Top 10 Mistakes that Cause Blurry Photos


Cedar Key

If your photos are not sharp, you are not alone! The most common question I get asked by beginning photographers is “how do you get your images so sharp?”

Blurry photos is very common issue with a whole plethora of possible culprits, making it very difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. But if you go through this list of the top 10 mistakes that cause blurry photos, you will probably find the answer that works for you.

1. Your shutter speed is too slow

This is the #1 culprit of blurry photos. You might think you can hold perfectly still for half a second, but I assure you there are very few people in the world who can. When hand-holding your camera, remember this rule of thumb to avoid blur caused by camera shake – your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your lens’ focal length – that is, if you’re using a 60mm lens, your exposure should be 1/60th of a second or faster. With a 200mm lens, use at least 1/200th of a second, and so on. Camera shake is magnified the longer your telephoto length, so wider angle lenses will suffer its effects much less.

Using a 400mm lens, I selected a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second to reduce the possibility of camera shake.

Using a 400mm lens, I selected a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second to reduce the possibility of camera shake.

Some lenses and cameras have image stabilization technology built into them – particularly with longer focal lengths. Image stabilization usually allows you to slow your minimum shutter speed by around three stops, meaning that a 60mm lens can now handle shutter speeds as low as 1/8th of a second without camera shake.

What is YOUR minimum shutter speed?

In addition to this rule of thumb, it’s important to know your own personal minimum shutter speed. We all shake a little, some more than others, so it’s good to know at what point camera shake becomes an issue for you. Try an exercise to find out: put your camera in shutter priority mode and make the same photo at 1/500th of a second and keep going slower and slower. Back at your computer, look at your images and see when you start to notice the blur. Personally, I don’t usually go below 1/125th of a second if I’m hand-holding my camera.

2. Not using a tripod

Sunset Arches

If you’re experiencing camera shake and you can’t use a faster shutter speed (due to low light conditions) or you don’t want to use a fast shutter speed (because you’re purposefully trying to blur something in the frame) then you need to steady your camera another way such as using a tripod or monopod.

When you use a tripod, image stabilization is not necessary and may even be counter productive, so it’s a good idea to get in the habit of turning it off when you put your camera on a tripod and turning it back on when you take it off.

3. Bad camera holding technique

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, as holding the camera to your face will also help hold it steady. Some photographers even go so far as to listen to their breathing and heartbeat, taking care to fire the shot in between breaths and beats for maximum stability.

Proper technique when hand-holding your camera.

Proper technique when hand-holding your camera.

4. Your aperture is too wide

The size of the aperture also has a direct effect on the sharpness of your photo in that it determines depth of field, which is how much of the image is in focus from front to back.

When a lens finds focus, it locks in on a specific distance known as the plane of focus. If your focus is at, say, 15 feet, everything 15 feet away from the camera will have maximum sharpness, and anything in front of or behind it will start to fall into blur. The amount of this effect depends on the aperture.

If you use a wide aperture, like f/2.8, the depth of field is very shallow. This effect is emphasized with longer focal length lenses. So if you are using a telephoto lens and the aperture is f/2.8, there may be only a razor thin sliver of the image that is in sharp focus. If you use a small aperture, like f/11 or f/18, the depth of field is larger so more of the image will be sharp.

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 (a larger f-number such as f/11 or f/22). However, by using a small aperture you will need to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for the loss of light. See problem #1.

5. Not using autofocus

How good is your eyesight? Not great? Wearing glasses? You should probably be using autofocus. These days cameras are sophisticated – let them do what they are good at. Another thing to keep in mind is that your viewfinder should have a diopter on it. It’s a little wheel next to your viewfinder that allows you to adjust how clearly things appear when you look through it. It is particularly useful for people who should be wearing glasses but are not.

Black Vulture in Flight

6. Not focusing in the correct place

Even if you have a sharp, clear prime lens on a bright day, using a small aperture and a fast shutter speed with a low ISO, it doesn’t count for much unless you can get the camera to focus on the right spot. This is even more crucial when using a wide aperture, which can create 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 portrait with a perfectly sharp earlobe and blurry eyes.

Often photographers leave their cameras set on auto-area AF mode, which tells the camera to use its best judgment to decide 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 the camera can get confused and try to focus on the wrong thing. To specify the focal point yourself, switch to single-point AF area mode.

f-spotWhen you look through your viewfinder, you should see an array of little dots or squares laid over the display. These are your focus points, and they show you where in the frame the camera is capable of finding focus. In single-point AF area mode, 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.

