Ask 2 Guys on making sharper photos

Blurry red clown noses

Hello Ed and Rey,

So, I am wondering about how I can get clearer, crisper photos. It seems if I put my ISO up, I can shoot at faster shutter speeds, but then it gets gritty. If I set the ISO lower, I have to use a slower shutter speed and it gets blurry. I know a tripod will help in most situations, but wondering about what kind of tripods for which settings, what about ISO and grittiness, VR settings, self timers and other tips to make a photo clearer. I really like this photo of clown noses I took, but it is a little blurry to my eyes. I did it hand held, which I am sure that’s why it’s a little blurry. Thoughts?

Sincerely, Blurry at Best

Dear Blurry,

Thanks for writing to 2 Guys Photo with this question.  It’s one that all photogs wrestle with at one time or another.  First, remember that good photography is subjective. What looks good to one person may not to another. Ultimately the viewer decides.

But generally speaking, in-focus photos are more pleasing to look at than blurry ones, except in some artistic situations. We’re talking about the subject of the photo, not the background, which you may choose to make out of focus by using a larger (smaller number) aperture.

Here are some basic pointers on how to make your subject sharp:

Choose your point of focus (POF) carefully. Don’t just lift your camera to your face and shoot. Your camera should have a focus point (or many) in your viewfinder. Some cameras will have settings to allow you to select the POF, others will set it automatically, based on detected shapes and motion and in-camera algorithms. I prefer to choose the focus point myself, but some systems will select automatically very well, in some situations. Experiment.

If the camera is selecting the POF, give it time to select and see if it chooses to your satisfaction. If not, switch to manual selections and choose the POF yourself. Whichever way you go, “Choose wisely”, since that point will be in focus, and will be where your viewer’s eye are drawn. And depending on the aperture and focal length, it may be the only point of the image that is in focus. Do you want the face of your subject or the tree next to them to be in focus?

Focus on the eyes.  When photographing a person or an animal, always focus on the subject’s eyes. The human brain looks for eyes when it recognizes the shape of a face, and if the eyes are out of focus, your viewer will be disappointed.

Half-press that shutter button.  Today’s cameras will focus automatically – in the “old days” we had to focus the lens manually – on the focal point chosen. Be sure to give the camera time to lock in the focus. By half-pressing the shutter, you’re telling the camera “Ok, focus on that part of the scene I (or the camera) has selected”. Depending on the camera and light conditions, this can take a fraction of a second, or longer. It can seem like an eternity but you must wait for that focus to lock, and this is usually indicated by a beep, or it could be a visual in-the-viewfinder indicator. Either way – wait! And then press the shutter the rest of the way. One of the most common reasons for out of focus photos for the emerging photog is not waiting for the focus to lock.

Slow shutter speeds are the enemy of sharp focus. This is true for two reasons: First, remember that slow shutter speeds are great for those times when there is movement in the scene and you want to capture that motion through blur.  This recent post is a good example.  But if there’s any motion in the scene and you want to freeze it, you’ll need a faster shutter speed. Second, the normal shake of your hands, although very slight, will cause the image to be blurred, when you’re working at a slow shutter speed.  So if you want a sharp image and you are hand holding your camera, pay attention to your shutter speed.

Determining the minimum shutter speed for a sharp image.  The longer the lens you are shooting with, the more your handheld shake will be magnified and will result in a blurry image. But there’s a rule of thumb that works pretty well, for determining the right shutter speed when you are hand-holding your camera. Here it is: the minimum shutter speed should be:

1 / (the focal length of your lens x your camera’s crop factor)

Ok, put away your high school advanced algebra text book – this is pretty simple.  Let’s break it down.

As you know, shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, such as 1/60th of a second, or 1/25th, or 1/1, which is a full second, etc.

Think of the focal length as the amount of zoom your camera (lens) is set to.  So if you have a 50mm prime lens, 50 is the focal length.  If you have an 18-55mm zoom lens, your focal length will be between 18 and 55, depending on how you’ve set the zoom.

