The ultimate sharp focus guide for photos you can be proud of

If you’ve ever wondered: Why are my photos blurry…

How to achieve sharp focus is one of the questions I get asked most. It’s not surprising either – sharp focus is obviously really important to photographers. The problem is that achieving sharp photos is more complicated than it first appears. 

The secret to sharp photos of course includes understanding focus, but there are other equally important factors involved in creating a sharp photo.

Here’s what you need to know to take sharp photos.

  1. Focusing – not as obvious as you think
  2. Shutter speed
  3. Aperture
  4. ISO
  5. Camera stability
  6. Lenses – no, you don’t need a new one

Now let’s look at these factors in detail…

How to take sharp photos

1. Focusing in photography for sharp photos

Focus isn’t the only reason why your photos aren’t sharp, but it is the most important place to start.

So, we’ll begin with how to use autofocus properly in different circumstances.

Focus points in photography

Before we get into the details of sharp focus, I’m going to state the obvious…

Take care with where you focus in a photograph. I know it seems a bit ridiculous to say that, but so many new photographers take it for granted that if they point their camera at something and push the button, the image will be sharp.

Your camera is not a mind reader. It doesn’t know what part of the photo you want sharp. You have to tell it. 

This is exactly why I suggest never using Auto Area AF (Nikon) or Automatic AF Point Selection (Canon). In these autofocus modes the camera will automatically focus on what it thinks is best and that doesn’t always coincide with where you want to focus.

I highly recommend single point autofocus.

Read all about autofocus area modes here.

Autofocus are modes to use for sharp photos

Continuous servo AF vs Single servo AF for sharp focus

Depending on what you’re photographing, you can choose to set your camera to:

  • Continuous servo AF (AI servo) or
  • Single servo AF (one shot)

Continuous servo

The difference between the two is that continuous AF will continue to focus the whole time you part depress the shutter button, or hold down the back button focus button (more on that in a moment).

If you or your subject is moving, this is your best option. I use it most of the time – as in at least 99% of the time.

Single servo

On the other hand, single servo AF will focus once and hold while you part depress the shutter button or hold down the back button focus button.

So it’s ideal for still subjects.

Further reading: 

How to use focus lock for guaranteed sharp focus

Focus modes and drive modes – the differences

One Shot vs AI Servo vs AI Focus – which AF mode is best?

Back button focus technique

If you haven’t tried back button focus, you really should give it a go. Especially if you photograph subjects that move!

Combined with continuous servo AF and single point autofocus for portraits, you can’t go wrong. Just make sure you focus on the eye closest to camera.

Further reading:

Get all the back button focus tricks here.

Plus Spot metering and single point autofocus – clearing up the confusion


Live view focus for sharp photos in low light

When you use the screen on the back of your camera to view and photograph a scene, you’re using live view.

Aside from the fact that in live view you can use your camera more comfortably at low angles, your camera focuses differently when using live view, which makes it better for getting sharp photos in low light.

The focus system it uses is called contrast detection focusing, which does exactly that. It uses the contrast between light and dark to focus.

Further reading: DSLR Live View pros, cons and how to use it

2. Shutter speed settings for sharp photos

Moving away from sharp focus, shutter speed is the next most important factor for sharpness.

If your shutter speed is too slow, you won’t be able to take sharp photos. Shutter speed controls how your camera captures movement. A slow shutter speed that’s too slow affects the sharpness of your photo in two ways:

  • Camera shake
  • Motion blur

How to avoid camera shake

If you’re handholding (i.e. not using a tripod) and your shutter speed is too slow, your movement will cause your photo to be blurred slightly. I’m not talking about big movements. 

No matter how still you think you are, it’s impossible to be completely still, unless you don’t breathe and don’t have a pulse. Just breathing in and out will cause camera shake if your shutter speed is slow enough.

A good rule of thumb to ensure sharp photos is to set your shutter speed to be at least 1.5 times, preferably double, your focal length.

So, if your focal length is 200mm, set your shutter speed to 1/400th. This is especially important when using longer focal lengths as the longer the focal length, the more obvious camera shake will be.

How to avoid motion blur

Motion blur is caused by the movement of your subject. So your shutter speed needs to be fast enough for the subject you’re photographing if you want to freeze movement.

Read more about using shutter speed for sharpness here.

How to use back button focus for sharp photos

3. Aperture settings for sharp photos

Aperture is one of the camera settings that affects depth of field, which is a key factor for the sharpness in photography.

Portrait photographers love shooting “wide open” (i.e. at very wide apertures such as F1.4, F1.8 or even F2.8). This can lead to soft focus, especially with zoom lenses.

The problem with very wide apertures is that the wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field will be. So, any slight movement could cause the subject to be out of focus.

