The ultimate sharp focus guide to avoid blurred photos

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.

What you need to know to take sharp photos

  1. Focusing – not as obvious as you think
  2. Shutter speed settings
  3. Aperture settings
  4. ISO settings
  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’s the most important place to start.

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

Autofocus tips for sharp focus 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.

Of the 3 autofocus area modes available in digital cameras, I highly recommend using single point autofocus for portrait photography.

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)
  • Single servo AF (one shot)

Continuous servo AF

Continuous servo autofocus 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, Continuous servo AF is your best option. I use it most of the time – as in at least 99% of the time.

Single servo AF

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

So Single servo AF is ideal for still subjects, but not when either you or your subject is moving.

In Single servo AF you can also use focus lock for the focus and recompose technique. Briefly this is, when you:

  • Part depress the shutter button to focus on your subject
  • Then recompose the shot for a better composition so that the subject is off center, for example
  • Then full depress the shutter button to take the shot

Before moving on from autofocus modes, it’s worth noting that focus modes are different from drive modes, but both are essential for capturing sharp photos.

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!

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

 

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.

2. Shutter speed settings for sharp photos

Shutter speed is the next most important camera setting for sharpness in photos. Exposure time is controlled by shutter speed so the longer your shutter is open, the longer the exposure time will be and the more chance there is of capturing a blurry photo. 

If your shutter speed setting is too slow for the situation, 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 your camera (i.e. not using a tripod) and your shutter speed is too slow, your movement will make your photo slightly blurred. 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 causes 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.

You know how difficult it is to keep a pair of binoculars still when trying to view something small far away? It’s the same with long focal lengths.

How to avoid motion blur

Motion blur is caused by subject movement. So your shutter speed needs to be fast enough for the subject you’re photographing if you want to freeze movement. You can find out more about how to use fast shutter speeds to freeze movement here.

How to use back button focus for sharp photos

3. Aperture settings for sharp focus

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

In portrait photography, if the subject’s eyes aren’t sharp, your photo isn’t sharp.

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 a high ISO setting can introduce noise to an image, depending on your camera, which ruins crisp edges. This is especially the case in underexposed images.

Too much noise makes a photo appear soft.

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.

5. Camera stability is vital for sharp photos

If your camera is moving, it stands to reason that your photos won’t 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 won’t be sharp. The heavier your camera and lens, the more important it is to get this first step right.

Use a tripod for stability

Using a tripod 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 mirror slap 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, also called 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.

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

6. How your lens affects sharp focus

Lastly, let’s talk about how lenses can help or harm 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

Fast lenses 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 low light. 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 expensive lens just because your photos aren’t 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.

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, i.e. user error.

 

Leave a comment

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

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

5 thoughts on “The ultimate sharp focus guide to avoid blurred photos”

  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.

    Reply
  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!

    Reply

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