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How To Avoid Taking Blurry Photos

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

Why are my pictures blurry? This is often the most frequent question that amateur photographers ask. The good news is that capturing sharp photos isn’t that difficult.

Here’s our guide on how to avoid blurry photos.

a sharp photo of a photographer shooting a landscape scene - avoid blurry photos
© Kav Dadfar

Select a Faster Shutter Speed

The most common reason for a blurred photo is because of shutter speed. When shooting handheld, the faster your shutter speed is the less chance there is for camera shake to result in blurry photos.

There is no way that anyone will be able to handhold a camera steady enough at slow shutter speeds. For most people, this will be around 1/60th sec.

How slow you can go with your shutter speed handheld will come down to you. The best way to know for sure is to test it out.

Take a photo of the same scene, reducing your shutter speed each time. Then check the results to get an idea of how slow you can go before you notice the camera shake.

The other important factor to remember about shutter speed is that your focal length also has an impact on your shutter speed. A general rule that has been around for a long time is to match your shutter speed to at least your lens’ focal length.

If you are using a 200mm lens then your shutter speed should be at least 1/200th sec. For a 20mm lens at least 1/20 sec. There is a slight caveat to this. If your lens has image stabilization, you can reduce your shutter speed further.

But this minimum shutter speed will also be affected by your subject. For example, if you are photographing something that is moving then you might need a faster shutter speed.

If you are photographing something stationary then you can use a slower shutter speed.

outdoor portarit of a cyclist moving through a landscape - blurry photos
© Dreamstime

Use a Greater Depth of Field

Besides your shutter speed, your depth of field is also an important element in capturing sharp photos. Depth of field is determined by your aperture.

The wider it is (i.e. smaller f/number) the shallower your depth of field. This means that if you are using a wide aperture than only a small part of your image will be sharp.

If you take a portrait you can keep the person’s face sharp whilst the background is blurred. But if you photograph a landscape scene with a wide aperture you will find that a lot of the image will be blurred.

Start with an aperture of around f/8 and use smaller if you want a greater depth of field.

But be aware of not using extremely small apertures of greater than f/18 without testing your lens first. As you may find that these very small apertures have a detrimental effect on the sharpness of your photos.

You also need to be aware that by using a smaller aperture will also mean having to use a slower shutter speed.

a beautiful coastal landscape scene - blurry photos
© Kav Dadfar

Don’t Raise Your ISO Too High

The third component of the exposure triangle (along with aperture and shutter speed) which can affect the sharpness of your photos is ISO. It might seem tempting to raise your ISO to allow you to select a faster shutter speed. But this will also mean more noise in your image.

Too much noise and your image will begin to look soft on close inspection. For example, even a portrait of someone taken at 6400 ISO will make them have a blurred face.

New DSLRs have vastly improved the amount of noise that it produces at high ISOs. But if you want the sharpest photos possible keep your ISO as low as you can.

A good way to test your camera’s ISO is to take a series of photos of the same scene at different ISOs. You can then examine the results on your computer by zooming in to determine how high you can set your ISO.

fireworks over St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow
© Kav Dadfar – This photo was taken at 6400 ISO. You can see that it is looking soft due to the excessive noise.

Use a Tripod

If you want to capture the sharpest photos, in the best possible light at the best quality, a tripod is essential. Using a tripod will allow you to shoot using a small aperture and a low ISO as the shutter speed will not be an issue.

Make sure that you have placed your tripod carefully and securely on a surface that will not move. Be especially aware of taking long exposure shots on places like bridges which will often move with passing traffic.

Also, ensure that you use a good quality carbon fiber tripod. It should be sturdy enough to withstand the weight of your camera. Cheap tripods will suffer from vibrations that can result in blurred photos.

Also, remember to turn off your image stabilization when using a tripod. Keeping it on might actually mean you end up with blurred photos.

a tripod and dslr set up by a stunning coastal landscape
© Kav Dadfar

Lock Up Your Mirror

When using a tripod for long long exposure photography you need to lock your camera’s mirror. The reason that this is important is that every time you take a photo, your camera’s mirror flips over to allow light to hit your sensor.

At fast shutter speeds, this movement doesn’t have an effect on your photos. But at slower shutter speeds this movement can cause small vibrations that affect the sharpness of your photos.

