Why Are My Pictures Blurry or a Beginner’s Guide to Taking Sharp Photos

Once again, the “Why are my pictures blurry?” article was triggered by feedback from the readers of my blog. I asked subscribers to my newsletter to share their biggest challenges and struggles that they were currently facing as photographers. When I read through the responses, I was inspired to create another tutorial. Most of my readers shared the same challenge as beginning photographers struggling to get sharper photos. This is in line with many of the questions I’m often asked as a photographer, such as:

  • Why are my pictures blurry?
  • How do I take sharper photos?
  • What are the best sharpshooting techniques?
  • More...

    My readers’ feedback and these questions reminded me of the first time I picked up a camera. I was still in high school when I received a plastic rangefinder “Smena” for my birthday. I was thrilled to learn about photography and immediately went outside where I wasted two rolls of film practicing.

    Later, when I developed the film, I realized that most of my shots were unusable since they were blurry or soft at best. That’s when I asked myself the same question: Why are my pictures blurry?

    Before putting this article together, I searched Google to see what information I could find on the topic. I used the simple search term “How to get sharp photos?” After reading a few articles on the topic, here’s a list of the tips and advice I found:

  • Use manual focus
  • Invest in good lenses
  • Mirror lock up
  • Use a tripod
  • Block the wind
  • Use a remote
  • Use sharpening tools
  • Get your eyes checked
  • Use the Lens Sweet Spot
  • Use image stabilization
  • Shoot on continuous mode
  • Upgrade your shutter button
  • That’s when I finally understood the problem—it’s not a lack of information, but a complete overload of it!

    After reading all of those suggestions on where to start, there’s no doubt that I would be completely confused as well! I’m a big proponent of the 20/80 rule which states that, for most of the processes, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. The goal of learning any new process is to identify the 20% that will yield 80% of the result and tackle it first.

    Today, I’d like to cover only 3 aspects that cause 80% to 90% of problems and usually prevent you from getting sharp photos.

    Important. Before I begin, there’s one important issue I’d like to address. When beginners face the issue of blurry or out-of-focus photos, 90% of them come to the same conclusion—that they need a better quality camera and lens. This leads many to give up on photography because they can’t afford more expensive equipment while others go out and spend money on something they absolutely do not need.

    Let me stress again that in 99.99% of cases, you don’t need to buy expensive equipment to get perfectly sharp photos. Instead, all you need is to learn a few basic photography concepts and techniques.

    Let’s get started.

    Everuthing is sharp in this photo; from foregroud all the way to infinity

    Scenario One

    When you look at your photograph and notice that everything is blurry or soft and that nothing is sharp, the problem is in using the wrong shutter speed.

    Problem #1: Incorrect Shutter Speed

    Truth. Slow shutter speed causes 90% of blurry or soft photographs taken handheld or without a tripod.

    The shutter speed controls the duration that the time sensor inside the camera is exposed to light.

    For example, a shutter speed of 1 sec means that the shutter stays open for 1 sec exposing the camera’s sensor to the light. A shutter speed of 1/100 sec means that the shutter only stays open for a fraction (one hundredth) of a second. The problem occurs when the camera shakes as a result of our body movements (hands, shoulders and legs) that results in camera movement when the shutter is open (exposure time). 

    With a basic knowledge of shutter speed, it’s not difficult to understand why it’s much easier to cause the camera to shake during a 1 sec exposure time in comparison to a 1/100 sec exposure time.

    What is a safe shutter speed?

    It would be great if I could say that 1/50 sec is the fastest and safest shutter speed, but that’s not the case. The value of a safe shutter speed depends on the focal length and the size of your camera sensor. A longer focal length magnifies the camera shake, which can result in more problems for photographers.

    For example, it’s much easier to cause the camera to shake at a focal length of 70mm compared to 18mm. So how can you estimate the safest shutter speed to meet your needs? I use a simple guideline to estimate a safe shutter speed value.

    When I use a camera with a cropped sensor (Sony A6000, Canon XT1, Canon Rebel, Canon 700d, Fuji XT-1), I use the following formula:

    Minimum acceptable shutter speed = 1/focal length x 2

    This means that when I shoot using a 50mm focal length, the minimum shutter speed equals 1/50mm x 2 = 1/100 sec

    This doesn’t mean that I can’t shoot at a slower shutter speed (less than 1/100 sec) as this guideline is only to make me aware that if I shoot at a slower speed, I am entering a potentially dangerous area and I have to take extra precautions to avoid camera shaking or blurry photos. For better stability, I use the following techniques and tricks:

    • I usually press my elbows against my body while holding the camera as steady as possible.
    • I use the View Finder and press the camera against my head to create an extra point of stabilization.
    • If possible, I even try to find something I can lean against like a wall, tree or fence.
    • Then, I inhale before taking the shot and hold my breath to prevent accidental shakes.
    • I also take multiple shots so that I can choose the sharpest one later.

