Photography tips: How to get sharp images

I help answer questions on a number of beginner photography groups. One of the most common questions or issues I see posted is challenges with out of focus or “soft” images.  Often there isn’t a single reason people have soft images. Soft or out of focus images can be caused by a number of things.  Some of them are just lack of knowledge about camera settings. Some softness can be due to more complex factors such as lighting and other conditions that require you to troubleshoot and make adjustments to your settings. Here are a few things to consider to get in focus images.

Get out of “Auto” mode.  With a beginner photographer who is having issues getting sharp focus, the common thing I see is they are still using the fully automatic (A) setting on their camera. The issue with this setting is that the camera controls all the settings for the camera including the focus point. In most digital cameras if you have it set to full Auto, the camera will use what is called multi-point focus. Meaning it is evaluating multiple objects in the image and making a “judgement” as to how to focus the lens based on those objects. Often the focus point is a compromise between those subjects meaning no one subject will be in total sharp focus. For example if you are taking a portrait image in Auto mode this means that background and/or foreground elements close to your subject could draw focus making your intended subject look “soft” or out of focus. The best way to correct this is to take back control of the focus point.  Without getting into the choices of other settings (Aperture mode or TV/Shutter or Manual mode) the easiest way to fix this is to switch from full Auto mode to P (Program AE) mode. Again, Im assuming you are a beginner. Optimally you should learn to shoot in Manual or one of the other “creative” settings such as Aperture or Tv/Shutter mode.  Program mode is similar to the Auto mode but the key difference is you can control which focus point is used to lock focus.    When you depress the shutter button halfway it should start to focus and you should see the focus point highlighted in the viewfinder (in red for Canon). If you don’t see any focus point indicator this setting may be turned off. Get your camera manual and check to see where you can turn on the focus point highlight alert in the menu settings. Then when focusing you can place that focus point on your intended subject to make sure the lens is focusing where you intend it to focus.

Auto Focus. Get an understanding of how auto-focus actually works on your camera. Grab the manual and look up auto-focus. Most cameras by default will start to auto-focus when you half depress the shutter button. If you slowly apply pressure you’ll notice the button doesn’t go all the way down. It goes about halfway and then you should hear your lens start to focus. Once you fully depress the shutter it will take image.

Check your diopter. If you have a DSLR, the viewfinder has this little tiny wheel usually on the right side of the viewfinder. While looking through the viewfinder you can turn this wheel to sharpen the view through the viewfinder. If this isn’t dialed in correctly you may be inadvertently seeing an out of focus view through the viewfinder causing you to manually focus incorrectly.

Lens Autofocus button. check your lens body to make sure it’s set to AutoFocus. It is possible to bump this switch and unintentionally have the lens in Manual focus mode and you may not even be aware of it. If you do this and aren’t actually manually focusing the lens, it won’t actually focus and every image you take will be out of focus.

Learn the “Exposure Triangle”– I know this sounds complex but without a basic understanding of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO, you will struggle with getting sharp images. I blogged on this topic in last month here. You can also just do a Google search for “Exposure Triangle” and find ton’s of articles.

Focus point.  I see many photographs where they seem blurry or out of focus not because the photographer didn’t focus at all, but because they focused on the wrong or unintended part of the subject. I see this most often in portrait images. This suggestion drifts more into technique than technical but I strongly advise portrait photographers to get tack sharp focus on the subjects eyes.  Humans are drawn to the eyes so when eyes are out of focus it causes a tension in the image. Work to get tack sharp focus on eyes whenever taking intimate portraits. This applies to nature/animal and pet images as well.

Camera shake.  When shooting in low light, your camera will do everything it can to obtain a proper exposure automatically (with the exception of manual mode where you need to make all setting adjustments). If you are shooting in low or natural light often the camera will slow down the shutter speed to let in enough light to the camera sensor to get a proper exposure.  If the camera must slow down the shutter speed below say 1/250sec if you can’t hold the camera very still when you depress the shutter you may get movement or blur in your images. There are a variety of techniques to address this:

  • use a tripod or mono pod to stabilize the camera. I discuss this in my equipment blog post.
  • In combination with a tripod, consider using a cable release or the self timer setting on your camera to delay shutter release until after you’ve let go of the camera. This will help avoid any unintended shaking of the camera.
  • with a tripod use a setting on your camera called “Mirror lockup”. This setting moves the mirror into the up position before operating the shutter to avoid risk of camera movement with slow shutter speeds.  Typically this is used for long exposures not usually portrait photography.
  • If you must shoot handheld, stabilize yourself by leaning up against an object, wall, pole or something that can provide stability.
  • If shooting hand held, learn to use your body to stabilize your camera. Wedge the arm you use to hold your camera into your stomach/side with your elbow planted against your body use it as a sort of anchor to stabilize your whole arm and by extension the camera. This takes a bit of practice, but pro photographers can do this very well.

