Capturing perfectly sharp photos is not easy. This is fact. Sure, technology has made it easier over the years, and novice photographers are more capable than ever of achieving professional-looking results, but soft, blurry images still manage to haunt the dreams of even the most accomplished shooters. Now, whether you’re using a professional DSLR or a cheap little point-and-shoot, there are a variety of reasons your pictures may be blurry. Those reasons include:
- Subject not in focus
- Depth of field too shallow
- Subject movement
- Camera / lens movement
- Shutter speed too slow
- Lens diffraction at very small apertures
First, let’s assume your subject is in focus. Honestly, that’s the easy part. Your camera and lens are capable of doing the majority of the work, even as far as detecting faces and eyes, and achieving dead on accurate focus as long as you have enough light. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus (har har) on other factors.
Check your aperture before you wreck your, um, photos
If your aperture is too wide open – f/1.8 for example – you will have an extremely shallow depth of field, and in many cases, it will be very difficult to get everything you want in focus. Sometimes 1.8 or f2 is too shallow to get both eyes and nose in focus, so unless you’re going for a particular effect, it’s best to stop it down a bit. But go too far, like f/16 or f/22, and you’ll start to see the image quality deteriorate due to lens diffraction. A sweet spot for most lenses is from f/4 to f/8, at least when it comes to sharpness.
Hold still, will ya?!
Assuming you have good focus and a workable aperture, the next step is to address your subject. If you have a static subject, perfect! If, however, you have a fidgety toddler to shoot, well… getting that kid to stand still may be difficult, but it beats a memory card full of blurry portraits. Stuffed animals, “birdies”, and other cute distractions work well, but personally, I think good old-fashioned bribes are best. You just might have to Photoshop a little chocolate off their teeth.
Speed kills… blurry photos
But what if you’re trying to capture someone in motion, or the wind won’t die down long enough to keep that flower from fluttering around? If your shutter speed is too slow, any movement will result in soft images. Therefore, a fast shutter speed is necessary. You can either try the Sport mode on your camera (usually denoted by a little “running man” icon), which will crank up the shutter speed and burst rate automatically, or you can manually increase the shutter speed by switching to S Priority mode or shooting in full manual mode. With a faster shutter speed, you’ll have a much better chance of catching a subject in motion clearly, but you’ll probably have to adjust your aperture and/or ISO (or boost your lighting if possible) to get the right exposure.
Hold still, will ya?! (again)
Focus, check. Aperture, check. Shutter speed, checkity-check. Now it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror… perhaps the reason your pictures are all soft… IS YOU! Yes, while your images are perfectly exposed and your subject is dang near a statue, the camera in your hands has a tendency to shake, drift and jiggle, all of which lead to blur.
Of course, there are ways to prevent this, or at least minimize it. If you’re limited to handholding your camera, there are a few things you can do to keep the vibration down:
- Use the viewfinder
Your camera’s external LCD monitor is a handy tool, but holding the camera out in front of you will absolutely induce some degree of shake. Using a viewfinder positions the camera closer your center of gravity, and when it’s planted against your face, it helps secure the camera even more.
- Tuck in your elbows
While it’s not terribly comfortable, tucking your elbows in firmly against your chest will provide a more stable platform for your camera. The less work your arms need to do, the better.
- Brace yourself
Our world is just chock full of things to lean on. Walls, trees, garbage bins, countertops, friends’ heads… almost anything can be utilized to help you keep your hands and camera steady. Yes, you may look a bit strange once in a while, but those nice, sharp photos won’t care.
- Stop breathing
Well, not entirely. Just for a few seconds. Try this… take a couple deep breaths, and note how much your body actually moves (spoiler, it’s quite a bit). While you normally wouldn’t even think about it, this relatively small movement is magnified through your lens, especially if you’re shooting at a long focal length. When you’re ready to take a shot, breathe out completely, hold it, relax your body, then depress the shutter.
- Go easy on the shutter button
Pressing the shutter button softly and deliberately, rather than quickly and forcefully, will yield better results. You can even use your camera’s self-timer to eliminate this source of movement entirely.
Fine, just let the camera handle it
If you’ve come this far, and your pictures still aren’t as sharp as they could be, then it’s time to take a look at your equipment. Thankfully, technology has advanced quite a bit in the last several years, and now, image stabilization is a common, affordable and very valuable feature that is built in to most lenses and cameras. Whether it’s incorporated into the lens, the camera body or both, stabilization compensates for the small shakes and jitters from your hands, improving the sharpness of your photos and giving you more flexibility in low-light situations (plus it’s extremely useful for videos).
There are various ways that IS (or VR, OSS, etc.) works, but in the end, what matters is how effective it is. And as long as there’s an actual moving mechanism – specifically, lens elements or the image sensor – it will be very effective indeed. So if you’re shooting handheld and you don’t have at least one image stabilized lens or a camera body with IS built in, go to Cameta.com and buy one now! Image stabilization just works (even if photographers don’t want to admit they need it).
Alright, shall we now delve into the super obvious? Oh yes. It’s that time. That’s right, if you want to hold your camera completely, 100% steady, DON’T HOLD IT AT ALL. You got it. Use a tripod.
But tripods are bulky, you say. They’re a pain to carry, you say. They require constant adjustment, you say. Yes, yes and yes. BUT! A good tripod is as solid as a rock, and if you’re taking long exposures, working in low light or simply want the sharpest pictures possible, using a tripod is absolutely worth the hassle. Plus, most modern tripods are lightweight and simple to adjust, making them easy to carry and operate. And when your friends or family want to take a group shot, you’ll be glad to have a tripod rather than balance your camera on some precarious makeshift platform, or worse, let a stranger take a picture that absolutely, 100% WILL be poorly-framed.
In short, if getting the best image possible is your goal, keep a tripod (or at least a monopod) handy. Sometimes, a fast shutter speed, a proper aperture, a wall to lean on, a stone still subject, and all the fancy optical technology you can muster just isn’t enough. Sometimes, all you really need is a man’s best three-legged friend.