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The Most Common Reasons Your Pictures Are Blurry (And How to Fix Them)

Blurry photos? Here's what you should change

This article was updated in April 2024 with contributions from Anne McKinnell and Jaymes Dempsey.

“Why are my pictures blurry?” It’s a common question, especially for folks exploring photography for the first time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an easy answer.

The truth is that blurry photos are caused by many factors, so if your pictures are blurry, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact problem. Are you using improper handholding techniques? Do you have a defective lens? Did you choose a bad shutter speed? The list goes on. As a result, getting to a point where your files are consistently tack-sharp is, for most photographers, a goal that remains out of reach.

But while a blurry-photo problem doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all solution, there are a handful of common reasons why your images might be blurry, each with its own simple fix.

And that’s why I wrote this article. Below, I list the 10 main reasons you might be capturing blurry photos, and while you might be familiar with some, others might come as a surprise.

So if you’re struggling to take sharp photos, here’s my recommendation:

Go through the list carefully. Don’t skip any of the sections, and make sure that you’re avoiding the common mistakes and pitfalls that I discuss. As soon as you come across an item that might be causing you problems, do whatever you can to erase it from your workflow – whether that means writing yourself a note that you keep in your camera bag, changing the default settings in your camera menu, or investing in new gear.

We all hate the feeling of viewing one of our images, only to realize that it’s blurry. But if you use this list, and you make the necessary changes, I guarantee that your photos will turn out sharper than ever.

1. Your shutter speed is too slow

For anyone who handholds their camera, a too-slow shutter speed is the number one culprit of blurry photos.

The slower your shutter speed, the more likely it is that vibrations in your camera – generally caused by tiny movements in your hands and arms – will create blur. This is an issue that I see all the time, and you often don’t realize that it’s plaguing your workflow until it’s pointed out to you.

You might think you can hold your camera perfectly still for half a second, but I assure you: there are very few people in the world who can do this. Most folks can only handhold a camera down to the 1/160s to 1/80s range, so if you’re using a shutter speed below 1/80s, then blur is a real possibility.

In fact, even if your shutter speed is faster than 1/80s, and even if you’re using a good handholding technique (see below!), blur due to camera shake can still creep in. That’s because the slowest shutter speed at which you can effectively handhold your camera varies depending on the lens’s focal length, the lens’s size, and the level of magnification.

So how can you be sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to prevent blur?

Start with this rule of thumb:

Your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your lens’s focal length.

So if you’re using a 60mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/60s or faster. With a 200mm lens, use at least 1/200s. With a 400mm lens, use at least 1/400s.

(The longer your lens length, the more camera shake is magnified, so telephoto lenses require much faster shutter speeds.)

sharp pelican without blur
I took this photo with a 400mm lens. Therefore, according to the reciprocal rule I shared above, I would need a shutter speed of at least 1/400s to capture a sharp shot. And honestly, when shooting with a heavy 400mm lens, it’s often safer to use a shutter speed that’s even faster.

Now, while the reciprocal rule is a useful starting point, you should modify it in a few specific scenarios.

First, if you’re photographing at high magnifications, you’ll want to boost the shutter speed a few notches beyond what the reciprocal rule recommends. So if you’re photographing flower petals with a 100mm macro lens, you should ideally use a shutter speed of 1/160s to keep your images sharp. And if you push your macro lens to its absolute maximum magnification, you’ll want to raise that shutter speed further still. When I photograph flowers at 1:1 magnifications, I’ve found that I generally need around 1/200s to keep my images from blurring (and when possible, I’ll shoot at 1/250s or even 1/320s to be safe).

Second, if you’re photographing action, such as a person running across a field, your shutter speed will need to be far faster than the reciprocal rule suggests. Fast-moving subjects require shutter speeds of 1/500s, 1/1000s, or – when dealing with ultra-fast subjects, such as birds in flight – 1/2000s and above.

