Why Aren't My Shots Sharp Enough?
While autofocus systems on digital cameras are more powerful and intuitive than ever, they can't work miracles and often you need to ensure your basic camera craft is there to keep your shots sharp.
Don't assume you can fix softness in software either – while the Unsharp Mask feature in Photoshop or the powerful sharpening sliders in Lightroom are a lot better than ever, it can be fiddly and time consuming to sharpen shots properly.
Far better to get sharp shots straight from the camera, and here are some simple but effective tips to help you slay the softness demons for good...
1) Make sure you use a fast-enough shutter speed
Remember the old rule of thumb: you should set a shutter speed that equals or exceeds your focal length when shooting handheld. So, if you’re shooting handheld at a focal length of 80mm, 1/160 sec is the slowest ‘safe’ speed.
This becomes even more important if you are shooting at long focal lengths, where camera shake is more of a danger.
If you shoot in Aperture Priority mode, your camera will set what it thinks is the right shutter speed automatically, so make sure you also set a higher ISO in poorer light to boost light sensitivity and keep shutter speeds up.
Shoot in Manual mode and you can set the aperture and shutter speed independently of each other.
2) So which shutter speeds do I need?
It's not an exact science as everything moves at different speeds, but to keep somebody walking sharp, you'll need 1/60th second.
Be prepared to go up to 1/125 second if they are jogging, and frenetic sports like soccer or rugby may need 1/500 sec.
A racing car may need double that, but consider 'panning' to convey more a sense of speed – to keep the car sharp but the background blurred, you will need to back go down to the low hundreds of a second, but see which works best.
3) Be careful at very wide apertures
Lots of light will flood in, which is useful when shooting in low light, and you will easily blur the background on portraits, but it's much harder to keep the periphery of the shot sharp at such wide apertures.
The nose and ears on a portrait can also appear very soft. If this is a problem, consider using a narrower aperture (stopping down) and get in closer. The 'sweet spot' of your lens is the aperture width where it's sharpest, and this usually lies in the mid range; you can find the sweet spot on a lens by tripod-mounting your camera and then shooting a page of newsprint or text in a book.
Shoot at a series of apertures and then zoom in with software to find which aperture gives the sharpest text reproduction.
4) Set specific AF points
Sadly you can't just forget about autofocus, even on very expensive cameras. For consistently sharp results, you need to tell the autofocus exactly where to focus by selecting and moving specific AF points.
So turning on ALL the AF points in your viewfinder is rather a grape-shot approach. On a static subject, better to select just one AF point and move it over the area the absolutely needs to be sharp.
Set a single AF point over the eyes in a portrait and you should get sharper results. With moving objects, track them with AI Servo/Continuous AF, again setting the focus point over the critical area.
5) Don't be too conservative with ISOs
Use higher ISOs where necessary to give you higher shutter speeds. Yes, you run the risk of more noise, but it's easier to remove noise than it is to sharpen a soft shot. I was at a tattoo convention over the weekend and rarely dropped the ISO below ISO 1600 as it was darker than I expected and I didn't want to use intrusive flash.
The results were perfectly usable and most importantly, I was able to keep my shutter speeds and light sensitivity up despite the murk.
6) Use a tripod
Image stabilisation on lenses and cameras is a big help, but it won't save you every time. Image stabilised (or VR) lenses tend to be expensive too. It's often cheaper and more effective to use a tripod.
They are essential when shooting long exposures to get a particular creative effect, and are great for still-life and garden photography.
Night photography and light effects, such as traffic trails, often need a tripod too. Tripods also slow you down and force you to be more mindful about careful composition – they are the antidote to 'gunning and running.'
If you use a tripod, though, make sure you also get a cable release so you don't jar the camera when hitting the shutter button. Your sensor can pick up the tiniest vibration (lock up the mirror if you have an SLR too).
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