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 can be sensitive – if you press too lightly, it may come unpressed and try to re-focus after you’ve already found your spot. If you press too hard, you might make the exposure before the focus is ready. If you take multiple pictures in succession, it will try to focus again before each shot. For these reasons, some photographers swear by the back focus button instead.

This is a button on the back of your camera, probably near your thumb. It might be labeled “AF-On” or simply “Fn”, and it might be set up by default or you might have to activate it in your camera’s menu settings, but it can be assigned to take over the autofocus function. When you press it, the camera focuses and won’t focus again until you press the button again. This way, you can re-compose and take shot after shot, and the camera won’t lose your focus every time you hit the shutter button.

7. Using the incorrect focus mode

There are three main autofocus modes that every camera should have. The first is single-shot focus, usually called AF-S or One-shot AF; it is meant to be used with still subjects. The second, continuous autofocus (AF-C or AI Servo) is specially designed to track movement through the frame, so is best to use when your subject is in motion. The third is an automatic mode, AF-A or AI Focus AF, and likely the default setting on your camera. It reads the scene and determines which of the first two modes it should use.

Cactus Flower

8. Not using manual focus

While I’m a big advocate of autofocus, there is one particular time when manual focus comes in very handy. When your camera is on a tripod and you are using a wide aperture to achieve a very shallow depth of field, and you want to make sure the most important thing in your frame is sharp, switch to manual focus and then use the LCD zoom function to magnify the display by 5x or 10x allowing you to make tiny adjustments to the focus to get it just right.

9. Junk on or in front of your lens

If you have a big smear on your lens, that is going to affect the clarity of your image. By the same token, if you put a cheap plastic filter in front of your lens, that is going to degrade image quality as well. If you always use a UV filter, you might want to try taking a few shots without it to see if the quality of your UV filter is negatively affecting your images.

Using an aperture of f/20, everything is sharp from foreground to background.

Using an aperture of f/20, everything is sharp from foreground to background.

10. Poor lens quality

This item is last on the list for good reason; it is the most common thing for beginners to blame their blurry images on, but it is rarely the real reason. Still, lens quality does make a difference.

Lens quality is determined by the materials and construction inside the lens itself, which is usually made up of several pieces of glass precisely aligned in order to focus, zoom, and correct for optical aberrations.

Some lenses are simply sharper than others or are better in different ways. Some lenses may be sharp in the center, but get blurry around the corners and edges of the image. Some are clear at certain apertures but slightly fuzzy at others. Some lenses cause colour fringing around points of contrast. 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 its best. This is usually in the middle of its aperture range, around f/8 or f/11.

For the sharpest image quality, fixed focal length lenses usually take the cake. It’s not always convenient to carry around two or three lenses rather than a single all-purpose zoom, but their simple construction makes even the cheapest prime lens crystal clear.

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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.

  • Paul Themens

    Sometimes you press the shutter too quickly before it has time to focus.

  • Jaina

    Like the idea about finding your own minimum shutter speed – never thought to try something like that before.

  • Joe Hudspeth

    Very good Anne. You always hit the nail on the head!

  • Famous Isaacs

    The information shared here are very essential reminders that sometimes, even professionals might just forget to put the seemingly little reminders to good use, and then their photos come out unsatisfactorily. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Kathy

    Thank you – a great summing up of things that I should remember but sometimes forget. Also a clear explanation of the relationship between DOF and focal length, which is something that I always struggle to properly understand.

  • northlander30

    It’s all about practice practice practice like anything else! Not all of us have the money to drop on better glass. I use the Canon EOS Rebel T3i and it is a great camera for the money. I only use the 2 kit lenses that came with it,the 18-55 IS II and the 55-250mm IS II I also bought the plastic fantastic 50mm f~1.8 to go along with them. If I had the money I would buy the Canon 17-85mm and the 70-210mm but I don’t have that extra money and camera stores don’t believe in having layaway plans so I guess I am stuck with what I got!.

  • Albin

    Good rundown. One thing I learned early and notice with others, is about underestimating subject movement. Little pets or birds looking perfectly still have hearts beating a mile a minute and hypertension so they are literally vibrating in place. Also worth pointing out focus lock (AFL in Canon) can ensure even a fast moving target is within the depth of field when it gets to a specific location, e.g. lock focus on a post or wall to capture passing action in a bike or automobile race.

