You can’t stop down much further than f/8 with an ultra high resolution camera because of diffraction – light bends as it enters the lens, and this effect worsens as the aperture opening gets smaller. In practice I’ll shoot at f/11 if I need to, but I’m careful not to go beyond that unless it’s really necessary for depth of field or shutter speed.

An even more accurate way to find your sharpest aperture is to once again check DXO Mark for your specific camera and lens combination. Click on Measurements and then select the Sharpness tab to view a graph of sharpness over various focal lengths and apertures. You might find some surprises – zoom lenses are generally weakest at their extreme focal lengths, but my Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 lens is weakest near the middle of its range at 85mm. Knowing this, I can either avoid shooting at 85mm, or I can use f/5.6-f/8 which are the sharpest apertures for that focal length.

Use mirror lockup or Live View

Mirror lockup and live view do not apply to mirrorless cameras like Sony’s A7RII; if you have a mirrorless camera you can gleefully skip down to Electronic First Curtain Shutter. For the rest of us, here is how a DSLR camera takes a picture:

When you press the shutter button on a DSLR, 3 things happen:

  1. the mirror slaps up, potentially causing vibrations
  2. the first curtain shutter moves across the sensor to begin the exposure, potentially causing vibrations
  3. the second curtain shutter moves across the sensor to end the exposure

The mirror slaps up quickly and violently in DSLR cameras. By using mirror lockup or live view, you can force the mirror to move out of the way long before you take your picture. This allows vibrations to cease before exposing the sensor.

Mirror Lockup

Mirror lockup eliminates vibrations caused by the mirror slap because it locks up the mirror before you take your picture.

To use mirror lockup, first select that mode on your camera. Nikon has mirror lockup available right on the dial, Canon annoyingly has it buried somewhere in the settings. Press the shutter button once to move the mirror out of the way, then press the button again to take your picture. When the mirror is locked up, you can no longer see through the viewfinder and the camera loses its ability to meter and autofocus.

With the mirror locked up, 2 things happen when you press the shutter button:

  1. the first curtain shutter moves across the sensor to begin the exposure, potentially causing vibrations
  2. the second curtain shutter moves across the sensor to end the exposure

Live View

Live view locks up both the mirror and the first curtain shutter. This exposes the sensor without taking a picture. With live view, you gain the advantage of retaining the ability to meter and autofocus. Sounds great, but the downside is you’ll use more battery power and your sensor will heat up, causing noise in your images.

When you use live view, the normal mode of autofocus (phase detection) is bypassed and a much slower but potentially more accurate method is used instead (contrast detection).

When you press the shutter button in live view, 3 things occur:

  1. the first curtain shutter closes
  2. the first curtain shutter reopens, moving across the sensor to begin the exposure, potentially causing vibrations
  3. the second curtain shutter moves across the sensor to end the exposure

Use ELECTRONIC FIRST CURTAIN SHUTTER

Electronic first curtain shutter raises the first curtain before the exposure is made, electronically simulating the otherwise mechanical first curtain shutter. Using electronic first curtain shutter with your choice of either mirror lockup or live view will eliminate all vibrations caused by your camera. You can use EFCS in each of the Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras.

Canon cameras can seamlessly use EFCS in live view and in mirror lockup; all you have to do is turn it on in the settings.

Nikon can seamlessly use EFCS in mirror lockup by turning it on in settings. Nikon inexplicably complicates things when you want to use EFCS in live view. To use EFCS on a Nikon in live view, turn EFCS on in the settings menu and select mirror lockup mode on the dial (Mup). Enter live view mode and press the shutter button twice to begin your exposure. Selecting Mup and pressing the shutter button twice are dummy settings because the mirror is already up in live view.

Sony’s A7RII camera has no mirror and thus no mirror lockup. Electronic first curtain shutter works the same way:

Using electronic first curtain shutter all the time may cause problems with flash photography, and it can cause problems with exposures faster than 1/1000 sec. Generally you can leave EFCS on all the time with Nikon and Canon DSLRs because it’s unlikely you’ll be using live view or mirror lockup with such fast exposures. With Sony, you need to turn it off if you don’t need it.

Use a remote shutter release cable and/or a time delay

Going through the trouble of using EFCS becomes a moot point if you use your finger to actuate the shutter, as that alone will cause enough vibration to blur your photo. The solution is to use a remote shutter release cable and/or add a time delay to your shutter.

If you buy a cable, plug it into the camera and you can instantly shoot without ever touching the camera itself. If you use a time delay, you’ll need to first read your manual to figure out how as this can vary by camera. Once set up, you’ll press the shutter button on the camera, the camera will wait the programmed amount of time, and it will automatically take the picture without you having to touch it again.

