This piece could equally be labeled, “how do I get my images to look that sharp?” I remember poring over images in photography magazines as a teenager and thinking that there must be something wrong with the equipment that I was using that the images I was producing weren’t as sharp or as crisp as those that I was seeing on those pages. This is a typical stage for most photographers to progress through. Our lens bag gets heavier and heavier as we buy more and more expensive optics to put on our cameras. At least in those days we couldn’t blame the sensor as the image quality was dependent on the lens and the film. Now we start to caste a suspicious eye towards our cameras, believing that the sensor must not be that great. The result is yet more money spent in the relentless quest to get our images looking like those in the magazines.
David du Chemin in his ebook, “ “ mentions how he wishes he could have gone back to a darkroom 20 years ago and advised the young David of the course he should take. I like the analogy. A younger me made a lot of mistakes based on false assumptions when it came to producing images that looked anything like those I was studiously scanning in the pages of Practical Photography (my friends jokingly referred to as ‘practical pornography’ in the less PC days of my youth as the cover was usually graced by the presence of a semi-clad feminine beauty), Outdoor Photography, PDN and Amateur Photographer. Like many others I nitpicked over the quality of my lenses, constantly feeling that they were inadequate for the purposes that I was putting them to. It’s taken me a decade and half to learn that I was starting from the wrong assumptions.
It’s not the gear! Yes there are lenses that are poor samples, but the vast majority of lenses are absolutely fine if used properly. If there is one thing you can do to make your images look more like those published in magazines, it’s to get the camera steady. This is the number one piece of advice I’ve learnt since I held my first SLR camera in my hands in the early 90’s. This doesn’t mean that you have to place the camera on a tripod for every shot, although using a tripod is good advice. It also doesn’t mean that your shutter speed has to be so blindingly that it’ll even freeze a photographer with caffeine jitters. It means doing your best to make sure that there is as little movement in the camera…unless you choose it to be so.
Here’s the other lesson that took me a while to grasp. There is no such thing as a technically perfect image. Every adjustment we make to a camera is going to change the way that the image ultimately looks. There is a difference between f4 and f2.8 and there is a difference between 1/60th of a second and 1/125th of a second. So what is a technically perfect image then? That taken at f4 or f2.8? It all comes down to the final image and the feel or aesthetic that it portrays.
So this takes me back to the previous paragraph; get the camera steady unless there is a reason not to have it steady. My event photography suddenly took off the moment I realized that blur and movement create a dynamic in the image that is lacking from those that show everything as pin sharp and static. Consider the opening image of this piece. The image is far from technically perfect, yet it is one of my favourite images of last year. There is blur and movement, but there is also sharpness where there needs to be sharpness.
To come back to getting your photos like those published in magazines. Clarity and sharpness are one of the most visible or noticeable aspects between our images as novices and those created by professionals and enthusiasts. Camera stability is central to this sharpness. Images that have bite tend to be those that are incredibly, mind-blowingly sharp. But incredible images aren’t always as technically perfect as this. Consider some of the top wildlife images of the last 15 or so years by the likes of Frans Lanting, Nick Nickols, Beverly Joubert, Flip Nicklen or …. Many of them are not ‘pin-sharp’, but the moment and the aesthetic overrides that concern. One of my favourite images by Frans Lanting is also the cover of his book, “Jungles”. It shows a red macaw flying at an angle beneath him in a diagonal direction across the frame. The shutter is dragged so that Lanting could pan with the bird in flight and flash burst has frozen the bird at the end of the exposure. There isn’t a single thing that is pin sharp in that image. If you look critically at it you will also notice that the bird’s eye is ever-so-slightly out of focus. Competitions and photography clubs would rack the image up as a nice try, but ultimately a missed shot. In reality the shot is astoundingly good. It’s beautiful. It does more than document the macaw flying over its natural habitat (the red against green being complementary colours allows the bird to positively burst from the page). It shows the essence of a macaw in the jungle, that flash of red and blur of wings in the dark green jungle canopy that is characteristic of the bright red bird.
In a sense this is a ‘how-to’ with a caveat. It also follows on from last month’s editorial (Finding Flow). Sharpness, or lack thereof, in an image is the number one let down to its effectiveness. Improving one’s images starts at this basic lesson. Get the camera steady. Understanding what the aperture is doing follows closely thereafter as the aperture is intimately linked with the perceived sharpness of an image. In many ways this follows on from the elements approach to photography that I have written about before. Sharpness is another one of the elements in the frame that we need to consider when creating our images. Do we want it critically sharp (usually the answer should be yes), or do we want to convey something else about the subject that blurred movement or even softness would convey more effectively. We need to make critical decisions as to what our images need to come out looking like, what they portray, to be able to get our photos looking more like those we pore over in photography magazines. Sharpness is a good start, and the most visible one at that. Thereafter we need to create images with intent.