To Be Sharp or To Be Blurry, which is it to be?

To Be Sharp or To Be Blurry, which is it to be?

One of the many things to consider when composing your picture is deciding on what part of your subject/scene/composition you want as sharp as possible.

A Tilt/shift lens mounted on 35mmcamera
A Tilt/shift lens
Technical Camera with full movements
Technical Camera with full movements

The Theory

With the exception of the Lytro camera there is only one Plane of Sharpness that will be in focus and, unless you use a tilt/shift lens (assuming you’re using DSLR or other non-technical camera), the plane of sharpness will always be parallel to the focal plane of the camera (we’ll ignore LensBaby lenses for now).

There will be zones before and after the plane of sharpness where the sharpness is acceptable. Depth of Field (DoF) is the distance between the beginning and end of acceptable sharpness – This also depends on the amount of enlargement you intend to use on the image. The impression of  greater DoF comes from small enlargement  compared to a larger image size when viewed from a normal distance for the size of display/print.

You need to do a combination of things to guarantee sharpness in your shots, namely;

  • use a rock solid camera support, which could be a tripod (for portability) or
  • any support you can put the camera on such as a “bean bag” to cradle the camera on a solid surface.
  • Ensure there is no subject movement.

Tripods are just three legs with a top to hold them together and provide a camera connection.

Some doe’s and don’ts of tripod usage are:

  • Try and avoid extending the center pole as this negates the ‘solidness’ of the three legs on the tripod.
  • Use a ball type for the tripod head. Pan and tilt are really best for movie cameras.
  • Use a remote shutter release – wirelesspreferred or connected cable type.

    Diagram showing plane of fous perpendicular to focal plane of camera
    There is only one plane of focus.
  • When no remote shutter release is available use  the camera’s self timer. Some cameras have a “shutter delay” menu setting that delays firing the shutter until a small time after the mirror rises to absorb mirror slap vibrations.
  • Use the mirror lock up function, if available, which may be manually operated (count about 3 seconds before using shutter release for vibrations to cease) or, as noted before, you may be able to program a delay after shutter release is pressed and the mirror is raised before the shutter operates, some cameras refer to this function as Exposure Delay Mode.
  • For lenses with with Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabalization (IR) test to see if this needs to be OFF when when camera is not hand held.
  • If your VR or IS system has two modes then one of them is for when you are in a moving vehicle. Learn which is for what situation.
  • Zone of Acceptable Sharpnes is called Depth of Field
    Zone of Acceptable Sharpnes is called Depth of Field

    Regardless of the quality of the VR/IS system it is of no use when your shutter speed is faster than 1/300 to 1/500 sec. You will need to experiment but  turn it off when the shutter speed is faster than the threshold speed you have determined. Otherwise you may find the VR?IS system degrades the sharpness!

  • Unless other composition reasons demand it use an aperture that is two/three stops down from wide open. This reduces to a minimum any lens aberrations that exist. And in any case for small sensor (this means anything including or smaller than FX size (24x36mm /1×1.5”) as diffraction becomes apparent at smaller apertures.
  • It’s axiomatic to say but use a good quality lens in the first place.
  • Select the lowest ISO the camera has (often called it’s native ISO) – when using a camera support the resulting slow shutter speed should not pose a problem unless your subject is moving.
  • If your camera supports Live Mode and you can zoom in on the image, use this feature to check focus or take a test shot and using Zoom on the image in Playback mode to check focus and DoF is what you want.
  • Post Shooting – if your image edit program supports luminance sharpening use that in preference to the RGB layer sharpening.

Hand Holding

If a camera support is not available or viable for the shot then the following tips should give you a greater percentage of sharp shots.

Diagram of The  ratio of acceptable sharpness in front and behind plane of cus
The ratio of acceptable sharpness in front and behind plane of cus

Use the fastest shutter speed with the aperture that reduces aberrations (generally one or two stops down from wide open), unless you are looking for a blurred foreground/background to make the subject standout.