Third, some lenses and cameras have image stabilization technology built into them. Image stabilization usually allows you to slow your minimum shutter speed by around 3-5 stops, so if your equipment includes this technology, and you know that its image-stabilization features are active, you can often handhold a few stops slower than the reciprocal rule suggests. But you should always be cautious, and if you haven’t tested your equipment’s capabilities, I recommend taking a few extra shots just to be sure you end up with a usable image.

What is your minimum shutter speed?

In addition to the reciprocal rule, it’s important to know your own personal minimum shutter speed.

You see, we all shake a little, but some of us shake more than others. So it’s good to know at what point camera shake becomes an issue for you.

Try this exercise (and for the best results, try it with each lens you own!):

Put your camera in Shutter Priority mode and take a photo at 1/500s. Then lower your shutter speed and take another image. Keep this going until you head all the way down to 1s or so, then pull up the images on your computer. Ask yourself: When does the blur become a problem? I rarely go below 1/125s if I’m handholding my camera, even if I’m using a shorter lens. I’ve found that I can’t consistently keep my images sharp at slower shutter speeds, and I just don’t want to risk a blurry shot.

2. You’re not using a tripod

sharp arches with proper depth of field

To be clear, you don’t always need a tripod to capture sharp photos. If you follow the guidelines I set out above, you can avoid blur due to camera shake, and your handheld photos will look crisp.

However, there are times when using a sufficiently fast shutter speed isn’t desirable – either because you don’t have enough light, or because you’re deliberately trying to blur something in the frame.

In these scenarios, the reciprocal rule becomes worthless. But instead of handholding your camera and hoping for the best, you need to prevent blur due to camera shake by keeping your camera steady another way.

The best option, and the one that I highly recommend, is using a tripod. It’ll keep your camera completely steady even as you dial in a shutter speed of one second or more. As long as your tripod is sturdy, you can capture photos using shutter speeds that last minutes or even hours (though if you do shoot for hours, you’ll need to watch out for other problems, such as wind and file noise).

If a tripod is too inconvenient, consider a monopod, which is a more compact, flexible option (though it won’t offer anywhere near the same level of support, so you’ll need to be careful if you drop the shutter speed below 1/20s or so).

Also, when you use a tripod, image stabilization is not necessary and may even be counterproductive, so it’s a good idea to get in the habit of turning any IS off when you put your camera on a tripod.

3. You’re using bad camera-holding technique

If you’re handholding your camera, and you feel confident that you’re using a sufficiently fast shutter speed but your files are still turning out blurry, then it’s time to consider your handholding technique. Bad technique can cause extra camera shake, which can in turn cause blur.

For the best stability, practice the official photographer position:

Stand with your feet slightly apart, one staggered forward, and firmly planted to stabilize your body right to left and back to front. Support the camera with your left hand by holding the lens from underneath, and use your right hand to grab the grip and gently press the shutter button. Tuck your elbows tight to your chest and use the viewfinder rather than the Live View screen (holding the camera to your face will help keep it steady).

Some photographers even go so far as to listen to their breathing and heartbeat, taking care to fire the shot between breaths and beats for maximum stability.

photographer handholding camera with technique to prevent blurry photos
When you’re handholding your camera, you should always practice good technique, as demonstrated in this image! Note the tucked-in elbows and the staggered feet.

4. Your aperture is too wide

The size of the aperture determines the depth of field, which is how much of the image is in focus. And this has a direct effect on the sharpness of your photo.

When a lens finds focus, it locks onto a specific distance known as the plane of focus. So if you focus at, say, 15 feet, everything 15 feet away from the camera will have maximum sharpness, and anything in front of or behind that plane will start to blur. The strength of this blur effect – that is, the speed at which sharpness falls off – depends on the aperture.

