Sharp photos – how to get them, in camera and in post

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on February 26, 2011

in This is Art

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Another local photographer here in Bandera County asked me today what tips I could give on getting sharper photos in post-processing.

Well, there’s what you should do, and then there’s what I do. As usual in this industry, rarely do the two look similar.

First of all, there are plentiful reasons why your photos are soft, all before you get into Photoshop: cheap lens, cheap camera with poor-quality (not too few) megapixels, shooting with too wide or too small an F-stop, ill-placed depth of field (mostly at wide apertures), shooting with too low of quality / resolution settings on your camera or too high an ISO, shooting with too slow of a shutter speed causing motion blur due to a moving subject or just camera shake, stabbing the shutter button instead of squeezing it smoothly, etc.

So in post-processing, Photoshop can only sharpen the data that already exists – anything that goes wrong in the camera makes it progressively harder to fix in post.

That said, with any shot you want to show, you want to sharpen.

If you want to be ‘proper’ about it, you’ll do different levels of sharpening depending on your subject, your style, and your end product (big print, little print, metallic print, matte print, canvas, web, etc.).

Now I don’t delve that deeply into all of it. In following Pareto’s Law, I have but two settings I use:

For the web, I apply Unsharp Mask at 500/0.2/1. (amount, radius, threshold, that is)

For print, 170/0.7/1 – these are the same settings we use on the photos we print in the newspaper.

(For very soft photos, you can try a round of 40/4/1 to try to better clarify details, but it’s a bold move. If you process in Camera Raw, you can try working the Clarity slider, though I’ve rarely had better results with it.)

For the web, you just want to add a bit of punch and clarity. For print, you want to visibly oversharpen on your monitor, because ink bleeds during printing – what you see on your computer will almost always be noticeably sharper than in print.

Keep in mind, sharpening should be the last thing you do before you save your final image.

As I’ll always advise of anything to do with post-processing, experiment – see what works best for you, what works for your images and your style. It’s very inexpensive to do a test run of prints with your preferred lab, testing a variety of sharpening settings and methods. Better to know now than when a choosy client comes calling for a refund.

Next Steps

  • Consider that the best way to end up with a sharp image is to start with a sharp image. Take heed of the checklist at the beginning of this post, and make sure you’re not sabotaging your photos before you ever click the shutter.
  • Get with your lab and print up a set of 8×10 prints, three different photos of different subjects in different light or scenes, three 8×10’s each at three different amounts of sharpening. Separate each by eye – what looks like too little, what looks just right, and what looks like a bit too much. See how they turn out in print, and whether or not you should trust your eyes (or perhaps your monitor) in post when it comes to sharpening. Be edified in this knowledge.
  • Brainstorm session: What one change to your shooting technique would make the biggest difference in giving you sharper photos? File this in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to click the free “Subscribe” link at the top of any page of this site.
  • What is your favorite method of sharpening your photos? What Unsharp Mask settings do you like the most for what subjects or situations? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Arne Kuilman June 7, 2011 at 2:50 am

What no comments here? This was a great tip! I wouldn’t have thought of Unsharp Mask at 500%. Noticeable difference.


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

Thank you for your kind words Arne! I’m glad the tips are helping with your photos.


Vaughn July 13, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I tend to use the high pass filter with an overlay in PS for my sharpening. It gives me a nice sharp image and often enhances without any destructive habits. But you’re right, best option is get it right in-camera. Thanks for another good article!


Delilah April 23, 2012 at 1:15 pm

First off, I want to say thanks for sharing all of this great info on your blog. I just recently found your site – and it is wonderful! I have some questions regarding getting “sharp images”. Up until now, I have been focusing on portraits of individuals, but would like to move into more families and kids. I’m a canon user (60D) and I’ve heard that it is best to use the center focal point and then recompose. What are your thoughts on that method vs. using the closest focal point (on the eye for instance)? Also, when shooting kids, which auto focus mode is best? I’m thinking AI Servo since they will move more – however I’m concerned about getting sharp focus on the eyes. One last question, with family portraits – where should I be aiming the focus (focal point) to be sure that everyone is in focus?


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Thank you for your kind words Delilah! (and yes, now the song is stuck in my head!)

As for focal points, I almost exclusively use the center point and recompose. I sometimes blow the focus on my images, but I think just about everyone does. I don’t think there’s a perfect method – go with what makes your heart happy!

When I’m shooting children, most of my photos are of the kiddos interacting with something – parents, siblings, pet, toy, etc. Not so much of them running around, but those make for great photos as well. If you’re photographing a kid that’s really booking it, AI Serve I’m sure helps – I use it all the time when I photograph sports, and it’s invaluable.

If you’re finding your focus off too much, consider tightening up your aperture some – it’s great to be able to shoot 2.8 and have the focus rest perfectly on the near eye every time, but sometimes that’s not reasonable unless you’re shooting with some very expensive and capable gear. I would suggest worrying more about the interactions, expressions, personality, moments you capture with your camera, than the focal point. If you find yourself thinking more about the latter than the former, widen your depth of field and shoot tighter to your subject until your moments are flawless – then grow into a greater mastery of depth of field and focal points.

When I’m shooting family portraits (and I shoot from all kinds of funky angles), I usually shoot center focus and prefer between 3.5 to 5.6 on my aperture (basically, one person deep versus two people deep). I also shoot a great deal of my portraiture wide angle, so being attentive to my background in the first place is usually more important to me than trying to blur it out (night impossible at such wide angles).

I hope this helps! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures! I’d love to hear how 2012 treats your business and your art. 🙂


Delilah April 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Thanks so much!! This is very helpful! I’ll continue to practice and see what works best for me!


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