The Craft of Sharpness in Photography II – Handholding

Sharpness Part II - 3There are times when we simply can't use a tripod. In the next post of this series, I will talk about other accessories such as bean bags and monopods. This time I want to look at handholding for sharpness. There are times when you just have to handhold, including when you have to travel really light, when you need to work quickly, and when tripods are not allowed. The cholla above were shot handheld.

The key to handholding sharpness is stability. You need to hold that camera and lens as still as possible while the shutter is doing its job. This requires you to hold the camera right and choose the appropriate shutter speed.

All standard digital cameras are held the same way to get the most stability. This does not matter if you are right or left handed, right or left eyed, cameras are made to be held in one way. Place your left hand with the palm facing UP, not down, then place the camera and lens onto the palm. Grip the right side of the camera with your right hand.

Sharpness Part II - 1Now pull in your elbows so they are against your chest. Flapping elbows will only ensure less sharpness. Be sure your feet are slightly apart. Bring the camera to your face. If you are using the viewfinder, bring it all the way to your face. If you are using Live View, hold the camera a comfortable distance in front of your face (tilting LCDs can be very helpful here).

Sharpness Part II - 2Next, breath normally (do not hold your breath) and squeeze the shutter button down, never punch or jab at it.

That's the start. Shutter speed is also important. You need to use a shutter speed that restricts camera movement during exposure. In working with a lot of photographers and students over the years, I have found that most of them overestimate how slow a shutter speed they can use and still get sharp photos. I will offer some guidelines, but you can test this by setting up a detailed target that is easy to interpret (such as a newspaper on a wall) and shooting it at one focal length and different shutter speeds. Then enlarge the image to see the text and compare. You have to do this separately for any large change in focal length.

There is an old formula that says you cannot shoot slower than a shutter speed equal to 1/focal length. That would mean 1/100 for a 100mm lens, 1/30 for a 28mm lens or 1/200 for a 200mm lens. Lenses change not only the magnification of the subject, but also the "magnification" of any camera movement during exposure. This is why telephotos are so sensitive to camera movement, and why many photographers find that their zoom is "less sharp" at the telephoto settings compared to the wider settings. The zoom probably isn't less sharp at all at the telephoto settings, just a lot more sensitive to camera movement.

Three qualifications for that formula. First, it applies only to 35mm-full-frame. Second, close-ups and macro magnify camera movement, so that rule is out for them. Third, not everyone is equal. While many photographers will do fine with that rule, I have found that a lot of photographers cannot get optimally sharp photos unless they use the next full step faster shutter speed.

So what about APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. You need to apply the "magnification factor" to the focal length before using the formula. That means, for example, that you would need 1/150 second or faster (1/200 is probably better) if you were using a 100mm lens on an APS-C camera (1/1.5x100) and 1/200 or faster if you were using the same lens on Micro Four Thirds (1/2x100).

An example with a 70-200mm zoom lens: at 70mm you would need 1/70 or faster with 35mm-full-frame, and at 200mm, 1/200 or faster; with APS-C, that would be 1/100 or faster at 70mm and 1/300 or faster at 200mm; and with MFT, that would be 1/140 or faster at 70mm and 1/400 or faster at 200mm. You can see the challenge of the telephoto focal lengths and handheld sharpness.

Sharpness is important, more important than trying to use too slow an ISO or too small an f-stop. Cameras today handle high ISOs extremely well, so use those high ISOs to get a faster shutter speed when you need it. And while a small f-stop might give you depth of field that you feel you need, it may result in a shutter speed that cannot give you sharpness handheld.

Image stabilization (in its various incarnations and names) is a definite benefit for shooting handheld. It will NOT eliminate camera movement during exposure or replace a tripod, but it will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get sharp images. How slow depends on the size of the camera, your handholding technique and conditions (e.g., a wind can be a problem), but usually you can expect 2-3 steps of shutter speed so that you can shoot with a slower shutter speed.

Some of you might be wondering about the little piece of sky at the top left in the cholla photo. In general, you really have to be careful of bright areas at the edges and especially the top of the image because they will attract the viewer's eye. However, I learned this from study of Eliot Porter's work. He often put a sliver of sky at the top of the frame, and he explained this as helping give depth to the image. The eye is attracted, then, into the distance, which works well as long as this is not a large area. Just cover that bright area with your hand and notice how much the composition flattens out.