Subject movement.  Often you cannot control the movement of your subject. If you can, just ask them to remain still, particularly for portraits. If you are doing more candid shots you may not want to interfere with your subject so you’ll need to do your best to mitigate their movement. One way to do this is to use a faster shutter speed to stop action. You can do this by switching your camera to the Tv(Shutter priority mode). Typically shutter speeds of 1/250sec or faster will stop action in moving subjects to get them sharp.

Lighting challenges.  This gets a little more advanced and requires you to understand the “Exposure Triangle”. Light is everything when it comes to photography. In general better lit subjects will be sharper.  For example if you have a brightly lit day and your subject is moving, you have a good chance at getting a sharp image as you’ll be able to use a fast shutter speed and still get good exposure. If it’s an overcast day you may find that you (or the camera) will require a slower shutter speed to get a proper exposure. If the shutter speed needs to slow down too much (say below 1/250sec) you introduce many of the challenges I mentioned above with camera shake and subject movement. There are a few ways to deal with lighting challenges:

  1. Add artificial or indirect light. In natural light settings you can use equipment like reflectors and defusors to capture light and redirect it to your subject.
  2. Flash. Flash is used predominantly in portrait photography but I’ve also seen it used outdoors very effectively to fill in shadows caused by the sunlight on subjects. There are mountains of info on flash photography. If you intend to do portrait photography, you will need to learn and master flash photography and related equipment. That is beyond the scope of this blog, but an area where you can find many articles to advise you on equipment and technique. A simple first step it to purchase what is called an off camera flash (Speedlite is a common term). These are more advanced flash devices that go well beyond the flash on your camera.
  3. Aperture. If you can increase the Aperture setting (lower F stop #). This will open up to allow more light to the sensor, thus allowing you to use a faster shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  4. Increase ISO. Another option you can use independently or in combination with opening up the Aperture is to increase the ISO. ISO controls the light sensitivity of the camera senor. A higher ISO # will allow more light to be absorbed by the senor thus allowing you to increase your shutter speed to stop action and get a sharp image.
  5. Use Manual focus. Modern cameras do an awesome job at auto-focus. Unfortunately it’s because of this fact that many photographers forget or don’t even realize they can take their camera off auto-focus and manually turn the focus ring on their lens to dial in sharp focus. I highly recommend doing this in low light settings in particular. The reason being is that often lower end lenses and low end cameras do a less than optimal job of auto-focus in low light. You’ll hear the camera/lens “searching” for the right focus moving slowly back and forth and often not ever achieving sharp focus. If you catch your camera doing this, consider NOT using auto-focus, shift that tab on the side of your lens from AF to MF (Auto Focus to Manual Focus) and then look through the viewfinder and work to manually dial in focus using the focus ring on the lens body.

LiveView.  If you are using a tripod and shooting still subjects consider using the LiveView setting on your camera to see a real time view of the image. You can then use the magnifying button to zoom in and get a magnified view of your subject to make sure it’s tack sharp. Using this in combination with manual focus is one way pro photographers get tack sharp images. Again, this may not be practical for all types of photography but is used very often in Nature and Landscape photography.

Custom Autofocus button. It’s important to note that if you half depress the shutter to autofocus then lift your finger and recompose and then depress the shutter again, the camera refocuses on the new subject at the new autofocus point. Again understanding how your camera auto-focus works is important. While I don’t recommend this for beginner photographers, it is possible to separate the autofocus feature to a completely different button on your camera so that you can focus independent of the camera shutter button. If you find that you need to focus then reframe often you may want to consider this button customization. Again this is often a custom function you can learn about in your manual.

Lens sweet spot.  All camera lenses have what is called the sweet spot. The means there is a focal range and Aperture range in which the lens achieves it’s most sharp focus. This is more of an issue in telephoto lenses and one of the reasons many pro photographers use Prime or single focal length lenses. If you do have a telephoto lens, do some research to learn what the sweet spot is both for focal range and aperture for your lens. Often telephoto lenses are sharpest in the “middle of the range” like an Aperture range of F8-11 and at their lower end of the focal range. Higher end telephoto lenses can achieve better sharpness at the extremes, but they all have limitations.  If you are planning to do a particular type of photography, it’s worth investigating which are the sharpest lenses for the type of photography you prefer. Also consider prime lenses to get the sharpest images. While not as convenient as telephoto (zoom) lenses, they are often less expensive and often provide sharper images.

Lens defects. Most lenses work flawlessly for many years, but they can fail. If you’ve exhausted everything above and are still getting soft images, it’s worth having your lens serviced and calibrated, especially if it’s an expensive lens and particularly if you are hard on your equipment or have dropped your camera and/or lens. Most manufactures allow you to mail your equipment in to have them serviced by an authorized dealer. Again, I view this as a last resort. If possible test your lens a different camera body to see if it’s consistently having issues on more than one camera. If so, it’s likely a lens issue.

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