Updated: Sep 20, 2022
In order to capture a perfect image, there are many considerations such as good composition, best use of light and correct camera settings. However, this can all fall flat if you cannot capture an image which is sharp. How can you ensure that you have the best chance of capturing sharp images whilst in the field? I will discuss some factors to consider when out capturing images.
Don’t get bogged down in these issues such as sharpness and pixel peeking. I’m talking about when you’re photographing in the wild, your focus is good, your subject looks sharp, and the edges of your subject aren’t blurry.
Critical Sharpness. To keep things simple, this is when you look through the viewfinder, find the subject and look for the area that should be in focus. For example, you have a fairy-wren perched across from you with its tail feathers pointing up. The depth of field (DOF) comes into play, it softens the tail feathers, but the eyes and head are sharp – then this is acceptable subject sharpness for me. You have achieved a good image. DOF is different story and will not be covered in these notes. Its good practice to focus on the area where you want it to be the sharpest, for example the eye. Sharpness can be affected when your lens focus point is on the legs instead of the eyes, then you will notice that the legs will be sharper than the eye causing a distraction to the viewer. The problem may be user error or back focusing issue with the lens. Back focusing can be rectified by calibrating your lens and camera.
Lenses makes a difference. The quality of a lens affects its sharpness, so while using, learn how to overcome any limitations in your lenses, as per the below hints and skills.
Set the camera's autofocus mode. AI Servo or Servo (Canon) is a continuous autofocus system that continuously tracks the subject. Other brands have similar setups. Setting the camera to one-stop mode is a problem, and if the subject moves slightly forward, the shot becomes blurry in this mode.
Shutter speed to freeze. Work out your lowest shutter speed for different scenarios such as: low light, bird in flight, size of bird, fast action shots etc. Tips to remember:
Camera/lens shake – holding your gear correctly.
Flying Bird/Action – high shutter speed 1/1000 +.
Size of bird makes a difference eg. Swallows require super high shutter
Speed in flight 1/3200 (so fast) whereas bigger birds generally fly slower.
Light. Quality light makes a difference. Dark overcast days can make getting sharp images very difficult. If the ISO is too high, this could affect the sharpness of the image. This is particularly demonstrated in low light, as the edges of the subject don’t pop from the background in comparison to quality light. Therefore, make sure you adjust the ISO accordingly when you don’t have quality light available. Closer shots of birds will provide better detail. However, you need to find the right balance and never get close to nesting birds. It’s important to practice good ethics when out photographing birds.
Technique taking images. Good technique when hand holding your lens, hand strategically placed on the lens to stop shaky movement. The aim is to keep the camera and lens still and no vibration. The longer the lens the vibration will increase.
Post processing. Selective sharpening draws the eye into the image. For example, just sharpening certain areas of an image such as the head and eye will immediately cause the viewer to look at the eye and not notice any softness.
· Know the sweet spot on your lens – my lens sweet spot is F7.1/F8. Test your lens at home checking your images for sharpness at different F-stops.
· Illusion of sharpness can be created by clean backgrounds behind the bird and take eye-level images.
· Heat haze is a killer of sharp images – usually this cannot be rectified. Leaning on the bonnet of your car, which is emitting heat is not ideal either.
· Shooting from a car with the engine running causes a lot of vibration and I would be surprised if you got a sharp shot. I turn the engine off when taking images from the car.
· Stabilise your lens using a monopod/tripod. Handholding a lens, lean on something such as a post/tree to give support when taking images.
Image 1 Spotted Crake – getting low with a good distance from the bird to the background help to create a nice clean image. This made the bird pop with an illusion of a sharp image. The colour of the eye, which is in focus enhanced the illusion of a sharp image. Good light also helped with sharpness.
Image 1 - Spotted Crake
Image 2 Splendid Fairy-wren – the wing and tailfeathers on the Splendid Fairy-wren are soft with the sharpness fading through to the tips of the feathers. The head and eye are sharp. A clean background help to allude to sharpness of the subject. Contrast of the blue colour in tail feathers and clean background overrides the softness of the tailfeathers.
Image 2 - Splendid Fairy-wren
So be encouraged and shoot to create a beautiful image knowing sharpness is critical, but other factors help to create sharpness. Its important to enjoy your photography and learning at the same time.
Back focusing, error of the subject being out of focus, and sharp focus instead falling behind or past the subject.
Calibrating your lens, method of fine-tuning where the focus point falls in your image, when autofocusing.
Depth of Field, (DOF, in photography) the distance between the nearest and the furthest objects giving a focused image.
ISO, is your camera's sensitivity to light on the digital sensor. A lower ISO value means less sensitivity to light, while a higher ISO means more sensitivity.
Pixel Peeping, zooming into an image at 300% or more to study an image sharpness.
Sweet Spot on your lens, sharpest F-stop on your lens.