Tack Sharp Urbex

Because the opposite of sharp is dull, I am a bit obsessive-compulsive (bordering on a disorder I guess) when it comes to picture sharpness and crispness. As a matter of fact, unless there is an obvious artistic bias to make a blurry image (and I mean really, really obvious), nothing turns me off an image more, then an out of focus picture.

As a matter of fact, I like my pictures soooo focus, sooo tack sharp, they’re serrated. (pun fukin’ intended!!)4Now, in case you’re wondering, razor sharp pictures are primarily achieved through accurate focusing (no shit ?).

On most cameras, focusing can be done manually or you can let the camera take care of it. Unless you’re in a particular bind (such as complete darkness), you should let the camera take care of it.
If you’re new to this, just know that there are different autofocus modes on your camera. AF-C for example, is continuous auto focus; it will change the cameras’ focus as to stay on a subject in movement (as long as you aim at it). Not that useful to us Urbexers, then.
In Urbex situations, the go-to focus mode is dedicated to static image; AF-S. In this mode, the focus is done before taking the picture, when you half depress the shutter button. And then it stays that way.

A last bit of advice; autofus is achieved by the camera using different focal points called zones. Those zones are usually placed in the center of the image, but many cameras also have multiples zones, covering most of the picture. Make sure you focus on what’s important to you, not the camera, with its god-damn zones.When in doubt, use spot focusing instead. Automatic settings and zone focusing are for pussies anyway.

So that’s focusing.

But if that is all you do, chances are your pictures are not as crisp as they should.

A few additional factors should enter into consideration if you want the sharpness to shine through.

  • Good glass; That’s right. Shitty lens take shitty picture. If you want a worthy picture, you need a worthy lens. Full stop (pun intended).
  • The shutter speed/focal length reciprocal rule: simply put, you should use a tripod (no handholding) whenever the shutter speed you use, is below your lens’s focal length. See, a longer focal length (zoomed all the way out for example) tends to magnify the subject, but it will also magnify any vibrations you’ll produce while pressing the shutter-release button. Whatever the focal length (e.g., 18mm, 35mm, 50mm, 105mm) of the lens, the shutter speed should not go below the same number. In other words, if you are using a 50mm, you should not use a shutter speed below 1/60s – yea, 1/50s does not exist – without using a tripod.5
  • Extreme aperture; Focusing can also be complicated if you’re using really, really fast lens (up to f0.95, is you have a Leica Octilux). With such openings, the depth of field is so shallow, that the focus will usually happen on no more than a few inches. I have an 85mm f1.4 Nikon lens with such a shallow depth of field; when I focus on someone’s nose, his eyes are blurry !!
  • Holding the camera properly: This may seem stupid but remember, you will not achieve sharp picture unless your camera is stable. And your camera will not be stable unless you hold it correctly. So, no live view for crying out loud. Keep your legs open as to have a firm stands, have your elbows together against your chest, and have one hand under the lens and the other on the side while leaning slightly into camera, holding it tight against your eyebrow. Then breath out, hold your breath and gently press the shutter button. It’s like sex…except not at all.
  • Diopter: one of the ways of achieving tack sharp picture is to look at your fucking subject before you press the shutter. The best way of doing so, is through the view finder. However if your eyes, like mine, are not 100%, your vision of sharpness won’t be either. Your view finder must be adjusted to your eye’s weakness. The only way to tell if your view finder (a.k.a diopter) is accurately adjusted for your eyes is to look around the viewfinder symbols (grid, exposure information, focus points etc.) and see if that is in focus. Different viewfinders have different adjustments, but there is likely a small wheel or slide in close proximity to the viewfinder (sometimes labeled with + and -) that will allow you to adjust the view. When adjusting a camera’s diopter you should adjust it to make the image sharp, and keep adjusting until it goes back out of focus. Then, work back toward focus… and stop.1
  • A solid tripod: Get one. Enough said.
  • Lack Of light:One of the most pressing issues, while focusing in Urbex situation, is often the lack of light. In this case, the camera has no point it can “clearly see” to help it focus. The autofocus has no “hook point”. Many higher end cameras have a little LED light that turns on in the darkness to help them autofocus, but it is often insufficient. Personally, I usually use my flash light, half depress the shutter so the camera can focus, turn on my camera’s focus memory, and then turn my light off, before taking the picture. Unless you have the uncanny ability to turn into a salt stature, this little technique obviously requires a tripod.
  • Image stabilization (IS): modern lenses often use vibration reduction, that is, an element in the lens moves to compensate for minor movements or vibrations of the camera. When camera bodies having built-in vibration compensation, the camera’s imaging sensor moves to counter vibrations. This is great for hand held shots. If you mount the camera on a tripod without cutting the IS however, you risk creating what’s called a feedback loop, in which the camera’s IS system essentially detects its own vibrations and starts moving around, even when the rest of the camera is completely still. This introduces motion objects to your camera system and brings about unwanted blurriness. So when using a tripod, turn off the image stabilization.
  • Cable release: Obviously, if you go through all the trouble mentioned above, it would be a shame to ruin it with your chubby finger pressing the shutter and getting your entire apparatus shaking. Use a remote or a cable release.
  • Mirror lock-up: This obviously only applies to DSLR. Mirror lock-up is a function allowing the camera’s mirror to stay up, while taking a picture. This allows even less vibration, as the absence of internal physical movement in the camera will lower your chance of your camera trembling.3
  • High contrast: Contrast is defined as the separation between the darkest and brightest areas of your image. Increase contrast and you increase the separation between dark and bright, making shadows darker and highlights brighter. Decrease contrast and you’ll bring the shadows up and the highlights down to make them closer to one another. Adding contrast usually adds “pop” and makes an image look more vibrant while decreasing contrast can make an image look duller.
  • Post-production sharpening; Even if most of the sharpness is achieved when taking the actual image, you can still increase images sharpness during post production treatment. You will not be able to change the focus per se, but you will be able to fuck around with micro-contrasts (see above) in the image, so as to make it appear sharper. The three tools usually used to ached this are (a) Gain, which allows you to increase the micro contrast on the surrounding of an image element (b) Radius allows to look at the thickness of the gain mentioned above and finally (c) Details allows to control the range of the micro contrast increase.2

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