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The Craft of Sharpness in Photography I

Sharpness I 4Photographic sharpness is unique. Painting and sketching can provide sharp images, but the sharpness is definitely not the same. Computers provide an unnatural sharpness that often has to be dulled in order to look right.

I often hear folks talk about getting this or that lens or this or that camera so that they can get sharp images "like the pros." There is an old joke about pros and advanced amateurs: How can you tell the pros from the amateurs at any location? The amateurs have the more expensive gear.

Murphy-Hanrahan Regional Park, Minnesota (south of Minneapolis)There is some truth to that. The point is that sharpness, especially with today's lenses and cameras, is a lot less about equipment than it is about camera stability. That is not to say lenses can't be important and that different lenses won't show different aspects of sharpness, but simply, this is about the most important aspect of photographic sharpness – how steady a camera is kept during exposure. The number 1 cause of unsharp photos for everyone, amateurs to pros, is camera movement during exposure. But it is most common to amateurs who have not mastered the craft of sharpness and think it is all about the gear.

Okay, it can be about gear, but not about cameras and lenses. A good solid tripod is the number one thing any photographer can get and use in order to achieve greater sharpness with photography. Tripods are not "sexy" like the latest multi-megapixeled camera all the rage at the camera club, and so they get dis-repected and not discussed in the same way. In fact, if you go anywhere where there are a lot of photographers, you are bound to see a lot of expensive gear and some of it will be on cheap tripods found on sale at Target or Walmart. Most of those tripods are worse than using no tripod, plus all that money put into camera gear has been wasted.

Oh, I have heard all the excuses. Tripods are too heavy, too hard to set up, too this and that. "I just can't be bothered." Then a lot of time, you just can't be bothered with sharp photos. (I will be looking at how to get sharp photos without a tripod in future posts, but a good tripod is always important.)

A good tripod is an investment, yet I have heard photographers complain about a $1000 tripod (there are good ones for much less) and turn around and drop $3000 on a new camera that will do him or her less good than the tripod. Once you buy a good tripod and head to go with it, that piece of gear will not get outdated and will last you for years. You will get more from your investment in that tripod than any other camera gear.

Sharpness I 5Gitzo, Manfrotto, Slik, Really Right Stuff – all make excellent tripods and tripod heads, though you have to be wary of cheap Slik and Manfrotto tripods. Carbon fiber tripods are a superb investment because that material keeps the tripod rigid and strong plus extremely lightweight. You can get excellent metal alloy tripods for less, but they will be heavier and they will feel colder in cold weather.

Get a tripod sturdy enough to easily handle your gear without vibration or unsteadiness, but don't overdo it with a tripod heavier than you need. You need a heavier, sturdier tripod and head if you are using 35mm-full-frame cameras, especially with heavy telephoto lenses. You can use much lighter tripods with Micro Four Thirds gear.

Then get a tripod head that is also sized for your gear, and the same ideas apply for a tripod head for different digital format cameras. Magnesium alloy heads are extremely lightweight and well worth the investment. Do get a head that uses quick release mounts. I can't imagine not having those mounts. They make a huge difference in how easily you can use a tripod.

All of the photos here were shot using a tripod (yes, I do own several). The top photo is from Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and the next is sunrise on a prairie in Minnesota.

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Special Optical Effects for Nature Photographers

Optical effects 2I love the special effects that Hollywood can do now. But that is not what this blog post is about.

You might remember the crazy effects from lens filters that were the fad a number of years ago. I am not talking about that either.

I am talking about two natural effects that occur just from using your lens. Everyone sees these effects at times. They are the sunburst pattern around the sun and round circles in an out-of-focus background (part of what is referred to as the bokeh of a lens or image). I want to give you some ideas on how you can control them and use them consistently and effectively.

The sunburst pattern is a lot of fun and a great addition to everything from landscapes to close-ups when you can get the sun in the background. This occurs when you use a physically small f-stop and you have some dark areas around the sun for it to show up (that is important – you can try this all you want with a bright sky, but you will not see much).

This commonly occurs with any small f-stop (such as f/16) with a wide-angle focal length and may occur with more telephoto focal lengths under the right conditions and a small enough f-stop. It is easier to get with telephoto focal lengths with smaller format cameras such as MFT or APS-C as compared to 35mm-full-frame.

Optical effects 3
This effect comes from the way light diffracts through a small f-stop, and it is an aspect of how optics work, not how a lens is manufactured. The exact effect you get depends on the specific model of lens. Every type of lens will give something slightly different.