When using those wide apertures, you have to be extra careful about locking focus.

If the eyes aren’t sharp, your photo is not sharp.

Further reading:  

The Exposure Triangle – what role does aperture play?

Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

4. High ISO can lead to soft photos

Your photo may be perfectly in focus, your shutter speed spot on and your depth of field exactly right, but if you’ve used a very high ISO, your photo may not appear sharp. The reason for this is that high ISO introduces noise to an image, which ruins crisp edges.

Some cameras don’t handle a high ISO as well as others. High end cameras are better than entry level cameras, allowing higher ISO settings to be used without noise being an issue.

Further reading: The Exposure Triangle – what role does ISO play?

5. Stability is vital for sharp photos

If your camera is moving, it stands to reason that your photos will not be sharp.

I’ve already covered how shutter speed can counteract camera shake and motion blur, but you also need to make sure that your camera is as stable as possible for sharpness in photos.

Hold your camera correctly

I see so many photographers not holding their camera correctly.

If your camera is not properly supported, there’s a very good chance that your photos will not be sharp. The heavier your camera and lens, the more important it is to get this first step right.

So I wrote a tutorial on how to hold your camera for sharp photos and you can read it here.

Use a tripod for stability

This ties in with what I was saying a moment ago about using higher shutter speeds for sharp photos. If you need to use a slow shutter speed, mount your camera on a tripod. 

As long as nothing moves the tripod (such as strong winds), you stand a much better chance of getting a sharp photo at slow shutter speeds.

Mirror slap affects sharpness

This is particularly important for landscape photography or astro photography. Or any time you want to take a long exposure and need to ensure a perfectly crisp image. 

Because mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror, they don’t have the problem of mirror slap. So this applies to DSLR cameras only.

When you push down the shutter button on a DSLR the sound you hear is the mirror inside slapping up, out of the way, and the shutter opening and closing. 

Even if your camera is solidly mounted, at a slow shutter speed the movement of the mirror can cause blur during a long exposure. Especially if you’re using a long focal length.

To avoid mirror slap, use the mirror lock up feature. With this set the mirror will flip up a couple of seconds before the shutter opens and closes.

Your camera manual will tell you how to set mirror lock up.

Remote cable release / self timer

While we’re on the subject of long exposures…

Touching your camera at the start of a long exposure to push the shutter button will introduce slight movement and therefore result in blur. To avoid this, use a remote trigger or the self timer on your camera to take a photo. 

Vibration reduction

If your camera or lens has vibration reduction, or image stabilization, this will help a great deal with sharpness as slower shutter speeds.

It’s really easy to use, but there are a few things to bear in mind too. Used incorrectly, vibration reduction could actually cause blur in a photo.

Have a look at this tutorial I wrote on vibration reduction

Why you need a fast lens in low light for sharp photos

6. How your lens affects sharp photos

Lastly, let’s talk about how lenses can help or harm the sharpness in your photos.

Clean your lens for sharp focus

Again, this may seem obvious, but I’ve seen so many dirty lenses, that I feel the need to say – clean your lens! 

You can’t see clearly through dirty windows, neither can you get sharp photos with a dirty lens.

Fast lenses

This ties in with what I was saying earlier about shutter speed and aperture. 

A fast lens is one with a wide aperture, which is particularly useful in a low light situation. The wider your aperture the faster you can make your shutter speed. 

As we’ve already seen, a fast shutter speed helps to cut out camera shake and motion blur. So a fast lens is handy in low light. BUT don’t go out and buy a fast lens just because your photos aren’t sharp. 

First perfect your photography, then upgrade your gear if you find you really need to.

Further reading:  Expensive lens or expensive camera – which is better?

Bad lens

I’ve left this until last, because we all know that a bad workman blames his tools.

Too often I see in beginner Facebook groups when someone asks for advice on why their photos aren’t sharp and others suggest they should calibrate their lens.

Lens calibration is the absolute last thing to try if you have a problem getting sharp focus.

If you’ve done everything else and your photos still aren’t sharp, then maybe your lens needs some attention. Most of the time though, soft focus is caused by one of the reasons above.


Leave a comment

If you have any questions about sharp focus, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our sharp focus tips have helped you to understand how to avoid blurred photos, share that too.

Will this photography tutorial help you to achieve sharp focus?

Share the learning…

Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

5 thoughts on “The ultimate sharp focus guide for photos you can be proud of

  1. I downloaded the cheat sheet, but found out that there’s no overview of autofocus areas for the Sony cameras.
    Why’s that? The Sony cameras are more and more upcoming.

  2. Hi Jane, This information help me to avoid blurry photos but I had used a software such as Stellar Repair for Photo which easily fix the blurry photos. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts