tting sharp images in photography can be elusive at times, but comes down to knowing and fixing the things that cause blurry pictures in the first place. In this article, I will teach you how to get sharp images every time you go out and shoot.
Causes of blurry images
There are very few things that are more frustrating that blurry images. You take what you feel is an awesome image, only later to find out it was blurry.
Whether shooting for yourself or a client, blurry images can take a love of photography. Which is the reason we got into photography in the first place! Let me help you on your journey of getting sharp images every time.
When your images are blurry, it is usually caused by one these reasons:
- The shutter speed is too slow allowing camera shake or subject movement to blur the image.
- The camera focused on the wrong thing.
- The quality of the lens is poor causing softness in the image.
- The ISO is set too high resulting in high digital noise and a loss of detail in the image.
Now that we know what could be causing your images to be blurry let’s talk about fixing the problems!
Remember, one or all of the problems might be affecting your images, so make sure you try all of the solutions below to solve the problem of blurry pictures.
Ten Tips for Getting Sharp Images Every time
1. Increase your shutter speed.
Shutter speed is the exposure setting that deals with motion, and many times your images are blurry because either the subject is moving or you are moving.
As human beings, we have a natural tremor that shakes the camera, ever so slightly. The general rule of thumb is to shoot above 1/60th of a second to remove the natural tremor from showing up in your images.
However, I would suggest shooting at an even higher shutter speed.
I know that when I shoot, I don’t hold my shooting position for very long after pressing the shutter release button.
In fact, I am moving so quickly, that I often will still have a sway to my body as I shoot. This sway is the result of my bringing the camera up to my face.
Therefore, I would recommend not shooting below 1/150th of a second. This tip alone can help substantially in getting sharp images every time you shoot.
Also be aware that if your subject is moving, you will want to shoot at a higher shutter speed. Be cautious of the relative speed of your subject as well.
What I mean by this, is that the closer you are to the subject the faster the subject is moving relative to you.
Imagine if you will, that you are standing on a hill watching a train off in the distance moving along the tracks. From this vantage point, the train seems to be moving every so gently along its way.
Next, imagine standing right next to that same train. Does it appear to be moving faster now that you are standing right next to it? Of course, it does. It seems to be whipping by you.
The same happens with any object in motion, the closer you are to it, the faster it seems to move. For this reason, always be aware of the relative motion of the object you want to photograph.
I have an in-depth article that covers shutter speed, check it out to get an idea of what your shutter speed should be set at when shooting objects in motion.
2. Never let the shutter speed drop below the focal length.
Following this rule will help you in getting sharp images when using longer focal length lenses. The focal length of a lens is the amount of zoom given in millimeters; you are using for a particular image. When you use a zoom lens, it allows you to “get close” to something that is far away. In essence, it is magnifying that object.
Longer focal lengths also magnify any movement made by the camera.
Picture yourself looking at the stars through a telescope. What a beautiful view as you try to dial in on the big dipper. The telescope is magnifying the stars, in essence, making them look closer and larger than they are.
Have you ever bumped a telescope even just a tiny bit? That small movement translates into massive movements with what you are seeing. By tapping the telescope ever so slightly, the view changes immensely, and you would no longer be looking at the big dipper. These slight movements are also magnified by through the telescope.
This means you need to shoot at an even faster shutter speed when using a zoom lens.
A good rule is setting your shutter speed to 1/focal length.
What that means is, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, your shutter speed should not drop below 1/200th of a second.
3. Choose the focus point your camera uses.
Most cameras come from the factory in all auto mode. What this means is that you can take it out of the box and without and photographic training, you can begin taking pictures.
They want to make it as easy as possible to use the camera.
However, those auto modes do not deliver the best images the camera can give.
In fact, the manufacturer expects you to begin changing the settings out of auto mode as you become more familiar with the camera.
One setting that very few people change is the focus points. The camera will come set, so that focus points are selected automatically by the camera.
The camera choosing the focus point often leads to blurry images, as the camera does not know what you want the subject of the picture to be. To start getting sharp pictures every time, turn off auto focus points on your camera and begin manually selecting the focus point each and every time you take a picture.
Notice on the image below the focus point selected is on the house, the people. That was fixed by selecting the correct focus point.
If you need help turning off the auto focus point selection, take a look at the video in the next tip, which talks about focus modes. This video comes from my book, “Get the Picture: Essential Camera Skills for Photographers.”
This book will cover all those pesky little settings you may not always think about but need to know to use your camera correctly.
Two additional things to consider when thinking about focus points:
First, many people prefer to keep the focus point in the center, press the shutter release button halfway down and then recompose before finishing pressing the button. Doing this can lead to blurry images as well, so if you find you have blurry pictures, do not shoot this way.
Move the focus point and place it directly on your subject before taking the picture.
