Reader Question: Image sharpness - part one

I recently got ask by eMail - via contact@markusfelix.de, feel free to ask if you have any questions  - 'how do you get your nightshoots so crisp and sharp?'.
So I decided to write a bit about my workflow from front to back and this is part one: the capture.

There are a couple of factors which influence the quantitative value of your image, namely:
    • a sturdy tripod
    • good glass
    • a aperture within the sweet spot of your lens, usually around f/8-f/11
    • native, low ISO (ISO100 or ISO200)
    • mirror lockup, self timer, delayed capture, cable release
    • clean equipment
To go into more detail, even if some of it seems obvious...

Even in the hot summer of Dubai I carried my tripod everywhere, this time around a quite heavy Manfrotto 055XproB with a geared head which weighs over 4,2kg, for over 8 hours through the nights.; simply because control and stability is the most important point for slow shutter speeds, longer exposures. 
If you want better shots at night and do not have a good tripod, go out and buy one - it does not have to be expensive either, if you have a second hand store or flea markets around go have a stroll and look. I bought a aluminum one, maybe 30 or 40 years old, for 10€ which is perfectly fine and certainly better than the 30€ plastic crap in the big box stores nowadays.

The next point is glass - good glass is more important that the body, if you think about upgrading think glass first! Good glass stays with you for a long time, bodies change - lens technology does not progress with the speed of electronics and sensor technology which seems to leap tremendously in the last years.
But what is good and what should you look for if you shop for glass? Keeping in mind the next point on my list: aperture, you do not need super fast glass but rather look for the quality within the aperture range of f/8 to f/11.

Use a low ISO, even with the high-end bodies the native ISO - usually ISO100 (for Nikon up to the D700: ISO200) gives you not only the cleanest file in therms of noise and grain but also deliver the biggest dynamic range.
Also, even some say it does not matter on exposure times longer that five seconds, get you hands off of the body, the lens and the tripod. In my opinion, every bit of shake causes image degradation so use all that is available to you to minimize shake introduced to the contraption.
Use el cheapo cable release or even cheaper in almost every body today: use the self timer set to two seconds. Higher bodies also have feature called 'mirror lockup', even in the live-view implementation:  it flips the mirror up, out of the way, and leaves it there when you press the shutter.

The Nikon D800, and I believe the D600 and the new D7100 also, got another menu item which is called 'exposure delay mode' which can be set to one, two or three seconds and adds this delay to whatever shutter release method you have selected.
Even though this seems extreme and excessive if maximizes the time between physical movements occurring in and around the camera.

Last but not least: keep your equipment clean. This is one point which should be so obvious but especially during long exposures with light sources in frame against a dark sky or skyline you see small imperfections. I have a set of lens pens in every bag I carry with me and on travel longer then two weeks I bring sensor cleaning equipment with me.
Last year I was on a tour with a friend who was able to take me to places I would never be able to get to on my own - coming home just to realize that the high humidity screwed with my front element. The humidity created nasty streaks and reflections which were a pain to fix in post but a couple of photos were damaged beyond repair which scarred me for life so I carry cleaning stuff with me everywhere I go.

This is what I basically learned throughout the past years condensed in a few paragraphs.
As for part two: it will be about post production focusing on lightroom, depending on how long it will get I might add photoshop and fine tuning onto that or write another part.