The minimum shutter speed that you can use is dictated by the focal length of the lens you are using. Note the focal length you are using and the shutter speed is its reciprocal. For example, 300mm focal length means a minimum shutter speed of 1/300 sec, 150mm == 1/150 sec. If the calculated shutter speed is not available use the next fastest one. This assumes a stationary subject. For moving subjects use the reciprocal of the lens and adjust according to the table of speeds below.

Of course if you have a very fast ISO set you will be able to use faster speeds.

Subject @ 15m

Subject Speed (km)

straight on

Oblique 



3   6 1/20 1/40 1/60

Foot races

32 1/100 1/250 1/400


6 10 1/250 1/400 1/800

High Diving

80 1/300



Bicycle racing

40 1/150 1/400 1/1000

Trotting horse

8 16 1/80 1/150 1/250

Racing horse

40 48 1/150 1/300 1/900


60 1/150 1/300 1/500

Fast train

90-120 1/300 1/600 1/900

fair weather waves

8 20 1/200 1/400 1/600

Waves in gale

100 160 1/600 1/800 1/1000

Slow cars

8 16 1/50 1/100 1/150

Racing cars

130 320 1/500 1/1000 1/2000
  • What if you have set the optimal aperture but with the current level of light and ISO you cannot use a suitable shutter speed? Increase the ISO until you get the shutter and aperture values you need.
  • Try using Continuous Shooting mode (set to 3 shot burst), you may find that the middle frames of the triplet will be the sharpest.
  • Wrap the camera strap around your forearm or around head to provide extra steadiness.
  • Lean on something solid, which may include a person.

If you have your bean bag support that can be placed on a railing or post to support the camera

But the most important thing is to practice any and all these tips and techniques before you need to really use them. When you do need to shoot The Great Shot you wont have to worry about blurry or un sharp shots.

Why Do Photographers Always Talk About “Stops” But Never Do?

This article is going into the uncharted waters of what really goes on within your camera whether it is a point or shoot or a squillion dollar pro level camera.  I will try to demystify one of the controls that seems to confuse a lot of people.

As with most activities a photographic jargon has grown up since viable photography was figured out around the 1830’s.  From simple wooden boxes that had a fixed focal length and focus lens, a shutter that consisted of the photographer (or their assistant) pulling the lens cap off and on for an exposure of seconds if not minutes and a light sensitive emulsion on paper, glass, metal– things have changed.  Now you have a camera in your cell/mobile phone that can figure out the right exposure (most times) in what used to be considered tricky lighting, eg. fireworks, night shots,  and apart from you zooming in or out to frame your shot the camera’s innards do all the hard work!  Even to the extent that some cameras can detect if the subject(s) have closed their eyes or not smiled and prompt you to take another (or do it automatically).

Regardless of how cheap or expensive your camera is there has to be a path for the light from the scene you are photographing to pass through a lens and strike the image sensor.  But what controls how much light is required to make the sensor register the scene being photographed as you saw it?  Three variables are at play here, sensor sensitivity expressed as an ISO (International Standards Organisation) number, typically from 100 to 6400 (don’t worry about this),  a shutter speed, which in bright sunlight will be measured in a fraction of a second, such as 1/400th second or 1/100 second and, the subject of this post, aperture.

Aperture is the diameter of the opening within the lens through which the photons  of light (light rays) pass.  Some lens (even today) are fixed aperture and others ( most lenses) are variable aperture.  How do you make a variable aperture lens?  Design a set of blades that mesh together to form a circular shape that can change diameter when adjusted.  Another way of thinking about aperture is to think of a water (or any liquid) valve.  When the valve is wide open the maximum amount of fluid can pass through in a given amount of time (assuming constant pressure) if you reduce the valve’s opening then you reduce the amount (flow) of liquid for the same amount of time.

So are we all on the same page here?  Given a constant amount of light you can control the amount of light that reaches your camera’s image sensor in a given unit of time by only changing the diameter (aperture) of the the lenses iris diaphragm. Iris as in your eye’s iris.  The answer is yes! So what?  I hear you ask.  There are two consequences of having an adjustable iris diaphragm in your camera’s lens.

