The biggest way to tell the difference between a beginner and a pro is if the photo is “tack sharp” (the utmost level of sharpness). It’s not just one ultimate secret that will lead you to getting tack sharp photos, it’s the combination of many secrets. Here are 5 ways you can improve your photos, so you can look like you know what the heck you are doing:

1. Use a Tripod – The #1 reason (that’s why it’s first)

The tripod isn’t just for low light situations. Pros will use a tripod even in daylight! The tripod’s main duty is to keep the camera stead. No camera shake, means the absence of unwanted blur. It is more work, but it’s worth the extra effort. If you’re in a setting where they don’t allow tripods, or at an event where using a tripod would mean you might miss the action, use a monopod. A monopod is also a sneaky way to get past the signs that say “no tripods”. If someone stops you, just say, “it’s a monopod,” and they’ll look at you totally stumped.

Don’t buy a cheap tripod either. They just don’t do a good job keeping the camera steady (that’s why they’re cheap, you know). If you buy a pro-quality tripod, they can range from $100 to more than $700. One thing to keep in mind is to get a ballhead when you buy your tripod. They cost anywhere from $100 to more than $400, but they will make your life so much easier.

2. Use a Cable Release or the Self Timer

When you press down on the shutter, it causes the camera to move — ever so slightly. It’s the sort of thing you might not notice when you’re taking the photo, but when you bring the photo onto your computer and zoom, it’s one of those things that makes the difference between the ultimate sharp photo.

A cable release is a cable that attaches to your digital camera (most dSLR’s) and has a button at the end of it. Your camera might also support a wireless remote.

If you don’t want to buy a cable release or wireless remote, you can also use your camera’s Self Timer. You will have to wait 2 to 20 seconds, depending on for what you set your camera, but the good news is, you don’t have to touch your shutter and no camera shake! And voila – your photos are more sharp!

3. Lock the Mirror

When I found out about this for the first time, I was like, you gotta be kidding me. Who knew?

It’s called Exposure Delay on a Nikon or a Mirror Lockup on a Canon. You’ll need to find out where this control is on your camera (err, check your manual). What does it do? It locks your mirror to the up position, so when you take a shot the mirror doesn’t move when the exposure is made. It helps get you closer to the sharpness perfection. Pretty neato, eh?

4. Turn off Image Stabilization (IS on a Canon) or Vibration Reduction (VR on a Nikon)

If you have an IS Canon Lens or a VR Nikon Lens, turn off the function. Yep, that’s it. Turn it off. You’ll only want to use it when you’re in really low-light situations when you need to hand-hold your camera. (Remember wherever possible use that tripod or monopod). But if you’re not hand-holding your camera in low-light, turn off that IS or VR. These lenses look for a small vibration so they can fix it. If they don’t feel a vibration, they can cause a little vibration. So for the sharpest photos, turn it off when you can.

5. Don’t Increase Your ISO.

If you can help it, don’t increase your ISO. Sometimes you do need it when you’re hand-holding in low light. But if you’re shooting on a tripod, keep your ISO at the lowest setting (100 or 200). The reason is, ISO adds noise… And noise equals the opposite of sharpness. You might not notice it if you’re placing your photos on a website where the resolution is 72dpi, but if you enlarge your photo or zoom in on your computer, you will be able to tell.