Have you ever found yourself frustrated with just how soft your night pictures come out to be? Most of us, landscape photographers, strive to achieve the ultimate sharpness in the images when going out and hunting for those long-exposure bangers (but of course there are some special people out there who like to have the effect of the greasy iPhone camera in their photos, and God Bless, if that’s what makes them happy).
Certain things become second-nature when you practice them long enough, but they also could be eye-opening experiences for others, therefore I decided to share with you some of the reasons shedding light to what can go wrong when shooting your long exposures.
A few weeks ago I had a student who was dispatched to me by GPP, looking to master long exposure photography. I couldn’t gather much information about his struggles beforehand since GPP only shares student’s personal details just before the class, but they told me he sort of felt confident in his techniques and shot in Manual, but still was not able to get the desired results.
Logically, every teacher should ask their students why are they taking a class and what knowledge they hope to walk out of the class with. So my student confessed that he was just not happy with the sharpness of his photos and hoped we would find the reasons behind his “failures”.
Boy, do I have a lot to say about my experiences with different tripod manufacturers, but the baseline of my message is:
- Good tripods are expensive for a reason – they will last you longer, they will break less frequently, and they will support your camera properly, so don’t try to score the cheapest deal on the market.
- There is no perfect tripod out there, but you can find one that frustrates you the least.
- If you can afford carbon fiber, go for carbon fiber – it’s lighter and it is more stable. If you can’t afford one, just give your aluminium tripod a chance to shake it off before you start taking your pictures.
- I find the clip-lock tripod is better than the twist-leg one. Once you closed the clip, that’s where it is going to stay. With the twist-leg you can definitely set up the tripod faster, but when you’d think it is locked in place, you’d find that your tripod legs continue to sink into the quick sand of the sea of frustration making your blood boil trying to figure out which of the legs is not secured and in which section of it. But the clip-lock will probably pinch your fingers on several occasions, be cautious of that!
- The tripod head is of vital importance for your image sharpness too. If you have a ball-head that just won’t lock in place and keeps rolling down under the weight of your camera+lens, there is no chance your image will be sharp.
- Geared tripod heads are so much more practical for shooting landscapes and city scapes, but again – don’t go for the cheap options, and unfortunately the proper ones are not light-weight at all.
- If you go for the ball-head tripod head, make sure it is solid. I have this one, which I bought when I was travelling to the US. If you ever want to own one tripod head, this could be the one.
- L-bracket – if you can find the combination of the tripod, tripod head and L-bracket attached to your camera, that’s the dream come true. L-brackets attach solidly to your camera and you can clip this combo to the tripod in the most balanced point both horizontally and vertically. I do, however, recommend that you get one that is made for your camera specifically, not a general fit-for-all.
- You might be tempted to get that travel-friendly tripod from that overhyped company that will fit in your pocket and extend to 3 meters high, but remember – they need to be heavier to be stable, and if tripod’s legs are as thin as your pinkie, it is unlikely they are going to support your camera in the slightest windy condition.
The last point to mention in this section – make sure to weight down your tripod in case of harsh conditions. If you live where I live, there is no trouble making yourself a sandbag out of any supermarket bag filled with sand and attaching it to the center point of your tripod. Alternatively, you can hang down your backpack, but just keep in mind that if it is too windy, the wind is going to swing that backpack around making more trouble than help in this occasion.
Which brings me to another important point.
Pain in the Neck of a Strap
I have seen on several occasions how people are religious about keeping that neck-strap attached to the camera. Yes, if you’ve removed it and forgot it at home, and then you’re on a photo mission and you cant hang your camera on your neck – it’s truly annoying but
You don’t need it when your camera is on a tripod. You going to touch that strap and it is going to create vibrations, and your images won’t be sharp. Ok, so if you are afraid you won’t be able to put that strap back the way it used to be, then I highly recommend to get this comfortable and easy to detach strap that will make your life so much easier. With just two seconds of unclipping it, it is gone.