Second, I get asked all the time, “what are you focusing on when you take a picture?” An easy enough question, I focus on my subject. But more importantly, I focus on what the viewer will be looking at on my subject when they look at the image. If I am taking picture of a person, most of the time I place the focus point of the camera on a person’s eyes.
This is the first place that we, as humans, look when looking at a person. To decide where you should place the focus point, think to yourself, “what is the first place I would like my the viewers of this image to look,” and that will help you decide where to put the focus point.
4. Be in the correct focus mode.
Your camera has many different focus modes to choose from when it comes from the factory. Single shot, continuous, servo mode, etc…
And each focus mode has a purpose depending on what you are shooting.
Are you familiar with the focus modes of your camera? If not, honestly consider getting my book on the settings of your camera.
It will do wonders for your knowledge one which settings to use at which times when shooting.
When taking pictures of still objects, you will want your camera’s focus mode set to Single Shot for Canon, or AF-S for Nikon. These focus modes will cause your camera to lock the focus and hold it when you press the shutter release button down. I use this focus mode 90% of the time.
I am a people photographer, and unless I am shooting a bride walking down the aisle, or fast moving dance pictures, I am in AF-S mode because I shoot with Nikon. Even when couples are moving a little, snuggling and getting close, AF-S has proven the best mode for sharp pictures.
If you are primarily shooting moving subjects, as with sports photography, or wildlife, then you will want to set your camera to continuous mode.
This focus mode will cause the camera to continue to focus, and even track the subject when you press the shutter release button halfway down.
If you are unsure which to use, I would recommend that you shoot in single shot for Canon and AF-S for Nikon. Then, if you find that is not working for you, change to a different mode.
To learn how to adjust the focus mode of your camera, as well as how to turn off the auto focus point selection, check out the video below. The video below is one of the videos from my book on camera settings.
5. Watch your f-stop.
Using depth of field is one of the best ways to get creative in with your images. However, when shooting at a shallow depth of field, you run the risk of getting blurry pictures. You control the depth of field by the f-stop setting on your camera, so there are a few things to watch for when getting sharp images.
Distance plays a role in depth of field. The closer you are to the subject the more shallow the depth of field will be at all f-stops. This distance that I am talking about can be the actual distance or the relative distance.
What I mean by this is, whether you are standing closer to the subject or using a zoom lens to get closer, the closer you are, the more shallow the depth of field.
What this means is that f2.0 at 15 feet yields the same depth of field as f3.5 at 5 feet. Math is hard, I know, but what you should take away from this is as you get closer to your subject, raise your f-stop. You do not need to be shooting at f1.4 at 5 feet from someone. You will get their eyelashes in focus, but their eyes will be blurry.
If you are shooting a group of people, you need to be careful to set your f-stop appropriately to make sure everyone is the group is in focus. A helpful rule of thumb with this one is to match your aperture to the number of people in the image. If you are shooting five people, f5.6 is going to be great. Eight people? F8 will work.
As you advance in photography, you will break this rule, and that’s OK. It is only there to help you to know a good f-stop to shoot at when starting out. Break it when you feel ready.
For example, I shot the family image below of six people at f2.2. My reasoning? I knew my distance and focal length, as well as their positioning, would yield a sharp image.
Understand that the sharpest f-stop is one to two stops below the widest aperture setting. Lenses are not consistently sharp throughout their f-stop range; they get softer or sharper depending on which f-stop you have selected.
It is good for you to know and understand that a lens is NOT it’s sharpest when you shoot it wide open, or at it’s lowest f-stop number. If you own a lens that can shoot at f1.4, it’s sharpest aperture setting will be either f2.0 or f2.8. If you own a lens that can only go to f4, understand that the sharpest f-stop for this lens is at f5.6 or f8.
When getting sharp images from your camera, set the f-stop one to two stops above the maximum aperture.
6. Lower your ISO
Adjusting your ISO is one of the greatest reasons to shoot with a digital camera. With film, you load film that is a particular ISO, or film speed, and there it stays. No moving it up or down. I remember on many occasions having to burn through the last few images on a roll of film so that I could load in a new roll with a higher ISO. No longer does that need to happen.
If the light changes, you have the ability to adjust your ISO. And even better, if you have Auto ISO, you can simply let the camera adjust the ISO for you.
If getting sharp images every time is your goal, then you need to be aware of the ISO setting for every picture. As the ISO rises, so does the digital noise. This digital noise is to blame for the loss of detail and sharpness.
Each digital camera is different, therefore knowing what the highest ISO your camera can achieve before too much digital noise and softness sets in up to you to find out.
I would say this:
- if your camera is more than five years old, do not shoot above 800 ISO.
- or if, your camera is between three and five years old, do not shoot above 1600 ISO.
- finally, if your camera is newer than three years old, do not shoot above 3200 ISO.
These numbers are just estimates, but they are good estimates.
Your camera may be able to go higher, but only you, through testing lighting situations, will know if your camera can or not. The ideal range for ISO is roughly 200-1600 ISO. Staying in that range is perfect for someone trying to get sharp images.
