Are your photos blurry? Do you struggle to get razor-sharp images? If this is a consistent problem you face, then there’s a big chance you’re making one or more mistakes in the field.
The good news is that these small mistakes are easy to overcome. You can avoid ever getting blurry photos again by following a few simple steps.
Let’s jump straight into it and find the reason why your photos are blurry:
Reason #1: Too Slow Shutter Speed
The first and most common reason why your images are blurry is due to using a too slow shutter speed. If you’re photographing without a tripod, you need to ensure that the exposure time is quick enough. Failing to do so will introduce camera shake, translating to blurry images.
Even a slightly too slow shutter speed can hurt the sharpness of your photo. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when selecting your shutter speed:
- The shutter speed shouldn’t be slower than 1/focal length when photographing handheld. That means the slowest shutter speed for a 300mm lens will be 1/300, while for a 14mm, it will be 1/14. Note that this is just a rule of thumb, and image stabilization systems might allow you to exceed this limit.
- Use a tripod when you need longer exposure times.
- Use a remote or delayed shutter when the camera is mounted on a tripod. This helps remove unwanted camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button.
- Zoom in and look at the image preview after taking a shot to ensure there’s no camera shake. If you see blur caused by movement, select a quicker shutter speed.
- If using Shutter Priority, set the slowest allowed shutter to be quick enough for sharp results.
By following the five suggestions above, you’re on your way to avoid blurry photos ever again.
Now, if the cause is not related to the shutter speed, there are some other possibilities too:
Reason #2: The ISO is Too High
The second most common cause for blurry or soft photos is also related to the Exposure Triangle. This time it’s the ISO.
As you might be aware, the ISO determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The big downside is that increasing the ISO value will introduce more noise and grain to your photos.
This digital noise can make your images appear blurry.
The exact value at which an image becomes soft depends on your camera. I recommend reading up on (or testing manually) your camera’s performance with a high ISO.
Most photographers prefer to always use the lowest ISO possible. This typically means in the range between ISO64 and ISO200. However, certain genres of photography might require you to go as high as ISO6400.
If you need to use a high ISO, but your camera doesn’t deal with it well, there are some tricks and techniques that you can try. This includes capturing multiple exposures, Image Averaging, or noise reduction software such as Topaz DeNoise.
Reason #3: The Focus is Incorrect
Sometimes the explanation for your blurry photos is that the images are out of focus. This is, in fact, a far more common scenario than we think.
An out-of-focus shot will appear soft or blurry, depending on how far off the focus is. A slightly out-of-focus image will appear soft, while a significantly misfocused image is nothing but a big blur.
The exact reason why your image is out of focus can vary, but the most common explanations are:
- Autofocus is uncalibrated and not working correctly.
- You’ve chosen the wrong focus point. We want to select a focus point about one-third into the scene in landscape photography. If you’re unsure where to focus, you need to calculate the Hyperfocal Distance.
- You’re unknowingly using Manual Focus.
I’ll admit that the third explanation has happened to me more often than I’d like to admit, especially in periods where I do a lot of night photography followed by sunrise the next morning. Sometimes, I forget to switch back to auto-focus after my night session. Luckily, I’ve got a good routine to make sure I realize this immediately. I’ll share this routine with you later on in the article.
Reason #4: The Lens is Decentered or Old
An old or decentered lens is another common explanation for why images are blurry, especially if you only encounter this problem with one of your lenses.
Identifying a decentered lens requires some more work than our other possibilities. There’s also no “easy fix” to this problem, and most photographers opt for the more straightforward solution of purchasing a new lens.
I recommend this video by Michael Breitung on identifying a decentered lens if you suspect this is what you’re experiencing.
Reason #5: The Aperture is Too Wide or Too Narrow
The fifth and final reason your images are blurry is that the aperture is too wide or too narrow.
Those familiar with how aperture works know that it affects not only exposure but also Depth of Field and sharpness. In other words, we have two possible scenarios:
The Aperture is Too Wide
In cases where the aperture is too wide, we are dealing with Depth of Field issues. This typically occurs if there’s a significant distance between foreground and background subjects.
For example, you won’t get excellent front-to-back sharpness if there is a flower close to your lens and a mountain in the distance and you’re using an aperture of f/2.8. In this case, the mountain will be blurry if you focus on the flower and vice versa.