Shoot a panorama for even more detail

It’s possible to go well beyond your camera’s megapixel rating by shooting multiple close-up exposures of the same scene. To do this, use either auto exposure lock (AE-L) or full manual mode. You can stitch your shots together for free using Hugin,.

Here’s a 32 megapixel shot of Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. I suppose 32 mp is not particularly noteworthy today, but it was shot on a 22 mp camera in 2013 before the D810, A7RII, and 5DSR existed:

Buckingham Fountain

Buckingham Fountain

Here’s a panorama shot from Iceland. You’d need an 85 megapixel camera to obtain the level of detail present in this panorama:

Iceland Panorama

Iceland Panorama

Lastly, here’s a panorama from Hong Kong along with a 100% crop showing the insane amount of detail you can get when you stitch photos together:

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

 

Hong Kong Detail

Hong Kong – click to view 100% detail

How much Resolution do you need?

Carefully selecting your shutter speed, using a tripod, using the best lenses at their best apertures and focal lengths, using the highest quality ISOs, using mirror lockup/live view and EFCS, using a remote shutter release cable/time delay, and shooting stitched panoramas will indeed push your camera to the limit and help you obtain absolutely mind numbing sharpness. But it all begs the question – how much is enough?

I find it funny that the 5DSR was hyped as a billboard-ready camera. To put it bluntly, if you bought the camera based on that ad, you don’t know much about resolution.  Have you noticed the “Shot on iPhone 6” billboard ads? You know, the billboards shot on the 8 megapixel iPhone 6? It’s ridiculous to suggest the only thing capable of a billboard is a 50 megapixel camera!

Shot on iPhone 6

Shot on iPhone 6

So what do you need?

Web Use

For web use, 1080p (1920×1080=2 megapixels) is plenty enough for today, but go to 1440p (2560×1440=3.7 megapixels) if you want to future proof for both WQHD (1440p) and UHD (4k/2160p).

Personally, I don’t post images at resolutions greater than 1440p because it makes things a bit too easy for people wanting to print without consulting me first.

Printing

For prints, things can get a bit complicated and there is some math involved. Before we get into that, let me first suggest that 10 megapixels is all you’ll ever need to produce high quality prints of any size when viewed at a normal viewing distance.

Now, let me prove it to you.

The ideal viewing distance of a print is 1.5 to 2 times the diagonal length of the print assuming a normal aspect ratio of 2:3 (panoramas tend to be viewed much closer.) To find your print’s diagonal length, add width squared + length squared, then find the square root of that total. This is the distance at which the human eye can focus on the entire image at once.

In plain English, photos are not viewed under a microscope. They are viewed at a comfortable distance.

Back to the math. Since I like to print large at 20×30″ sizes, my diagonal length is 36″ and the ideal viewing distance is 54-72″. To find your required ppi for a given print (and thus megapixels), use a conservative 2.5(3438/viewing distance in inches). For my 20×30″ print example, minimum ppi is 120-157 depending on whether the image is viewed at 1.5x or 2x. This is between 3.5 to 6 megapixels for a large 20×30″ print.

Not what you expected? Check my numbers!

If you find 3.5-6 megapixels to be absurdly low, I’m right there with you because we’ve been conditioned to think that we need ultra high megapixels to obtain ultra high quality. But I’ll prove it to you further. Here is a screen capture from an interview using one of my 9 megapixel images as the mural-sized background:

Interview

Interview

 

I’d guess that image is at least 18 feet long x 11 feet high, giving a diagonal length of 253 inches, and requiring 23 ppi in order to appear sharp. A 5.8 megapixel image would have sufficed for viewing at 1.5x the diagonal length. Since I shot the image with an 18 megapixel Canon 60D and cropped it to 9 megapixels, the image was more than sharp enough for the event.

Why do people buy ultra high megapixel cameras?

Photography should be fun. For me it’s the blend of art and technology that I’m attracted to. Even though I may never use all that resolution for any practical purpose, it’s kind of cool that we have the technology to create images of such insanely high quality. Keep in mind that there is a time and a place to use all that resolution – I recently spoke to a wedding photographer who purposely uses a lower resolution camera because clients don’t like to see every single pore and imperfection. But if you like to pixel peep at 100% resolution on your computer, or if you like to view large sized prints from mere inches away, you’ll be much happier with a high resolution camera.

For me balance is important. To my eye, it’s not so much the resolution as it is the other, less tangible things you get with a nice camera. Customization, ease of use, fast autofocus, minimal shutter lag, and dynamic range are all important to me. I love that I can print large and sharp with my D810, and I love the dynamic range and editing ability afforded by one of the best sensors in existence today.

In any case, I hope this short guide proved useful for you in getting the most out of your camera.

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