The first is for a given amount of light you can choose an aperture that will need a specific shutter speed to deliver the correct amount of photons to the camera’s image sensor.  The second is intertwined with the laws of optics in the area of “depth of field” — namely, the zone in your picture that has an acceptable level of sharpness.

For the technically inclined each diameter of the aperture is called an f/stop.  There are a set of standard f’/stops.  More on this later.

The wider the aperture the shorter (in relative terms) the shutter speed has to be to allow the “correct” amount of light to hit the sensor and register an image and secondly the shorter (narrower) the acceptable zone of sharpness around the focus point (subject) will be (depth of field).  Go in the other direction and reduce the aperture size and you will need a longer shutter speed to get the correct exposure but you will have a greater depth of field in which either side of your focus point will be sharper!

How can this work?  A standard set of apertures and shutter speeds has been agreed to and if you move either the aperture or the shutter speed by a set amount and you have changed the exposure by the number of “stops” (aperture or shutter speed) you have set.

As an example you have (or the camera) has calculated that the sunny daylight exposure is f16 at 1/100 second.  you can over expose (make things look lighter than they were on the day) by one stop by either adjusting the shutter speed to 1/50 sec or the aperture can be changed to f11.  There is a tight arithmetic connection between these values.

So changing either the shutter speed, aperture or ISO sensitivity by a a standard amount you are reducing or increasing the exposure by one or more stops!

Confused?  Don’t be – if your camera has automatic exposure control then you can let it decide what is correct or (depending on camera) you can decide to adjust away from “normal” exposure by a change of “stop” be it aperture or shutter speed.  The final thing is why the weird numbers?  To ensure that you get the same exposure regardless of the lens you are using the aperture (stop) value is really the aperture divided by the focal length of the lens being used.

Have fun.

Go to Mosaic Images Photography for images of wild life, the Antarctic and more for prints and instant download.

“Damn! Damn! Damn!” – Said Rex Harrison*.

But was he talking about Digital Assets Management (DAM)?  Doubtful, given the era that he was singing in.

How many of us still have boxes of prints, some with curly edges,  and dozens of plastic slide containers lurking at the back of a cupboard waiting for that rainy day filing job?  In the glory days of film you probably only took photos on special occasions and,  even including a long holiday,  the years tally of images was probably in the low 100’s .   But, today you are probably taking  100’s of shots a month because of the ease of capture now made possible with digital imaging.

DAM or just plain filing images takes on a critical priority of  in today’s image space.  You need to decide on a strategy that fits your budget and picture taking numbers.  The aim of the game is to quickly find images well into the future without spending hours eye-balling squillions of shots just to find that special one of the meal you had or the selfie with everyone in the bar.

If you have a fairly up-to-date computer the operating systems of both major camps provide for an automatic allocation of image files to a “My Pictures” or similar storage location, on one of the computer’s built-in hard disks.  This is very much like having a storage unit facility and you just stand at the door and chuck the boxes in as they arrive.  When you need to find something you are in for a long hunt.   Plus, the chances of filling up the  drive quickly is high.

The overriding factor in this task is you must have multiple copies of your images.  These copies need to be stored away from each other so that loss and damage of any one of the storage devices doesn’t jeopardize your access to the images.   If your paranoia level is low you can get away with 2 copies, but as the  volume and potential worth of your image bank increases so should the number of copies move to three.  However, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and going beyond this will probably mean you spend more time creating your disaster recovery copies than working with the images.

You also have to consider that there are backup strategies best for disaster recovery and for day-to-day restoring of an image back to a previous (or original) version.  This blog is focussed on the former.

The DAM strategies available today are:

  • Use the Operating System File Management System only
  • Use a post capture processing (PCP) program that incorporates DAM functionality
  • Use a standalone DAM program

Each approach has its set of pros and cons.

