One of the biggest things my students struggle with is getting sharp images. This week I received a text that said, "of the 415 shots that I took, maybe 2 are in focus." This is in addition to a Facebook post that I saw that mentioned "all of my photos were blurry," and a comment in the assignment section of my class that said focus was a real struggle.
Not only can it be difficult to get sharp images, but the lingo can be very confusing. When you talk about blur in photography, you have intentional blur. That's the blur that enhances a photograph (a blurry background, motion blur, a shallow depth of field, etc.) And then you have unintentional blur. Also known as...a blurry photo! That's what we are going to discuss in this article. Why it happens and how you fix it.
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get sharp images: avoid my biggest focus fails!
I've gone into my archives and pulled my biggest disappointments for your viewing and learning pleasure. We'll dissect why it happened and the changes I could have made to have better results. I've also included some blurry photos from merely a week ago (just to show you that this is an ongoing struggle and they key is to identify and adjust.)
1. shaky hands
The threshold for hand shake is going to be different for everyone. Some people just have steadier hands but there are some things you can do to avoid blurry photos due to hand shake.
Watch your shutter speed. In general, your shutter speed should not fall below 1/60th of a second. Below that, it becomes nearly impossible to hold your camera steady. Your posture can help. Stabilize the lens with your left hand, while pressing the shutter with your right. Keep your elbows close in to your side and hold your breath. You can even steady yourself against a wall or other sturdy object.
Some lenses have built in Image Stabilization (sometimes it is called Vibration Compensation.) This allows you to shoot at lower shutter speeds and reduces the chance of getting shaky photos. Look for lenses with this feature.
Another rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should not fall below the length of your lens. In the example above, I was using a Canon 70-200mm lens. The longer the lens, the more shaky it gets. The best way to visualize this is to think of binoculars. Have you ever looked through binoculars and the whole scene was shaky and it was hard to find the subject? Your long lens acts in much the same way so you need a higher shutter speed to make sure that doesn't happen. If you are using a 75-300mm lens, aim for 1/300th of a second and so on.
2. moving subjects: Your shutter speed is too low
Now here is an EPIC fail. I was so excited about this meet. I rented a mac-daddy lens...the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L. I had a great sports camera. I was gonna get the greatest pictures. I just forgot one thing...to pay attention to my camera settings. You can see from the picture below (and most of my shots from that day) that my daughter is completely blurry. That is because I was not paying attention to my shutter speed. My aperture was perfect (f/2.8) but my shutter speed was WAY too low. The light is not great at this pool, but my shutter should have been AT LEAST 1/500th of a second. How would I have gotten my shutter speed higher? I would need to raise my ISO to at least 3200 or even 6400. My camera is capable of doing this without losing quality. The age of your camera will determine how high you can go. Some of the older cameras only go to ISO 1600 and don't look great when they get there. If indoor sports is something that's in your future, a new camera with better low light capabilities might be worth the investment.
Related Article: When Should I Upgrade My Camera?
Epic Fail #2! I was at the Master's Practice round and got to see Tiger Woods on the driving range. I was SO excited. So excited, in fact, that I just started hitting the shutter release. It was only after the fact that I realized I had accidentally turned the dial to f/10. I was shooting in Aperture Priority mode. To maintain the exposure, the camera kept adjusting the shutter speed down, down, down... You can see the AMAZING results below. Sigh. Completely blurry.
When shooting in Aperture Priority mode pay attention to when the sun starts setting or the sun moving in and out of clouds. The camera's job is to maintain the same exposure and keep the aperture where you set it. If you don't stop and pay attention to the shutter speed you can get some pretty poor results. Had I slowed down and paid attention, I could have increased the ISO which would, in turn, raise the shutter speed. I like to think of it like "a rising tide lifts all boats." Raise the ISO, it lifts the shutter speed.
Want to see a more recent example? This was taken while I was writing this article, yep! The difference between my previous examples and this example is that I noticed quickly and I made adjustments. Instead of ruining an entire series of photos, I had a few that were bad...adjusted...and ended up with dozens that I LOVED!
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3. Moving Subject: make sure your camera is set correctly
Even if your shutter speed is sufficiently high, you are doomed to blurry photos if your focus is set for a still subject. Personally, I like to keep my focus mode in the "continuously track subject" mode all the time. Rarely do I photograph someone who is completely still. On Canon, this is called AI Servo, on Nikon it is AF-C or "continuous focus." If you have another brand of camera just google "What is AI Servo on Sony (or Fuji, or Olympus) and the answer will pop right up!
What continuous focus does is track a moving subject and keep them in focus. You depress the shutter halfway, lock in the focus, keep your finger depressed halfway down (don't take your finger off or it will let the focus go) and then when you see the decisive moment, hold the button down. If you have it set on multi-shot (where it will take between 3 and 10 shots per second depending on your camera make/model) it will continuously take photos, keeping them in focus.
Right now, set your camera to continuous focus. You will thank me later 😉
4. Make sure your focus lands on the intended subject
Ever wonder why the background is all in focus and your subject is blurry? That's because your focus dots hit the background and not your subject. Those little lights in the eyepiece are what I affectionately call focus dots. If those little dots light up on the background, this is going to happen. This is also going to happen if you have something in the foreground but you want something in the middle to be in focus. You can change your focus dots to hit the middle and not the foreground. In auto, your focus dots will generally choose whatever is closest to the camera. Understanding how to change the number and position of those dots will be critical to getting what you want to be in focus...actually in focus.
5. your aperture is too low
This could be an entire blog post in and of itself. What does this mean? Let's say you have a 50mm 1.8 lens (the nifty fifty.) You open that lens all the way up to 1.8 (this means that the opening of the lens is very big and you will get the shallowest depth of field possible from that lens. Depth of field is how much of the photo is in focus (a small sliver or the entire thing front to back.) If you don't get the focus PRECISELY where you want it, especially if you are close to the subject, you will end up with blur in unintended places. This is common and takes a lot of practice to nail so don't be discouraged. I'll show you a few of my own examples below. In both cases, while I would have loved to get 100% perfection, I didn't discard either shot because the expression and connection still made for an extremely pleasing image.
Related: Camera Settings Cheat Sheets
5 ways to get sharp images
Do you have issues with blurry photos? Try the tips above and share your photos. I'd love to see what you come up with. I'd also love to help you figure out why you're having trouble getting sharp images.
Download the free cheat sheet: Checklist to Get Sharp Photos Each and Every Time. Throw it in your camera bag and do a quick check before an important game or recital. Most importantly, slow down, check your photos, make adjustments as needed.
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Andrea Ferenchik, Founder
Andrea started The Big Girl School because she loves sharing her passion of photography with other women. As a former trainer at Microsoft and current professional photographer, she has the unique ability to break down technical jargon of the camera into easy to understand language. She loves nothing more than to see her students grow and thrive in their photographic journey.
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