MAKE YOUR IMAGES SHARP!! Tips to help……..

©Jack Graham


In a recent issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine (December 2008), Rob Sheppard wrote an article about 10 tips for better auto focus. It contained really great information for those who use Auto focus (AF) to insure sharpness. Some of the new DSL’s have extensive AF systems that were unimaginable a few years ago. They work great.


However, there are many times (for me more often than not) when the AF system isn’t used at all. Especially for landscape photography, I tend to shoot manually, using my eye and other aspects which I will discuss to make images tack sharp.


A few weeks ago, I was conducting a workshop and a participant asked why though he focuses correctly and uses his Depth of Field Button, to check his DOF but his images still turn out blurry. Well, he had his camera set to auto focus, and when he pressed done on the shutter release the lens went into auto focus mode and refocused the image automatically, thus canceling out all the work he did manually to create the image he wanted.


Rob’s article is definitely worth the read and is extremely useful, but let’s discuss how to best make images sharp manually.


So if your new DLSR is so good using auto focus… why and when do I suggest you shoot manually? There are many reasons.

First, I am a nature photographer, not a sports, wedding, or portrait shooter. I almost always use manual focus when taking pictures of landscapes or wildlife. Using manual focus allows me, the shooter to control the shot and if necessary focus on, say a tree instead of the animal as opposed to just the animal itself. In the auto focus mode, this is tough to do, especially when the animal may be in motion.  Manual focus is the way to go if you want to clearest images when shooting for nature photography. 


This article is not a discussion on hyper focal distance (a term used to identify the point that if you set your focus to in orders to gain the best focus from the front of the image to the back.) I am only talking about making sharp images.

When photographing macro subjects, I again, always use the manual mode of focusing. The narrow depth of field (DOF) requires precision and being just a tad out of focus, or having your camera select the focal point of focus, which my be in the wrong area of your subject, will ruin the image. Manually focusing puts all the decisions in your hands and eyes and if you do it right, manually focusing will allow you will get the right area of the image sharp all the time.

I like to stitch images into panoramas. When doing this you must always manually adjust everything. That means, using the same focal length, same aperture setting and no filtration. For this purpose manual focus is imperative.


In low light conditions cameras sometimes have some difficulty focusing. The newer top of the line DLSR’S are significantly better at this than the ones from just a year or two ago. Using auto focus in low light can trick the camera and sometimes make you miss a shot while the camera & lens are trying to come up with a correct focal length. and exposure in general.

In short, manual focus allows me, the photographer more control in making the image I want.

Though I usually don’t use auto focus, I would if I was just shooting snapshots and quick images in say street photography. If I were a sports shooter I would definitely be using auto focus the vast amount of the time since things are happen very rapidly.


OK, now that we have covered that lets talk about getting images sharp when using your camera & lenses manually.

Here are a few things you need to consider.


TRIPODS & TRIPOD HEADS—Tripods are a MUST. The studier the better. There IS NO FREE LUNCH when it comes to tripods.  Bad tripod use is so prevalent when I am out in the field or conducting workshops, I sometimes cringe.  I actually have a collocation of images depicting bad tripod use. tripodbad1Some are quite comical.

I have seen folks with $5000.00+ DLSR’s, the best and newest lenses available, either have cheap, light tripods, or worse have good equipment and use it wrong. You must have a good tripod head that matches your needs, as well to maximize the tripod. Don’t go out and buy a $50.00 tripod and a $450.00 Ball head. 1_very-bad_a1



Here is a photographer with a good camera, decent lens, cheap tripod, and 2 of the 3 legs are not even touvhing the ground… why bother? Oh yes the center post……………………


The tripod and head system is the cheapest thing you can do in photography to improve your work.bh55pro


I recommend any of the heads made by the REALLY RIGHT STUFF (



There was a wind blowing at least 40mph right at me. I was using a Nikon D200 and a 300f4 lens. My Gitzo and BH55 from the Really Right Stuff along with good technique made this sharp.


1)     NEVER extend the center post. You now have a mono pod, not a tripod. Make sure you’re your lenses uses equipment (lens plates) that locks into the head itself. This not only works for adding a quick connection system to your lenses but to stabilize the entire system (I am referring to “Arca” style plates used by all the top of the line head manufactures).

2)     Don’t extend the center post just because it’s more comfortable at eye level.

3)     When extending the tripod legs start with to top legs first, extending the last set last, making for greater stability. Also if it’s windy you might want to not spread the legs as wide as possible.

