Quick tip for getting sharper wildlife photos

Anna's Hummingbird (male) / Photo by Steve Berardi

Anna's Hummingbird (male) / Photo by Steve Berardi

Getting sharp photos of wildlife is a constant battle. With an uncontrollable and constantly moving subject, you usually end up with a lot more blurry shots than sharp ones.

To increase your chances of getting a sharp shot, you can do things like shoot in JPEG to help you take a lot more photos in a burst.

And, if you’re shooting in JPEG, there’s one more setting you should adjust to make your sharp photos even sharper. It won’t do anything for the blurry shots, but it’ll make those good shots even better.

Increase the sharpness on your picture “styles” or “controls”

They’re called picture “styles” on Canon cameras and picture “controls” on Nikons, but they work pretty much the same way: they’re presets for different types of images and usually include settings for contrast, saturation, highlights, shadows, and sharpness.

You can safely adjust these later in post-processing if you’re shooting in RAW, but if you shoot in JPEG, then you need to adjust these on the camera before you snap the photo.

By default, the settings are pretty conservative, so I usually end up setting the sharpness to level 5 on my Canon cameras (the default is 3). I haven’t tried this on a Nikon, but I imagine they also have fairly conservative defaults. Sharpness is the only adjustment I make, I leave the rest at zero.

Shooting in JPEG really only makes sense when you need that fast burst rate, so it’s easy to forget about these picture styles. But, if you perform some tests with your cameras and lenses to find a suitable sharpness level, you can use these styles or controls to get just a little more sharpness 🙂

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.


  1. Great tip on the sharpness level, Steve. After taking a shot, my natural inclination is to sharpen in post-production, and I don’t do much of anything else. Seems that if I adjust the sharpness at the camera, it would simplify my post-production work for most shots.

  2. The major downside is that sharpening is best as the last step and is dependent on your output size, subject and medium.

    I had originally shot jpg with sharpness at 7/7 and loved it. I would agree that if you are coming from a P&S (as I did), you will be very surprised by the apparent softness in your jpg images. Start there and grow into RAW (and the extra HD space necessary 🙂

  3. @Joe – I would still sharpen during post production as well. The “sharpness” setting I mentioned in this post is an additional way to sharpen the photo even more, and is specific to each camera. In fact, this “sharpening” is applied by default on most cameras, but the default level is pretty conservative in my observations.

    @Hagen – Good point about sharpening being best for last. I’ve noticed the sharpening technique used for these “picture styles” is incredibly good though on my Canon cameras, so I use a combination of this setting and some more sharpening as a last step in post processing.

  4. Kim Barley says:

    Where do I locate the “sharpness” option on my Canon 40D?

  5. Pete Belardino says:

    Hi Steve….what picture style do you shoot in for the most part ? I use neutral ! Can’t remember why I do….I think I read somewhere that shooting neutral will give you the most control when shooting RAW+Jpeg as far as post processing ! What are your thoughts ?

  6. Pete – I normally just use the “standard” picture style on my Canon cameras. If you’re shooting in RAW, you can safely change this later in post-processing without losing quality, so the only time I’m careful about choosing picture styles is when I’m shooting JPEG.

  7. Thank you for this tip. It will help me ASAP. I also wanted to comment on your E Book by examples..It’s great and very helpful. Please keep up the great work.

    Would love to see a e Book on shooting Hawks & Eagles

  8. Tom Sangemino says:

    Where do I find sharpness on the Nikon D7000? I have two JPEG settings size priority and optimal quality? Are these the settings I should be adjusting? If so, is optimal quality a better option over size priority?


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