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Matt "Photographer | Filmmaker"

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3 Tips to Taking Sharp and In-Focus Photos!

Photography Tips / Off / 2017-09-15

Why do my photos look blurry and out-of-focus?

Believe it or not this is one of the most common questions I get asked by other photographer’s who are just starting out. It’s a problem that many beginner and even intermediate photographer’s struggle with on a regular basis.

There’s a good reason why blurry and out-of-focus photos are such a common mistake in digital photography. It’s because there are a number of key factors that lead to capturing sharp and in-focus photos. It’s not simply what Focus setting you use that makes a difference!

In this article I’m going to talk about the 3 most essential and useful camera settings and techniques that when used correctly, will allow you to obtain perfectly sharp and in-focus photos every time.

Knowing the most effective shutter speed to use in a particular situation is one of the most important elements in capturing sharp photos. It’s super helpful to know the effect that shutter speed has on moving objects or even objects that you think are still.

If you have ever played around with your camera’s shutter speed settings either in Shutter Priority (S) or Manual (M) mode then you most likely know that there are limits to how fast and how slow your shutter speed can go.

On most modern DSLR or Mirrorless cameras the slowest in-camera shutter speed is 30 seconds before going to BULB mode, and the fastest shutter speed is around 1/4000 sec, although some cameras can go to 1/8000 sec or higher.

Most people know that fast shutter speeds are often used when capturing fast-moving objects. Fast shutter speeds are most commonly used for action and sports photography, wildlife and macro photography.

Using a fast shutter speed allows you to freeze motion and create the effect of the objects and/or subject being frozen in time. Some examples of fast shutter speeds are 1/500 sec and 1/2000 sec.

Cape palliser beach portrait
Taken using a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 sec

1. Know the limits of your shutter speed and choose the appropriate setting in-camera.

Slow shutter speeds create a motion-blur effect when capturing objects that are moving. Setting your shutter speed to a very low setting, for example 30 sec,  allows you to do what we call long-exposures.

Long-exposures can help you to achieve dramatic and artistic effects within your photos by creating the effect of movement.

Capturing long-exposures requires you to have your camera mounted on a tripod, this way the still objects in the frame will be in-focus, while the moving objects will be blurry.
The pinnacles desert long-exposure
30 second long-exposure taken at F10, ISO 160
So we know what fast and slow shutter speeds do and the effect they have on moving objects. But what about the average or in-between shutter speeds and what about shutter speeds for portraits?
Well this is where shutter speed becomes very important, because it is these more commonly used shutter speeds that are the ones we need to keep an eye on.
What is the slowest Shutter Speed (S) you can use with your camera hand-held?

This really depends on what you’re capturing at the time, but here are some general rules that you should follow to ensure that your shutter speed is fast enough to keep your subject in-focus.

Some people will argue that your shutter speed only needs to be higher than your effective focal length, but I know from experience that this is not always the case.

Over 10 years of experience as a photographer has taught me that you should avoid going below 1/160 sec when capturing objects that are still.

The only exception would be if your lens has optical stabilisation (OS) or if you’re using a camera like the Sony A7R which has in-built 5-axis stabilisation. This would allow you to use shutter speeds below 1/160 sec, but you would have to test just how slow you can go as it depends on how steady you hold your camera.

When shooting portraits even if the model or person is still, aim to use a shutter speed of 1/200 sec or faster if possible. Remember that if you are using your built-in or external flash on most cameras you cannot go higher than 1/160 or 1/200 sec. Unless of course you are using a high-speed sync flash which allows you to use faster shutter speeds.

When capturing objects that are moving quite fast aim to use a shutter speed of 1/400 sec or higher. But again, you will need to use your intuition and experience to determine the best shutter speed depending on the situation.

For example, to capture a supersonic jet as it breaks the sound barrier sharply, without any motion blur, you would most likely need to increase your shutter speed to beyond 1/1000 sec.

Hallstatt town aerial view
Taken at 1/200 sec with camera hand-held

2. Know the best Focus Mode and Focus Area to use together in order to achieve the best possible results.

There are two Focus modes in your camera that you need to be familiar with and these include:

  1. Focus Area (Allows you to choose the area that the camera uses to focus)
  2. Focus Mode (Allows you to change the type of focus depending on the subject)
If you’re a beginner photographer, the fact your camera has two different modes for adjusting focus can sometimes be confusing. I’m not going to go into great detail on how each of these modes work but I will do my best to explain what modes you should be using in different situations.
What Focus Area and Focus Mode should you use for capturing still objects?