If you use a wide aperture such as f/2.8, the depth of field will be very shallow. This effect is magnified by longer focal lengths, and it’s also magnified when you shoot close-up subjects. So if you use a telephoto lens, you set the aperture to f/2.8, and you get up close, the resulting image will only have a razor-thin sliver in sharp focus. But if you use a small aperture such as f/11 or f/18, the depth of field will be larger, and more of the image will be sharp.

desert landscape
Using an aperture of f/20, I managed to keep everything in focus from foreground to background. But if I had used an f/2.8 aperture, only a sliver of the shot would have been in focus, and the rest would have turned out blurry.

Choosing the right aperture depends on the type of image you want to create. But if you are trying to get everything in the frame as sharp as possible, try using a small aperture (produced by a larger f-number such as f/11).

Note that a small aperture will let in less light, so you will need to use a slower shutter speed to compensate. See the first and second items on this list!

Also bear in mind that ultra-narrow apertures, such as f/22, will introduce blur due to diffraction – so narrowing your aperture beyond f/16 or so is often best avoided.

5. You’re not using autofocus

These days, cameras are sophisticated. So let them do what they are good at! Cameras do a fantastic job of nailing focus, both with still subjects and subjects in motion.

Is autofocus perfect? No, and later in this article, I’ll discuss a few times when manual focus is actually helpful. But generally speaking, autofocus is the way to go.

Basically, if your camera is set to manual focus, and you don’t have a solid reason to be shooting that way, I’d encourage you to switch it to autofocus. I use my camera’s AF settings most of the time, and so should you!

That said, even once you’ve set up your camera’s autofocus, you can still end up with blurry photos if you don’t use the right approach, as I explain below.

why are my pictures blurry? sharp vulture

6. You’re not focusing in the correct place

Even if you’re using the perfect handholding technique or a rock-solid tripod, if you focus in the wrong place, you’ll still end up with blurry pictures.

Focusing carefully is especially crucial when using a wide aperture (because you’ll have a razor-thin depth of field!). A slight miscalculation in the focus can throw the subject completely out of the focal plane, or give you a subject with perfectly sharp earlobes and blurry eyes.

Photographers often leave their cameras set to an auto AF-area mode – one that tells the camera to decide automatically what part of the picture should be in focus. Most of the time, modern cameras are pretty good at this, particularly if the subject is prominent in the frame. However, with more complex compositions, or with subjects that are very close to the lens, the camera can get confused and try to focus on the wrong thing.

If you’re photographing in a scenario where your camera might be struggling to choose the right focus point, then you’ll want to specify the focus point manually. To do this, switch to a single-point AF-area mode.

When you look through your viewfinder, you should see an array of little dots or squares laid over the display, like this:

AF point spread

These are your focus points, and they show you where in the frame the camera can lock focus. In single-point AF-area modes, you can use the camera’s direction pad to select one of these dots, and the camera will always focus on that point (and that point alone).

Note that, to tell the camera to focus, you would normally depress the shutter button halfway before pressing it the rest of the way to take the shot. This works pretty well, but cameras can be overly sensitive – if you press too lightly, the button may come unpressed and try to re-focus after you’ve already found your point of focus. If you press too hard, you might capture the shot before the focus is ready. And if you take multiple pictures in succession, your camera may try to focus again before each shot. For these reasons, you might want to give back-button focusing a try; it’s not for everyone, but it can definitely make a big difference.

One final note:

In recent years, mirrorless cameras have added some outstanding subject-specific AF-area modes. In the right scenario, these can be far more effective than the single-point AF setting I mentioned above. For instance, if you’re photographing people and your camera offers a high-quality Eye AF setting, you should definitely try it out!

So check your camera menu to see what AF options you have available, and don’t be afraid to diverge from my recommended settings – provided that you test the modes out in advance, of course!

7. You’re using the incorrect autofocus mode

There are three main autofocus modes offered by most cameras. You should be switching between these modes every time you’re faced with a new shooting situation; otherwise, you’re bound to miss shots you normally could’ve nailed.

