It can be incredibly frustrating when you look at your photos and discover that they are blurry. Here are some of the most common reasons why
Captured a stunning shot but found on closer inspection the image is blurry? You’re not alone. All image-makers will encounter blurry images at some point in their photography journey. But by being aware of what causes blur and how to prevent it–you will go a long way to ensuring your images are sharp.
One of the biggest culprits for blurry photos is when the camera moves when the shutter is open. This is known as camera shake. The leading cause of this is selecting a shutter speed that is too slow for you to handhold a camera. Generally, the slowest speed to handhold a camera is 1/60 sec. Although improvements in image stabilisation technology (technology either inside a lens or camera that helps reduce camera shake) have meant some people can select slightly slower shutter speeds and still capture sharp photos when handholding. But to be sure that your images will be sharp at slow shutter speeds (anything slower than 1/60 sec), you need to use a tripod.
But simply using a tripod does not guarantee you sharp photos. There are several key considerations and adjustments you need to make to your camera when using a tripod:
- Make sure your tripod is steady – think carefully about where you are placing your tripod. For example, if you are on a bridge then passing vehicles or even people might cause vibrations which will mean camera shake. You may find that in these situations (and for example in windy conditions even on a firm surface) hanging a heavy bag (like a backpack) in the centre of the tripod reduces the movement. But this is not guaranteed. In these scenarios, the safest choice is to select a faster shutter speed or wait for a gap in the traffic.
- Turn off your image stabilization – as excellent as image stabilization is when handholding a camera, it is not so great when your camera is on a tripod. The lack of movement can confuse the IS, which then tries to compensate for this lack of movement. This will make your photos blurry. So, if you are using a tripod, turn off image stabilization.
- Lock up your mirror – if you are using a DSLR camera, the mechanical movement of the mirror flipping up to expose the sensor can cause small vibrations, which will affect the sharpness of your image. To avoid this, you will need to find the function in your camera’s menu to “Lock up mirror”. Alternatively, you can use “live view” mode, which also locks the mirror up.
- Use a remote or a timer – it is important not to touch your camera when taking long exposure photos. Simply pressing the shutter release button to take a photo is enough to cause camera shake and end up with blurred photos. The best solution is to use a cable release, or alternatively you can set your camera on a 2-second timer mode–so there is a delay from when you touch the camera to when the shutter opens.
It is much harder to capture a sharp image of a moving subject. Unfortunately, there is no universal setting that can help. My advice is to always go faster with your shutter speed than you think you might need. For example, photographing a moving person might require a shutter speed of 1/200 sec to freeze the action. But photographing a moving vehicle might need to be as fast as 1/2000 sec.
The other tricky element of photographing moving subjects is making sure you are focusing correctly. For example, if someone is running toward you, your focus point will be continuously changing. If you focused on where they started, they would be blurred by the time they are closer to you. In these instances, you need to ensure you have selected “continuous focus” in your camera setting so that the camera continues to track the subject and focuses on it for as long as you hold the shutter button down halfway.
It is also essential to make sure you are focusing on the correct part of the image. Say you are taking a portrait of someone with a wide aperture (a low f/stop number) this will mean a shallow depth of field. If you then mistakenly focus on the an area other than the subjects face, it will be blurred.
Another issue regarding focusing is your depth of field (the distance in your photo where things will be sharp). Selecting the wrong aperture for the type of photo can mean that your image is out of focus. This is important in landscape photography or cityscapes, where you need the whole scene to be sharp. For any type of photography that requires a greater depth of field, you should set your aperture to f/8 or smaller.
But also remember to be careful about your focus point when using a shallower depth of field, as even a tiny error in your focus point will mean your main subject might be out of focus.
As mentioned above, you will need a greater depth of field for some genres, such as landscape photography. However, it is essential to know that when you select extremely small apertures of f/18 or smaller, it can have a detrimental effect on your photo’s sharpness. This is known as diffraction.
Without getting too technical, diffraction is caused by the lens’s optics and how light waves become more separated when entering the lens at smaller apertures. They then clash with each other and can cause the image to look soft. So, keep your aperture to no more than f/16, and if you want to use a smaller aperture, make sure you test the results before using it in the field.
Every photo will have noise (grain and pixel elements) in it. But most of the time, in good light, the noise will be almost invisible and won’t be noticed. However, in extreme cases, noise in an image can cause it to look significantly worse. The result will be a grainy looking shot that seems blurred.
The most common cause of excessive noise in an image is by selecting a high ISO. The higher your ISO is in your exposure settings, the more noise will appear in your image. So, as a rule, always choose the lowest ISO that you can when taking a photo. Learn how to use ISO effectively with our dedicated guide here.
It might seem like an obvious point, but make sure your lens glass is clean and smudge-free. Get into the habit of regularly wiping your lens with a microfibre cloth when you’re out in the field.
Blurry photos can be incredibly disheartening. But by following the tips above–you will be able to eliminate many of the common causes of blurred images.
All images by Kav Dadfar unless otherwise states.
- AuthorKav Dadfar
Kav is a full-time photographer and author of 400+ articles. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Magazine Photography of the Year competition and leads small group photo tours around the world.View all articles