  • Auto Focus Single-shot (AF-S), Single-servo Auto Focus or One Shot AF should be used when capturing still objects such as landscapes or architecture where the subject isn’t moving. If the subject is moving slightly (not in very fast motion) then in most cases you can still use this mode effectively.
  • As a general rule if you are capturing objects that take up a large area of the frame you should have your camera’s Focus Area set to “Wide”. This allows the camera to utilise all of the focus points available on the sensor.
  • If the subject you are focusing on takes up a large area of the frame, you are giving the camera a large area to focus on, so it makes sense to use a “Wide” Focus Area.
  • There are other Focus Area modes to choose from but these are more specific to certain types of photography.
  • If you wish to know more about these modes I will be covering these modes in my “Envision, Create and Inspire” Photography Newsletter.
Butterfly macro close-up
Taken using Auto Focus Continuous (AF-C) at 1/400 sec
What Focus Area and Focus Mode should you use for capturing fast-moving objects?

  • Auto Focus Continuous (AF-C) also called Continuous Servo AF or AI Servo should be used for focusing on fast-moving objects such as a person running.
  • In this mode the camera is able to analyse the movement of the subject and predict where the subject will move to, placing the point of focus at the predicted point.
  • In other words it tracks the moving subject and re-adjusts the focus as the subject moves.
  • When using Continuous (AF-C) mode you should have your Focus Area set to “Wide” so that the camera can utilize all of the focus points available to track the moving subject.
  • When experimenting with tracking moving subjects using this Focus Mode I’ve found that it works best when you have your subject in the center of frame. This is often the case because most cameras have the most powerful focus points in the very center.
When is it best to you use Manual Focus?

  • You should be using Manual Focus in situations where you’re not entirely sure that Auto-focus will be effective, or if you’re camera is struggling to find focus in Auto-focus mode.
  • One example would be when your subject is far off in the distance and there are also objects in the foreground taking up part of the frame.
  • In Auto-focus mode your camera may want to focus on the objects in the foreground instead of the main subject so it is often easier to switch to Manual Focus.
  • Another example would be when doing night photography where there is very little light and your camera will often hunt back and forth as it tries to find focus. When this happens I recommend switching to Manual focus.
St wolfgangsee town moonlight
Taken under moonlight using Manual Focus setting
How to effectively use Manual Focus!

  • Being a fine art landscape photographer I actually use Manual Focus for just about every shot I take. I have a particular process that I use with Manual Focus that guarantees my photos will be in focus every time.
  • I use a combination of focus magnify and focus peaking and I will explain what these are below.
  • When using a DSLR you usually need to switch the button on your lens from Auto-focus (AF) to Manual Focus (MF). Now the best way to focus manually is to enable live view mode by pressing the “Live View” button on your camera. Then you can use the magnify view (+ -) buttons to enlarge the image on your LCD screen, allowing you to fine tune your focus.
  • On mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A6000 or Sony A7 simply switch to Manual Focus in your camera settings menu and use the Focus magnifier setting or a defined button to magnify the image and fine tune your focus.
  • Some mirrorless cameras (Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus etc) also have a very useful tool called “Focus Peaking” which is designed specifically to help you with focusing manually. Focus peaking works by highlighting the contrasting edges of the scene that are most in focus in a bright colour of your choice such as red or yellow. This makes achieving perfect focus using manual lenses a whole lot easier especially when viewing the scene through an electronic viewfinder (EVF).

3. Always carry a tripod with you and use it whenever possible!

A simple method I would recommend to photographers of all levels is to use a tripod whenever possible. A tripod is a photographer’s best friend in all situations!

Not only is a tripod essential for taking long-exposures and time lapse photography, it is also very useful for capturing portraits, macro and video work.

  • Personally I recommend and use Benro tripods as they are very affordable, well-made, sturdy and reliable.
  • If you go with the Benro iTrip/Travel Angel series they are very light-weight and compact which makes them ideal for travelling.
  • Most of these tripods come with a solid ball-head which allows you to position your camera at just about any angle, making it a must-have part of your photography gear.

Benro tripod (Travel Angel series)

Benro tripod

Benro tripod (Travel Angel series).
Cost: $150-$400 (Aus)


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