Why Aren’t My Photos Tack Sharp?

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"In Focus" by D. Travis North

We’ve all been there:  Browsing photos in your workflow, you come across a shot that is almost perfect.  The only catch is that it’s not tack sharp.  Unwanted blurs riddle the shot.  Sadly, you must reject the photo – another one lost because it’s not perfect.  I don’t believe anyone keeps statistics on it, but I’d guess that a significant portion of rejected photos are rejected because of so-called focus issues.  Sometimes it is focusing problems, but sometimes it’s something else.  In this article, we’re going to try to address a number causes for such issues and provide solutions for each.

Focusing Problems

Sometimes the reason is simply focus, or lack thereof.  Even when using auto-focus, focusing problems are all too common.  Don’t get me wrong, your camera is a precise piece of equipment.  But even the best cameras on the market are not perfect.  Here are a few common problems with their solutions:

  • Poor Contrast:  The issue is caused when the contrast between your subject and its surroundings is poor.  The Solution – Place a high contrast object, such as a white balance card or even a book, as a stand-in for your subject.  Set the focus, flip it to manual (so it doesn’t change) and carry on.
  • Low Light:  Your camera needs a fair amount of light to focus on a subject.  Many cameras have a focusing lamp to aid, but it is useless for close-up subjects (the lens often obstructs the lamp) and distant subjects (too far for the lamp to reach).  The Solution – A flashlight.  Shine it on the subject, flip to manual (so it doesn’t change) and carry on.
  • Macro or Close-Up:  You’re so close to your subject that even the slightest movement will throw it out of focus.  It’s also possible that being so close will cause poor lighting or contrast issues as above, except those solutions won’t always work in close-up/macro photography.  The Solution – This is one situation where manual focus is going to win the game.

It’s Not Always A Focusing Issue

New camera, new lens and you still can’t get tack sharp photos.  It’s possible – nay, very probable – that the issue has nothing to do with focus.  Shutter speed and camera shake are most likely the cause, and the two are directly connected; a slow shutter means that camera shake is more of a concern.  Here’s a couple of potential other causes for blurry photos, and their solutions.  I want you to pay close attention here, because it’s more likely the problem your having is not a focusing issue.

  • Slow Shutter Speed (or Low Light):  Poor light means slow shutter speed.  Slow shutter speed means camera shake is more of a problem.  The Solution –  The goal is to raise the shutter speed, so you need to do this any way that you can.  To get a higher shutter speed, you could raise the ISO or widen the aperture.  If additional noise isn’t your desire, or if you still want that wider depth of field, you either need to add light to the scene with a flash or some other light source, or you need a tripod.
  • Long Focal Length and Distance to Subject:  Camera shake is always going to be an issue.  But it becomes more of an issue the longer your focal length or the distance to your subject.  Any small camera rotation gets magnified over a distance.  The longer the focal length, the more it gets magnified.  The Solution – If it is within your budget, a good lens with optical image stabilization will certainly help.  Otherwise, if hand-holding, a good rule of thumb is to avoid shutter speeds of one over the focal length.  For example, if you’re shooting with a 135mm lens, you want to try to avoid going below a shutter speed of 1/135.  A lens with optical image stabilization will help to cut down two or three stops.  When all else fails, there is always the tripod.
  • "Lance Returns Quickly" by D. Travis NorthMoving Subject:  Clearly a moving subject is going to cause problems with blur.  The faster the subject, the faster your shutter speed will need to be.  Even on a sunny day, you may not be able to achieve the required shutter speeds necessary to freeze the motion tack sharp.  The Solution – If your desire is to freeze the motion, your only option is to raise the ISO, but that could add some unwanted noise.  If you’re feeling adventurous and you’d like to try something more interesting, you can always use the movement to your advantage.  Using slow-shutter techniques such as panning and zooming, you can still create some compelling photos without having to worry too much about being tack sharp.
  • Poor Stance:  Standing on shaky ground?  Shooting at an awkward angle?  Anything that will compromise your stance or your camera grip will put the photo quality at risk.  The Solution – I may sound like a broken record, but a tripod is usually the best and simplest solution.  But if that isn’t an option, you should do your best to stabilize your stance or the hold on your camera.  Lean against a wall, spread your stance, rest your elbows on something and exhale before snapping the shutter.  Don’t be afraid to get dirty and lay down if it gives you the most stable position.  Perhaps your shot would benefit from a hands-off approach:  Set the camera down and position it with a beanbag or something.  Use the timer and stand back – get your shaky hands off of it.

Final Thoughts

You will notice that I didn’t include your equipment as a cause for concern on this list.  It’s easy for us to blame our equipment rather than admit our own mistakes.  Before you blame the equipment, try to clean up your shooting by trying one of these solutions.  I of course don’t know all – some of you may have other causes and suggestions how to fix the problem.  If you do, please leave a comment with your suggestions so that we may all learn.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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