A great way to use this effect is shooting through trees or other vegetation. Just put the sun near a branch crotch, for example. The same thing can happen if you put the sun along the edge of rocks, a cliff, or any other dark shape. You will get the effect if the sun is low against a dark sky, but a hazy sky will prevent it from happening.

Lebanon Hills Park, MinnesotaThe out-of-focus circles in a background comes when you have out-of-focus highlights behind your subject. Those highlights will take on the shape of the inside of your lens opening, i.e., the lens aperture, which will be a circle on all lenses if you shoot wide-open. Some lenses are designed to give this effect even if the lens is stopped down, however, the circles will get smaller then.

Lebanon Hills Park, MinnesotaJust move around until you find out-of-focus highlights or bright areas in the background. Look at what is happening to them as you move and change the relationship of your subject compared to the background. These are easiest to do with close-ups, though they can be done anytime you can create a distinct difference in sharpness from foreground to background, such as with the use of a telephoto lens. Watch for them in Hollywood movies. They show up a lot, especially at night.

Optical effects 4You do have to watch your exposure. Those out-of-focus highlights can cause your meter to underexpose the image. That would be fine if you just wanted a silhouette, but often you will want more.


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The Magic of Shallow-Focus Flower Photography

Shallow DofF 1I had to get out and play. I had been working too hard on some projects that kept me at the computer. So I went out and shot flowers with super shallow depth of field. I love doing this at times because it provides a point of view we cannot see with our eyes. And it is also unusual in the sense that most photographers won't do it.

I know from experience working with many students in classes over the years that most photographers are afraid to shoot with wide apertures or f-stops. They have been told that these f-stops are not the sharpest part of a lens (true), and that they have no depth of field (also true). But the effects you get are both remarkable and beautiful that make them worth using, especially when you go all out to get super shallow depth of field. (I know that f-stops can be confusing. Wide f-stops are those with the smaller numbers, and the widest f-stop is the smallest number available for your lens.)

All of the images shown here were shot with the lens wide-open at f/2.8 or f/4 (that has to be qualified because these were shot at 150mm with my Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom, and most were shot with a 1.4x extender, which changes the f/2.8 to f/4). I used a telephoto lens because I wanted the shallowest depth of field possible.

Shallow DofF 3I need to explain the telephoto choice further. My camera, the Panasonic GH3, uses the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format, which results in more depth of field at any given angle of view. This has nothing to do with anything the sensor does, but has everything to do with how focal lengths are used. MFT needs a shorter (more "wide-angle") focal length to match any given focal length for larger formats, e.g., 50mm for MFT equals the angle of view of a 100mm for 35mm-full-frame and about 66mm for APS-C. Shorter focal lengths, such as 50mm compared to 100mm, give more depth of field (neither more or less depth of field is good or bad, it totally depends on your needs and how it is used).

Depth of field is primarily affected by three things:

  1. f-stop (small numbers mean "small" or shallow depth of field, large numbers mean "large" or deep depth of field)
  2. Focal length (wider focal lengths give more depth of field than longer, or telephoto, focal lengths at any given f-stop)
  3. Distance to subject (the closer you are to a subject, the shallower depth of field gets, which is why it can be challenging for close-up and macro work)

Shallow DofF 4One thing you have to be very careful of with this type of shooting is where your focus point is. I find that this is difficult to do with autofocus because there are so many places autofocus can focus on that it often gets it wrong.

So for these images, I am close to the subject (shallower depth of field), using a telephoto focal length (shallower depth of field), and choosing the widest f-stop possible – these combine to give consistently shallow depth of field. The results are obviously quite different than when one tries to get a lot of depth of field. Focus is narrowly defined and has a great contrast with the rest of the image. Backgrounds gain some beautiful colors and tonalities. This can be a magical way of shooting.

Shallow DofF 5My latest book from Peachpit Press, Macro Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot, covers even more about lenses and depth of field up close. You can find it at If you have a copy, please put a review of it up on! I would greatly appreciate it.



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Environmental Flower Photography

Environment 3I love being able to bring a setting or location to my flower shots. As you can guess from the last post, I also love the simple flower portrait. These are simply two different approaches to flower photography that keep me and my photography fresh.

