Laurence Kim is a spectacular wedding photographer in Seattle. His images almost always feature perfect sharpness and it is a bit of a trademark of his. When I saw on his blog that he was giving away his secrets, I asked him if I could share them as well! You can see more of his images on his website and blog.
I get asked all the time - by professionals as well as amateurs - how I get my images to look so sharp - so clean and crispy. Well, there really is no secret (well, there’s one secret you’ll see in a minute). Getting that crisp look is a combination of several factors. I hope this brief explanation helps, let me know if it does!
(1) Make sure your image is properly exposed. In my opinion, this is probably the most important factor in getting a crisp image. Get in the habit of taking a quick test shot and look at your histogram. While the shape of the histogram will vary according to the lighting conditions, the one thing you want is for the shape go all the way to the right side of the chart, like this:
Now take a look at this histogram. You’ll clearly see the data does not go all the way to the edge of the histogram, it’s about one stop underexposed.
Yes, you can adjust the exposure slider in your image editing software of choice to stretch the chart to the right. You’ll need to do this to produce an acceptable image, but the drawback is that when you stretch the data to fix an underexposed image, it gets muddy. I’m not a techie so I can’t explain exactly why, but just do your best to get the exposure correct in the camera.
Since I usually shoot in aperture-priority mode, the way I do this is take a quick test shot, then look at the histogram. 90% of the time, if shooting indoors I’ll need to add some positive exposure compensation, often a full stop or more. If I’m shooting a bride in a white dress in a room with white walls I know for sure my default camera setting will be +1 exposure compensation. Don’t trust the image in your camera’s LCD! It will often look okay even if severely underexposed. Just trust the histogram. Lastly, don’t worry about blown-out highlights if they occur on non-critical areas of the frame (windows, light fixtures, etc.). It’s more important that your subject be properly exposed.
(2) Hold that camera steady! Camera shake is another enemy of sharp images. Find a technique that works for you. I form a little tripod with the camera pressed against my forehead and my two elbows anchored against my torso. Then I shift my feet so they are spread apart, with one foot in front of the other. Finally, I exhale then press the shutter. Try practicing by setting your shutter speed to a slow setting, like 1/15th, and see how many sharp images you can get.
It also helps a LOT if you have gear with image stabilization, either in the lens or in the camera body. Most professionals use either Canon or Nikon, which have lens-based IS, while Olympus, Sony and Pentax use in-body stabilization. In theory, lens-based IS is slightly superior. However, in reality many lenses - particularly prime lenses - don’t come with IS, making in-body IS superior in my opinion. Come on Canon, get with it!
(3) Speaking of lenses, get yourself some sharp ones! Lenses are more important to image sharpness than the camera body. What’s a sharp lens? While there are always exceptions, as a general rule primes are sharper than zooms, and zooms with large apertures (f2.8) are usually sharper than consumer-level zooms that start at f3.5 or smaller (the exception being the Canon L series f4 zooms, which are known to be pretty sharp).
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get some really sharp lenses. Both Canon and Nikon have sharp prime lenses under $400. Sigma makes a great little 30mm f1.4 prime that’s super sharp for $389. Tamron makes a super sharp 28-75mm f2.8 zoom for $359 that some say is sharper than the Canon L-series equivalent that costs over $1,000. This little Canon 50mm f1.4 lens is the sharpest lens in my bag and it costs $289:
(4) Lightroom and Photoshop CS3 have a new slider called “clarity”. It adds some local contrast adjustments that make the image appear sharper. It’s right below the contrast slider. I move the clarity slider from 20-40 on every single image:
(5) Pre-sharpening. I go through 2 levels of sharpening on every image, one in Lightroom and then another in Photoshop. For my pre-sharpening, I use the lightroom defaults that you see here:
(6) Use large apertures to isolate your subject. This seems counter-intuitive, given that lenses are generally at their sharpest at f5.6 - f8. However, for most general shooting in a non-studio environment, shooting at a wide open aperture (say, f2.8 or wider) will blur the background so that the eyes will register the subject even sharper than it really is. In other words, the contrast between the subject and background is enhanced, making the subject pop out of the screen. In this example, I’m focusing on the leaf at f2.5 with a Canon 85mm f1.8 lens. The leaf isn’t really that sharp when viewed at 100% - it is slightly out of focus. However, since the rest of the image is blurred from the wide aperture, it appears really crisp:
(7) Of course, there’s the importance of proper sharpening in Photoshop. Don’t be afraid to sharpen! DSLRs come with an anti-aliasing filter that’s used to smooth out jagged edges that might otherwise make your image look pixilated. The AA filter blurs the image, so some degree of sharpening is needed to bring it back to normal. I’m not bashful when it comes to sharpening. Even if it looks slightly over-sharpened on a computer screen, I know it will print beautifully. Okay, here’s the secret I told you was coming: I use Kevin Kubota’s “Magic Sharp” sharpening action on every single image. I’ve tried virtually every method there is to sharpen over the years and in my opinion this is THE best method. I can’t tell you what the formula is because that would be unfair to Kevin. Just go to his website and buy it! It is in his Production Tools Volume 1 and costs only $69. I would have paid 100x that amount just to get this sharpening action since it makes such a huge difference in my images.
I hope this post was helpful. Follow the 7 steps and I’m sure you’ll achieve your quest to find the elusive extra crispy look:
One last thing to think about here. Please don’t get hung-up on image sharpness. I think it was Henri Cartier-Bresson who said that image sharpness was highly overrated. This image - taken by my second shooter Kip Beelman - was used as a full-page spread in one of my albums. It was taken in a dark room at a slow shutter speed and definitely has motion blur. It also has a lot of high ISO noise so it’s anything but crisp. However, I still think it’s a great image. I’ll take a shot that conveys a touching moment over a boring crispy shot any day!