An alternative option is to use the live view mode on your camera which also locks your camera’s mirror.

a close up of a camera mirror - why are my pictures blurry tips
© Dreamstime

Use a Remote or Timer

As well as locking up your mirror for long exposure shots, it is also important to avoid touching your camera when taking a photo. Even pressing the shutter button will cause your camera to move slightly.

This means your photo might be blurred. A remote release or using the self-timer on your camera will mean that won’t be an issue.

Also, be aware of your camera strap flapping in the wind. Again this could cause small amounts of camera shake.

a close up of a remote camera trigger to help avoid blurry photos
© Dreamstime

How to Focus for the Sharpest Photos

Another reason that your photos could be blurred is that you haven’t focused on the correct part of the image. If you are using your camera’s autofocus, make sure that you press the shutter button down slightly to focus before taking the photo.

It’s also important to make sure that your focus point is pointing at the right element in the photo.

If you are taking a photo of a person but accidentally pointed at the wall behind them, that’s where the camera will focus.

You also need to ensure that you are using the correct autofocus mode. Camera’s often have three main modes for focusing.

  • One-shot – the camera will focus on what you are pointing at. As long as you keep the shutter button down it will not re-focus elsewhere.
  • Continuous focus – this is a good option when you are photographing something that is moving. Once focused the camera will continue to track and focus the subject.
  • Hybrid – this is often the camera’s own AI which switches between single and continuous based on the subject. Keep in mind that this isn’t always reliable as the camera may make a mistake and focus on the wrong thing.

To ensure that your photos are sharp, make sure you understand and use the correct focus mode on your camera.

two jockeys on horses during a race
© Dreamstime

Keep Your Camera Steady

If you are shooting handheld you should ensure that you are using the correct posture and holding the camera steady. There are a few simple tips that can help you ensure that a blurred photo isn’t because of your stance.

Start by making sure that you are supporting your camera. Hold the lens from below with your non-dominant hand. Tuck your elbows into your sides and avoid having them extended.

Learn to breathe slowly when taking the photo. You should try to either hold your breath or exhale very slowly when you are taking the photo.

If you have a solid surface nearby you can try to use it to steady yourself. Propping up your elbows on a ledge or leaning against a wall will help you keep the camera more steady.

dreamy portrait of a woman taking architecture photographer at sunset
© Dreamstime

Shoot in Burst Mode

Another good tip for capturing sharp photos is to use burst mode. You may sometimes find that the first and last shots in a burst of shots are blurred. This is due to the movement of actually pressing and releasing the shutter button. But the middle shots are often sharp.

Burst mode is especially useful when shooting a moving subject. Not only does it increase the chances of a sharp photo, but it also means you can choose the perfect frame in the action sequence.

a street performer doing a handstand
© Kav Dadfar

Use Manual Focus

The autofocus on cameras these days is superb. But they are still no match for human intuition. Now, I’m not suggesting that you try to manually focus in a busy street scene for example.

But the manual focus is especially useful when you are using a tripod. Whether you are photographing a landscape scene or a close-up of a flower, manual focus ensures that you are focusing on what you want.

Use the camera’s live view mode and zoom in x5 or x10. Then manually focus and make small adjustments to ensure the best sharpness.

Always remember to switch back to autofocus when you have finished with manual mode. Otherwise, you may find yourself missing a shot.

a Canon DSLR set up on a tripod taking a macro shot of pink flowers
© Kav Dadfar

Clean Your Lens Glass

Even if you have managed to follow everything written above perfect, if your lens glass is dirty or has smudges on it then your photos will suffer. The odd dust particle isn’t going to make a difference.

You should still get into the habit of cleaning your lens glass regularly. The same also applies to your viewfinder. Make sure that it is correctly adjusted for your eye and the glass is clean.

a Canon DSLR set up on a tripod
© Kav Dadfar

Capturing sharp photos is often seen as the holy grail for most amateur photographers. Whilst it might seem complicated from the list above, in reality, it is not that difficult.

It is important to embrace your failures as frustrating as they might be. If you do find that your photo is blurred, try to examine why it might be.

With a bit of practice and using the tips above you will be on your way to capturing pin-sharp photos in no time.

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