Louise Denton Photography

TIPS | Getting the sharpest image quality

Tutorials and TipsLouise Denton

There are two things I believe are the most important things to get right, in camera. The first is composition, you can't change that in post-processing aside from a little cropping. The only way to stop elements "overlapping" in a photo (e.g. no tree coming out of a persons' head, etc) is to move your feet and camera at the time of the shot.

The other most important thing to get right in camera is sharpness. You cannot correct a blurry photo in post processing. You need to get it right at the time of shooting.

There are a number of factors that can cause blurry photos. Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of what can cause blurred photos, and how you can "fix" the problem!

In no particular order.....

  • Reason 1: CAMERA SHAKE

What is camera shake?

Camera shake refers to blur caused by a shutter speed that is too slow. If the shutter speed is too slow, you won't be able to hold the camera steady enough and the camera will move or wobble. The movement of the camera might be a fraction, but it can be catastrophic in terms of image quality!

So, how do you stop camera shake?

The best way is to use a tripod!

Make sure the camera and tripod are steady - if the tripod is on the sand or in water make sure you dig the legs down as far as you can to keep them locked in to place. If you haven't buried your tripod legs enough, water or waves can cause a leg to sink or move and that means camera shake and blurred photos. Even if you are on land, if you're on a rocky or uneven surface make sure you check all legs are sturdy and in place! If it's really, really windy you might also need to use something else to weight your tripod down to stop it wobbling.

Even if the camera is on a sturdy, well positioned tripod, the risk of camera shake doesn't stop there! If you are using longer exposures, even just clicking the shutter button to take the photo can cause the camera to wobble and blur your shot. To get around this you can use a remote shutter release (I.e. a remote control to take the photo), or use your in-built timer to delay the photo after you have pressed the shutter. This will give the camera a few seconds to re-steady itself after you wobble it by pushing the shutter.

If you are a landscape photographer like me, chances are you will be mostly photographing in low light and therefore always have a tripod with you. This is because lower light and smaller apertures = longer shutter speeds and tripod-essential-photography!

However, not everyone is a landscape nutter like me and not everyone wants to lug the extra weight around.

So what can you do if you don't have a tripod?

Essentially, if you don't have a tripod you need to be shooting with quicker shutter speeds that you can handhold. A general rule of thumb for what can be handhold relates to your focal length.

For example, if you are using a 50mm lens your slowest "safe" shutter speed is 1/50th. If you are using a 300mm lens, your lowest "safe" shutter speed is 1/300th or a 15mm lens means you can shoot as slow as 1/15th before noticing blur. This is a basic, generic rule. Personally, I am unbalanced and can't really handhold my wide angle (17-40mm lens) at much slower than 1/50th!

What settings can you change to increase your shutter speed?

  • Boost your ISO. I genenerally walk around with ISO 100, but you can increase this to ISO 200 to double the speed of your shutter. You can increase it to ISO 400 to double the shutter speed again, and again..... Just remember that the higher the ISO the higher the "noise" or grain in your photo. Personally, I don't like going much higher than ISO 400 but I will go to 1600 if pushed. I just have to be aware the image quality will be reduced.
  • If you still can't get enough light, you can change your aperture settings. The lower your f-number, the more light can get in through the camera's aperture (opening). Remember that you are reducing the depth of field with lower f-numbers (ie. the lower the number, the more of your photo background will be blurred)
  • Reason 2: Incorrect depth of field

This brings on to the next possible cause of blurry images: incorrect depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of the image is in focus beyond your focal point.

An image with a "shallow depth of field" refers to a photo with a small area in focus and a lot of "blur" in the background/foreground. This "blur" is generally regarded as "good blur" and is used creatively - to emphasize and compliment the area that is in focus.

However, a common mistake beginners make is to try and create "too much" of the blurred background (called bokeh). Using a wider aperture (say f1.8 or 2.8) creates a very small field of focus. Everything else is thrown out of focus or blurred. This can be a cause of less-than-tack-sharp images.

For example, images of faces where the nose or eyes are in focus, but the rest of the face and features are blurred (especially pet portraits where the nose is in focus and the eyes blurred!!).

Here is a chart for calculating the depth of the area in focus (around the correct focus point):

http://berniesumption.com/photography/better-depth-of-field-table/

As you can see there are many things that impact on depth of field - the top row is the aperture, the left column is the distance away from the subject (on a 35mm camera, a crop sensor or compact camera, or mirrorless camera will measure differently).

  • Reason 3: Incorrect focus point

Another reason for blurred photographs is mis-focussing all together.

Auto-focus is awesome and 90% of the time I use auto-focus instead of manual focus. HOWEVER, you need to make sure you pick your focus point. Make sure you focus on the right part of the photo!

Don't leave the focus point up to the camera - 90% of the time your camera will pick whatever is closest, to focus on. Sometimes this works, often, it doesn't!

If you are taking a photograph of a particular object, make sure you focus on that object. Similarly if photographing animals/birds/people you will generally want to focus on the eyes. If photographing a tree, make sure you are focusing on the tree!

Focusing on the incorrect point is a sure way to have a blurred area where you want something to be sharp!

*If you are not sure how to move your focus point around, check your manual.... On Canon cameras you should be able to see the focus point by checking in the viewfinder. There is a button on the top right of the back-face of the camera which enables you to move the point around.

How else can you "mis-focus"?

You can also incorrectly focus if you are too close to your subject. Lenses have a "minimum focus distance", that is a minimum distance you must be, away from your subject. If you are too close, you won't be able to focus!

Usually, the longer the lens, the longer the minimum focus distance. For example, if you are using a 300mm lens, you probably won't be able to take photographs of something that is closer than 1.5m to your camera. With my wide angle lens I have to be at least 30cm away to ensure correct focus.

  • Reason 4: Subject movement!

Similar to camera shake causing motion blur, if your subject is moving too quickly for your shutter speed, your subject will blur! For example people, animals or birds running or moving will need to be photographed with a quick shutter speed to freeze the motion and stop blur. See "Reason 1" above for tips on increasing shutter speed.

 

There are other factors which can also improve sharpness:

  • Using "good glass". Better lenses produce better results, generally. Prime lenses (fixed focal lengths, non-zooms) are known for superior image sharpness and quality.
  • Ensuring your gear is clean.
  • Use your lens' "sweet spot". Your lens' sweet spot is the aperture it performs best at. Usually this is an aperture in the middle of the range, a few stops from wide open. For example I usually use f9 on my 17-40mm lens which gives me a decent depth of field and also good sharpness generally.
  • Using an Image Stabilised lens. This is not always necessary but can be helpful if you usually handhold your images. Some cameras have image-stabilisation (IS) built in to the camera and some use IS in the lenses.

 

Do you have any other ideas or tips for increasing sharpness in photos? Have I missed anything?

Why are your photos blurry? Something other than what I have mentioned? Let me know in the comments below!