3 reasons for blurry photos (and 7 ways to avoid them)
Blurry photos - oh no! Not again.
Like me you have probably experienced this. You have just taken the perfect photo - maybe "the shot of your life". Well back at the computer you find the photo to be terribly blurry? Now what? You blame the camera or lens, the simplest solution. The truth is, most often the blurry photo is a photographer error. Buying a sharper lens will not help.
To solve the problem you must understand the reasons why your photos turn out blurry.
1. Blurry photos caused by camera movement (camera shake)
If you move the camera during the exposure you’ll get a blurry photo. How much blur depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s obvious while other times you will need to zoom in close to see the blur. Blur caused by camera shake looks like two misaligned photos layered on top of each other. Lines and edges seems to be double.
Using your camera handheld
The most common reason for camera motion is hand holding the camera. The longer shutter speeds and the longer focal lengths you use, the more noticeable the problem is. Good technique when you handhold the camera is important. Here is an article explaining how to hand hold your camera.
The whole image is blurry due to camera movement. Look at the bright tree branch to the right, it looks double.
Using too slow shutter speed when hand holding the camera
The most important reason for camera motion blur when hand holding the camera is too slow shutter speed. As a thumb of rule, you should set the shutter speed at least 1/focal length or faster to minimize blur because of camera shake.
This rule is more important when you use telephoto lenses. If your focal length is 200mm you should use a shutter speed faster than 1/250s.
In landscape photography, the preferred lens is often a wide angle. With a wide angle, you can shoot handheld at much slower shutter speeds. A lens a 10mm requires a shutter speed of 1/15s or faster to minimize the risk of camera movement.
If your lens or camera have Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) you can reduce the shutter speed additional 2-4 stops and still be able to take sharp photos handheld. If your lens or camera support this, you should always turn image stabilization on when photographing handheld.
By far the best solution for a landscape photographer is to use a tripod. With a sturdy tripod, you can take photos at any shutter speed without having to concern about blurry photos because of camera movement.
Remember to turn IS or VR off when shooting from a tripod. The image stabilization feature can cause unwanted results when the camera is completely still on a tripod.
If your tripod has a center column, you should not extending the column too high. The higher you raise the camera on the column the flimsier it gets. The whole point with the tripod is to make sure the camera is sturdy so you avoid blurry photos.
To further reduce the risk of camera movement you should use a remote shutter release or the camera self-timer.
Another more advanced feature on some DSLR cameras is “mirror lock up.” You must be picky to see any significant improvements with “mirror lock up”. I rarely use this feature because the win is minimal. “mirror lock up” is more useful in macro photography.
A loose camera strap however can have a bigger impact on camera movement. If the wind is strong, the flapping strap can cause the camera to move. Remove the strap or make sure it is properly tightened to the tripod when you take photos.
2. Blurry photos due to subject movement
The second type of motion blur is when the subject is moving during exposure. You can tell because most of the photo is sharp while anything moving is blurry. In landscape photography typically grass, flowers and tree branches becomes blurry because they often move slightly.
Depending on how strong the wind is, these movements can be so subtle you don’t even think about it as a problem. Only when you are back at the computer and a larger screen, you recognize the blur.
A shutter speed of 1/6s was way to slow to keep the flowers sharp as there was quite some wind
Consider the shutter speed
The stronger the wind is, the more leaves and flowers move. Be aware of this as a potential problem. Unless the wind is very strong a shutter speed of 1/60s or faster will freeze the movement of grass and trees. Take a test shot and use your LCD to zoom in on the photo. Check if you can see any visible blur in moving objects.
As with camera shake, the shutter speed determines if anything moving becomes blurry or not. The problem increases in low light situations when you use longer shutter speeds. In this case, obviously a tripod will not solve the problem.
The seal puppy to the left shaked his head during the exposure and made him blurry while the puppy to the right is sharp. A shutter speed of 1/125s was not fast enough to keep him sharp.
Click the image to see a larger version
Not using the tripod will of course increase the risk of adding additional blur due to camera movement.
The way to solve this problem is a shorter shutter speed. You might need to increase the ISO or open up the aperture to compensate for a shorter shutter speed.
Sometimes the blur effect can create interesting and artistically effects in a photo, so don’t be too concerned about this. You can use the effect of subject movement intentionally to blur moving water like waterfalls.
3. Failed focus
Blurry photos caused by the lens being out of focus. In these situations typically other parts than the main subject are in focus. The main reason is the camera focused on something else than you intended.
When a photo is out of focus, the lack of sharpness is softer. You don't see the typical “double” layered effect as in blurry photos caused by movement.
The two birds are blurry because the camera focused on the foreground. At a focal length of 100mm and an aperture of f5.0 missing to focus on the birds made them blurry.
Wrong camera focus mode
With the camera in Auto Focus mode, you leave to the camera to select the focus point. If the main subject is off center, the camera might miss the focus. If there is another object like a tree branch between the camera and the main subject, the camera will focus on the nearest object. The result is your main subject is unintentionally out of focus.
In situations where your main subject is not the closest object in the composition, you should switch to single focus point or manual focus. In single focus mode, you can manually move the focus point around in the viewfinder until it covers the main subject. Now when you push the shutter release, the camera will focus where you want.
You should consult your camera instruction manual to read how to set single focus point In your camera. Setting the camera in manual focus mode gives you full control where to focus.
You can also use the recompose technique. With the camera set to single focus point, you move reposition the camera till the focus point is on the spot you want to focus. Press the shutter release half way down and recompose. Now press the shutter all the way down to take the photo.
The puppy seal is blurry because the camera focused on the chain to the right. Using a single focus point would have been a better option in this case
Wrong aperture and too shallow Depth of Field
The second reason for insufficient focus is aperture. In landscape photography a typical challenge is to ensure enough Depth of Field or Depth of Focus which is another term.
When you photograph portraits, you often want to throw the background out of focus to make the main subject stand out. You do this by using a wide aperture.
In landscape photography, we want everything in the photo sharp, all the way from the foreground to the background. To achieve this, you need a smaller aperture.
How small depends on how close foreground objects are to the camera. The closer to the camera the foreground is, the more difficult to get the background in focus. In extreme situations it’s technically impossible to get a enough Depth of Field, even if you use the smallest aperture available on the lens.
Focus system limitations
In some conditions the camera autofocus is unreliable:
- low light at night
- the surface is reflective (water)
- subjects with little contrast (bright white snow)
In these situations, you must switch to manual focus.
For accurate focus you can use Live View (LV) if your camera has this feature. With Live View, you can zoom in close on the subject using the LCD and adjust the focus manually. Focusing is much easier with the subject magnified.
Bonus tip for iPhone users
If you use an iPhone, you can set the focus point manually. If you tap the screen and a yellow square appears. The yellow square sets the focus point. You can tap anywhere on the screen to move the focus point. If you tap and hold the yellow square for a couple of seconds, you will lock the focus on this point. Now you can recompose if required.
If you experience blurry photos, don't blame the camera or lens before you have understood and eliminated possible human errors. The likelihood you’re doing something wrong is higher than a lens or camera problem.
Consult your camera instruction manual for information about how to switch between the different focus modes. Finally, don’t always trust the camera. Learn how to focus manually and you will be in a much better position.
Do you have any other great tips to avoid blurry photos. Leave a comment below.