The crop factor comes into play on most of today’s consumer dslr’s and is related to the less-than-full size sensor found in these cameras.  You can read more about crop factors here, but without getting technical, let’s simply say that the Nikon’s consumer dslr crop factor is 1.5x, Canon’s is 1.6x and micro 4/3 cameras have a crop factor of 2x. Point and shoot camera’s have even higher crop factors due to their smaller sensor sizes.  Check your manual to determine what your crop factor is.

So if I’m using my Nikon D90 with an 18-200mm lens set to 70mm, my minimum handheld shutter speed to get a sharp shot would be:

1 / (70 x 1.5) or 1/105th of a second.  So rounding a bit, I should set my shutter speed to 1/100th or faster to be on the safe side. Slightly slower than that, I might be able to get a clean shot, much slower and I’m probably going to be disappointed.

Work this through in your head a few times and you’ll be able to do this calculation with ease and on the fly.

For your photo of the red clown noses above, it looks like you took that with your Nikon D3000 at a focal length of 24mm and a shutter speed of 1/25 second.  The minimum shutter speed using the rule of thumb would be 1/(24 x 1.5), or 1/36 second.  You used 1/25 second, which is pretty close, but I also noticed that your ISO was cranked up to 800 (see below for thoughts on high ISO).  I think the combination of too slow a shutter speed and high ISO were the culprits.

Adjust your ISO.  Most cameras allow you to adjust the ISO.  This is a measure of how sensitive the sensor is to light. If it’s adjustable in your camera, a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your sensor to light. More sensitivity means more light is absorbed, meaning you can use a faster shutter speed. BUT higher ISO also generally means more noise, leaving your image with artifacts and less overall definition.

Now, some cameras handle higher ISO very well, and give you a lot of latitude, but others do not.  Newer and more expensive cameras generally outperform older and less expensive models.  Experiment with high ISO settings on your camera and determine its limits.  Shoot at the lowest ISO you can get away with, but do use this feature when you need to to speed up the shutter.  A grainy image is better than no image. Check your camera or manual to see how to increase the ISO.

Also, many cameras that have adjustable ISO also have an Auto-ISO feature.  This simply means that the camera will automatically adjust the ISO up or down, based on the aperture or shutter speed you select and the amount of light in the scene.  This can be convenient in some circumstances, but can also result in very grainy photos.  Unless you can limit how high the ISO can go automatically, you are better to understand all the other methods you can use to get a sharp image and take control of the ISO, then to leave it to chance.

How steady are you?  Determine how slow a shutter speed YOU can hand hold – for most people, that’s about 1/30 sec and below which things start to get blurry. But you may do better, and you may be able to improve through practice.  Know your limits, and increase your shutter speed or take other measures to ensure a sharp image if needed.

Ground cinnamon label

You sent in this photo, which has great color, because you felt it looks less sharp than it could have, and I agree.  It was taken at a shutter speed of 1/13 second and a 52mm focal length.  Using our handy rule of thumb, I come up with a minimum hand held shutter speed of 1/78 second, but you indicated that the camera was setting on the table, which was smart, and I’m sure, helped a lot.  It was also taken at 800 ISO.  Adding the use of your timer (keep reading) to release the shutter and a lower ISO would have helped.

Brace yourself!  Can’t hand hold that camera perfectly still for as long a shutter speed as you need to? Then you need to brace the camera. The best way to do this is with a tripod.  Most experienced photogs will tell you to not go cheap on the purchase of a tripod, and they’re right.  Inexpensive tripods are made of lightweight materials which are flexible and “bouncy”.  That’s not going to guarantee you a very sharp photo.  Better tripods are made of heavier, less flexible materials and will do a much better job.  These links will take you to an inexpensive and a pro-level tripod, both of which I’ve used, from our trusted sponsor, B&H Photo.

I’m also a fan of using a monopod and almost always take one with me on photo walks.  These single legged “sticks” require that you supply the other two legs to support your gear, and they won’t provide as much steadiness as a good tripod, but they are easier to carry, and when properly used (that’s a post in itself), can be very effective.  Monopods are also allowed in some crowded venues where tripods are not.  This one is similar to the one I use.

