Secrets of taking good pictures: Sharp shooting

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Sunset 311 (photo credit: Matthew Hemingway )
Sunset 311
(photo credit: Matthew Hemingway )
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
A photographer friend recently asked for my advice - his pictures never seemed to be sharp enough. Was there a problem with the camera, or with his technique, or both?He uses an older Nikon digital SLR with an 18-200 VR zoom lens. I tested both the lens and camera separately, and found that each gave slightly blurred, fuzzy results. 
Most SLR zoom lenses lengthen or shorten during use. Air is sucked in or pumped out, and dust can accumulate in the lens and camera degrading the image. The plastic construction of amateur zoom lenses is also susceptible to knocks and bumps, and if the optical alignment is disturbed the image quality will suffer.
I advised him to have the lens overhauled and the camera sensor cleaned – work I would only entrust to authorized technicians.
Zooming ahead
His technique needed a little attention too, because he often used the longest end of his zoom lens. Although it has a sophisticated Vibration Reduction feature it still has to be held very steady to ensure sharp images.
At longer focal lengths the tiny movements of your body are magnified enormously and cause blurred pictures. To increase stability it’s best to stand upright and bend your knees slightly. Hold your breath briefly as you take the shot, and press the shutter button gently with the pad of your finger. These techniques will help to produce sharper pictures. It’s best if you can support the camera on a convenient surface.
These tips are not only for SLRs; use them with your compact camera when you “zoom in” from a distance to ensure crisper results.
Looking sharp
Trying to react to, and shoot, fast moving events can easily result in blurred pictures. Experienced photographers anticipate good photo opportunities before they happen and are ready to capture events moments before they occur. They are more likely to take sharper shots because they are prepared.
Flora and fauna
Professional photographers go to great lengths, inconvenience and expense to take sharp pictures. They use tripods, monopods and beanbags to support the camera. They use costly macro lenses to take extremely sharp close-up pictures of flowers. They use very heavy, expensive wide-aperture, non-zoom, long telephoto lenses to shoot wildlife. You simply can’t get the same results with general-purpose amateur equipment.
My advice is to enjoy your photography and use my tips to take the sharpest shots your equipment will allow. It’s more important to take interesting, well-composed pictures that tell a story than worry about lens resolution and pixel density. The most important piece of photographic equipment you will ever use is a set of sharp eyes. Have fun using them!
I took these pictures with my cellphone camera. Not the sharpest shots in the world, but none the worse for that.
Send me your picture 
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.  
Send one picture only, at a reduced size to Mention “cellphone picture."  
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at:
Photo Critique
Thanks to Matthew Hemingway for sending this romantic sunset he took with his iPhone.
What works?
Lots of romantic interest: sunset, silhouettes, palm trees and boat.
What does not work?
The sunset is behind the palm trees and emphasizes them, but I feel the boat should be the center of our attention. The square crop feels constricting. The right palm tree and vertical leaf are not too photogenic.
Could it be improved, and how?
I mentioned earlier that it’s best if you can anticipate good photo opportunities before they happen. You can then make whatever preparations are necessary and be in position, ready to shoot.
Having spotted this great shot I would suggest trying to find a position with the sunset behind the boat and where it was framed on both sides by photogenic trees.
Pictures should always tell a story and this one is about the beauty of a perfect evening, sailing quietly on a calm sea. The square crop hides what’s important - the sea, but shows too much of what’s secondary - the silhouettes.
Here’s a roughly retouched version I prepared to show you the story I would like to have told.