The most noticeable thing about any photo is the focus. Focus can make or break an image, and whether it’s a beautifully blurred background or a tack-sharp macro focus matters. Many photographers when they’re learning feel that a photo which is slightly “off” may be good enough, while most pros will throw out those that are even minutely off. Sharp photos are essential to being a good photographer.
There are lots of things which can stop an image being sharp. Blurred photos are disappointing, especially when they “seem” sharp on a smaller screen. Here’s some things which can help get your focus on point every time.
Why it’s Blurry
- The number one reason that your image isn’t sharp is because your shutter speed isn’t fast enough. This could be a speed to counteract movement or hand shake.
- Poor Focus. Especially if you’re using an autofocus, having the focus point on the eye or center of the subject is a minimum but it can still be off enough that the image just doesn’t seem sharp. Learn how to use your autofocus modes.
- Sometimes the subject moved, it happens, unless you’re shooting fast enough that it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you move, again it happens.
- Poor lens quality can also stop you getting sharp photos. Not only that, but lenses may need calibration, cleaning, or internal elements may have come out of line causing the camera to think it’s in focus when it’s really not. Read our guide to choosing your first lenses.
- An ISO which is too high can also affect the detail in an image. High ISO causes noise which can remove detail or make it hard to see the focus. This could also be a post processing issue where you’ve added grain or noise.
How to Set Your Camera – 11 Steps
1. The first part of seeing your camera is to set it at the lowest Base value. Lower ISO generally produces higher quality images with more sharpness. ISO relates to sensor sensitivity and the higher the ISO the more noise you’re going to see.
2. If you’re not sure of 1. set your camera to auto ISO. This will also allow you to set the maximum sensitivity to around 1600 and a shutter speed of 1/100. This forces the camera to limit the sensitivity based on how much light is available. When there is not enough light for the picture to expose above 1/100 the camera will automatically increase the ISO. The exception for this is if you have shaky hands, and you can increase this to 1/200 or 1/250 to compensate. For older DSLR cameras this may still be too much so stick to 800 and below.
3. When holding your camera there is only so long you can adjust the shutter speed before you simply will have shake. Similarly, for extremely long exposures camera shake, even when done with a tripod may still cause a loss of sharpness. There’s no set “rule” for holding, and this will also change based on the sensor for your camera to figure out your “minimum” shutter speed to still hand hold for sharp photos. A simple rule is that the longer the focal length, the faster the shutter speed to still get crisp images. With Nikon cameras you can multiply the focal length by 1.5 to get a good number while Canon can be done with a multiplication of 1.6.
Here are some sample settings:
- for a 50mm with a Nikon crop sensor – 50mm x1.5 = 1/75
- for a 100mm with a Nikon crop sensor – 100mm x1.5 = 1/150
- for a 150mm with a Nikon crop sensor – 150mm x1.5 = 1/225
- For a 50mm with a Canon crop sensor – 50mm x1.6 = 1/80
- For a 100mm with a Canon crop sensor – 100mm x1.6 = 1/160
- For a 150mm with a Canon crop sensor – 150mm x 1.6 = 1/240
4. Aperture priority mode is something many beginners skip, but by setting the aperture to the lowest number in low light you can make the camera automatically adjust for proper exposure. By using the lowest possible number for your subject you’ll have a faster exposure.
5. In the menu, find the metering setting and set it to Evaluative for Canon or Matrix for Nikon so it takes into account all sources of light.
6. Half pressing your shutter will kick on the autofocus. You’ll see the shutter speed (preferably 1/100 or more) and be able to see which focal point your camera is focusing on as well as the other settings in the viewfinder or on the screen. By taking an exploratory image with these you can see if anything needs adjusting and if it’s below that magic 1/100 number you can adjust accordingly.
7. Learn your focusing system. If you’re manual focusing even having slightly soft eyesight will mean what your lens sees and what your eye sees don’t match up. Your camera focus is key to sharp images so knowing what the AF settings are, where your focal point is in camera and where you’d like it to be counts. If your subject isn’t in focus but something else is then that is what your camera is focusing on and should be adjusted accordingly.
The center focal point is usually the most accurate and if you’re having trouble focusing it may be because there is distortion towards the side of your lens.
Autofocus works by metering the contrast in the focal area. If you’re focusing on a very white wall it’s hard to get your camera to focus, while any object in front of a stark white background will be easier to focus on. Find the area with the most contrast and use that to focus on.
It’s okay to focus multiple times until you’re happy. You can also use the LCD screen and live view if it’s easier to “see” what the camera sees rather than looking through a small viewfinder.
8. Enabling a feature called vibration reduction, found on newer lenses, can also minimize shake. This technology helps to shoot at lower light and slower shutter speeds, even as far down as 1/50 and still get sharp photos.
9. Use a prime lens with a wider aperture. (Understand the difference between prime and zoom lenses) Lenses with wide apertures are better for lower light so you’ve got less chance of having to use a slower shutter because of this. Prime lenses in the past have been thought to be superior but these days there’s not a lot of difference. A prime lens has a limited focal range and shallow depth of field so it’s easier to get a sharp subject and a nicely blurred background. A good fast prime, like a 35mm f/1.8 or a 50mm f/1.4 will make low-light situations a breeze.
10. Focusing on the eyes is a trick most photographers use. When shooting a live subject it’s the eyes which we’re drawn to, so that if the eye is out of focus we immediately see the image as out of focus as well.
11. Most cameras have a burst mode. This is where your camera will take multiple images in rapid succession, giving you a greater chance of snapping one that is sharp. 3 to 5 shots will also help freeze motion at just “the right” moment so that you’ll have just enough in focus to make the image work.
What Else Could It Be?
- Sometimes you just need a tripod. There are situations where no matter how hard you try you will not be able to get sharp images without camera shake unless you’re no longer holding the camera. A cable release is also essential if you’re doing especially long exposures. You can also lean against walls or use furniture to steady yourself.
- Clean your lens. Fingers, dirt, dust, and all sorts of stuff can make an image fuzzy. In older lenses you may even see fogging and mold! A greasy element will cause inacurate focusing and poor contrast.
- Sometimes it’s not you, it’s your subject. Even working with everything right your subject may move, causing motion blur. In this case, 1/100 is a minimal number. If you’re trying to get partial blur having the subject only move one part of their body while freezing the rest will have the right effect. You can also set your camera to shutter priority mode which will adjust other settings while letting you set the shutter to the fastest acceptable speed.
- Try taking another picture. Sometimes it’s something as simple as breathing wrong or even your heart rate at very low speeds. Using the proper stance for hand holding, with one foot in front and your camera braced up like a rifle can help shakier pictures and so can exhaling while pressing the shutter.
Sharp images are almost entirely about getting the settings right in camera. Your shutter speed is the primary number to watch simply because when it gets too low it’s simply impossible to hand hold the camera and not get blur. Then, there’s times when it’s just not your fault – someone moves, you move, just keep shooting.
Sharp photos are an essential key to good photography, just as important as exposure. Many situations are unique which is why familiarity with your camera’s settings will make the difference to getting photos sharp. And don’t forget that magic 1/100 number!
Did you enjoy this photography guide?
Read more of our most popular photo guides and tutorials.
Learning how to expose properly:
- Understanding Aperture
- Understanding Shutter Speed
- Understanding ISO
- Understanding the Exposure Triangle
- Creative Under and Over Exposure
- What is a DSLR Camera?
- What is a Mirrorless Camera?
- Guide to Digital Camera Modes
- How to Choose Your First Lenses
- Prime vs Zoom Lenses
- Complete Guide to White Balance