Blurry photos are one of the most frustrating results for photographers, especially new photographers who might not know what causes blurry photos.
Of course, sometimes we want to creatively blur photos and that’s totally fine. It’s when we want sharp photos and we keep getting blurry pictures that we end up tearing our hair out.
So, to help you keep your hair, here’s why your photos are blurry.
PS – the first fix is so easy you’ll kick yourself for not knowing it sooner!
What does blurry pictures mean?
It may seem really simple to answer the question of what blurry pictures means simply by saying that they’re out of focus photographs.
But that isn’t always the case.
A blurry photo can be caused in many different ways , lack of focus is just one cause of blurry pictures, and we’ll get onto that in a moment.
A blurry picture is any photo that isn’t sharp. I should say any photo that isn’t intentionally unsharp, because sometimes the reason for the blur is intentional. So, if you expect an image to be clear and it isn’t, it means something has gone wrong.
How can I fix blurry pictures?
To an extent you can fix a blurry photo. There are several apps available for blurry phone photos and you can “fix” a blurry photo with editing software such as Lightroom or Capture One (to name just a couple).
That said, if your photo is too blurry, no amount of fixing it with clever software is going to make it look as good as a sharp photo.
So your best option is to learn where you went wrong so that you can avoid capturing blurry photos in the future. Less time processing and more time photographing can only be a good thing in my books.
Why are my photos blurry?
As I mentioned earlier, there are several causes for a blurry photo and we’ll look at each on in depth. They are:
- Poor camera technique
- Lack of focus
- Slow shutter speed
- Depth of field too narrow for the subject
- Underexposed image
The more experienced photographer will notice that these causes of blurry photos fit into two basic categories:
- Camera technique
- Exposure settings
Now let’s start with the easiest fixes to blurry pictures and work our way through the list to perfectly sharp photos every time.
Good camera technique supports the camera to avoid blur caused by camera shake.
1. Poor camera technique
This is more relevant to longer focal lengths, because the longer the focal length the more important it becomes to hold your camera securely to avoid camera shake.
But you may as well start off with good camera technique so that when you start using longer focal length lenses you don’t create blur in photos.
I’ll demonstrate with a little exercise…
Hold a pen by the end with the tip pointing at a the keyhole of a door a few feet away and extend your arm out straight while trying to ensure that the tip doesn’t waiver away from the keyhole.
Now repeat the exercise with the longest wooden spoon you have, or a ruler, or go mad and try it with a broom. Not so easy is it?
This is for three reasons:
- Your arm is extended, with no support, to keep it steady.
- The bigger and heavier object is exactly that – bigger and heavier. So it needs even more support to stay steady.
- A small movement of the longer item has a far greater impact than the pen.
Or what about…
When you look at the stars they don’t really move around much in your vision, but when you look through a pair of binoculars they seem to waggle around all over the place. The magnification makes your slightest movement very obvious. If you secure the binoculars (or telescope) on a tripod and you can see much better.
It works the same way with camera lenses.
So, to give yourself the best shot (literally!) at avoiding camera movement (aka camera shake), you need to hold your camera securely by making yourself into a tripod.
How to hold your camera to avoid blurry photos:
- Place your left hand, palm up under your lens and take the full weight of the lens in this hand
- Lock your left elbow against your ribs for support
- Rest the back of the camera up against the bridge of your nose and forehead (this is why if you wear glasses they’ll need a jolly good clean after a shoot!) for extra support
- Use your right hand to adjust settings and add a little more support when taking the shot
Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos
As a side note, the day after photographing a wedding I always noticed that the bridge of my nose was slightly tender. That’s the result of nearly ten hours of pressing a camera up against my face, especially when occasionally I did it too quickly and banged the back of the camera against my nose!
I did everything right with camera settings (1/500, F4, 110mm) for this very active family shoot, but sometimes you just can’t help missing focus. So, as you can see, the poles in the background are nice and sharp and the family is a blurry blob.
2. Lack of focus or focusing on the wrong place
This is the most obvious, and the most common, cause of blurry photos.
An apple lying on a table doesn’t need quite the same focus technique as a Labrador running at you full tilt to ensure a sharp photo.
You need to know:
- Autofocus area modes – controls where you focus
- Focus modes – controls how long you focus on and track a subject
- Drive modes – controls the number of frames in a single push of the shutter button
Where to focus to avoid blurry photos – autofocus area modes
In portrait photography, the most important part of the image to be sharp is the eyes, so for:
- Individuals – focus on the eye closest to camera (this article covers how to capture eyes in portraits)
- Groups – focus on the eye of the person in the middle of the group (read this article on group photography tips)
The biggest focus mistake new photographers make is to allow the camera to decide on where the focus needs to be. Your camera will often get this wrong. So you need to learn about the different focus areas and use the appropriate one.
This can be a bit of a head scratcher for new photographers as single point autofocus is often confused with spot metering as they share the same “spot” when looking through the lens.
Further reading: Spot metering and single point autofocus – clearing up the confusion
Autofocus area modes include:
- Single point autofocus – select and move the focus point to where you want it (my preferred method)
- Dynamic area autofocus – select an area, choose the main focus point, let the camera track
- Auto area autofocus – the camera decides where to focus (don’t use this)
- 3D-tracking autofocus – focus on the subject with a single point, the camera tracks the subject’s movement (Nikon)
If you have a mirrorless camera with auto eye detect, it’ll be easier for you as your camera will automatically lock onto the eyes of your subject.
However, you’ll still need to ensure that you have the correct focus mode set to ensure that your camera constantly maintains focus on a moving subject.
