Zenfolio | Timothy Bury Photography | How to Take Sharp Pictures

How to Take Sharp Pictures

How do I get sharp pictures? This is a question I'm asked often. The sharpness of an image is one of the first things people notice about your photos. While there can be some challenges involved, getting sharp photos is not just for professionals. Whether you are shooting with a point and shoot, or a DSLR, there are some simple steps you can take.
The Cause

There are a few things that can contribute to blurry, out of focus photos. The most common are:
Missed Focus – Your focus point was not where it should have been.
Motion Blur – The subject moved too quickly.
Shutter Lag – There was a delay and the camera didn’t focus in time.
Camera Shake – Your camera moved too much while taking the picture.
Equipment – a filthy lens or poor quality equipment.

How to Overcome Common Problems

Missed Focus
Most cameras today do their best to guess where they are supposed to focus. However, they don’t always get it right. Even with new “face detection” and “smile detection” technologies, the camera can still miss. Also, in lower light your camera will struggle to lock focus correctly. Our eyes adjust better than a camera, what looks sufficient to you, may not be for the camera.

Before proceeding it’s time for a real quick (nowhere near exhaustive) lesson how the average focus system works. Focus systems can get pretty complicated, but here’s the general idea: A half press of the shutter button activates the focus mechanism. The camera then establishes focus and locks the focus. Some cameras beep when the focus is locked. Once focus is locked in, you can then gently press down the button the remainder of the way. In theory, you then get a nice sharp picture. However, If you’ve done that and your subject moves, the focus will be off. Other times when you do that, the camera may have focused in the wrong place. Read on and learn how to overcome some of the pitfalls.
What to do:

  • Slow down a little bit. Frame your shot, half press the shutter button to acquire focus, then gently push the button down the remainder of the way.
  • Watch your focus points to see if they are focusing in the wrong place. If they are, release the shutter button from it’s half press position and move the camera slightly and try again (half press) and see if the camera get’s it right the second time. If it does, you guessed it- “gently push the button down the remainder of the way”.
  • Use the focus and re-compose technique. If you half press the shutter button and get the focus points locked in where you want them, but don’t like the composition then do the following. With the button still half pressed, reposition your camera to get the desired composition. While the button is half pressed, the focus is locked, once in position gently push the button down the rest of the way.
  • Take charge! Take your camera out of auto focus and choose the focus point yourself. Check your camera manual to see if this is possible on your camera.

Don’t get discouraged. It may take you a few tries until the above techniques become second nature to you. With practice getting the focus point right becomes quick and easy and you will see the difference in you results.

Motion Blur
Motion blur usually occurs when your shutter speed is too slow, often caused by the wrong camera settings.
What to do:

  • One of the most common culprits I see is folks taking pictures without flash when they should be. Sometimes the auto flash setting on the camera is fooled by lighting beyond the subjects. Learn to override the auto flash and turn your flash on. The flash helps to freeze the subject. Keep in mind the distance your flash will even be effective. Check your manual, most point and shoot cameras have a flash range of 6 to 10 feet.
  • Sometimes the light may be sufficient but in auto mode the camera has chosen the wrong shutter speed (if you don’t tell it, the camera doesn’t know how much your subject is moving). Learn to move your camera out of auto and make use of the available scene modes that your camera has. Most cameras have a sports setting (It’s not just for sports, it works well for toddlers running around too). In addition you may also need to override the auto flash setting and use the flash to help you stop the action too.
  • Turn the flash off. What? You just said turn it on! If the subject is beyond your flash range, then the flash is not doing any good. Turn it off and check your focus points so the camera can meter appropriatley. For subjects out of flash range, either move in, or try without flash (or wait until the subject is closer). You may just be able to turn it off and the camera will adjust settings as needed to get the shot.
  • Learn panning techniques. A whole article will be dedicated to panning. Basically, follow your subject, lock focus and continue following through while gently pushing in the shutter button. Your follow through should continue even after the button is pressed (like a golf swing). Panning takes practice. If you don’t get it right, keep on, keep on, keep on trying.
  • Take control and manually adjust your shutter speed. Then adjust your aperture or ISO settings to compensate. See the exposure series for more information about exposure.

