Help! My Photographs are all Out of Focus! (Part 1)


The first thing to say is that sharpness, and the desirability of sharpness is a subjective matter! It’s very possible to have a great photograph that communicates it’s message with power and clarity at the same time as being slightly technically imperfect. To a certain extent, no matter what you do, a number of your images will come out with less than perfect focus.

It can be possible to become a bit obsessed by sharpness, particularly if you read a lot of the technical blogs and comments on the internet. There’s a lot of emphasis on critical sharpness and this sort of thing can become a bit wearing to say the least! Some people really do get completely absorbed by the whole technical aspects of photography and become detached from the emotion and communicational aspect of creating images I think.

So, here’s the thing:

For most of us, most of the time, absolute critical sharpness isn’t the be all and end all of everything.

However – you do need your pictures to be essentially in focus and sharp and you need to be able to control what’s sharp and what’s not.

So, what do you do if you are consistently finding that you pictures lack sharpness?

Try these top tips below:

Half press to focus – Firstly make sure that you are half pressing the shutter down to focus before pushing it fully down to take the picture. This is vitally important and you need to think about a distinct two part movement – focus then press – in order to take a picture. This can happen extremely quickly but, if you do it too quickly, or all in one continuous movement, the chances are that the camera won’t have chance to focus properly and the image will be out of focus.

Try back button focussing – Many photographers find it easier to use a technique called “back button focus”. On a lot of cameras you can set the back button, usually where your right thumb naturally rests, to focus the lens. This keeps the shutter free just to actually take the picture and separates the two part “half press and push” technique outlined above over two buttons which can be significantly easier.

Check your shutterspeed – Sometimes it can be easy to confuse camera shake with being out of focus. A slight blur can occur when the camera moves slightly as the shutter is depressed and the resulting picture has a bit of blur around the edges. This can occur even when photographing a static object and is easily be avoided by making sure that your shutterspeed is fast enough to freeze the camera’s slight movement as you push down on the shutter button.

First of all, as a very rough rule of thumb, any shutterspeed lower than around 60th of a second will potentially mean that the picture could suffer from camera shake. If you’re using a telephoto lens then the minimum shutterspeed will need to be faster – generally. If you are using an 85mm lens for example you will need a minimum shutterspeed of 85th of a second. If you are using a 200mm then a minimum shutterspeed of 200th second will be needed to ensure that there isn’t any camera shake recorded in the image.

Obviously, in some circumstances you will need to make other adjustments to make sure that you are able to use a fast enough shutterspeed to avoid camera shake. You might need to open the aperture for example or use a higher ISO. If all else fails then putting the camera on a tripod or resting it somewhere where it really can’t move will allow you to use a lower shutterspeed without it’s associated camera shake.

Hold the camera steady – Of course, even the fastest shutterspeed won’t eliminate camera shake if you are holding the camera insecurely and moving it each time you press the shutter button! Plant your feet firmly on the ground as you are shooting, cradle the camera gently but firmly in your hand and keep your elbows in so that you are as secure and firm as possible. As you press the shutter try to keep the camera as still as possible to eliminate any risk of camera shake.

Check your aperture/depth of field – It can be very difficult to gain accurate focus when you are using a very wide aperture and the depth of field is minimal. Sometimes the actual plane of focus can be only a centimeter or so wide and you are giving yourself an extremely difficult job to get the right bit of the image in focus!

Have a go at using a narrower aperture and so increase the depth of field to give yourself a fighting chance! If the plane of focus is wider then the margin for error is subsequently bigger and you are increasing your chances of focus success!

Of course you might find that, as you reduce the aperture, the shutterspeed decreases to the point where you could get camera shake so you need to find a happy balance!

Hopefully the basic tips above will go some way to improving things and help you to gain sharp and accurate focus. In part two we will have a look at some more advanced techniques and the role of post processing.

If you would like to find out more about how your camera works have a look at my DSLR Cameras Made Simple: Take Pictures With Confidence Course.

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