(Note that these AF modes are not the same as the AF-area modes I discussed above. AF-area modes specify where the camera should focus, while AF modes specify how the camera should focus. It’s confusing, I know – but as long as you keep this distinction in mind, you’ll be okay.)

Here are the three AF modes and when you should use them:

Single-shot autofocus, called AF-S or One-Shot AF, tells your camera to lock focus when you half-press the shutter button, and it maintains that point of focus until the shutter button is released. Therefore, this mode should be used with still subjects. I often use my camera’s single-shot AF when photographing stationary scenes, such as landscapes, cityscapes, architectural interiors, and still-life arrangements.

Continuous autofocus, called AF-C or AI Servo AF, is designed to track movement through the frame; when you half-press the shutter button, your camera will acquire focus, but it will constantly re-acquire focus as long as the shutter button remains partially depressed. It works best when your subject is in motion, and it’s the mode I use when photographing birds in flight, wildlife running, and sports players in action.

Finally, there’s an automatic autofocus mode, called AF-A or AI Focus AF. This is likely the default setting on your camera. It reads the scene and determines which of the first two modes it should use – but while automatic AF might sound convenient, it’s pretty unpredictable, and it’s not a mode that I ever use. Feel free to try it out and see what you think, but manually switching between single-shot AF and continuous AF is my approach, and it’s what I generally recommend to anyone struggling with autofocusing issues.

cactus flower
Dealing with a stationary subject? Your camera’s single-shot AF mode is the better choice, since it’ll lock focus on your subject and won’t jump around.

8. You’re not using manual focus

While I’m a big advocate of autofocus, there is one particular time when manual focus comes in handy:

When your camera is on a tripod, and you’re using a wide aperture to achieve a very shallow depth of field.

If you want to make sure the most important thing in your frame is sharp, switch to manual focus. Then use the LCD zoom function to magnify the display by 5x or 10x. And make tiny adjustments to the focus until you get it just right.

You can also try manual focusing when shooting close-up subjects (e.g., a flower petal) or when photographing landscapes in the darkness.

9. There’s junk on or in front of your lens

A big smear on your lens is going to affect the clarity of your image.

And if you put a cheap plastic filter in front of your lens, that’ll degrade image quality, too.

So make sure your lens is clean. And make sure that all your filters are high quality. If you always shoot with a UV filter and you keep getting blurry pictures, try taking a few shots without the filter to see if the quality of the glass is negatively affecting your images.

10. You need a different lens

Beginners love to blame their blurry pictures on their optics, though a bad lens is rarely the problem.

That said, lens quality can make a difference, and you’ll occasionally find lenses that are genuinely soft. And some lenses may be sharp in the center but get blurry around the corners and edges of the image, or sharp at certain apertures but slightly fuzzy at others. Every lens has a unique character that may or may not be useful to the type of work you’re doing.

It’s also worth noting that each lens has a “sweet spot” – a certain aperture at which it performs best. This is usually in the middle of its aperture range, around f/8 or f/11.

Fixed focal length lenses are usually sharpest, though it’s not always convenient to carry around two or three lenses rather than a single, all-purpose zoom.

Anyway, if you make all the adjustments I’ve discussed above and your images are still consistently blurry, you might want to think about trying a different lens. If you’re not sure whether this could be the issue, one option is to rent a lens for a weekend and see if it makes a difference. (Alternatively, if you have a camera shop nearby, you might be able to go in and try out one of their new lenses.)

buildings on the water

Mistakes that cause blurry pictures: final words

Well, that’s it:

The 10 most common reasons your pictures are blurry.

If you’ve been struggling with blurry photos, you hopefully now know (or can at least guess) the culprit! And you can make adjustments to get things looking sharp.

Now over to you:

Are your photos blurry? Did you figure out why? Which of these mistakes have you been making? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Anne McKinnell
Anne McKinnell

is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.

You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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