9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

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While I agree that sharpness is a bourgeois concept, to become a better photographer you will need to learn how to take sharp shots. The key to capturing these sharp photographs is to learn about all of the pitfalls that can cause blurry photos. Once you know all of the ways you can make a mistake, the only thing between you and sharpness is your hand-eye coordination.

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

1. Back focus

Back focus is the bane of almost every photographer’s existence. This occurs when you think you are autofocusing on your main subject, but the camera misreads the situation and focuses on what is behind them instead, ruining the image. This happens primarily in situations where the focus is placed near an edge between your subject and the background.

Gowanus, New York Street Photography

The only way to fix this is to be aware of situations where it could happen. If you are photographing near an edge, be more careful, or lock the focus in a safer area before recomposing. Constantly pay attention to whether you think the focus is accurate or not, and if you have a keeper image, it can’t hurt to capture a couple photographs just to make sure the focus is correct.

2. Shutter speed too slow for shooting handheld

The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed must always be ONE divided by the focal length of your lens to offset handheld camera shake. So if you have a wider angle lens such as a 30mm, then you need a slower shutter speed of 1/30th of a second to guarantee sharpness. If you have a telephoto lens such as a 200mm this tip is even more important since you will need a 1/200th of a second to offset the shake in your hands.

Photographers shooting on aperture priority mode often get caught by this when they do not pay attention to their shutter speed, which can easily dip below the acceptable number.

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

Keep in mind that if you have a cropped or micro 4/3rds sensor, you will need to figure out your full-frame equivalent focal length to calculate the minimum shutter speed necessary. For example, if you have a cropped sensor with a factor of 1.5x, and you are using a 200mm lens – the minimum shutter speed required is:  200mm x 1.5 = 300 or 1/300th of a second.

3. Shutter speed too slow to freeze motion

To freeze motion you need to use a fast shutter speed. The number that I use is 1/250th of a second for people who are walking. Running and sports can be between 1/500th and 1/1000th depending on the speed, but it all depends on how fast your subject is moving. Make sure to pay closer attention to your shutter speed when photographing something in motion (especially if you shooting in Aperture Priority mode).

4. Not focusing on the eyes in portrait photography

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

If you are photographing someone’s face, particularly with a shallow depth of field and close up, the focus needs to be on the subject’s eyes (unless you decide otherwise due to creative reasons). The nose or the chin is not good enough – it needs to be on the eyes. I can’t tell you how many portraits I ruined early on where the person’s ear was sharper than their eye.

5. Not raising your ISO high enough

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

In situations when you are not trying to capture a shallow depth of field, raising the ISO is often a very good strategy, even up to 1600, 3200, or 6400 depending on your camera and the light. Raising your ISO will allow for a faster shutter speed to offset handheld camera shake and freeze motion, and for a smaller aperture so you can have a larger depth of field. The added grain/noise will usually be very worth the added sharpness in the scene.

6. Not stopping fully to take a photograph

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

This is my biggest pet peeve, and I see it done particularly when people are traveling and overstimulated by their environment. If you are going to take a photograph, make sure to stop yourself. Take a second to frame the photograph before you shoot it. If you capture a photograph while you are in motion, it will be slightly blurry unless you are using an insanely fast shutter speed.

7. Not cleaning the front of your lens

Smudges on your lens will reduce the sharpness and can ruin some of your photographs. Carry a lens cloth or use a thin soft t-shirt to clean it.

8. Missing the focus in dark situations

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

Your camera’s autofocus capability, particularly with entry-level cameras, will diminish significantly in darker places. Make sure to pay even more attention to where the camera is locking its focus, and try to look for white, shiny, or contrasty objects to lock the focus on. If all else fails, go to manual focusing.

Using a lens with a larger aperture (like the 50mm f/1.8) will help, as will using the center most focusing point in your camera. It is a cross-point type and as such is more accurate and can often focus better in lower light situations.

9. Tripod mistakes

When using a tripod, you want to make sure to never touch it while a picture is being taken. Even holding it to keep it steady will introduce blur. Use a remote shutter release or set your camera on a 2-second delay before you take the photograph.

