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Capturing sharp images is something most photographers aim to do, regardless of what genre you do. While it sounds easy on paper, it’s not quite as easy to come home with sharp images; especially when you are photographing in challenging conditions.
There are several reasons why you’re images aren’t as sharp as you’d like them to be but the good news is that most of them are both quick and easy to fix. In this article, we’ll look at the most common reasons and what you can do to avoid making these mistakes again.
The shutter speed is to blame for a lack of sharp images in 99% of the cases. A shutter speed that is too slow results in the image becoming blurry.
This is a common mistake and it’s easy to forget to change the shutter speed when you’re in the field. There’s so much to remember, right? The ISO, the aperture, composition, light… and then the shutter speed. Don’t worry though; spending time using and learning the camera will make this much easier within no time at all.
The exact shutter speed you need depends on the situation. However, a rule of thumb is to never use a shutter speed slower than 1 over the focal length for handheld photography. That means that you shouldn’t use a shutter speed slower than 1/70th of a second with a 70mm lens, or slower than 1/16th of a second for a 16mm lens.
This isn’t an exact science though and while the tip above can serve as a guideline, you still should make it a habit to zoom in on the image preview to double check if the image is sharp.
If you need to use a slower shutter speed to achieve a certain look or due to the dim conditions, it’s essential that you use a tripod. This makes it possible to increase the exposure time without worrying about the image being blurry.
Unfortunately, an unsharp image can’t always be blamed on human error. Sometimes the camera equipment is to blame. While I often preach that camera gear won’t make you a better photographer, it is true that it does make a difference to the image quality.
A budget lens isn’t as sharp as a professional lens and sometimes this becomes quite visible. For this reason, it’s advisable to do some research about the lens before purchasing it and make sure to read what people are saying about the image sharpness.
So what about the times when you’re using a slow shutter with the camera placed on a tripod, and you know for a fact that the lens is good enough? The cause might be camera vibration.
When capturing the image above I could not for the life of me figure out why almost every image was slightly blurry when I zoomed in on the LCD screen. I used a 70-200mm with a semi-slow shutter speed, the camera was mounted on a solid carbon fiber tripod and I used a remote shutter release.
After several attempts and trying to understand what was happening I realized it was due to me not standing still when taking the image. This caused small vibrations in the unstable ground I was standing on and resulted in the camera vibrating slightly.
Camera vibration becomes more visible and is easier to cause the longer the focal length you are using. Had I used a 14mm I would most likely not have noticed it at all.
There are many reasons why you might be having some camera vibration. The example above is perhaps not the most common. It could be caused by wind, waves, the tripod is placed in a river or on a bridge, or perhaps it is from you pressing the shutter button (so get a remote trigger).
Other times you can’t blame either yourself or the camera gear. Sometimes the weather is to blame and it makes it impossible to capture a sharp image.
The most common reason is lots of particles in the air and high temperatures. Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to explain how this works (I’m sure someone wants to take on this task in the comments) but it’s a common issue when photographing distant subjects.
A good practice is to use Live View and zoom into 100% magnification to check for sharpness. This should give you a good idea of whether or whether not it’s possible to capture a sharp image.
So I hope these tips have you to get sharp images next time you’re out shooting. Use this as a checklist of things to look out for and go over them one by one to ensure you have everything sharp.
If you have any other tips of reasons why others might be experiencing unsharp images, please share them in the comment area below.
Be sure to read my eBook The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography if you’re curious about working with slower shutter speeds.