  • Arun Muralidhar

    Thank you, I didn’t have a clear idea of aperture vs shutter speed. Great this clears most of my doubts

  • When I was having problems with sharpness I made a few key changes to the way I shoot that have helped immeasurably (in addition to all those above). 1. Back button focus. This separates the autofocus function from the shutter button, allowing focus to be set, then shutter released. I find it greatly improves focus accuracy. 2. Use manual focus for most static setups. I.E. when on a tripod I always manually focus. I also like to use manual for a lot of handheld now that I’m used to it. (Caveat – I do a lot of landscapes and have more time to set this than most genres might) 3. Chimp every shot, especially if it can only be taken for a brief moment. I think it is silly to not look at the screen just because of keeping up appearances. Digital allows the tools to check focus, exposure, and composition – I do it every shot and immediately delete any that don’t meet my standards, why keep a blurry shot? Take it again and get it right!

  • Mike

    Thanks for the advices

  • Something that was utterly forgotten, and that also plays a very important part to get sharp images, is the lens’ sweet spot.

  • UniqueCaptures

    I had a frustrating day a few years back when I was struggling to get a sharp image with a new long lens. I was securely mounted on a tripod using live view and manually focusing and felt that I was doing everything right but the image was still not sharp. After a lot of head scratching I discovered that the in lens image stabilization was still turned on and was creating a small amount of vibration that produced a blurry image.

  • Tim Lowe

    Shoot mostly medium format film so all that auto-focus stuff is not on my radar. The tripod tip is important. The way you get a full range of DOF available to you. But I confess, I don’t drag a tripod with me all the time. (Or hardly ever.) There are SO many ways you can hold your camera still for those longer exposures. I advise everyone to learn them and use them.

  • Moiz

    Good one…

  • jhsvdm

    I had that problem a few years back and solved it by paying more attention to high enough shutter speed, and I believe that for higher resolution cameras the reciprocal of focal length may not always be fast enough. Secondly ensure your focal point is where you need maximum sharpness. The major difference for me was to switch to back button focusing. In makes focusing a separate and dedicated action, like in the old days when you had to turn the focusing ring on the lens to get your viewfinder image sharp. Focusing isn’t a coincident that happens when you press the shutter button.

  • Edmund

    I think I should point out that shooting at 1/50th with a 50mm lens applies to full frame so if you are using a micro 4/3rds, for instance, with a crop factor of 2 you effectively have a 100mm lens and therefore should shoot at 100th of a second or faster and APS-C should be 80th.

    To Sam Llanes I would say that Anne definitely pointed out the sweet spot although for most of my lenses this is at f5.6. There will be a number of on line reviews that will help you with this for your particular lens.

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Good article. I have been avoiding using back button focus, but I guess I will finally give it a try. Thanks for the reminder!

  • SculptER

    What about lenses that back or front focus?

  • Al Hughes

    I have a Canon 5D Mark II and purchased a Tamron 24-70 zoom last year. I had put a UV filter on to protect the lens. I also had taken the factory strap off with the Canon name on it for an aftermarket strap that screws into the tripod hole in the base of the camera. Long story short, I decided to put the factory strap back on and thought I had secured it. Without testing to see if it actually was secure, I attempted to pick it up by the strap, it let loose and the camera crashed to the floor, smashing the UV filter to the point that I was unable to unscrew it from the lens body. Not knowing what else to do, I brought it to my local camera retailer who managed to get it off. I wasn’t sure if the actual lens had survived the impact but was relieved to see it hadn’t shattered like the UV protector. I then purchased a new filter, re-installed it over the lens and have been using it ever since. The point of this long narrative is: would the lens have been jarred enough to disturb the delicate positioning of the different glass components inside causing blurred images? When I zoom in on what appear to be sharp images, magnification of more than 150% begins to show un-sharp edges so blow-ups of the image show blurred lines instead of sharp crisp lines. Would Ms. McKinnell or anyone have any opinion on this??

  • Stephen Whitelaw

    Desperate to get maximum depth of field with 1:1 macro I always used f32. I sold my macro thinking it was the problem only to learn the basic physics of such a small aperature (diffraction) was the problem.

