Top five reasons your photos are blurry

One thing newer photographers seem to have the hardest time with is nailing focus. I love purposely out of focus images, but there is nothing worse than thinking you’ve nailed focus, only to realize too late that many or all are blurry. When I first got back into film photography in the summer of 2021, I shot three rolls before sending them off for development, only to discover that the focusing system of that particular body was broken. I once had a digital body lose focus reliabilty after a couple of years with it also, but the vast majority of focus issues can be fixed with a little adjustment in technique. Here are the top five reasons I see photographers struggle with when dealing with focus.

A shallow depth of field adds to this image by bringing the viewer’s attention to the one opened flower, but too shallow will often look like missed focus. See tip 5 below.

1. Your shutter speed is too slow

If you are still working on learning the exposure triangle and shooting manual, the most obvious culprit of a blurry photo is typically a shutter speed that is too slow to freeze motion, or that is too slow for you to hold your camera perfectly still. A good rule of thumb for a minimum shutter speed is 2x your focal length. So if you are shooting a 50mm lens, you wouldn’t want a shutter speed of less than 1/100, and if you are using a very long telephoto lens like a 600mm lens, you would want nothing slower than 1/1000. Of course, there are a lot of variables to this, not the least of which is how strong and stable you personally are. Additionally, many newer camera bodies and lenses have some combination of image stabilization which typically allows you to use a slower shutter speed than without stabilization.

However, even with those guidelines, it is important to consider the subject. If you are taking a photo of a city landscape with buildings, you can use a much slower shutter speed than if you are in photographing a car zooming around a race track at a hundred miles an hour. For most photographers, using a shutter speed of at least 1/250 for perfectly still subjects and 1/500 for less stable subjects (like toddlers or slower sports) is a great starting point. If you are at a sporting event, I would aim for 1/800 or higher. And yes, this likely means that you will have to raise you ISO, but remember, we can always minimize noise in post, but we cannot make an blurry photo sharp.

The shutter speed for this image was 1/125, which is clearly too slow for a wriggly puppy.
For this image, I wanted to stop the motion of the ball coming into the net, and my shutter speed was 1/2000.
This image had a shutter speed of 1/1250 to freeze the motion of the karts.

2. Your camera chose the wrong focal point

Especially in the era of eye/face tracking, the camera can easily choose the wrong focal point. Remember, the camera is just a little mini computer running algorithms. It doesn’t actually know what your intended subject is. If you are using a tracking mode, for instance wide-angle or face tracking, the camera may choose to focus on an area of higher contrast. With multiple human subjects in the frame, the camera doesn’t know which person you want to focus on and may choose the wrong one. Think of a typical family portrait with a baby sitting in the foreground, and the parents in the background. Often this image should focus on the baby with the parents fading into the background, but if you are using a face tracking mode, the camera may select the wrong set of people for focusing. In a sports scenario, your camera may hop to a subject running into the frame when you thought you were locked on a different subject.

Although tracking modes can be very helpful, the algorithms that go with them can be very sophisticated and take a lot of practice to get used to. If you find that using a tracking mode is causing more out of focus images than in focus images, I encourage you to move to single point and compose your photos deliberately. I still typically use single point when photographing my own children’s sports (swimming and lacrosse) and end up with more than enough keepers; I set my focal point and then pan the camera keeping the point on their face as they move through the frame. I like this method because it means that I am in charge of where the focus goes and not the camera.

This image the focus fell to the floor, rather than her eyes. Although there is an area of sharp focus in the image, it is not where I intended, and the image would be considered out of focus.
Here a readjustment of focal points and shooting techniques allowed me to capture her eyes as I wanted.

3. You are using AF-S rather than AF-C.

First, what do AF-S and AF-C even mean, and why does it matter? AF-S stands for auto-focus single (shot). This means that when you half press the shutter button (or use the back button, as described below), once the camera achieves focus, it stops looking for focus; This is great for still life work, landscape, and adult portraiture where you can be assured that the subject stays still. AF-C is auto-focus continuous, and the focusing system will continue to work until the shutter button is fully depressed.

Many of the photographers I chat with are typically photographing small kids or kids’ sports. But these types of subjects are constantly in motion. Even a child sitting for a formal portrait is likely to be wiggly. If you are using AF-S, if your camera locks focus, and then the subject moves slightly, your image will no longer be in focus. This also happens if you, the photographer, moves slightly, particularly when using a wider aperture. When there is any chance of movement from your subject (or if you are a slightly unsteady photographer), move your camera to AF-C. This will allow the focusing system to continually look for focus until the image is taken. This will compensate for even the slightest of movements from you or your subjects. I keep my camera in AF-C regardless of what subject is in front of me.

4. You aren’t using back button focus

It’s true that back button focus (BBF) won’t solve all your focus issues, but it can definitely help. By default, the shutter button controls focus with a half-press and the act of taking the photo by opening the shutter with a full press. With BBF, set through a custom setting in your camera menu system, the focusing process gets tied to the AF-On button. The shutter button therefore only controls the actual act of opening the shutter for the moment the photo is captured, and focusing occurs independently. When BBF is used in conjunction with AF-C as described above, the focusing system works continuously as long as the AF-On button is depressed; you can then track your subject for as long as you need until the moment is right to press the shutter button fully.

Using a combination of AF-C with back button focusing, I am able to keep focus on the fast moving lacrosse players and still keep my subject in focus.

5. Your depth of field is too shallow

When I first decided to get a “big” camera, one of my main goals was to end up with a “blurry background.” There are a lot of factors that contribute to a blurry background, but a primary way is to shoot with a very wide aperture, say f/2 or lower. But when do you use a wide aperture your depth of field is very shallow. What does this mean? The depth of field is the amount of space in your image that is in focus. With a shallow depth of field, you may only have an area of a few inches that will be well focused. Consider using a typical 85mm f/1.8 lens for a headshot; images like that are generally composed quite tightly around the subject, and using f/1.8 you might have only 1.3″ of sharpness. In a scenario like that, it is easy for focus to fall just a bit forward of the eyes to the nose (or more often glasses frame if your subject is wearing them) or just behind the eyes to the hairline or ears. Having only the eyes in focus might be a stylistic choice for your subject, but for something like a corporate headshot, it would be better to stop down so that more (or all) of the head is in focus. It also helps to minimize any missed focus by having a larger area overall that will be in focus.

It is difficult to nail focus with wide apertures without a lot of practice. You can easily google depth of field calculators that help to determine how much of your image will be in focus with a given camera body/lens/aperture set up.

Depth of field issues are exacerbated by macro. Here I used an aperture of f/5 and did not have enough of the head in focus.
I then stopped down to f/10 and had focus throughout the head of the caterpillar, and I was able to bring attention to the stripes and antennae.

Sharp focus is critical to storytelling in an image and if these tips don’t help you achieve sharp focus, feel free to reach out. In general, though, these rules will defintely help you nail focus more often than not, and when feeling frustrated, first always check that your shutter speed is fast enough for your subject and that your aperture is stopped down enough to allow a sufficient depth of field.

Follow along with my Project 52 in 2023

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