While I agree that sharpness is a bourgeois concept, to become a better photographer you will need to learn how to take sharp shots. The key to capturing these sharp photographs is to learn about all of the pitfalls that can cause blurry photos. Once you know all of the ways you can make a mistake, the only thing between you and sharpness is your hand-eye coordination.
1. Back focus
Back focus is the bane of almost every photographer’s existence. This occurs when you think you are autofocusing on your main subject, but the camera misreads the situation and focuses on what is behind them instead, ruining the image. This happens primarily in situations where the focus is placed near an edge between your subject and the background.
The only way to fix this is to be aware of situations where it could happen. If you are photographing near an edge, be more careful, or lock the focus in a safer area before recomposing. Constantly pay attention to whether you think the focus is accurate or not, and if you have a keeper image, it can’t hurt to capture a couple photographs just to make sure the focus is correct.
2. Shutter speed too slow for shooting handheld
The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed must always be ONE divided by the focal length of your lens to offset handheld camera shake. So if you have a wider angle lens such as a 30mm, then you need a slower shutter speed of 1/30th of a second to guarantee sharpness. If you have a telephoto lens such as a 200mm this tip is even more important since you will need a 1/200th of a second to offset the shake in your hands.
Photographers shooting on aperture priority mode often get caught by this when they do not pay attention to their shutter speed, which can easily dip below the acceptable number.
Keep in mind that if you have a cropped or micro 4/3rds sensor, you will need to figure out your full-frame equivalent focal length to calculate the minimum shutter speed necessary. For example, if you have a cropped sensor with a factor of 1.5x, and you are using a 200mm lens – the minimum shutter speed required is: 200mm x 1.5 = 300 or 1/300th of a second.
3. Shutter speed too slow to freeze motion
To freeze motion you need to use a fast shutter speed. The number that I use is 1/250th of a second for people who are walking. Running and sports can be between 1/500th and 1/1000th depending on the speed, but it all depends on how fast your subject is moving. Make sure to pay closer attention to your shutter speed when photographing something in motion (especially if you shooting in Aperture Priority mode).
4. Not focusing on the eyes in portrait photography
If you are photographing someone’s face, particularly with a shallow depth of field and close up, the focus needs to be on the subject’s eyes (unless you decide otherwise due to creative reasons). The nose or the chin is not good enough – it needs to be on the eyes. I can’t tell you how many portraits I ruined early on where the person’s ear was sharper than their eye.
5. Not raising your ISO high enough
In situations when you are not trying to capture a shallow depth of field, raising the ISO is often a very good strategy, even up to 1600, 3200, or 6400 depending on your camera and the light. Raising your ISO will allow for a faster shutter speed to offset handheld camera shake and freeze motion, and for a smaller aperture so you can have a larger depth of field. The added grain/noise will usually be very worth the added sharpness in the scene.
6. Not stopping fully to take a photograph
This is my biggest pet peeve, and I see it done particularly when people are traveling and overstimulated by their environment. If you are going to take a photograph, make sure to stop yourself. Take a second to frame the photograph before you shoot it. If you capture a photograph while you are in motion, it will be slightly blurry unless you are using an insanely fast shutter speed.
7. Not cleaning the front of your lens
Smudges on your lens will reduce the sharpness and can ruin some of your photographs. Carry a lens cloth or use a thin soft t-shirt to clean it.
8. Missing the focus in dark situations
Your camera’s autofocus capability, particularly with entry-level cameras, will diminish significantly in darker places. Make sure to pay even more attention to where the camera is locking its focus, and try to look for white, shiny, or contrasty objects to lock the focus on. If all else fails, go to manual focusing.
Using a lens with a larger aperture (like the 50mm f/1.8) will help, as will using the center most focusing point in your camera. It is a cross-point type and as such is more accurate and can often focus better in lower light situations.
9. Tripod mistakes
When using a tripod, you want to make sure to never touch it while a picture is being taken. Even holding it to keep it steady will introduce blur. Use a remote shutter release or set your camera on a 2-second delay before you take the photograph.
Pay particular attention to your tripod when photographing on a windy day. The wind can also shake the camera and add some blur. To combat this, try to capture your photographs in-between wind gusts and even consider raising your ISO up so that your shutter speed will be faster. It is much easier to take a 10-second exposure in between wind gusts than a 30-second exposure.
Finally, make sure to turn your image stabilization off when photographing on a tripod. This might not matter with certain newer cameras, but it is always a good habit to get into. The stabilizing system has the potential to add minor vibrations to the camera when it is fully still.
You may also want to read: 5 Tips to Get Sharp Photos While Using a Tripod.
If you follow these nine tips you should be better equipped to avoid getting blurry photos. Do you have any other tips to add? Please post them and any questions you have in the comments section below.