When the wind is going to pick up, it is going to move your strap as well, so just remove it and keep it in your photography bag.
Remote, Timer and Wifi Activated Shooting
Somehow, not everyone is aware of the Newton’s law which states that when two objects interact, they apply forces to each other of equal magnitude and opposite direction. So when you press on the shutter button with your finger, the law applies the same way. To equalize that shaking you can:
- either put 10 seconds timer to let your camera and tripod come still,
- or use a remote control.
So, my student who operated the Nikon D750 camera just didn’t know how to set up the timer, but he had the remote with him…
and every time when he pressed the shutter button on the cabled remote to take a photo, he would hang the remote on the tripod handle just next to his camera. Creating that shaking that he was just trying to get rid of by using this device! Bad habits like this can ruin your photos without you even noticing that you’re doing something wrong.
Another solution for remote shooting would be to press that shutter button on your mobile device (provided you have wifi built in your camera). Hopefully you won’t be tempted to place your phone or tablet over your camera just after you press on its screen, therefore eliminating the issue of applying external forces on the elements that are supposed to stay still.
The Image Stabilization Trickery
Image stabilization is some kind of engineering black magic that helps our shaky hands to produce sharp images. Not every lens possesses this attribute and those that do often are more expensive, however, you don’t always need to activate this function. Yes, believe me, though it works wonders when handheld, it can ruin your otherwise sharp image if still activated when on the tripod. How it works, is when turned on, it is constantly hunting for shakes and vibrations to eliminate them, therefore creating shakes and vibrations by itself if there is nothing to catch. So once you attached your camera (or lens) to the tripod, turn that thing off. Unless you’re being blown away by 40 m/s winds, then you can keep it on.
This was actually the reason of reduced sharpness in the images of my student. He just wasn’t aware of the side-effects of vibration reduction properties of his lenses.
A few more words on the lenses….
Not Every Lens Created Equal
My student swore that his photographer buddy possessed the same lens as him (which wasn’t a native manufacturer to his camera) and this lens was just so sharp (according to his friend) that you could cut diamonds with it. It well might be true, but your friend has his lens attached to his own camera, and you have your own attached to yours, and as much as his piece can be sharp, yours can be not the sharpest tool in the shed. You are not shooting with his lens at the moment. A lot of people don’t realize that they are not buying the lens that some guy reviewed, they are buying a lens that potentially can work that way optically, but if your delivery guy had to use the emergency brakes on his way to you to avoid hitting that Dubai Taxi Corporation Taxi, then maybe your lens would now have to be taken to a specialist to do a few micro adjustments.
The sharpness of faraway landscapes is achieved by making sure that the focus of your lens is in the right spot. Logically, in this situation it is supposed to be sharp at the infinity point of your lens, but from my experience it is almost never there. If God and genetics blessed you with good eyes, then I highly recommend that you would focus your lens manually to that sharpness point that you can visually identify. If you are sure that your lens and your camera will do a good job, you can leave it up to them, but don’t assume that it is going to be sharp just because the manufacturer sort of promised you so.
I believe you are aware, my dear reader, that F8 in most lenses is sharper than F 1.8 apertures, but you can find out if your particular lens is sharper at F8 or at F11 by doing a technical research on google or your preferred gear-headed source. Most lenses are reasonably sharp anywhere in the range of F7.1 to F13, but feel free to investigate yourself.
Besides, keep in mind that if you’re not shooting with mirorless camera, there is still that anti-aliasing filter that softens your DSLR shots. Here is a link on educating yourself on the issue, if the words anti-aliasing filter make no sense to you: https://camerajabber.com/anti-aliasing-filter-camera-explain-like-im-5/
Since we started talking about the technical mumbo-jumbo, I should also advise to stick to ISO settings between 50 and 200, there is no reason to get high in here.