Showing the environment of a flower gives context and connects the flower to where it grows. A flower portrait shows off the flower, while the environmental shot gives a sense of the ecology of its home, its habitat.

While I often use wide-angle lenses up close to do this, the environmental shot does not mean you have to use a wide-angle lens. It is about what you reveal in the photo around the subject in your composition, not about focal length.

Environment 1That said, a wide-angle lens up close often make this much easier to do because of the way it shows the background. A telephoto magnifies the background behind your subject which can mean less context. A wide-angle shrinks the background and offers a lot of context. Plus, wide-angle focal lengths give you more depth of field which can help a lot up close since the closer you get, the more depth of field shrinks.

Five important aspects of this type of photography:

  1. Get low. I have no center column in my tripod anymore because it kept me from getting the tripod as low as I needed it. Getting low allows you to see the flower and the background going off into the distance.
  2. Get the flower out of the center of the composition. This is critical. When the flower is centered, the viewer looks quickly at the subject and is done. A centered image communicates that what is important is in the center and the rest is not so important. When the subject is out of the center, the viewer is encouraged to look around the photo and see that environment.
  3. Look to be sure the background connects to the subject. This is a composition and communication thing that is related to how we see things in depth in a photograph. What is that background communicating, through your composition, about the context of this location and your subject. I find that a Live View LCD is so very helpful here because it encourages you to look over the whole image area rather than just sight through a viewfinder on a subject.
  4. Watch for distractions in the area around the flower. Now that you are including a lot more "stuff" in the frame, you have to be sure that stuff belongs to the photo and is not distracting from the subject. This is especially true when working with wide-angle lenses up close because of the way they define and shape our impression of the background.
  5. Work to separate the flower in some way from the background. If you subject is light, move so some darkness is behind it. If the subject is dark, move so some brightness is behind it. Avoid having colors and tonalities that are close to your subject overlapping it in the background.


From the top, photos include: monkeyflower in bloom in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, slight telephoto shot of Dutchman's breeches in Audubon State Park in Kentucky, jimsonweed growing near a housing development in the Central Valley of California, and penstemon blooming on the granite domes of Yosemite. All of these images give very different contexts for the flowers and tell you a lot about their environment.

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Photographing Flower Portraits

Flower portraits 3One way of creating flower photos is to see them as portraits. Just as a good portrait of a person shows off that person in an interesting way, flower portraits work the same way. This is not simply about getting close to a flower, but about looking at that flower in a classic portraiture point of view and finding ways to create that photograph that goes beyond a snapshot of a pretty subject.

Here are some ideas to think about:

  1. Shoot at flower "eye-level." You will notice that people photographs make their subjects look the best when you are at eye-level to the person, not looking down or looking up. This provides a direct connection to the viewer of the image. You can do the same thing with flowers by getting down to their level, in other words, not shooting up or down on the flower.
  2. Use interesting backgrounds. I am not talking here about bringing along your own background, though if you wanted to do that, that could be interesting from a stylized point of view. When I shot portraits as a photojournalist years ago, I really liked working with natural backgrounds, and I also like natural backgrounds for flowers. You can easily change the background of a flower by changing your camera position, by shading the background, by using a telephoto lens, by using a wide-angle lens (changing focal length will change the look of a background as you move closer or farther from the subject), by creatively working with depth of field (don't be afraid of wide apertures), by shooting on different days or even times of day.Flower portraits 2
  3. Your subject doesn't have to be centered. Centered photos are quite often the least interesting compositions and less engaging to a viewer. Some of the great portraitists such as Arnold Newman and Andre Kertesz rarely had people in the center of the frame.
  4. Try contrasting backgrounds. This can be done by having your subject and background in totally different light as well as by using shallow depth of field with a background that is well behind your subject so that it is a soft blur.
  5. Find the best light. Light is always important to photography, but for flowers, you have an option you don't always have for bigger subjects – you can quickly move around your subject to find better light. Light can mold the flower and give it dimension; it can enhance texture; light can make bold colors look bolder against dark shadows; it can bring out subtle colors when the light is soft; light can make translucent flowers glow (backlight). Sometimes you have to look around a group of flowers to find the flower in the best light.Flower portraits 1
  6. Watch for distractions. Four key distractions to avoid: random bright spots in the background; bright areas that are away from your subject and attract the viewer's eye; detail that is too strong in the background (even if it is out of focus); sharp leaves, twigs, etc., along the edges of the image area that don't connect with the subject.
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