4)     If you have to push down on the camera, do so,( again when windy) to increase stabilization

5)     If you are using a camera strap, make sure it’s not hitting the tripod or camera in the wind.

6)     Some tripod center posts come with hooks on the bottom. You can attach something like your camera bag or a bean bag to this hook to further stabilize your system.

2_proper-use_good-ball-head         GOOD TRIPOD USE

I am not kidding all these things come into play when making sharp images.


1)     Use a cable release whenever possible. If not use your cameras auto timer.

2)     Avoid pushing down your shutter release hard, thus creating vibration and movement to the camera itself.

3)     I always use the Mirror Lock up function (if your camera has it) when making landscape and macro images. Use your shutter release cable in conjunction to mirror lock up to eliminate any vibration from the movement of the mirror.

4) Never carry your tripod by the center post.1_bad_c This is a good way to destroy thousands of dollars in equiptment ( yes I’ve seen this too)


1)     Purchase the best lenses you can. Some lenses from even Canon & Nikon are better than others. Some have “soft” areas, usually at the corners when “wide open” (f 2.8, f4). Newer lenses are far better than those of just a few years ago.  Some diffraction can occur at f11 or higher. It seems to me most lenses perform at their optimum between f5.6 and f11. Do I ever shoot at f22? Well sometimes if I need to. I try and make F16 as small an aperture I’ll use as much of the time as possible.

2)     Again, I am not going to get into the hyper focal length discussion, but my goal in landscape photography usually is to make the foreground as sharp as possible as well as the background. If you always focus on infinity, you will not get this result.

3)     When shooting animals, bugs, birds and people always make sure the eye is sharp.


1)     This one is easy…. Use the lowest ISO you can. Pixel quality diminishes as you gain speed. However the new DSLR’S are pretty remarkable at ISO’s of even 3200!!!


So now you have this great camera, the best tripod and head, the sharpest lens known to man and you buy a cheap filter. That’s like putting retreads on a Bentley. Cheap filters can decrease sharpness in images just like anything else.

Adding filters can sometimes magnify things like lens flare and degrade the quality of the optics of the lens itself. I only use them when needed.

Because of what you can do in the post processing of your images these days, you really don’t need 81 a’s & b’s anymore. I only carry polarizing filters, graduated ND’s and UV’s.

1)     Polarizing filters….. Make sure you have a circular polarizer and know how to use it correctly (yes there is technique to this as well) I would recommend Nikon, B+W, Singh Ray or Lee filters. These are top quality.

2)     Graduated ND’s – Singh Ray’s or Lee ( a good understand of how these work are imperative before buying them however)

3)     UV filters— I only use these in 2 instances.

          First about 5000’ –there is usually not a lot of UV at sea level so why add more glass to a lens?

         Second, at the ocean or desert when sand is blowing in my lens. All of my lenses are sealed, Lots aren’t and sand can cause major problems.

I don’t use UV filters to protect my lens….. Except at the ocean and desert.



Many of the cameras on the market these days do not allow you to cover the view finder when you depress the shutter. Light can infiltrate the camera from the viewfinder (up to 1 stop in certain situations). Cover the view finder with your finger or something if your camera does not have a shutter curtain. This is a little known but big factor in getting the exposure correct.  And if your exposure is off all the sharpness in the works can’t save the shot.

Always check your histogram.

EXPOSURE….….. Now there’s an interesting subject……………………………….






2aNext Monday, I’ll be heading out from Portland Or. to NW Yoming as I do this time of year to photogrraph the Big Horn Sheep as well as the landscape of the area in Winter. during my WINTER WYOMING PHOTO SAFARI ( see for details on next years event).

So far the weather looks kind of unpredictable, but that’s the way it is out there this time of year.    

I plan to drive through Idaho stopping in the Coeur D’Alene area then on to Gardiner MT. I’ll spend a day in Yellowstone before heading to Cody.

10aThis is a great time of year to be in this area. Many years ago a friend and wonderful photographer Leon  Jenson, a Cody resident too a lot of time not only showing me where the sheep come to eat during the winter months but some invaluable techniques used to capture some great images.

For that I thank him.

Along with the Big Horn Sheep, thre sould be some elk as well as Buffalo around if luck permits




4aAfter a few days in Cody, I’ll be venturing down to Jackson Hole to photograph the Tetons for a day or 2 before heading home.




3aCheck back here on my blog If you can during Dec 1-10th for some new images as well as perhaps a few stories and information should you ever get out that way.