  • stewart norton

    Don’t forget lens calibration, check for front or back focusing and use micro adjustments option to compensate.

  • Mtpalms

    I shoot photos of my paintings for print reproductions using a tripod. It is amazing how much sharper the image is when I set the shutter to a 2 second delay. A remote works too, but it’s usually in my bag, and the shutter setting is easy to change.

  • A layaway plan is no different than just saving up for it yourself. Put a little aside with each payday and you will eventually be able to afford it!

  • northlander30

    LOL Ya I wish I could do such a thing as put money aside. Whenever we put money aside, there always seems to be something that comes up that needs the money you’ve put aside! I did that very thing when I bought the Canon 50mm f~1.8. There were other things that desperately needed that money to go on, but I stuck to my guns and got that lens!

  • Thanks

  • Diana Drummond Davis

    Thanks! Really helpful forme!

  • Lorri A

    I too found that switching to back button focus made a major difference in quality. I won’t go back – that’s for sure.

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    Shutter speed was indeed our problem. We shoot a lot of wildlife and we tended to just set ISO and let the camera (Sony A57 and A77) decide the rest, but the shutter speeds were often too low, especially when shooting from a boat. Using 1/400 and up greatly improved the results.

  • Marinus H.B. Vesseur

    Magnification beyond 100% will always look blurry. Even 100% is rarely sharp. They call the habit of over-magnifying the image on the screen “pixel peeping”. It’s a habit that can cause a lot of unneccessary frustration 😉

  • Al

    Thanks Marinus, good explanation.

  • jc4lyf

    Thanks, very informative

  • badbitbucket

    Pressing and letting up on the shutter release will also cause slight movement of the camera body, so when hand holding, I use the low-speed drive setting and I take three or more identically exposed shots. I usually discard the first and last frames. The middle frame(s) will be unaffected by the action of pressing and releasing the shutter release button.

  • Tony

    One other important factor, and after 5 years I finally got around to doing it: Calibrate your lens to camera. I followed all the above suggestions but on many occasions still found myself disappointed with sharpness. Now that I’ve calibrated my lenses I am seeing better results.

  • I found the link t this article in Facebook today and I found it very informative, even after so much time it was written. I’d like to add what I discovered yesterday: my Sigma 50mm 1.4 need some fine tuning. Once you understands totally your equipment, you can take some small steps to improve your focus and now that I discovered that flaw I’m not sad about it anymore.

  • Charles

    It could be the UV filter. I just bought a Nikon D5300 and am using an AF-S Nikkor 55-300
    1:4.5-5.6G ED Lens. I was having the same issue with out of focus
    pictures when viewing on laptop at 100% (I think y’all call this ‘pixel
    peeping’). At screen fit size (Laptop) after downloading, my focus
    looked pretty good for the most part but not crisp. Now this was
    happening at 55mm all the way to 300mm, multiple fstop, aperture, iso,
    shutter speeds. No camera shake. It was driving me nuts. Well…. I
    bought my camera in a bundle that included a Photomate filter kit. UV,
    CPL and FLD. I had the UV and CPL on the Lens. In desperation I finally
    removed the filters and went back into my backyard and took some shots
    of my dogs, woodpile, birdbath… same pics as before, same settings
    spread, and BAM, perfectly focused, crisp photos even at 100% view.
    Lesson: Cheap filters suck!!

  • Al Hughes

    Thanks for the reply Charles. I absolutely agree that if you use cheap UV filters, they can affect the outcome of your image sharpness. I usually spend upwards of $100+ for decent filters here in Canada, especially with our dollar being so low right now. However, since publishing my comment, I’ve been introduced to the fact that no filter at all is best. I only bought them to protect the front element from damage in the event of a fall such as I described above. But you only need to use your lens hood to get at least the same protection if not even better. The longer the lens hood is, the more protection it offers. I now only buy ND filters or variable ND for shooting in bright sunlight near water to minimize the glare. And, yes, the filter may have been the culprit as the lens is now bare and taking much sharper images. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Sporty Spice

    This is the best article I’ve read in awhile. I learned a couple of things that I didn’t know before (the differences in the auto-focus options).

  • Gajanan

    Hi i have used 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 USM lance ( shoot on f/8 ) , with ISO 200 , Camera on Tripod , timer , therefor struggling to get a sharp image , what to do ?

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