This is due to the shallow Depth of Field a wide f-stop results in. Such apertures are great for macro images or situations where you deliberately want to blur the background, but they’re problematic when aiming for front-to-back sharpness.
Note: Even narrower apertures can encounter problems with front-to-back sharpness when the distance between subjects is significant. In such cases, focus stacking will give better results.
Aperture is Too Narrow
It’s not only a wide aperture that can cause blurry photos. Narrow apertures such as f/22 don’t come without problems either.
In this case, the problem is not due to Depth of Field but instead directly linked to the sharpness. You see, narrow apertures lead to something known as Diffraction.
This optical interference occurs when light passes through a tiny hole. In our case, the light will bend and diffract more around the iris, leading to softer and less detailed images.
Because of this, I strongly recommend avoiding apertures above f/16. The exact point at which diffraction becomes a problem depends on your camera gear.
Recommended Reading: The Best Aperture for Landscape Photography
How Can You Avoid Blurry Photos?
The five reasons above are the most common reasons photos are blurry or soft. Understanding these causes and considering their best practices is essential if you want consistently sharp images.
Below, I will share my best practices to avoid blurry photos. These are the exact steps and techniques I follow every time I’m out photographing.
- Find the settings: The very first step is to find your settings. In most cases, I use an ISO of 64 and an aperture between f/7.1 and f/11. The shutter speed is calculated based on these two settings. This includes situations where I use Neutral Density filters to create Long Exposure Photography.
- Do I need a tripod? Based on the calculated shutter speed, I decide whether or not I need to use a tripod. If the shutter speed is below 1/focal length and you don’t have a tripod available, select a quicker exposure time and increase the ISO to compensate. Remember, a balanced Exposure Triangle is important.
- Zoom in on Live View: Personally, I love working with Live View. This allows me to see the Live Histogram and Horizon Leveler, but also to zoom in and verify that the focus is sharp.
- Zoom in on the Image Preview: After taking the image, you should always zoom in on the preview to double-check that the image is sharp and in focus. Doing this lets you correct any mistakes immediately and avoid coming home with blurry photos.
- Make adjustments: Did the image appear slightly out of focus or blurry when zooming on the Image Preview? Perhaps the exposure wasn’t correct either? Whatever the mistakes, this is your chance to correct them.
- Focus Stack: Consider using focus stacking in cases where the foreground and background are far apart. This requires a little more work and some basic understanding of Adobe Photoshop, but the result is razor-sharp images!
- Exposure Blend: For night photography, avoiding high ISO values is impossible. In those cases, an easy workaround to ensure a sharp foreground is to take one high-ISO image for the sky and a lower ISO image with a longer shutter speed for the landscape.
By following and implementing these seven tips and techniques in your workflow, you’ll never need to see another blurry photo on your memory card again. If needed, print out the seven steps and bring that with you the next time you’re out photographing. Having a little checklist can be the difference between getting the shot and not.
Salvage Blurry Photos Using Topaz Photo AI
Now, if you’re reading this article, there’s a big chance that you already have some blurry images stored on your hard drive. Perhaps some of these are images that you would’ve been quite proud of had it not been for the fact that they appear soft.
The good news is that software such as Topaz Photo AI can salvage many of these images. I won’t lie and say that the results will be as good as if you were to follow the steps shared earlier, but you’ll be surprised just how well this works.
All you need to do is open your photo in Topaz Photo AI (either as standalone software or as a plugin for Photoshop or Lightroom). Depending on the image, turn on the Noise Removal and/or Sharpening options.
Let the software work its magic, and within a few minutes, you’ll see a significant improvement to your blurry photo. Keep in mind that you might need to fine-tune the exact values.
While this shouldn’t be an excuse to be lazy in the field, it’s good to know that it’s possible to salvage the image even if you were unlucky when shooting it.
Blurry photos are frustrating but often a reality for aspiring photographers. Even the pros struggle with it from time to time.
However, if you pay attention to the five main reasons photos become blurry and follow the seven tips to avoid it, you can say goodbye to soft images and enjoy the razor-sharp results.
Don’t forget that viewing an image on a small screen is more forgiving than printing and hanging it on your wall. If you have any desire to print your pictures, sharpness is essential.
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