Operating System (OS)

This is adequate if your total number of shots is in the low 100’s per year.  You need two portable storage devices, which act as your Master (backup) and your Work in Progress (WIP) devices.  Today, you are witnessing the  beginning of the demise of the spinning magnetic disk that has served us well since IBM introduced their invention in the mid 50s.  Your portable mass storage device should now come from the devices now known as SSD (Solid State Device).  However, the cost differential may keep you with magnetic disks for a bit longer.  You need to decide on how you will structure your folders/directories.  Almost any scheme will work so long as you are consistent in applying it. The major problem of this approach is that whatever cataloguing scheme you come up with it really only address one way of finding things.  If, for example, you have adopted a date based approach you can quickly locate all the images for a certain time period or set of periods but it doesn’t handle a subject based search very well.  Although, if you are careful to put in keywords and captions into your image’s metadata the OS file search function can now search these, albeit limited number, of fields.  If you want to use a more “library” approach with multiple search options available you should adopt the simple date shot storage  approach and use one of the following strategies.

Using PCP Programs That Include DAM Functionality

This approach requires you to purchase or purloin a program like Adobe’s LightRoom ( ) or ACDSee ( ) or Phase One’s Capture One Pro ( ) or similar.  Each have their adherents and you can only really decide on which is best for you by downloading an evaluation copy and giving them a thorough workout to see if both the PCP portion and the DAM functions will cope with what you want to do.  So long as you are well organized and take the time to add keywords, descriptions and captions (as well as other metadata) of your images the search functions of these programs will “pull” out just the images that match the criteria.  If the other side of this program produces the quality of image you desire then this is the way to go.

Use a Standalone DAM Program

However, a program that is a great PCP worker may not have the best cataloguing system and then you need to bring in the 3rd party alternative.  This is working on the assumption that the programmers have really done the best job possible in cataloguing.  Here you would be advised to go with Photo Mechanic (PM)  ( or at a pinch Adobe’s Bridge if you have that as a part of your Adobe collection.  PM is a long standing and well refined program that has very high penetration amongst professional photographers due to its ease of use and ability to be integrated into the complete digital image processing workflow.  Adobe Bridge is, of course, tightly integrated into the Adobe suite of programs.

Should I go with RAID Too?

Redundant Array of Independent Disks, originally Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks is one hardware approach to provide a “bullet” proof set up that allows you to recover from the loss of one of more drives over a short period of time.  There are now eight variants of RAID (0 thru 6 and 10), each needs to be studied to decide which is best for your needs (  Perhaps a bit of overkill for still image photographers but almost mandatory with movie makers.

The Long and the Short

Regardless of the scheme you decide on you do have to go the hard yards to make it work.  Otherwise you will be in a much worse situation than the boxes of prints and slides still needing filing.

*1964, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (


Looking for something special for your your art collection?  Go to Mosaic Images Photography for a collection of different fine art photography and mixed media pictures.  You can also download for you screen saver, digital picture frame, TV or smartphone too!

Sunny “16” Rule – – Does It Work?

If you had started in photography when most pictures were taken using B&W film then it is possible you have heard of this rule and made use of it.  Before the introduction of reliable exposure meter systems built in to a camera a photographer learnt how to “read” the scene’s light to decide on the correct shutter speed and aperture (f/stop) they would need to get the shot.  Most photographers were not that experienced and would make use of a hand held light meter to achieve the same result.

With digital cameras now being 100% dependent on having a working exposure system you are unlikely to have to figure out the exposure variables before shooting.

But, as a little exercise see how you camera stacks up against “The Rule”.  I used a Nikon D3 for this exercise.  At midday I pointed the cmera at a suitable scene and set the ISO to 200, f/stop to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO, namely 1/200 sec and then pressed the shutter release.  I then took another shot using the same ISO but set the camera’s auto exposure system to work and it delivered the picture with a shutter speed of 1/100 sec.  In other words the auto system is over exposing relative to the Sunny 16 Rule.  What’s going on here.

Simple – it is after all a Rule of Thumb and it was designed to give a reasonable exposure in the B&W film days.  If you are going to use this to amaze your friends with your skill of not needing an exposure meter don’t forget to experiment and see if you have to add or subtract any shutter speed or f/stop to get the exposure you want.  Apply that adjustment for when you are shooting and on a sunny day the results will speak for themselves.

Of course if cloud intrudes that will lower the amount of light and you have to give more exposure to achieve a well exposed image.  But that is for another day.

