Top 10 Mistakes that Cause Blurry Photos

Cedar Key

If your photos are not sharp, you are not alone! The most common question I get asked by beginning photographers is “how do you get your images so sharp?”

Blurry photos is very common issue with a whole plethora of possible culprits, making it very difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. But if you go through this list of the top 10 mistakes that cause blurry photos, you will probably find the answer that works for you.

1. Your shutter speed is too slow

This is the #1 culprit of blurry photos. You might think you can hold perfectly still for half a second, but I assure you there are very few people in the world who can. When hand-holding your camera, remember this rule of thumb to avoid blur caused by camera shake – your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your lens’ focal length – that is, if you’re using a 60mm lens, your exposure should be 1/60th of a second or faster. With a 200mm lens, use at least 1/200th of a second, and so on. Camera shake is magnified the longer your telephoto length, so wider angle lenses will suffer its effects much less.

Using a 400mm lens, I selected a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second to reduce the possibility of camera shake.

Using a 400mm lens, I selected a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second to reduce the possibility of camera shake.

Some lenses and cameras have image stabilization technology built into them – particularly with longer focal lengths. Image stabilization usually allows you to slow your minimum shutter speed by around three stops, meaning that a 60mm lens can now handle shutter speeds as low as 1/8th of a second without camera shake.

What is YOUR minimum shutter speed?

In addition to this rule of thumb, it’s important to know your own personal minimum shutter speed. We all shake a little, some more than others, so it’s good to know at what point camera shake becomes an issue for you. Try an exercise to find out: put your camera in shutter priority mode and make the same photo at 1/500th of a second and keep going slower and slower. Back at your computer, look at your images and see when you start to notice the blur. Personally, I don’t usually go below 1/125th of a second if I’m hand-holding my camera.

2. Not using a tripod

Sunset Arches

If you’re experiencing camera shake and you can’t use a faster shutter speed (due to low light conditions) or you don’t want to use a fast shutter speed (because you’re purposefully trying to blur something in the frame) then you need to steady your camera another way such as using a tripod or monopod.

When you use a tripod, image stabilization is not necessary and may even be counter productive, so it’s a good idea to get in the habit of turning it off when you put your camera on a tripod and turning it back on when you take it off.

3. Bad camera holding technique

For the best stability, practice the official photographer position: stand with your feet slightly apart, one staggered forward, and firmly planted to stabilize your body right-to-left and back-to-front. Support the camera with your left hand by holding the lens from underneath, and use your right hand to grab the grip and gently press the shutter button. Tuck your elbows tight to your chest and use the viewfinder rather than the live view screen, as holding the camera to your face will also help hold it steady. Some photographers even go so far as to listen to their breathing and heartbeat, taking care to fire the shot in between breaths and beats for maximum stability.

Proper technique when hand-holding your camera.

Proper technique when hand-holding your camera.

4. Your aperture is too wide

The size of the aperture also has a direct effect on the sharpness of your photo in that it determines depth of field, which is how much of the image is in focus from front to back.

When a lens finds focus, it locks in on a specific distance known as the plane of focus. If your focus is at, say, 15 feet, everything 15 feet away from the camera will have maximum sharpness, and anything in front of or behind it will start to fall into blur. The amount of this effect depends on the aperture.

If you use a wide aperture, like f/2.8, the depth of field is very shallow. This effect is emphasized with longer focal length lenses. So if you are using a telephoto lens and the aperture is f/2.8, there may be only a razor thin sliver of the image that is in sharp focus. If you use a small aperture, like f/11 or f/18, the depth of field is larger so more of the image will be sharp.

Choosing the right aperture depends on the type of image you want to create. But if you are trying to get everything in the frame as sharp as possible, try using a small aperture (a larger f-number such as f/11 or f/22). However, by using a small aperture you will need to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for the loss of light. See problem #1.

5. Not using autofocus

How good is your eyesight? Not great? Wearing glasses? You should probably be using autofocus. These days cameras are sophisticated – let them do what they are good at. Another thing to keep in mind is that your viewfinder should have a diopter on it. It’s a little wheel next to your viewfinder that allows you to adjust how clearly things appear when you look through it. It is particularly useful for people who should be wearing glasses but are not.

Black Vulture in Flight

6. Not focusing in the correct place

Even if you have a sharp, clear prime lens on a bright day, using a small aperture and a fast shutter speed with a low ISO, it doesn’t count for much unless you can get the camera to focus on the right spot. This is even more crucial when using a wide aperture, which can create a razor thin depth of field. A slight miscalculation in the focus can throw the subject completely out of the focal plane, or give you a portrait with a perfectly sharp earlobe and blurry eyes.

Often photographers leave their cameras set on auto-area AF mode, which tells the camera to use its best judgment to decide what part of the picture should be in focus. Most of the time modern cameras are pretty good at this, particularly if the subject is prominent in the frame. However, with more complex compositions the camera can get confused and try to focus on the wrong thing. To specify the focal point yourself, switch to single-point AF area mode.

f-spotWhen you look through your viewfinder, you should see an array of little dots or squares laid over the display. These are your focus points, and they show you where in the frame the camera is capable of finding focus. In single-point AF area mode, you can use the camera’s direction pad to select one of these dots, and the camera will always focus on that point and that point alone.