But there are also some basic ways to steady your camera when you don’t have a tri- or monopod, that can be very helpful:

  • Use your camera’s viewfinder as opposed to the LCD screen to compose and take your photos.  When you use the viewfinder, you are supporting the camera against your face and with your two hands held close to your body, which minimizes hand shake.  Alternatively, using the LCD and holding the camera out in front of you is far less steady and more prone to shake.
  • While holding the camera, lean against a doorway, tree or put your elbows on the table.  Similarly, you can hold the camera itself against a doorway or other solid object or place it on a solid surface like a table.
  • Use the camera’s self-timer when it is placed on a tripod or other solid surface, so you’re not touching it when the shutter releases.
  • Note, if your lens has image stabilization, be sure to turn it OFF when you are using a tripod or other surface to support the camera when you shoot.  If left ON, the system will actually introduce vibration in the lens, which is just the opposite of what you are looking for.

Lock that mirror.  When your dslr takes a picture, many things happen in your camera in a fraction of a second, including moving the mirror up and out of the way, so that light entering the lens can get to the sensor.  When light is at a minimum and you’re using a slow shutter speed, the movement of the mirror will introduce vibration and result in blur.  Many of today’s advanced dslr’s allow you to “lock “the mirror in an upright, out of the way position before your release the shutter, eliminating this issue.  So typically you would use mirror lock when also using a tripod or other solid surface to hold the camera and a self timer.  Check your manual.

Optical zoom “Si”; Digital zoom “No!”  With optical zoom, the lens components move, changing the way the light is brought into the camera.  This is the best type of zoom.

Digital zoom is not really zoom at all, it’s merely cutting away the outside parts of the scene, and blowing up what’s left in the center to fill the frame, stretching those remaining pixels to cover a wider area.   Digital zoom results in poor quality images. Simply put, don’t use digital zoom.

Be a soft touch.  Be gentle when you press the shutter button. Don’t hit it hard, or you’ll jostle the camera, introducing blur.

Every breath you take (thank you Sting).   When we breath, we move, so at slow shutter speeds, press the shutter release between breaths. Also watch your movement and movement around you. Bumping, vibrations, wind, all move you and your camera.  So be aware of your surroundings.

And so Blurry, I hope you can start using some of these tips and that you’ll see an improvement in the sharpness of your images.  Feedback is welcomed and we would love to see your results.    Thanks for visiting 2 Guys Photo!                             Posted by Ed

About Ed Spadoni "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
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11 Responses to Ask 2 Guys on making sharper photos

  1. Great article… Lots of wonderful advice and as always, so well written. Sooo, the softness on the little Ground Cinnamon can is due to high ISO? Surprising, still, that it would appear sooo blurry. Is is possible he had it on the table where like on a tripod you need to turn OFF the VR or whatever anti-shake setting his lens might have? Have a great week!

  2. Blurry at Best says:

    Wow! Thanks for this informative blog answer Ed! I am ready to go out and practice more.

    cheers, Blurry at Best

  3. Donna McCommon says:

    This is a wealth of in formation, Ed. Something we all need to be reminded of when shooting.

  4. Prentis says:

    You didn’t mention depth of field as a contributor to sharpness. If you look at the Cinnamon box it appears that the focus point is on the “Net Wt” printing and not on the front of the box. A very shallow DOF and a focus point away from the main subject seems to be the problem with that shot. Shooting available light drives one to use wide apertures, but at the expense of depth of field. That isn’t always a bad thing. Note the out of focus background (bokeh) which adds interest to the shot. But a slightly higher f stop, critical focusing on the front of the box, low ISO and a tripod (with VR off) would have nailed this photograph.

  5. I often think that I practice controlled breathing more when taking pics than I did when I was having my kids! 🙂

  6. Blurry at Best says:

    Thank You Hillary.. I often forget to turn off the VR
    Thank You Prentis.. those are great suggestions, and I will put them in practice!
    My next purchase will be a tripod, and I will practice practice practice!

    cheers, Blurry at Best

  7. I am a huge fan of photography and I always strive to get sharper photos. You have made all the relevant points in your blog. This is real help. Thank you so much for sharing!

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