Some weeks ago, I was asked "How do you do it?" on this thread on the Pentax User forum. The enquiry arose after I posted a particular photo, and was later clarified as "I've got the same equipment as you, but things never come out as sharp as yours", or words to that effect.
This raises a couple of issues, and steers me away from the obvious answer of 'it' being all credited to my amazing artistic ability...
Sharpness in digital images is, as far as I'm concerned, down to three things:
1) Equipment - Unless you've got a camera and lens capable of producing a sharp image, you're going to struggle to produce sharp shots of any decent size. But the key phrase there is 'decent size'. A soft or blurred photo can appear sharp when reproduced at a low resolution, either as a small print or on the web.
The photo above is blurred through camera shake (shutter speed was 2/3 second), yet at this size it looks sharp. I would be very reluctant to print it at anything larger than 6" x 4".
2) Technique - As long as you hold your camera steady enough, and ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze any subject movement, and you focus correctly with sufficient depth of field, then you'll get as sharp a shot as your equipment is capable of.
If your shots aren't sharp, take a moment to first assess whether something about your technique is lacking, before you blame the lens or camera. Blurred image? What sort of blur? If everything has a smeary look to it, then it's probably camera shake. Put your camera on a tripod, or increase your shutter speed. If the smeary blurring only affects your subject, then the shutter speed was too slow to stop motion blur caused by the subject moving, even though the camera was steady. Is something in focus, but the subject not? Then the focus is wrong. Is too little of the subject in focus? Increase your depth of field by reducing your aperture (change from f/4 to f/11 for instance).
By knowing how different sorts of failing in technique show themselves, you have a chance to correct them.
3) Processing - The way that a digital photo is processed for showing on the web or as a print can have a massive effect on its apparent sharpness. Consider the following two images, and ask yourself "which photo is sharpest?"
Well, that was a bit of a trick question, as they're the same photo, just processed differently. Therefore the actual photo is obviously as sharp as it is, but the images presented here are quite clearly 'soft' and 'sharp'.
The first was resized from the original in one go, using the Photoshop 'Resize' option (Bicubic algorithm, as always for me), with no sharpening applied at any stage, then 'saved for web' with a medium compression setting (High - 60%).
The second was sharpened using Unsharp Mask whilst still the original size (2592 x 3872 px), with settings of Amount: 150%, Radius: 0.8px, Threshold: 0 levels. It's how I treat most of my originals as a 'capture sharpen'. I then halved the dimensions of the image (1296 x 1936 px) and applied USM again, but with a percentage of 75%, then resized again (500 x 747 px) and applied USM again, at 70%. This final sharpening is done by eye to ensure it's not overboard. Save for Web was again used, with a higher quality setting (Very High - 80%).
What these two images show us above anything, is that you can't compare your photos to anything you see on the web, without first knowing how that image was processed in order to get it there. I know my bracken shot is sharp, but if the only representation of it that anyone ever saw was that first one above, I'd be the only one thinking that.
Just in case this still leaves the question "How do you do it?" unanswered, I'll be posting again soon to explain exactly how that bracken shot came about.
It's a simple image, but there were various stages involved to get me to it - like everything in photography it was a journey, taking me from one idea to the next, one composition to another. Some worked, some didn't, but it was a gradual, refining process, until the feelings I had and the sights before me, were distilled into this final photograph.
It's something I cover in my workshops, but for those of you that haven't yet been on one, keep your eyes peeled...