Why Are My Photos Blurry?
One of the leading causes of blurry, out of focus photographs is movement. However, other factors lead to unsharp images too. And although better glass (read more expensive) is a factor in image quality, it does not mean you can’t capture crisp photos with less expensive kit lenses. So, here are my top five tips for capturing sharp photos, and none of them require you to spend a penny.
1. Use A Fast Shutter Speed
As I mentioned above, movement is probably the primary source of soft images. That movement can come from two sources. It can come from unsteady hands (camera shake) or a quickly moving subject. Let’s address camera movement first.
Luckily, new modern cameras and lenses often come with some form of image stabilization. Image stabilization helps counteract camera movement and is a lifesaver if you have unsteady hands. The heavier your camera, and the longer your lens, the harder it becomes to keep your gear still when taking a picture.
As a general rule, if you do not have image stabilization, pick a shutter speed faster than 1/(focal length x crop factor) to eliminate camera shake. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera, you will want a shutter speed faster than 1/(50×1.5) or 1/75s. If you are shooting birds with a 500mm lens on a full-frame camera, 1/(500 x1) or 1/500s would be the minimum shutter speed required to stop camera shake. With image stabilization turned on, you will be able to get away with slower shutter speeds. Whenever you get a new camera or lens, experiment with different shutter speeds before going out on a crucial shoot. This way, you will know what shutter speeds you can safely handhold your camera to avoid camera shake.
Another way to eliminate camera shake is to use a sturdy support for your camera. A tripod is an obvious choice. However, there have been many times that I have used a fence, wall, or top of a trash can. You can even brace yourself or hold your camera firmly against a vertical post or tree in a pinch.
I captured this image in New York’s Grand Central Station by placing my camera on a wall. Bracing the camera this way allowed me to expose the scene for just over a second without a tripod.
Unfortunately, eliminating camera shake doesn’t help if your subject is darting around the scene! In this case, you must use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze your subject’s movement.
So how fast a shutter speed do you need? Well, that depends on the subject and how it is moving. For fast-moving animals moving in a predictable direction, like a dog chasing a ball, I use a minimum of 1/1000s. If movement is unpredictable, such as that exhibited by small birds, 1/1500s is a good starting point. For photographing children, 1/250s is usually fast enough. However, if they are running around, 1/500s may be needed. For sports, try speeds between 1/500s and 1/1000s.
You will find that you can get away with slower shutter speeds if your subject moves towards you as opposed to when they move across the scene. Again, experiment! No one magic shutter speed will work in every situation. The more you practice, the more you will become familiar with which shutter speeds to select.
2. Tell The Camera Where To Focus
Telling the camera where to focus may sound obvious! Unfortunately, though, many entry-level cameras and point-and-shoot cameras come set to a fully automatic focus mode out of the box. When set up this way, the camera selects the point to focus on, depending on the scene. Typically, your camera will focus on the closest and largest object in the frame. Most of the time, this works just fine. However, if your subject is hidden, if it is small, or if it does not have a lot of contrast, the camera may be tricked and focus on the wrong part of the picture.
Is this picture in focus? Sure it is, as long as my subject is the bunch of mulberries to the left of the great crested flycatcher! This is a classic example of what happens when the camera has complete control over focus.
I’m not going to get into details about autofocus modes or autofocus area modes in this post. There is a great article over on Photography Life called Autofocus Modes Explained. Check it out for more details. Instead, I want to encourage shooters to learn how to change from fully automatic focusing modes to ones where the photographer selects the subject. Using single-point AF area mode lets you move the focus point around the scene using a d-pad or joystick. This way, you can put the focus exactly where you want it to be. For moving subjects, choose a mode that uses a cluster of autofocus points. After you tell the camera where the subject initially is, the camera tracks focus to different points within the group as the subject moves.
If you find that your camera has trouble acquiring focus in low light or low contrast situations, turn on autofocus assist. With this feature on, the camera sends out a small light beam to aid the autofocus. It will only work for subjects that are relatively close to the camera. Keep in mind, though; it can be a tad annoying for your human subjects when this feature is on all the time!
Lastly, don’t be afraid to use manual focus, especially in static situations. Most cameras have a live view feature, which allows you to magnify the scene while you are focusing. This feature assures that critical focus is acquired exactly where you want it.
In this image of an anemone seed pod, I used manual focus to focus on the large water drop.
3. Take A Series Of Images
With your camera set to burst mode, take a series of several images. With any luck, one of them will be sharp! I find this technique works exceptionally well when my subject is moving. This method also works well when shooting macro shots without a tripod.
We are having an outbreak of looper moths in Vancouver right now. Large numbers of them are swarming on lights and windows. This fellow was on our sliding door this morning, so I thought I would grab a shot of him. I was feeling a bit lazy, so handheld my camera. With my camera on burst mode, I took a series of six photos. Even shooting at a slow shutter speed of 1/6s, my fourth shot in the series was sharp.
4. Clean Your Gear
A dirty lens can be another cause of sub-par image quality. Even with advanced coatings on front lens elements, it is still possible to get dirt and fingerprints on your lens. Make sure to inspect your lenses and clean them as needed. Beware, though, it is crucial to use the right tools and cleaning methods on your gear. Improper techniques can lead to permanent scratches on your glass!
5. Use As Low An ISO As Possible
Higher ISOs introduce noise to images. And, photos that exhibit a lot of noise often appear less sharp than those shot at lower ISOs. Keep in mind that noise is a very subjective quality.
It is important to know at what level noise becomes an issue for your camera. Try this experiment. Arrange your camera on a tripod to capture a low light scene. With your camera set on aperture priority and f/8, take a series of images at ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 (higher if your camera allows). Now take a look at the images on your computer. At what point does the noise start to detract from your photo? Now try this same exercise two more times, but capture a bright, well-lit scene and a scene on a cloudy day. What do you find this time? Also, try converting your images to black and white. Can you tolerate more noise now?
Once you are confident about how your camera performs in high ISO situations, you will find it easier to decide when to bump up the ISO. With all this being said, don’t be afraid to crank up the ISO. A noisy photo is better than a blurry one shot at too low a shutter speed! And, with today’s post-processing software, it is often possible to mitigate noise substantially.
This spring, a friend showed me where a hummingbird nest was. It was fascinating watching mum sit on her eggs and eventually feed her new chicks. However, the nest was deep in the woods and very dark. The only way I could get fast enough shutter speeds to photograph them was to push my ISO way up. For me, getting the shots, even grainy ones, was better than no pictures at all.
If you have struggled to take sharp images, give some of these techniques a try before spending money on a new camera or more expensive lenses. Once you have mastered these techniques, I’m confident that you will come away with more keepers.
As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to reach out to me through my contact page. Cheers until next time!