Passing Through the Great Filter
If you’re shooting during the dark hours, you won’t necessarily need to use ND-filters to create long exposures (but you could in certain occasions). If you want to shoot long exposures during the day time, then there is no other way around it but to attach some “sunglasses” to your camera. Again, there is a great variety of filters on the market – the screw-on ones and the whole filter systems with grades and what not, and they come at variety of prices as well. Sadly, if you were to buy the most affordable one, it could be that thing that brings the sharpness of your image down.
I use two kinds of ND filters:
- Formatt-Hitech filter system that comes at a price, but is definitely of the highest glass quality, helping you to create outstanding images. Once you invested in this set-up, you can use it on all the lenses you have, so you sort of have one-for-all solution in one pouch.
- Screw-on filter ND1000 (I own the 77mm version of it) that I used to use before I bought the Formatt-Hitech. It still works well, but it only fits lenses which are 77mm thread-size.
Don’t buy anything that is made out of darkened plastics, as your images will definitely going to be losing sharpness and even acquiring weird colors as the end result.
Varying ND-filters might sound appealing to have, but I feel those are best for videographers and you’ll only use the darkest point of it which is going to be not dark enough for your 30 second exposure. Anyway, enough about filters.
Dehaze the Crap out of Your Photo
Oh, the summer haze, the humidity blaze, how much we despise you over here in the city of Dubai. If the weather conditions are just not on your side today, no matter how much you mastered finding the right focus point, invested in the best tripod on the market and ninja-ed your shutter button pressing skills, there is nothing you can really do. Either make the best out of what you have, or just admit that the Gods of long exposures are not giving you a blessing today. “No worries, I will just dehaze this image in Lightroom later on” rarely works well. As well as 100% clarity and 100% texture. Just don’t do it. 20% of each is the extreme maximum one should ever use in my opinion.
Don’t Pass on High-Pass
High Pass Filter is a simple technique that can help you add that extra crisp to your images, but you need subscription to Adobe Photoshop. The procedure goes as follows:
- You need to open your file in Adobe Photoshop.
- Create a duplicate of your layer by either going to Layer in the Menu and choosing Duplicate Layer, or you can press Command/Control J. (You can also drag your layer to the New Layer button in the Layers panel).
- Set the blending mode of the top layer to Overlay or Soft Light.
- Go to Filter and in the section Other select High Pass.
- Set the radius somewhere between 1 to 2,5 and press apply.
- Flatten the image and save.
You can do more than 2.5 pixels sharpening, but as for me it looks too sharp. You can also lower the effect of the sharpening by reducing the opacity of the top layer before flattening the image.
Honestly, this works like magic and it creates just enough sharpness to make your image stand out on Social Media.
Another solid piece of advice for achieving that ultimate sharpness in your social media images would be to save them in the exact resolution that works on the Social Media platform where you want to share your image. If you want your images to look their best on Instagram, aim to upload an image that is 1080 pixels wide. Otherwise, the platform will compress your image the way it wishes, and it will most probably lose its crispness somewhere on the way.
- Buy a good tripod
- Remove the strap from your camera
- Use cable-release or wifi to press the shutter button
- Make sure to service your lenses if they don’t deliver on sharpness
- Invest in decent ND filters
- Use High-Pass to sharpen your images
- Turn off that Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction on your lens
- Resize it the image to the required size of the Social Media Platform you plan on posting it to
As the closing statement of this sharpness rant, I would like to say one thing guys, quit that pixel-peeping, trying to look for the ultimate unprecedented sharpness in every photo. The story behind your image is much more important than every pixel being extra sharp. The viewer will forgive you that slightly soft photo, if it has a beautiful story happening in the image or in the caption.
Be sharp, stay strong and live with passion.
P.S. If you decide to buy any piece of a gear mentioned in this post, consider using the links provided here, as I can make a few dirhams for a cup of coffee, so I can type out more of these posts with vigor.