Shutter Lag
With some cameras a shutter delay will occur when you press the shutter button. Sometimes shutter lag is blamed, when it’s really just a misunderstanding of how the focus works (as briefly explained above). Half press – focus lock – gently push the button down the rest of the way. But shutter lag does exist, and there are things you can do to overcome it.
What to do:

  • Frame your shot, and lock the focus. Keep the button half pressed and then “gently…”. This will take some planning, and sometimes guessing. Lock focus, then when the expression comes you were waiting for, or the batter is in full swing, or.. when THE moment comes finish pressing the button down. You don’t need to raise your camera and shoot in one movement. Again frame, half press to lock focus and wait for the moment. With practice and a little observation you will recognize when those moments are coming. If you lock focus for a longer amount of time, keep an eye on the subject. If they move too much you will need to re-aquire focus so that it's accurate.
  • Another option is to upgrade to a camera with less shutter lag. This is not always practical, and may not be an option, but might be necessary if your needs warrant.

Camera Shake
If the camera moves, and the shutter speed is not sufficient, you will get burry photos.
What to do:

  • Secure the camera on something stable. Tripod, counter, railing, rest it on a tree stump, trunk of your car, a mini table-top tripod.
  • Hold your camera steady. A common mistake is holding the camera out at arms length in front of you. Hold the camera closer to your body with your elbows tucked at your side. There are times when you can get away with holding your camera out in front of you. But if your shots are blurry, try this instead.
  • If your camera has a viewfinder, looking through it, with elbows at your side adds extra stability.
  • If your camera or lenses have stabilization or anti-shake, you may need to turn them on.
  • The further out you zoom, the more steadiness is required to take a picture without camera shake. Imagine a short stick with a small weight on it held in front of you and what it takes to hold it steady. Most people will be able to hold it fairly steady. Now lengthen the stick be several feet, it’s much harder to hold it steady. When you zoom your lens it works similarly. A rule of thumb from 35mm film days was to have a shutter speed of 1/focal length. So if you had a zoom of 125mm, the shutter speed required by the average photographer (hand held without a tripod) would be 1/125. The formula gets complicated with digital cameras due to the size of the image sensor, and the effective focal length. I won’t get into that here. For each camera the amount of shutter speed to compensate will be different. Just be aware of it. To counter it, use support, or increase your shutter speed by going into sports mode, or if your camera allows, learn to set the shutter speed.


What we use as well as the condition of what we have play a roll in how sharp our pictures are as well.

  • Tripod – I mentioned this briefly earlier. Tripods play an important part in getting sharp pictures. Though not always practical to carry one along, it’s worth it for times when it is practical to use them. You don’t always need to bring a full size tripod with you either. I often take pictures in low light at my church. Sometimes I’ll bring along my Giottos Table Top Tripod  and my Markins Ball Head that I place on the counter of the sound booth. Other versatile and portable tripods are also available such as the Joby Gorillapod that allows you to secure your camera to many things. They come in sizes for portable point and shoots and DSLR’s.
  • Clean Your Lens - A dirty lens can reduce the amount of light getting to the focus system. Use a soft cloth, lens pen, or cleaner and tissues designed for cleaning camera equipment. Be sure to follow the directions that come with the product.
  • Know Your Lenses – For DSLR owners, whose budgets allow, consider upgrading your lens. Also, learn where the sharpest spot (known as the “sweet spot”) is on your lenses. When I got my first DSLR and was feeling the need for more reach, I purchased a 70-300G. What I learned after some trial and error and some help from photographer friends is that lens had a sweet spot of f/8, I was using it at f/5.6 and found out that f/8 gave me a bit more sharpness. Later I switched to a 70-300 VR which had a better optical formula and the added benefit of Vibration Reduction. Eventually I ended up with a used (but excellent) earlier model of a 70-200 2.8 VR which is more of a professional lens. That allowed me to get sharper pictures with larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) which I needed for shots in my church sanctuary. For most lenses the sweet spot is 2 stops up from the lenses maximum aperture setting.

With a little bit of practice you’ll start capturing sharper pictures. If you would like, share your experiences in the comments section.



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