Nature Photography Tips    

Eight tips for Sharper Shots

Savannah Sparrow, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
photographed from a Kirk car window mount

I'm obsessed with sharp photos! I know I'm not alone in this obsession - most people want to make sharper photos - like the ones that grace the covers of our favorite magazines. Well I've found that there is no secret to doing this, it just requires a combination of the right equipment, good technique and diligent effort. Here are some simple tips that I use to help make tack sharp photos:   

1. Use a tripod...
Regular use of a tripod in photography is just about as important as putting film in the camera. If you want to make consistently sharp photos - get in the habit of using a tripod for every shot you possibly can. Be persistent and drag the darn thing around everywhere you go. Invest wisely right from the start with a sturdy all-aluminium model, with legs that lower to ground level. Pick the heaviest model youíll be comfortable carrying for long distances.

I personally own 6 tripods of various sizes, made by Manfrotto and Gitzo. These two brands are the popular choice of most photographers. You will also need to add a good quality ball head to the tripod. Together, a decent tripod and head, should cost a minimum of two hundred dollars.

2. Use any other device that steadies your camera...
There are all kinds of gizmos, besides tripods, which can be used to steady your camera. My personal favorite is the car window mount, which I use frequently to shoot birds from my car. Another popular choice is a bean bag, upon which a camera and lens can be rested. The most ingenious tip Iíve heard though, is to rest your camera on your shoe when there are no other alternatives. Whatever your options, pick the one that is most steady.

3. Brace yourself...
If youíre leaning or contorted while taking a picture, this will likely cause you to shake or tremble a bit, which will ultimately transmit to your photos. Try to adopt a solid, but relaxed stance where you can comfortably hold the camera firmly and steadily. If possible, kneel on the ground or lean up against a solid object like a tree, for extra support.

4. Press the shutter button gently...
I'm constantly reminding myself to calm down and depress the shutter button gently to prevent shaking the camera. This is particularly hard to do when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is unfolding in your viewfinder.

5. Use a cable release of self timer...
Just touching your camera will cause it to shake, which is most problematic when shooting in low-light with slow shutter speeds. The use of a cable release, or the in-camera self timer will alleviate this problem. For subjects that donít move much, try to use your cable release of timer as often as possible.

6. Use mirror lock-up...
Mirror Lock-Up (MLU), a feature generally found on higher-end cameras, is the weapon of choice for making ultra-sharp photos of stationary subjects. With virtually all SLR cameras, the mirror (which reflects the scene from the lens up into the viewfinder) moves up the split instant before the shutter opens to allow the light to strike the film. This process causes vibrations as the mirror snaps up. By using MLU, the mirror is locked out of the way in advance, which prevents vibrations from occurring at the time of exposure. One hitch however, is that the while MLU is engaged you are unable to see the scene in the viewfinder. With stationary subjects, this is not a concern.

7. Buy an image stabilizer, or vibration reduction lens...
If moneyís no object, go out and purchase an Image Stabilizer (IS) lens from Canon, or Nikonís version - the Vibration Reduction (VR) lens. These technologies are designed to compensate for camera shake, and allow you to produce sharp results a couple stops slower than normal.

8. See #1.

With disciplined practice of these techniques (especially when used in combination), youíll be making razor sharp photos on a regular basis. Best of luck!

Mossy Stonecrop, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
shot with a Gitzo tripod, Manfrotto super heavy 168 head, 
cable release and mirror lock-up

Happy photographing! 
- Ethan

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