Don’t Blame the Equipment!

Nikon D700 and 18-35 zoom - pretty sharp
Nikon D70S and 28-105 zoom - sharpness isn't an issue
Holga 120 CFN - plastic cameras don't do sharp, but soft and moody can be appealing

Nikon D700 and 18-35 zoom - pretty sharp

Nikon D70S and 28-105 zoom - sharpness isn't an issue

Holga 120 CFN - plastic cameras don't do sharp, but soft and moody can be appealing

The joy of technology

The problem with modern cameras is that they make us lazy.  Their automatic controls and onboard computers are so good that we tend to let the camera make the choices instead of taking control.  And that’s fine, most of the time.  The results are usually great, the occasional misses forgivable.  Just think of all the great shots we would have missed without these auto-everything features.

Of course there’s a catch.  The better the technology, the lazier and more dependent we become.  It’s easier than ever before to forget that even the best camera is only a tool.  When we don’t get the desired results we tend to blame the equipment, assuming that newer, better, faster, sharper, heavier and extravagantly expensive bit of equipment can solve our problem.

Sometimes it can.  You might need a longer zoom to shoot sports or wildlife, for example, or a fast portrait lens for wedding photos.  But will the new Nikon 16-35 mm f/4 zoom lens give me much better performance than the 18-35 mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom I already have?  Not enough to justify the hefty price tag and extra weight, I suspect, though I confess to doing the research just to be sure.

My inner geek leads me into this trap all the time.  It is a trap – time spent researching camera gear is time not spent making and processing images!  Not to mention the risk of maxing out the credit card when an item proves too tempting…  Though time spent researching second hand lenses can be a good investment, especially if you buy from reputable camera stores that give a warranty on second hand items.

Try to avoid blind alleys

How do you know whether your gear is up to scratch?  You don’t, not until you have tested it to the limit and found it repeatedly letting you down.  The acid test is missing too many shots when you’re photographing sporting events, birds in flight, extreme close-ups of insects or your toddler exploring the world – not the fact that knowledgeable people believe that camera x plus lens y is the ultimate combination for your speciality.  Too much research and not enough practice can lead us into all sorts of blind alleys.

When I set out to master my first film SLR in 1982, I discovered I had a ‘shutter speed priority’ camera, which made it easy to freeze or blur moving subjects, instead of an ‘aperture priority’ camera which made it easy to control depth of field.  Was it the wrong camera for my sort of photography?  It took far too long for the penny to drop.  (Have pity, I was only a beginner.)  Aperture plus shutter speed equals exposure.   They are interdependent.  Duh!  If my shutter speed gives me the wrong aperture, then I change the shutter speed until the desired aperture gives the desired exposure.  Forget the label, just learn how to use the camera.

Today all cameras come with both modes, but we still have plenty of blind alleys to distract us.  Do you need more megapixels?  Probably not, unless you are planning to make really big prints often enough justify the upgrade.  Do you need a full frame camera?  Maybe not.  I like full frame, but I apprenticed with film and have a fine suite of lenses designed for 35 mm image capture.  A full frame camera gives wider wide angles (if you have legacy lenses) but a cropped APS-C sensor gives longer telephotos and more depth of field at any focal length – but less scope to play with selective focus and blurred backgrounds.  Larger sensors mean less noise at high ISOs, but full frame cameras (and their lenses) are bigger, heavier and more expensive.  Do you need one?  Maybe, if your speciality is shooting concerts in dim light.  Probably not, if you are more interested in bird photography.

Check your Settings and Experiment

My latest distraction has been unsharp photos.  They are not seriously blurred, just, well, softer than I think they should be.  True, legacy lenses often give softer results with digital sensors than they did with film, but I know these lenses – they should be giving me sharper pictures!  Back to the eternal better lens quest (aka blind alley)?  Wait, hang on, maybe it’s me!  There’s a special blind alley for experienced photographers:  pick up a lovely new camera and just carry on shooting, instead of exploring all its functions and options.

So I spent the best part of three days working through my copy of “Thom Hogan’s Complete Guide to the Nikon D700” and experimenting with the camera settings.  Bingo!  First, several of my camera settings were wrong.  My RAW files were undergoing ‘lossy’ compression instead of ‘lossless’ or no compression.  In theory that should not make a visible difference, but you are sacrificing some data with this setting.  My camera’s preview zoom was set to maximum magnification (200%) instead of medium (100%), which gives a much better idea of image sharpness.

Second, I had been cruising along with the camera set to ‘auto area AF’ where the camera automatically latches on to the obvious subject.  It’s quick and intuitive, even when you need to persuade the camera to focus somewhere else.  It never occurred to me that single point AF might be more accurate, until I got around to experimenting intensively with each focus mode.  I’m still working on this, but so far my new autofocus settings are giving sharper pictures.

Why is this so?  Thom Hogan says the central AF sensors on this camera are more sensitive and thus more accurate than the others.  Also, auto-focusing from the ‘AF On’ button instead of the shutter release button makes it easier to control  the point of focus – the camera won’t re-focus at the last microsecond as you take the picture.

Check your Technique as well as your Lenses

Camera technique matters too.  Ten years ago I solved a similar soft focus problem by using a faster shutter speed.  Obvious?  It should have been.  But the camera books say the lowest safe shutter speed for sharp, hand-held pictures is the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens.  So my 180 mm lens should have been sharp at 1/180, right?  Wrong!  Maybe for you, but not for me.  When I increased my shutter speed to 1/250, the problem disappeared.

Right now, I’m reminding myself to check my camera technique for every shot.  Is my stance solid and balanced, am I holding the camera/lens combination steady and close to my body, are my elbows tucked in?  Am I jabbing the shutter release with my forefinger or remembering to gently roll the finger across it?  Anything that reduces vibration contributes to sharper pictures.  (Is that a tripod in your cupboard?)

I’m still testing my lenses as I do this.  So far, the results are very encouraging, though I have sent one zoom to Nikon for cleaning and checking, just to be sure.  I won’t rule out upgrading lenses if I really think that would make a big difference, but my first priority is to upgrade the operator.

Thom Hogan’s Website

Many CPS members know it well.  A wonderful source of information on all things Nikon, it’s often mentioned in Murray Foote’s ‘News from Ether’.  But you don’t have to use Nikon gear to appreciate Thom’s tutorials on camera craft, which offer sound practical advice for any photographers who want to improve their technique.   His website is and recent articles of interest include:  ‘Blame the Equipment’;  ‘Should Do but Don’t’;  ‘You Week’;  ‘Workflow Week’;  and ‘Lens Week’.


Andrée Lawrey | August 2010


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