    It’s also important to know how steady your hands are as even this varies from person to person and needs to be adjusted accordingly.

    For example, after shooting for many years, I know that when I take the precautions listed above that I can shoot at a shutter speed of up to 1/15 sec at 50mm on a cropped sensor with a success rate averaging around 50%. This means out of 10 shots, five will be sharp.

    Scenario Two

    If you look at your photo and see that some areas are in focus while others are blurry or soft, the problem is with using the wrong Aperture Settings with a possible Focusing Issue.

    Problem #2: Incorrect Aperture Settings

    As you learned above, the shutter speed controls the duration of time the sensor is exposed to light. The aperture controls the size of the opening in the lens through which light travels to the sensor.

    The most important function of the aperture is its control over how much of your scene is in focus, which also known as the Depth of Field (DOF). If you shoot at a 50mm focal length with an aperture value of f/1.8, the area of your shot that’s in focus will be limited. If you focus on a subject that is two meters away from you, the Depth of Field will only be 11 cm, which means that only a very narrow slice of the scene will actually be in focus.

    But, if you use a focal length of 18mm and set the aperture to f/13, the depth of field will be extremely wide. If you focus on the exact same object that is two meters away, everyone from 0.7 meters away from you to infinity will be in focus.

    The problem occurs when you choose the wrong aperture for your shot, which typically happens when shooting landscapes. For example, if you shoot a wide open landscape and want to capture the beauty of the entire scene, it’s vital to have the entire scene in focus and sharp.

    If you use a 50mm lens with the aperture set to f/1.8 from the previous example, you’ll have a photo where some areas are in focus and others are blurry. There are many different ways to calculate the depth of field including various charts and smart photo apps.

    For years, I’ve used the DOFMasterwebsite where you can find On-line Depth of Field Calculator. I strongly suggest taking a look and trying out the calculator by inputting your camera model, different focal lengths and apertures to see how they affect the Depth of Field. Of course, with experience and more practice, you’ll eventually be able to assess the depth of field without any calculator or helper.

    Problem #3: Focusing Issue

    The issue of focusing happens when you focus on the wrong object or part of the scene.

    For example, if you want the main point of interest in the distance—let’s say a monument—to be in focus, instead of focusing on the main object, you accidentally set the focus on a tree a few meters away from where you’re standing. The result will be a perfectly sharp and in focus tree in the foreground with a blurry and out of focus monument in the background. In this scenario, even your camera settings—aperture, shutter speed, etc.—were correct but the picture was ruined by bad focusing.

    But don’t worry! I’ll give you two simple tips to help you avoid bad focusing issues. Since every camera manufacturer offers a similar kit lens setup with an 18-55mm focal length and a f/3.5-5.6 aperture range, most beginning photographers start out with this kit, which makes it a perfect example.

    Shooting Landscapes

    Important. Select the widest focal length of 18mm and set the aperture between f/8-f/11 to maximize the depth of field value. Here’s the main tip: Focus one-third of the way into the scene to get the maximum depth of field. This way, you’ll get everything in focus starting from the foreground to infinity.

    (If you shoot handheld without a tripod, make sure you follow the safe formula speed from the “What is a safe shutter speed?” section of this article).

    Shooting People

    Select the longest focal length of 55mm and set the widest aperture of f/5.6. Focus on the person’s eyes. If you shoot from a two to three-meter distance, you will create visual separation with a perfectly in focus person and an out of focus background.

    Once again, don’t forget about the safe shutter speed value we learned earlier.

    Bonus Tip – Keep Your Lens Clean

    While it sounds obvious (and I promise I’m not trying to insult your intelligence), you would be surprised by how many shots I ruined because I forgot to clean the lens. Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of glancing over the front of my lens every time I get ready to take a shot and clean it if necessary. To make it even more convenient, I keep cleaning tissues everywhere from my bag and pockets to my car.

    Conclusion

    If you understand and learn a few simple rules about how to assess a safe shutter speed, estimate the depth of field and know where to focus, you’ll be producing sharp images time after time!  

  • Otis Alexander says:

    That was a very good discussion of the subject without getting technical and confusing.

  • John Manson says:

    Hi Victor,
    On the topic of holding one’s breath when taking a shot, I’d suggest exhaling before releasing the shutter button is a better method since holding your breath can cause you to tense up. This principle is also followed by snipers when taking a shot.

    John.

  • Very good article. It took me a while to learn all of those things you include in one single article. As an engineer I have to correct your formula in Problem #1. 1/focal length x 2 should be 1/(focal length x 2). 1/50×2=1/25, not 1/100. Or maybe you can describe it as 1 over double the focal length. That’s the way I’ve seen it described elsewhere.

  • I liked your focusing suggestion of breaking a scene into thirds; it makes it easier for the beginner. Sometime, when they get better at it, you might throw in the concept of “hyperfocal” focusing. Sadly, our contemporary autofocus cameras no longer display hyperfocal markings on the barrel, but it can still be worked out.

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