Mosaic Images Photography has a range of wildlife, nature, flora and abstract pictures that will look great on your walls or as an Instant Download for your screen saver, digital picture frame or TV slide show.

Using the camera's auto exposure system - ISO 200, f/16, 1/100 sec
Using the camera’s auto exposure system – ISO 200, f/16, 1/100 sec
Using the "Sunny 16" Rule - ISO 200, f/16, 1/200 sec
Using the “Sunny 16” Rule – ISO 200, f/16, 1/200 sec

Taking Shots of Sports?

Do you have a camera or lens that has some kind of image stabilization function?  Do you take photos of your children playing sport or you like photographing race cars on the track or any other kind of fast moving subjects? Try this tip next time you are out and about.

Turn stabilization OFF!  When you are shooting you probably want to use continuous (motor drive) shooting as well.  With stabilization ON there is extra time taken to process each image before the camera is ready to take the next shot.  Your frame rate drops!  However, since you should be using shutter speeds faster than 1/500 sec and probably nearer 1/1000 sec on a bright day there really is no benefit gained with keeping stabilization on.

Want a new image of your walls or digital photo album or TV slideshow?  Try Mosaic Images Photography.

It’s a Wedding and Other Potential Nerve Wracking Photo Situations

Weddings and Other Special Occasions

With apologies to all Wedding and Event Photographers who really do love the thrill of getting a great shot but unless you really enjoy the feeling of unrelenting pressure,  reject all offers and inducements (particularly your family’s application of moral blackmail) and leave this type of shooting to the pros! But in the event you do succumb here are some hard won Does and Don’ts:

  • Know what the highest ISO is on your camera that produces acceptable digital noise and in low light scenes use it. Rather than using a lower ISO and perhaps a shutter speed that is two slow for the focal length of the lens you are using. Camera shake is deadly to a good result.
  • Use prime lenses rather than zooms as this normally gives you at least one or two stops faster (wider aperture) and hence faster shutter speeds can be used
  • Use a “soft box” on your flash and get a flash bracket to get the flash axis away from the lens axis. Using the “peanut” flash that pops up from a lot of cameras will almost always give you the “deer caught in headlights” look. But some enterprising photographers have made a little “scoop” that redirects the flash upwards so that it softens and spreads the lihgt onto the subject. The downside is that the flash’s light output is reduced onto the subject which means that you may not be able to take as wide an angle shot as you could with the flash light going directly to the subject.
  • If no soft box, angle the flash head at the ceiling or wall (watch out for colored walls as they will throw a color cast on the scene – ceilings are almost 100% white)
  • In the garden shots – use fill-in flash, always. Fill flash softens shadows, puts catch lights in the subject’s eyes.
  • With fill flash use flash compensation and reduce by -1 EV to make the fill subtle.
  • Carry your memory cards on you with two wallets – one with freshly formatted empties the other for filled. Color code the wallets to avoid confusion!
  • Set the camera to Slow Rear Curtain sync (if available) to allow ambient light to fill in the background that would otherwise be black when shooting with full flash
  • If the card has a Write Protection switch – use it when you take it out of the camera and put it in the “Filled” card wallet..
  • When shooting groups that are in rows
  • 2 rows – focus on front row faces
  • 3 rows – focus on middle row faces

Regardless use the smallest  f/stop (larger number) you can get away with

  • To get a uniform set of open eyes in group shots get the group to close their eyes and then on the count of 3 open them – you shoot on 4!
  • Try to get some motion blur in the dancing shots – try 1/3 or 1/5 sec as a starting point. You can add motion blur in post but can easily look fake
  • When shooting:
  • full length portraits place the camera at waist level
  • 7/8 ths portraits (from the mid calf up) place the camera at chest height (the subjects not yours)
  • head & shoulders place camera at subjects eye level
  • Backgrounds – the plainer and simpler the better – locate 3 to 4 different backgrounds at each location to provide variation.
  • If during the day single head or double head portraits can use window light place subjects 2 – 2.5m (6 – 8 ft) away – (don’t forget fill flash though)
  • With double head portraits get the subjects to get much closer than they think is close
  • Bouquet tossing should be a wide angle shot looking from over the shoulder of the bride

Although Mosaic Images Photography doesn’t “do” weddings we have many years collective experience shooting special occasions and this post covers a lot of that hard earned experience.  Oh, and did we mention that this type of photography is best left to the professionals?  Don’t forget to choose one that you are comfortable with and their portfolio shows clearly the style(s) they offer.  For our Australian readers you should try Infinity Photography. Looking for something to make a blank space on your walls look interesting try Mosaic Images Photography for prints and Instant Downloads (for screen savers, digital photo albums or your Digital TV slide show).