To tell the camera to focus, you would normally depress the shutter button halfway before pressing it the rest of the way to take the shot. This works pretty well, but can be sensitive – if you press too lightly, it may come unpressed and try to re-focus after you’ve already found your spot. If you press too hard, you might make the exposure before the focus is ready. If you take multiple pictures in succession, it will try to focus again before each shot. For these reasons, some photographers swear by the back focus button instead.

This is a button on the back of your camera, probably near your thumb. It might be labeled “AF-On” or simply “Fn”, and it might be set up by default or you might have to activate it in your camera’s menu settings, but it can be assigned to take over the autofocus function. When you press it, the camera focuses and won’t focus again until you press the button again. This way, you can re-compose and take shot after shot, and the camera won’t lose your focus every time you hit the shutter button.

7. Using the incorrect focus mode

There are three main autofocus modes that every camera should have. The first is single-shot focus, usually called AF-S or One-shot AF; it is meant to be used with still subjects. The second, continuous autofocus (AF-C or AI Servo) is specially designed to track movement through the frame, so is best to use when your subject is in motion. The third is an automatic mode, AF-A or AI Focus AF, and likely the default setting on your camera. It reads the scene and determines which of the first two modes it should use.

Cactus Flower

8. Not using manual focus

While I’m a big advocate of autofocus, there is one particular time when manual focus comes in very handy. When your camera is on a tripod and you are using a wide aperture to achieve a very shallow depth of field, and you want to make sure the most important thing in your frame is sharp, switch to manual focus and then use the LCD zoom function to magnify the display by 5x or 10x allowing you to make tiny adjustments to the focus to get it just right.

9. Junk on or in front of your lens

If you have a big smear on your lens, that is going to affect the clarity of your image. By the same token, if you put a cheap plastic filter in front of your lens, that is going to degrade image quality as well. If you always use a UV filter, you might want to try taking a few shots without it to see if the quality of your UV filter is negatively affecting your images.

Using an aperture of f/20, everything is sharp from foreground to background.

Using an aperture of f/20, everything is sharp from foreground to background.

10. Poor lens quality

This item is last on the list for good reason; it is the most common thing for beginners to blame their blurry images on, but it is rarely the real reason. Still, lens quality does make a difference.

Lens quality is determined by the materials and construction inside the lens itself, which is usually made up of several pieces of glass precisely aligned in order to focus, zoom, and correct for optical aberrations.

Some lenses are simply sharper than others or are better in different ways. Some lenses may be sharp in the center, but get blurry around the corners and edges of the image. Some are clear at certain apertures but slightly fuzzy at others. Some lenses cause colour fringing around points of contrast. Every lens has a unique character that may or may not be useful to the type of work you’re doing. It’s also worth noting that each lens has a “sweet spot” – a certain aperture at which it performs its best. This is usually in the middle of its aperture range, around f/8 or f/11.

For the sharpest image quality, fixed focal length lenses usually take the cake. It’s not always convenient to carry around two or three lenses rather than a single all-purpose zoom, but their simple construction makes even the cheapest prime lens crystal clear.

The post Top 10 Mistakes that Cause Blurry Photos by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images

An important element of photography is getting sharp, crisp images. You may be struggling with focus, especially if you are fairly new to DSLR photography. It is extremely frustrating to go out shooting, assuming you’ve got nice clear, sharp images, only to get home to find out they aren’t quite as sharp, or even in focus, as you had hoped.

There are several things you can do to improve your chances of getting sharper images. Here are a few to get you started, if you have other tips please share them in the comments below.

Five steps for achieving sharp images

#1 Pick the focus point manually

focus-pointsOn most SLRs, and some of the mirrorless or four thirds cameras, there is an option of selecting what point it uses to focus. Meaning, when you look through the camera and see some flashing dots or squares (or something similar to the image on the right), those are your focus zones or spots. Make sure it is NOT set for the camera selecting which of those spots are targeted for focusing. When the camera chooses where to focus it can often pick the wrong thing. If you have a subject that is behind something in the foreground the camera will usually pick the closest object, which is not your intention, and you’ll end up with the wrong thing in focus.

Find the setting that allows you to adjust which target focus zone the camera uses to focus. Depending on the camera make and model, that can usually be adjusted with a dial or joy stick on the back of the camera, while you are looking through the view finder. This frees you to choose the most appropriate zone or spot for your subject or scene.

#2 Select the right focus mode

Canon-focus-modesMost cameras have a few different types of focus modes. On Canon you’ll see them as Single (One Shot), AI (stands for Artificial Intelligence) Focus and AI Servo. On Nikon the modes are AF-S, AF-C and AF-A.  Choose the one that bests fits for the subject you’re photographing.