The 9 Mistakes That Can Cause Blurry Photos

Pay particular attention to your tripod when photographing on a windy day. The wind can also shake the camera and add some blur. To combat this, try to capture your photographs in-between wind gusts and even consider raising your ISO up so that your shutter speed will be faster. It is much easier to take a 10-second exposure in between wind gusts than a 30-second exposure.

Finally, make sure to turn your image stabilization off when photographing on a tripod. This might not matter with certain newer cameras, but it is always a good habit to get into. The stabilizing system has the potential to add minor vibrations to the camera when it is fully still.

You may also want to read: 5 Tips to Get Sharp Photos While Using a Tripod.

Conclusion

If you follow these nine tips you should be better equipped to avoid getting blurry photos. Do you have any other tips to add? Please post them and any questions you have in the comments section below.

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs photography tours of New York and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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  • Albin

    I’d add one focus tip – that rarely seems to get mentioned – that I was shown years ago while shooting handheld at a bicycle race – it was to lock the focus (AF-L, etc. on various models) on an object close to and within the depth of field to sharply capture a moving object. For example, AF-L locked on a fire hydrant or tree let me move the camera to target and burst shoot passing bike racers – can also work for shooting the family pet or birds around a feeder, instead of trying to chase after them with autofocus. Seems the same might help with that “back focus” in some scenarios.

  • Jim the Photographer

    when using a tripod be sure to turn off the VR or IS or whatever your camera calls Image Stabilization!

  • Jim the Photographer

    Be sure to read the part about tripods and image stabilization again and again and again! I had a whole day of landscape shooting ruined because I forgot to turn off the VR on my lens! I now keep my VR permanently off.

  • Chilissimo

    One more tip: if you have a DSLR-camera, beware of mirror shake.
    A good description can be found here: http://www.ophrysphotography.co.uk/pages/tutorial_mirrorslap.htm
    (with sample pictures)

  • mascka

    Please make corrections on this prop. :
    ‘So if you have a wider angle lens such as a 30mm, then you need a slower shutter speed of 1/30th of a second to guarantee sharpness.’

  • What correction is needed? Seems right to me.

  • Yes this is a good one as will Chili – I have never noticed it to be too significant on my SLRs but something to certainly look into.

  • We all have had that happen at one point Jim 🙂

  • Great tip Albin!

  • pete guaron

    There’s another form of back focus, which can be a lot harder to deal with. It occurs when there’s something wrong with the calibration of the lens, and I had a lens last year that had a bad attack of it. I took it back to the shop I bought it from, and they “checked” it – telling me there was nothing wrong with it. I took it to a different shop, where I was told it had a severe case of back focus – and on my full frame Nik, was going to use practically all of the (plus or minus 20) units available for adjusting back focus out of the way. I took it home, set up the customary measuring stick and went to work on it – in the end, I gave up on it and traded it in on a new lens.

    For what it’s worth, it was one of a pair of Sigma ART primes I bought for the purpose of traveling to Europe. The 50mm worked perfectly, but the 24mm was a waste of money. And I am still upset over it, because I only discovered the problem during post processing, after my return home.

    The replacement is a manual focus Otus 28mm – back focus is out of the question, and I don’t miss the AF function anyway.

    I accept that with the volume of this kind of gear that’s being manufactured and marketed, an occasional unit will misfire. I am coldly unimpressed with the fact I dropped hundreds of dollars, turning over a virtually brand new lens only a few short months after buying it – an episode like that is never a happy experience and leaves a nasty taste.

    There is, however, something to learn from this. Do NOT take untried and untested gear on a photography jaunt like that – make SURE you’re completely happy with its performance before packing it to take with you.

  • It’s a very good point Pete – occasionally new lenses can be messed up and it’s always good to test them out when you get them.

  • Grant

    I think i see what mascka means.
    Saying you need the slower shutter speed kinda reads backwards.
    the shorter the focal length the slower the shutter shutter speed you can use not need if that makes sense?

  • Mr_Electability

    Here’s one I’ve done all too often: Too wide an aperture, leading to too thin a depth of field, so that important details you wanted to keep sharp end up blurred.

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