Getting Sharper Photos


Wildlife photographers use a variety of methods and personal styles to produce outstanding images, but no matter what the photos depict, nearly all the pictures that really stop us in our tracks and make us look twice have at least one common characteristic.

They’re absolutely tack-sharp in focus and show outstanding details.

In a grizzly bear photo, for example, you’ll see individual hairs in the fur, while a photograph of a drake mallard will  highlight separate green, gray, and white feathers.  Practically any photographer can achieve this type of result occasionally, but the real pros do it consistently; here’s how you can, too.

The very first step is using excellent lenses.  This is the bad news, because the best lenses, especially when it comes to “big glass” like a 300, 400, and 500mm telephoto, are extremely expensive.  They’re expensive because of the way they’re constructed.  The best of these actually consist of groups of coated lens elements inside that big barrel, not just a single piece of glass.  My 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor  has 11 lens elements in eight separate groups, for example, and a 500mm f/4 Nikkor has 11 elements put together in 9 groups.  Less expensive lenses simply do not have such complex construction, which is why they don’t cost as much.

This is the mechanical end of the equation.  The top photographers who have their work published regularly all use these types of lenses.  Other less expensive lenses will produce acceptably sharp photos – even photos you can get published – but they won’t record the minute details of that grizzly’s fur or separate the feathers of that mallard.

Buy the very best lenses you can afford, and plan to move up the ladder as you can afford to.  As you’re doing this, here are some other ways to help make your photos sharper:

If you’re still shooting film, and many pros are, choose a fine grain film.  In my work as a contract photographer for ESPN/Outdoors when we were still shooting film, we generally used Fujichrome Provia 100F, which has  extremely fine grain, which in turn equates into sharpness.  In Africa I also shot a lot of Fuji Velvia 50 and I have since used the newer Velvia 100, both of which also have very fine grain.

As you notice, these are relatively slow films, so you need to stabilize your camera and lens when you’re shooting them, especially when you’re using a telephoto, because you won’t always be able to use a fast shutter speed.  I simply can’t tell you how critical this is in achieving sharpness.  A lot of wildlife photography is done from automobiles where tripods aren’t workable, so I use a homemade beanbag I drape over the window, or on the hood if I can actually get out of the vehicle.

My beanbag isn’t always filled with beans, either.  To make it, I cut the pants leg off a worn-out pair of jeans, sewed one end closed, and sewed Velcro strips on the other end.  This way I can fill it with beans, rice, even dirt and use it for a few days, then empty it (or give the beans back to the camp chef, as I did in Kenya), and it packs flat in my camera bag.

I’ll write more about tripods and tripod heads in another column, but there’s another ingredient to photo sharpness you should always study, which is light.  We talk about the “soft” light of early morning and late afternoon; one of the reasons photographers prefer to shoot in this light is because of the absence of harsh shadows.  Dark shadows take away detail and thus make your photograph appear less sharp.

Thus, whenever you can, avoid shooting subjects in harsh shadows, and especially dark subjects like an elk in the Yellowstone timber or a moose in the Maine woods.  Remember, the camera sees what you see, but does not always record what you see the way you see it.

By the same token, you’ll lose fine detail when you shoot at mid-day.  The bright light washes out color, which in turn takes away your detail.

Another technique photographers use regularly is to focus on the eye or eyes of their subjects.  An animal or a bird’s eye is often what draws our attention in a picture, and if it’s in sharp focus and shows clearly, we can easily overlook the fact the rest of the picture might not be quite as sharp.  By contrast, however, we all immediately notice if a subject’s eye is not in sharp focus, and the photo loses its impact.

Use a fast shutter speed.  This will help “freeze” a moving subject, particularly if you can shoot at 1/1000th  of a second or higher.  A shutter speed this fast will also help erase possible camera movement.  Unfortunately, the faster the shutter speed, the wider the aperture you’ll be using, so you’re going to lose some depth-of-field and your chances of blurriness increase.

Depth-of-field can help you achieve subject sharpness, since basically it means part of the area in front of your subject and also behind it will also be in focus.  To add a little more depth-of-field, close down one additional f/stop, say from f/4 to f/5.6, or from f/2.8 to f/4.  Depending on which lens you’re using, this will increase the area that’s in focus.  You can even “bracket” your focus this way, just like you bracket for exposure, by shooting 4 or 5 frames at different f/stops.

Now, what do you do if you’re in a low-light situation and have to shoot at, say, 1/15th of a second, or even slower?  If your subject is not moving, shoot a burst of four or five frames without moving your camera.  Normally, one of these, usually shot 3 or 4, will be noticeably sharper than the others.

If you’re shooting digitally, all of these techniques still apply, but you have several major options for adding sharpness in the Photoshop and Photoshop Elements image management programs.  The basic tool, under Filters, is named Unsharp Mask, but there are other tricks that can and are often used.  Certainly, you want to shoot large files initially, either the largest JPEG you can, or even in RAW, so you have more to work with in the computer.

My philosophy is to get the picture as close to right when I shoot it, to minimize the computer work.  Of course, when I’m shooting transparencies, I have to get it right initially, unless I want to spend the time scanning an image into the computer and then attacking it with Photoshop.

To me, all that time with a computer is time away from actual photo work in the field, which we all know is a lot more fun!


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