Children Portraits Without Tears

This one is for all the parents out there who want to get more “natural” looking expressions from their little (and in some cases not so little) ones.

Patience is a virture and without a doubt the trick to getting “the shot” or even better “the shots” is to be PATIENT! You cannot “order up” the perfect expression from your subject(s) … take your time. Let them warm up to you. Given that pro photographers often take 100 frames for every keeper image, you can press that shutter button as often as you like!

The following advice applies, in general, to children older than 3 years. Under this age you probably want to just point and shoot. Almost everything they do is “natural” in those early years and they really don’t take direction all that well either.

Generally, when you ask a young one to smile you will be smiling too, as rarely are they really understanding the meaning of the word.  They will mimic their trusted parent? Since a lot of early learning is by repetition if your smile is forced or more a grimace then that is what you’ll get in return.

Try a little reverse psychology.  Ask your subject(s) not to smile, but to give you a “serious” face, with you putting on a corresponding “serious” face. You are going to get a wide range of “looks” on this one.  Generally, you are looking for dreamy look, which often happens as they transition from one “face” to another.  Given that they will be trying all sorts of “faces” for you, go crazy on that shutter release.  For DSLR users remember you need to anticipate their expression and press the shutter early rather than later as the mirror swings up and blocks of your view of the exact moment the picture is taken.  Mirrorless cameras that have an electronic viewfinder don’t suffer from this problem.  Plus they are quieter in operation too.

Always make a portrait session fun.  If you try and over direct the child(ren) they will start to freeze up at the sight of your camera or even hide from just hearing that you want to take some pictures.  A portrait session shouldn’t last more than 10 to 15 ins and even if they appear happy to continue close it down anyway and let them know they can do it again soon.

Want a laughing shot? Acting the goofy fool or having an accomplice doing silly things should evoke a grin from your subject(s) and is another way of keeping your young subjects engaged in the process without stressing them out.

With older children (and sadly with many adults) you should always do a bit of an act of what you want, throw in exaggeration and they will probably hit the right “note” for you as they wont go as far as you did in demonstrating.  Result, natural looking expression.  And that is your objective!

I have no idea where the “Say Cheese!” instruction came from but it is guaranteed to produce a forced smile.  Some photographers have their personal favorite saying to try and get the subjects to smile in a natural way. Any word that forms a more oval mouth is better than “cheese”, get them to say “plum” or “oats” as an experiment.  Another way to loosen your subjects up is to use a remote control and give it to them.  They often become fascinated that they can control your camera without touching and the sudden blink of the shutter firing draws their focus deep into the camera, which is where they should be focusing (unless you are trying for the “look over there” gaze.

You know you are on the right track when the whole face is engaged in a smile.  You can’t miss it when it happens.

Sometimes an “engaged” look is really what you after.  Get your subjects involved in their favorite pastime/hobby and set your focal length to more than 100mm and stand back.

Child with fishing rod engaged completely in waiting for that first strike
The subject engrossed in fishing and paying no attention to the photographer!

So in a nutshell, keep your photo session(s) short, don’t give very specific directions but do demonstrate the “look” you are looking for. Use a bit of misdirection to get them to look away from the camera or use the remote release trick to really get them au naturale. If they have a favorite toy make sure they either have it or it is close by sometime their playing will produce the delight in their face that you are looking for.

Although Mosaic Images Photography’s focus is on wildlife, landscape, streetscapes and abstract you can find great prints or Instant Downloads (for your screen saver or digital photo frame/TV) at Mosaic Images Photography website to make a splash on a blank wall you have at home or office.