How long you focus on and track a subject – focus modes
Focus modes include:
- Single focus (AF-S / One Shot. / Single)
- Continuous focus (AF-C / AI Servo / Continuous)
- Auto (If you have it, don’t use this)
But the focus story doesn’t end there. If your subject is moving or could potentially move, like small children, you need to also let your camera know how quickly it can snap away to ensure you capture the shot.
Number of frames in a single push of the shutter button – drive modes
This becomes important with moving subjects. The faster they’re moving towards you, the faster you need the frame rate to be.
Different makes and models of cameras have different frame rates. In other words, the top end cameras can take more images per second than entry level cameras, and it also differs between brands.
- Single – depress the shutter button to take one photo only, even if you continue to hold down the shutter button
- Continuous Low – hold down the shutter button to take a number of photos
- Continuous High – the same as C-L, but faster and therefore more photos
Bringing it all together to avoid blurry photos – back button focus
The best way to capture moving subjects is with a combination of back button focusing and continuous focus mode (also referred to as AI servo).
This involves adjusting the default settings of your camera’s buttons to remove the focus function from the shutter button. You’ll transfer it to a button on the back of your camera which you’ll operate with your thumb and use your index finger as normal to depress the shutter button to capture the shot.
Further reading: Back button focus technique – how to use it and why it’s your BFF
Focus summary to avoid blurry photos
If you’re photographing a:
- Stationary subject – Single point autofocus, Single focus mode or Continuous focus mode, Single drive mode Continuous Low drive mode (and don’t continue to hold your finger down on the shutter)
- Slow moving subject – Single point autofocus, Continuous focus mode, Continuous Low drive mode
- Fast moving subject – Single point autofocus, Continuous focus mode, Continuous High drive mode
3. Shutter speed settings to avoid blurry pictures
Of the three settings that you use to adjust the brightness of an image (Sutter speed, aperture, ISO) two have a big impact on whether a photo is blurry or sharp. They are:
- Shutter speed – how long the shutter is open
- Aperture – how wide the opening can go to let light in the lens
Shutter speed affects two types of blur in photos:
- Camera shake – your movements that cause the camera to move during an exposure
- Movement blur – the subject’s movement captured during an exposure
I mentioned at the start how you hold a camera can either prevent or cause blurry pictures. But there’s more to camera shake than a sturdy hand, especially at longer focal lengths.
The rule of thumb for avoiding blur in photos caused by camera shake is to set your shutter speed at or higher than the focal length.
In other words, if you’re shooting at a focal length of 100mm, your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/100.
If you don’t have such a steady hand, or particularly strong wrists and arms, you need the shutter speed to be higher.
I prefer 1.5 times at the very least and at longer focal lengths I like the shutter speed to be twice the focal length. (So at 200mm I like to use a shutter speed of 1/400 if possible).
Because so many of us start out using a 50mm lens we often don’t learn this until later when we purchase a longer focal length lens. Then we get really confused about what went wrong and blame it on the lens.
It’s probably not the lens.
You just need to up your shutter speed and make sure you’re holding your camera properly (see the start of this post).
Another from this very active family shoot. I took this shot just as these two set off running towards me. I was focussed on the girl and the boy was ahead of her, so he is out of focus while she is sharp. Sometimes you have to decide very quickly where you want the focus to be and just take the shot.
Anyone with a small child, or energetic dog, will at some point have taken a blurry photo of them.
The faster your subject is moving, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to avoid movement blur.
Further reading: Freezing motion in photos with a fast shutter speed
A rough guide of shutter speeds for sharp photos of active subjects.
If you’re not comfortable using manual mode, I’d recommend using shutter priority mode when photographing moving subjects. This way you can ensure a fast shutter speed.
Of course, a higher shutter speed will mean having to widen the aperture or increase ISO so that your photo isn’t underexposed.
Which leads me to the second last way to avoid blurry photos.
4. Narrow depth of field can lead to blurry pictures
Aperture is one of the main ways to control depth of field in photos. Portrait photographers are well known for creating a blurry background with a narrow depth of field by using with a wide aperture.
If that’s what you want, that’s fine, but be aware that if you have more than one person in the image, especially if you have layers of people in a group photo, there’s a very good chance that some of the people will appear blurry.
Combining a wide aperture with a long focal length makes it even harder to ensure that everyone is sharp.
Further reading: How to photograph groups to avoid fuzzy portrait photos
5. Underexposing photos can make images soft
One of the great things about digital photography, especially if you’re shooting in RAW, is that you can fix mistakes in post production.
While this can be helpful, it very often leads to poor quality images.
If your image is very underexposed and you brighten it in post production, noise will be more obvious. A very noisy image can appear blurry (or soft), especially when zoomed in.
Further reading: How to avoid and reduce image noise in photography
Yes, you can also sharpen the image in post production, but it’ll never be as good as if you’d got it right in camera.
Mistakes happen, no matter how much experience we have. But it’s best to avoid them for the best quality images.
Why are my pictures blurry on Facebook and Instagram?
I know how you feel! It’s so frustrating to make sure you do everything right to take a sharp photo and then when you post them to Facebook or Instagram they appear blurry.
You haven’t done anything wrong in the way to captured the image.
Facebook and Instagram (and all other online platforms) compress images, which impact the quality and leads to blurry pictures.
The good news is that you can do something about this. In short, you need to reduce the size of your photo (both actual size and memory size) so that they’re not as heavily compressed when uploaded to social media.
The best way to do this is when exporting from your photo processing program. I use Lightroom and have written an article with all the details you need to export your photos and maintain quality.
Further reading: Lightroom export settings for web and print
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