BONUS – why are my photos unsharp?

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Hands up if you’ve ever had your photo ruined by the very thing you wanted to keep sharp turning blurry and the area behind them looking sharp? Or trying to take a photo of a seemingly slow baby who right at the last moment moves her hand and suddenly it’s all just one blur? Or keeping everyone and everything still and YET the photo somehow looking unsharp?

Because if something is not sharp – that’s game over, no amount of photoshop will fix it.

Believe it or not, but there are 2 very distinct reasons why your images might not be looking sharp:

  1. your focus landed in the wrong place
  2. your camera was too slow to keep up with your subject

Each of these can spoil a photo so it’s worth having making sure you know how to prevent them from happening.

REASON 1. Your focus landed in the wrong place

This is a scenario I se over and over again. You place your little one in front of some beautiful scenery, for once they actually look at you and are clean and relatively happy to be there. You press the button…. and when you look back at the photo you see that your little cherub is blurry, but that tree behind them in the distance is looking very sharp indeed. You try to take another photo but by now your child run off. But hey, it’s not all lost, you will always have that picture of that tree to remind you of this moment, right?

So what went wrong?

You see, your camera’s autofocus is a clever little thing but it still needs a bit of info to actually ‘hang’ the focus on something.

If you’re using an Auto focus mode, your camera uses a number of points in its frame to constantly scan for things to make sharp and it uses lightcontrast and distance to make those decisions.

Which is fine for most part, but it can get really confused in any of the following scenarios:

  • when your subject is not actually the closest thing to you ( it often is set to use the nearest thing as the aim for its focus)
  • or when you’re shooting through something like leaves or a fence
  • or when there is a strong pattern in the background – or even moderately strong. Sometimes a bush in the background is all it takes.

There are many ways of controlling where your focus goes and how it behaves ( each camera has at least a few different focus modes and areas, suited for static photos and capturing action and we explore them in our courses) but the first thing to do is to really pay attention to WHERE your focus is landing. Your camera will always tell you – we just don’t always pay attention to it.

The image below shows what you may be seeing through your viewfinder as you try to compose a photo. In the first case, the focus ( indicated by the red dots) landed on the branch in front of the subject. If you didn’t pay close attention and simply pressed the shutter button, you’d end up with a blurry child and a sharp bush ( and believe you me, it’s easy to do with Mummy goggles!)

In the second one you can see that the focus landed where you actually want it. Success.

But what if you don’t like where your camera focused?

Bring your camera up to your eye and point at some scene ( ideally, you want it to be relatively busy with colours, textures and patterns).

Half press your shutter button and notice if there are any dots or squares lighting up as you look through the viewfinder.

Where those dots land is where your focus will go.

Not happy with where it went? Without moving your camera, half-press the shutter button again – you should see those focus indicators move to a different part of the frame – this is your camera trying to work out a new place for your focus to go. If you’re still not happy with it, try it again and again until they land where you want them to go. Of course, that could take ages.

Is there another way?

Well yes there is. You could switch to a single point focus – you may need to search your camera menu for an option called Single point focus or similar. It varies quite a bit between camera manufacturers so not enough space here to go camera by camera but it's worth having a dig about your camera manual to see where yours is.

There is so much more we could cover on focus. It’s not just about where your focus falls but also how your camera acquires it. And of course, there is a whole different ball game when it comes to focusing on subjects on the move – ever had a kid literally run off from where you focused on them? You’d be learning that in the session dedicated to capturing movement in our course. It's one of the most often listed 'AH_HA' parts of the course by our students.

What KIND of focus do you have?

But there is also another potential issue with your focus - it may have been set to the wrong setting. All cameras ( as far as I'm aware) have two types of focus ( often various variations thereof too) - static and dynamic focus.

Here is what happens when you focus with Static focus ( usually called One Shot, AF-S, Single )

  1. You focus on your subject. 
  2. For as long as you hold your finger on the shutter( half pressed) , the camera will hold your focus in that place. 
  3. if your subject moves away to towards you - tough luck, your focus stays where it originally was

Here is what happens with Dynamic focus ( usually called AF-C, Continuous focus or Tracking focus) 

  1. You focus on a subject - the camera starts paying attention to what your subject is
  2.  For as long as you hold your finger on the shutter, the camera will attempt to keep focus on your subject
  3. If your subject moves towards / away from you - your camera will attempt to track them and readjust subject as you go ( for as long as you hold your shutter button half pressed)

So if you are expecting to be capturing a moving object, it may be worth it switching to this focus mode. 

REASON 2. Your camera was too slow to keep up with your subject

I don’t know about your kids, but mine are never NOT in motion. If adults had the same amount of energy as your random toddler, we’d probably have colonised Mars already.

But I digress. What’s important is to understand that in order to take a sharp photo of something in motion, your camera must be able to take that photo very fast – we’re talking hundredth fractions of a second.

But often how fast it is capable of going, depends on one thing - LIGHT.

Since Photography is essentially 'painting with light', in order to take a good photo, your camera needs a certain amount of light to get inside it. Once it has enough light in, it can take a good, well exposed photo. 

But that amount of light really varies from one place to another. 

Outside, in the daytime, there is always more light available than indoors, or at night.

Now imagine the light in your environment as if it were fireflies – when it’s nice and bright, the fireflies are densely packed next to one another, so ‘catching’ a camera-full of them is easy and fast. And that means you can take the photo nice and fast = you can capture movement sharp .

But when it’s a bit dark, those fireflies are spread out around the space a lot more. They’re no longer densely packed one next to another, but just giving each other quite a bit of personal space. Social distancing, if you will. This is when we might talk about ‘poor’ light and when your camera will take much longer to fill itself up with light - because there is just less of it around. So if it takes it longer to get all the light it needs, it will take it longer to get the image captured.

This is where we often get blur ( we call it Motion blur ) because in the time it took your camera to start taking an image and end taking that image, your subject has moved enough for it to register on camera as blur.

The setting responsible for managing how fast of slow your camera can take the photo is called Shutter speed. And you can change it to force your camera to take your photo faster or slower - but you need to be shooting in either Shutter Priority mode or full manual. 

The faster your shutter speed ( expressed in fractions of a second) - the faster your camera can take a photo. 

Unfortunately, if you shoot in auto, you have relatively little control over the speed your camera takes a photo - it's the camera that controls what shutter speed it gives you and it's not a magic box - it doesn't know if you're taking a photo of an apple on the table or your child on the swings. In this case, your best bet is to just give your camera plenty of light - that way it will have no choice than to let you take a fast photo. 

In our course we teach you how to handle your shutter speed – which is responsible for how fast the photo is taken – in a whole large module dedicated to capturing movement. Simply not enough time or space for it here.

So what's our fix here?