Lenses and light

From choos­ing the best aper­ture to wait­ing for the right light, these tech­niques will help you get pin-sharp re­sults ev­ery time

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Iso­lat­ing your sub­ject by blur­ring the back­ground (and fore­ground) is one of the most ef­fec­tive ways that you can add im­pact to your shots. The con­trast be­tween the sharp ar­eas and the blur can make the sub­ject ap­pear sharper, even if the sharp­ness is only rel­a­tive.

Depth of field – how much of the scene is sharp – is af­fected by three vari­ables; the fo­cal length of the lens, the aper­ture you have se­lected, and your dis­tance from the sub­ject. To get a shal­lower depth of field you can use a longer lens, set a wider aper­ture or get closer to the sub­ject – or a com­bi­na­tion of all three.

Re­mem­ber, though, that as well as blur­ring the back­ground, you need to make sure that the depth of field is large enough to keep your main sub­ject sharp.


You can’t ex­pect to get sharp re­sults if your lenses aren’t spot­lessly clean. Get an air blower, clean­ing cloth and clean­ing so­lu­tion, and check the front and rear el­e­ments of your lenses reg­u­larly for dust, fin­ger­prints or marks from con­den­sa­tion and wa­ter. Don’t leave your Nikon with the lens mount open for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. When re­mov­ing a lens, re­place it im­me­di­ately, or pop a body cap on the cam­era.


A clas­sic tech­nique to en­sure your im­ages are in fo­cus, es­pe­cially in land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, is to keep ev­ery­thing from the fore­ground to the far dis­tance sharp. Try us­ing a short fo­cal length lens, such as 18mm on a DX-for­mat Nikon or 24mm on a full-frame model, then set a small aper­ture, such as f/11, and fo­cus a third of the way into the scene.


The sharp­ness of ev­ery lens will vary at dif­fer­ent aper­ture set­tings, par­tic­u­larly at the edges of the frame. At the widest aper­tures most lenses are softer at the edges of the frame com­pared to the cen­tre, while at very small aper­tures, such as f/22, the sharp­ness can suf­fer across the whole im­age due to an op­ti­cal ef­fect known as dif­frac­tion. Op­ti­mum sharp­ness is usu­ally around two to three stops smaller than the widest set­ting, so f/8 or f/11 for a lens with a max­i­mum aper­ture of f/4.

Test your own lenses by shoot­ing a static sub­ject from a tri­pod. Take shots at ev­ery avail­able aper­ture, and check the re­sults at 100% mag­ni­fi­ca­tion to de­ter­mine the best aper­ture to use. Then use this aper­ture to get the sharpest im­ages, un­less you need to achieve a spe­cific depth-of-field ef­fect or shut­ter speed for the light­ing con­di­tions.


Even though it’s not usu­ally the most flat­ter­ing light for many sub­jects, bright sun­light or flash can also make your shots ap­pear sharper than shoot­ing with a softer and more dif­fuse light. This is be­cause the sharp shad­ows cre­ated by di­rect light re­veal de­tail and tex­ture in the sub­ject, which cre­ates an im­pres­sion of sharp­ness.

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