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Why aren’t my photos sharp?

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

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…

1. Focusing 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 start with how to use autofocus properly in different circumstances.

Focus point

Before we get into the details of focus, I’m going to state the obvious… Take care with where you’re focusing 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 image 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 focus 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

You have a choice to set your camera to continuous servo AF (AI servo) or single servo AF (one shot), depending on what you’re photographing.

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 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

Back button focus

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

Get all the back button focus tricks here.

2. Shutter speed settings for sharp photos

If your shutter speed is too slow, you will not be able to take sharp photos. A slow shutter speed affects the sharpness of your photo in two ways.

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 is impossible to be completely still, unless you don’t have a pulse. Just breathing in and out will cause camera shake if your shutter speed is slow enough.

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 sharp photos here.

How to use back button focus for sharp photos

3. Aperture considerations for sharp photos

Aperture is one of the factors that affects depth of field. Portrait photographers love shooting “wide open” (i.e. at very wide apertures such as 1.4, 1.8 or even 2.8).

The problem with that is that the wider your aperture, the smaller your depth of field will be. So, when you’re using those wide apertures, you have to be extra careful about your focus. If the eyes aren’t sharp, your photo is not sharp.

Find out more about depth of field here.

4. ISO can lead to soft photos

Your photo may be perfectly in focus, 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.

Read about ISO here.

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 affects camera shake and motion blur, but you also need to make sure that your camera is stable.

Hold your camera correctly

I see so many photographers not holding their camera correctly. If your camera is not properly supported, there is 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

This ties in with what I was saying a moment ago about using shutter speed 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 better chance of getting a sharp photo.

Mirror slap

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. 

If your camera is not solidly mounted and you’re using a long focal length in particular, this movement can cause blur during a long exposure.

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 this.

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 stabilisation, this will help a great deal to take sharp photos.

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

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.Click To Tweet

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 are not sharp. 

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

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.

This is the absolute last thing to try. 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, it is for one of the reasons above that the photos aren’t sharp.

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Find out why your photos aren\'t sharp and learn how to fix it with our ultimate guide to taking sharp photos. Because sharp photos are the goal of every photographer, but it\'s not easy if you don\'t know these 6 photography tricks. Take control of your camera with these focus(and more) tips and stop taking blurry photos today!