As time permits I’ll update the blog with some images and information .





Fall in North Eastern Oregon and its all so close!


©Jack Grahaam                    Trout Creek, near Trout River, Klickitat County, Washington

One of the things I always brag to folks from out of town is how truly access able this area is. Within a radius of about 70 miles from Portland Airport (PDX) there are so many completly different sights to see.  From here, you are about a little more than 1 hour from the Oregon Coast, about the same to Mt. St Helens to the north and Mt Hood to the East. Just a little further is the Mt. Adams area in southern Washington. In just about 40 short minutes to the south and west you are either in the wine country of the Willamette Valley  and in about the same time you are in  the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. laorcrgmult7_1007001

What else can a photographer ask for?

Though we all think of fall in terms of the red maples of New England, or the beautiful aspens of the Rocky Mountain states, this area of Oregon has so much to offer.

Fall comes a bit later here in Oregon. Usually  peak color in the east of the Missisippi is sometime in October and  sooner in the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains. laorwnf_fall-color1_0811_9435Peak color here in Oregon starts in Mid October in the high elevations of the cascades and lasts into mid to mid November in the Willamette Valley.




The “rainy” season usually kicks in sometime around November 1st as does the snow on the mountain peaks. However most areas are comfortable cool and offer the glorious color of autumn here in this part of Oregon.


Willamette Valley Wine Country

   Though anytime is a good time to visit this area, fall brings out grand color of the vineyards. laorwv_dunwine1_0811_hf5

©Jack Graham    A winery in the Dundee Hills

 The rolling hills of Dundee ( right off Hwy 99 about 25 miles south of Portland) and adjacent valleys of the northwestern corner of the Wilammette Valley, offer numerous1st class wineries along with orchards of cherry, apple & plum trees.phart_grapleaf1007a


Just east of Portland, is the majestic Columbia River Gorge. Though the forests are of mainly conifers, may other more colorful trees are plentiful. As the rainy season kicks in so does the amount of water coming over the many waterfalls that are easily accessed. laortrees_gorge1_10007













©Jack Graham            near Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge           

The fall color makes this time of year special in the gorge.

 HOOD RIVER VALLEY, between Hood River and Mt. Hood


©Jack Graham                              Hood River Valley

At the eastern end of the gorge is the Town of Hood River. Hotels, motels, B&B’s and resturants are plentiful. As you head  south on HWY 35 toward Mt Hood ( about 12,000′ ele.) the rich valley comes into sight. Here pears, apples, cherry and more kinds of fruit trees are everywhere. laorhrv14_hf7_081109

©Jack Graham                                                   Pear Trees, autumn

In the spring the valley is in bloom and is something to see. However in the fall, the color and patterns of the trees and hillsides provide an equally  pleasurable viewing experience. Adding Mt. Hood to the sights make it even more spectacular.


©Jack Graham      Barns are everywhere and offer picturesque views on foggy autumn   mornings


About 2 hours SE of Portland is a little town called Detroit on Hwy 22. Heading south towards Hwy 20 towards the McKenzie Bridge is the McKenzie Santiam part of the West Cascades Scenic Byway. Just south of Detroit Hwy 22 goes through a corridor of dense forest mainly Douglass and White Fir. ( Be careful if you go, Detroit has the last gas station for 55 miles!). Detroit Lake State Rec. area has a great view of Mt. Jefferson. Along Hwy 22, fields of lava contain vine maples and oaks that provide contrasting color to the dark lava rock.


© Jack Graham                       Vine Maples in lava, south of Detroit Or.

If you get more adventuresome, continue south over the Santiam Pass and south to the town of Sisters, not far from Bend.

………………………..All of this so close to Portland!

JG 11/08

“TINY LANDSCAPES”, the book, by Mike Moats


My friend and partner in our Macro and More Photography Workshops, Mike Moats has recently published his 1st book entitled TINY LANDSCAPES©.  I always liked that name ( its the same as Mike’s website as well) since so much of Macro photography uses the same principles of Landscape photography.

The book not only contains many of Mikes wonderful images but a good information what went into each image. Mike talks about his though processes as well as technical information.

Weather you are just getting into macro photography or have been this is a great read not to mention Mike’s great shots.

If you like what you see, why not join us next year for our Macro and More workshop in June.mm_cc_point2




We will be spending 1 1/2 days in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and the 2 days on the Oregon Coast.


You can order Mike’s book at or directly from Mike at