Single (or AF-S) means that the camera will focus and lock on a single object and will not refocus until you release your finger from the shutter button. AI Servo (AF-C) is for continuous focusing when you have a moving subject.  In this mode when you depress the shutter button half way, the camera will continue to focus on the subject as it moves away or towards you. It does not lock focus until you press the button down fully and take the photo. In AI Focus (AF-C) the camera will choose between the previous two based on whether the subject is moving or not.

#3 Set your minimum shutter speed accordingly

min-shutter-speedThere is much debate about this subject in terms of how slow is too slow for hand holding your camera. Some instructors will say 1/60th of a second, I tend to use another rule of thumb which is 1 over the focal length of your lens. So if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, then 1/200 is how fast you need to be shooting to get rid of blur caused by camera shake. The longer lens you select, the more amplified any movement will become. If you are shooting with a cropped sensor camera, remember that 200mm is now acting like a 350mm so that changes your minimum shutter speed to 1/400. If you use a lens that has image stabilization then you can often stretch it a little bit more, say one or two stops, depending on how steady your hands are. You also want to make sure you are holding your camera in the most stable position with your left hand UNDER the body and lens (sort of cupping it) and both elbows in tight to your body. Then, hold your breath and shoot!

#4 Make use of back button focusing

Another much debated topic is whether or not to use the back button focusing option now available on most DSLRs. I’m not here to get into that debate, if you want to know more about it you can read 3 Reasons Why You Should Switch to Back Button Focus by James Brandon. The basic idea is that instead of using your shutter button to focus, you separate the focus function to a button on the back of the camera, that you press with your thumb.

Taken using back-button focus

Taken using back-button focus

I use it for many things including; portraits where I want the subjects off centre and don’t want to do “focus, lock, recompose” for every frame, any time I want to focus on a moving target (you have a better chance of getting it sharp this way than with the shutter button focus), for HDR photography when I’m bracketing and don’t want the focus to shift accidentally between shots, for night photography when I focus with the assistance of a flashlight and don’t want it to move afterwards (other option is switch to manual focus every time but it’s too easy to forget to focus at all then).

It does take a little getting use to, but after a friend of mine that shoots sports for the local newspaper showed me how to use it properly I never looked back. So when she says it’s better for action focus on critical, fast moving subjects, I listen cause she knows what she’s talking about!

#5 Use a tripod and remote trigger or release

Tri-pod = three legs. Three is better than two right? In some the case of photography – yes! The tripod is your friend.

I think you know what they are and what they’re for, but not many photographers own one or use it. Placing your camera on a tripod will help you get sharper images, if you’re doing it right. Get a good sturdy one, don’t cheap out on a $49 tripod on sale at the big box store and put your $2000 SLR on it. Do you put cheap tires on your high end sports car – I think not! A flimsy tripod won’t do you any good if it can’t hold the weight of your camera and is constantly slipping or loosening. Worse case scenario has your whole rig crashing to the ground, not good. Invest in a good one, do some research, make sure it is made for still photos not video, and it can hold the weight of your camera. A lightweight one made of carbon fibre is a good option, but expect to pay more for that option.

In addition to a tripod I also suggest getting a remove trigger or shutter release. They come in a few varieties including ones that attach directly to the camera, wireless ones, and even fancy programmable ones for doing timed exposures and auto exposure brackets. Like anything, the more fancy shmancy features you want, the more $$$ you will pay. But do get one, because it allows you to fire the camera without touching it, thus reducing any possible vibrations during the exposure. I also tell my students to turn of the IS (or VR) on their lens once the camera is on tripod. This is because the IS/VR runs a little motor inside the lens that vibrates it to help compensate for camera shake. On tripod you do NOT want your lens vibrating, even a tiny bit. The camera manufacturers would like us to believe that their cameras are smart enough to know when that’s happened and turn off the IS automatically. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I like to take no chances, so I just turn it off.

Me playing with a view camera at a mock western town in AZ. The guy posing as the photographer let me have a look through it, for old times sake.

Me playing with a view camera at a mock western town in AZ. The guy posing as the photographer let me have a look through it, for old times sake.

When I started photography school (technical college) the first camera they allowed us to use was a 4×5″ view camera. If you’ve ever seen one you’ll know it’s not possible to use it without a tripod. In hindsight, some 25 years later, I think those photo school instructors were actually pretty smart! At the time I just thought they wanted us to suffer hauling all this heavy gear around. By putting the camera on a tripod you will instantly slow down and put more time into setting up your shot. With the advent of digital and the popularity of SLRs and now even micro four thirds and mirror-less cameras, it’s become so easy to just grab the camera and fire off a few images. So besides the obvious benefit of stabilizing your camera so you can shoot at slower shutter speeds then we discussed in #3 above (if you want to do night photography it’s essential), using a tripod also forces you to put a little more time and effort into it. I find when that happens it often results in a better image aesthetically as well as technically.

Well this was a longer tip than I expected to write, whew!  To sum up, if you are having trouble with blurry images, try these tips out for yourself. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a bit more success.

So give it a go, and let me know how it’s working for you!

Post originally from: Digital Photography Tips.

Check out our more Photography Tips at Photography Tips for Beginners, Portrait Photography Tips and Wedding Photography Tips.

5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images