Most newer digital cameras have Auto ISO which will let you set the range of ISO you will allow the camera to move through in shooting. By setting this up, you will never have to think about ISO again.
Tutorials on how to set this up are in my book on essential book on camera settings.
Notice the noise in the image below to the left. That noise has softened the image, and as I remove the noise in Lightroom the image gets even softer.
7. Make sure you are using a quality lens.
Shooting with a crappy lens is something most people don’t even consider to be a problem. They just shoot with the lenses that came with the camera.
Better lenses are built better and have better glass, and therefore produce sharper pictures. Therefore a quality lens is essential in getting sharp images every time!
Most cameras come with what are called ‘kit lenses.’ These are cheap lenses thrown in with a camera body so that the manufacturer can sell a complete package. These lenses are, usually made of plastic and use inexpensive glass that is soft and causes vignetting and color fringing in the images.
If you truly seek getting sharp pictures each time you shoot, and you are shooting with a kit lens, consider upgrading it immediately.
Quality lenses don’t have to cost a fortune. My favorite lens, the one I shoot with most of the time for portraits is the 85mm 1.8 lens. This lens gives me incredible depth of field and sharpness and runs about $350-$450.
Canon also has a great version of this lens. I know $300-$400 is a lot of money, but is inexpensive compared to the excellent lenses that run several thousands of dollars.
When shooting with these fast lenses, make sure to understand all of the tips in this article, as they become even more important as you begin shooting at razor thin depth of field.
If you’re interested in seeing how sharp the lenses you own are, check out DxOMark’s website. This site sets the industry standard for lens testing.
8. Diopter incorrectly set.
As I teach photography classes, it seems to be a universal fact that people do not know what the diopter on their camera is or how to set it correctly. It is such a simple thing but can cause so much grief.
The diopter is the dial, usually to the left of the viewfinder on your camera that allows you to adjust the viewfinder so that you can see clearly as you are shooting. Think of it as reading glasses for the photographer, built right into the camera.
Getting sharp images is tough enough, without the viewfinder tricking your eye into thinking something is sharp when it is not. Make sure that the diopter is set correctly for you before you begin to shoot.
If you have excellent vision, then placing it in the center position will be the correct setting. If you wear glasses or use reading glasses, look through the viewfinder while adjusting it until you see clearly.
The main issue I see with the diopter is that it gets bumped or changed and the photographer is not aware of it. This change can lead to blurry images as the photographer tries to correct sharpness based on an incorrect viewfinder.
9. Use a tripod.
Sometimes, you just can’t get around it. You find it necessary to shoot with a tripod. For me, when shooting indoors, I always use a tripod. My shutter speed is just too slow to handhold the camera. There’s more too it than that.
Again, we as human beings simply have a natural tremor, and it is more pronounced in some of us more than others. If that be the case with you, then you may need to use a tripod.
I completely understand, tripods can be clunky at times, and cumbersome to carry around. In fact, I would say that a tripod would slow down my style of shooting. I like to talk and engage my clients and keep things free flowing, not stiff and boring. But.
I want sharp images, and if it requires a tripod for me to achieve sharp images, then so be it. A tripod I will use.
If you are unsure whether a tripod would help or not in getting sharp images, then I would recommend giving one a try.
If you don’t own one, you can rent one from a camera store or online for about $35. Take it on a shoot or two and see if it helps you with getting sharp images.
If it does, that may be the key, and it would be worth it to change your shooting style a bit to accommodate a tripod.
10. Slow Down
This is one of my biggest problems. I have such fun out shooting with clients, that sometimes I start moving so quickly that I get blurry images. I just trust my camera so much that sometimes I get burned. Has that ever happened to you?
Every time you press the shutter release button, you should be aware of what your exposure settings are. Every time. And with the knowledge of what those settings are, comes the wisdom that if your shutter speed is below 1/200th of a second, you need to freeze a bit longer when pressing the shutter release button.
I often will put the camera to my face and pull it away from my face very quickly, never really getting ‘set’ to take the shot. This will often cause blur to creep into my images.
It is best to slow down. To think. And to get set for each shot, and then press the shutter release button deliberately. I am not saying that you need to move at a snail’s pace, ain’t nobody got time for that. I am simply saying, be deliberate in your shooting actions so that your camera is steady each and every time you take a picture.
There you have it, my ten tips for getting sharp images every time. Often blurry images is a combination of several of the factors above.
If you are struggling with getting sharp images, try each of these tips to see if it can fix the problems. Sometimes, the problem can be the calibration of the lens or focusing mechanism of the camera itself, but generally, it is not.
These tips will fix 99% of the blurry problems that people are having with the pictures. If these tips don’t help, then maybe you’re a part of that 1% and do need to get your equipment checked.
If you do, find a reputable dealer and ask them where they would recommend you get your gear checked. They can help you figure it out.