There are many factors that contribute to a sharp detailed image. Sharpness contributes to clarity of an image and increases its detail, texture and information. If sharpness and detail are a central concern of yours, here are the elements that are the major contributers.
Cameras with a bigger sensors and a huge amount of pixels are said to produce files that technically superior to smaller sensors. Nikon, Sony and Canon make high end, very expensive models with that produce files 20 mega bytes. Medium format cameras offer even larger files that give stunning detail at very large print sizes. Check out http://www.dxomark.com / for an objective assessment of sensor quality.
Lens quality is a very important sharpness factor. Typically you’ll pay between $1200-2000 for the best DSLR zoom lenses. Fixed lenses, aka prime — non zoom lenses are said to be sharper than zoom lenses and can also cost over a $1000 for the best quality. Both Canon and Nikon offer lenses at 2 to 3 levels of quality. The more you pay, the better the quality. Check out the forums (in my links section) to see how professionals are rating any given lens. It’s not uncommon for a lens in a manufacture’s top line up to have issues.
There are two key factors that contribute to an image’s perceived sharpness are resolution and acutance.
Resolution is determined by your sensor’s ability to distinguish fineness of detail among closely placed elements in an image, like hair or the texture of fabric. The number and quality of pixels in our sensor, the algorithms your camera uses and many other very technical factors contribute to a camera’s resolution.
Acutance is related to edge sharpness. It depends on the quality of your lens and how you sharpen the image in post production. When we use software to sharpen a digital image, the software looks for tonal transition areas where it increases contrast .
Is your lens working properly? A lens can be in need of a tuneup. A lens can be back focusing and need to be tweaked to focus properly. And your camera body’s focus setting can be off as well, adding to a back focusing problem. If you are finding that you have a lot of images that aren’t sharp, that should be, you may need to find someone who can check both your camera body and lens focus calibration. You can test whether your lens are focusing properly or maybe back focusing. Here’s a link to an article on sharpness and has a test you can try: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/lens-sharpness.htm
For maximum sharpness many photographers will routinely use a tripod and a cable release. Some will lock up the mirror so ensure the camera doesn’t move due to mirror movement ( see you manual ). With a slow enough shutter speed, if your camera or subject move during the exposure, sharpness will be effected. Also a cable release can guard against camera movement as you depress the shutter.
Lower ISOs, 100 or 200 ISO, will give a cleaner image with less noise and more detail. The higher end DSLRs will give better image quality at high ISOs.
Often by viewing an image up close, the image will appear soft, while viewing at more of a distance the same image will appear sharper. The size an image will be viewed at is another consideration. A soft image where the focus was missed or there was some camera movement during exposure, may look fine at a small size and too soft at a larger size.
Some photographers believe a UV filter can reduce image sharpness. I have a UV filters on all my lenses and regularly check that they aren’t smudged or dirty.
Digital images need sharpening. They inherently have some softness due to how light is gathered by the sensor. Sharpening software will make an apparently sharp image appear much sharper. Photoshop generally sets the standard, though there may be many excellent programs out there for sharpening. Pixel Genius and Nik are two software companies that have good programs. Ideally all images should get a general, minimal sharpening. Then an image should be sharpened for it’s going to be viewed ultimately. So an image that’s going on the web will need to be sharpened differently that one that’s going to be printed for a magazine or by an ink jet printer. Sharpening is best done as the last step in processing an image, after it’s been adjusted for density, color, cropped and sized for output.
The quality of light the image is captured in can have a huge effect on detail and sharpness. Murky or low light settings may generate relatively murky images, while subtle brilliant light can contribute to files with greater sharpness and detail.
Depth of field can increase or decrease how much is in focus in an image, from in front of and in back of the point of focus.
Sharpness is often a subjective issue. What’s sharp enough for me, may be too soft for you. Many fine art photographers use softness and blur as a technique in their artistic style. Camera or subject movement during an exposure can sometimes give a very interesting effect and be a defining characteristic to a photograph’s success. Some photographers use razor sharpness and maximum detail as a way to wow the eye and create visual impact.