Why Are My Pictures Blurry?

Blurry photo syndrome is a problem that gets even the best of us. Sometimes we are just shooting in the moment and don’t have time to do what needs to be done for a crisp photos, and other times, we just don’t know better.

There are three primary causes of blurry photos:

out-of-focus-3Motion Blur

When a subject in the picture is moving too quickly for the camera to stop it we get motion blur. The camera’s shutter opens and closes letting in light for a specified amount of time. When the shutter is closed, there is no light hitting the camera’s sensor (in digital cameras) or film, and when open, the light is able to be seen or captured. If the camera’s shutter is open for a long time the subject it sees will become a blur whereas if the shutter opens and closes very quickly the subject can be frozen. Think of the shutter as your eyelids and the sensor as your eyes. Look up at a ceiling fan in motion and you will see a blur of spinning blades. Now open and close your eyes as quickly as possible and you will be able to see the individual blades.

Motion blur does have its place in photography but there are some things you can do if you want to eliminate it:

  1. Shorten the amount of time the shutter needs to be open by either turning your ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity) to a higher number;
  2. Open the lens’ aperture to increase the amount of light coming through it by lowering your f-stop number, ie. from f16 to f8;
  3. Add a flash. A burst of a flash’s light has the ability to freeze motion very well;
  4. A combination of the above.

out-of-focus-4Camera Shake

This type of blur is not caused by the subject being in motion but rather by you being in motion. Even just a little movement when pressing your button can ruin a photograph. While using a wide lens this is not as much of an issue; however on longer lenses the problem starts taking hold and gets considerably worse the more you zoom in.

The easiest way to fix this is to use a tripod. But even a tripod has its limitations. If your tripod is not very stable or is raised to a very high level you are adding places where it can flex, so try to keep it as tight and compact as possible. Pressing your shutter button with your finger can actually make the camera move slightly so a wireless or wired remote shutter release will help. And believe it or not, but if you follow the previous two suggestions, even the mirror in your camera can add a tiny bit of shake. If your camera has a mirror lockup function that will help as well.

If you are not using a tripod try to follow this simple rule: keep your shutter speed to 1/x your focal length. That means that if you are using a 75-300mm lens zoomed in to 200mm, your camera’s shutter speed should be 1/200 (it will most likely display as 200) or faster (250, 400, etc). If shooting at 75mm then set your speed to 1/75. If your camera doesn’t have a shutter speed of 1/75 then set it to whatever is closest but faster.

Something to remember about this rule is that not all cameras are alike and if you have a digital SLR you need to know this, and that is if your sensor is a 35mm sensor or if it is called a “cropped” sensor. Many of the higher-end DSLRs have a “full-size” or 35mm sensor and the above rule is based on that. If you have a camera in the starter range like Canon’s Rebel line, then you will have a sensor that is smaller. The thing about these smaller sensors is that a lens will look like it is zooming in more when on a cropped camera than on a full-frame camera and it does so by about 1.5 times (I’m approximating for ease of math). What that means is that if you put a 100mm lens on a full-frame camera you will see what is considered “normal” based on the 35mm standard; but if you put that same lens on a cropped camera it will appear zoomed in much closer, more like a 150mm lens. All this being said, if you are using a cropped-sensor camera, you need to modify the rule of using a shutter speed of 1/x so that it is really 1/x.5. To make it more simple, take the mm you are shooting at and add 50%, so 100mm becomes a shutter speed of 150, 50mm becomes 75 and so on.

A flash on your camera may also help with camera shake. Most cameras have what is called a Sync Speed which is the fastest speed you are able to have your shutter open and close while a flash is on. Canon cameras have a sync speed of 200 and Nikons 250, so don’t try shooting a 400mm lens at 1/400 if you have a flash on, unless you set your flash to its high speed sync mode.

out-of-focus-2Poor Focus

A focused shot is very critical as it basically instructs the viewer where to look. When photographing a person you’d typically want to focus on the person’s eyes, or at least the person himself if he’s within a larger scene. Very often people will set their camera to allow it to make the decision of where to focus by leaving all the focus points on. When you hold your shutter button to focus you’ll see either a lot of dots or squares light up or random ones and these are what the camera thinks is what needs to be focused on. The problem is that it is often not. Cameras usually rely on contrast to find focal points and it’s weighted toward the center of the image. If you were trying to focus on a wall or a snow-covered ground there would be very little contrast so it has a hard time locking on. If you had a person standing in front of a large object with a lot of contrast, the camera may try to focus in on the object. And if you wanted to photograph two people standing next to each other, very often the camera would focus on whatever may be behind them.

That being said, I prefer one of two focus methods: Center- or Single-Point or Manual Focus.

The Center- or Single-Point method is where you, the part of the person/camera connection that actually knows what should be in focus, sets a single focus point, aims that point at what should be in focus, recomposes the shot while still holding the shutter button half way down and then takes the shot. You are ensuring that the camera isn’t making a dumb decision and focusing on the fake plant behind the people you want to photograph.

Manual focus is harder, but sometimes necessary. This is where the camera is taken out of the equation and it is up to you to focus by turning the focus ring on your lens. What can make this difficult is that it is most often slower than auto-zoom and the fact that you are trying to look through a very small viewfinder. I’ve seen many photos that look completely in focus on the back screen of the camera but when viewed large on a computer screen the focus is definitely out. I really only use manual focus if I am using the live view feature on the back of my camera where I can digitally zoom in to see up close and that means often on a tripod shooting something that is not moving.

out-of-focus-1The Right Kind of Focus

As mentioned, focus helps to attract the viewer’s attention to a specific point or item in a picture.  If you can make your image stand out from the background the story will be all about that good-looking kid on the scooter.  Separating your subject from the rest of the scene in this way goes a long way in directing your story.

Focus is very critical when taking photographs. You need to be quick and precise. As with everything, the more you practice the better you can become.

To learn more about focus issues and how to fix shots with poor focus, plus a plethora of other camera and editing techniques, visit www.PhotographersClubhouse.com or our Facebook page, where video instruction and Q&A is available from yours truly, Aloha Bob. Stay sharp!