Topic Progress:

Why are my photos not sharp?

Today was meant to be another session but I noticed that quite a few of you were struggling with this particular area so though it may be a better point to introduce it.

I’m talking about getting things sharp.

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 3 very distinct reasons why your images might not be looking sharp:

  • your focus landed in the wrong place
  • your camera was too slow to keep up with your subject
  • your camera was too slow to keep up with you
  • Each of these can spoil a photo so it’s worth having making sure you know how to prevent them from happening.

    ( By the way, if you went through our Clickstarter email course, this part will be familiar, but this time you will get to practice what we preach so it’s still worth refreshing your memory! )

    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 shutter…. 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 light, contrast 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 tree 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 if you ask us on the facebook forum, listing your camera’s make and model, we’ll be able to help.

    You can now lock focus where you want it:
  • keep the focus point in the middle, point it at your subject and half press the button to focus – DO NOT RELEASE THE BUTTON!
  • Now you can gently move the camera left or right to compose the frame how you like it – remember that in the centre is not always best)
  • once you’re happy with the composition, fully depress the shutter button and voila! The focus should remain on what you wanted.
  • 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.

    Day 3 - challenge 1

    I would like you to practice focusing a composition which might be otherwise tricky to capture.

    Try shooting through leaves / branches of a tree with your subject on the other side, or set against a busy background or shooting through a tunnel or something else which will be closer to your camera than your subject.

    Make sure to pay close attention to where your focus goes!

    See if you can use the lock – recompose method and carefully aim your focus.

    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.

    The good news is that your camera absolutely can do it, the bad is that if you shoot in auto, you have relatively little control over it. 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.

    But there are a few things you can do about it and they can make a big difference:

  • if you’re shooting in full auto, switch to Sports or equivalent mode.
  • Your camera will know that it needs to prioritise speed over other elements and will try to keep things fast – helping itself with flash if it needs to.

  • increase the distance between you and your subject.
  • Think about this – when you’re standing on a train platform and a fast train rushes past you on the rails, inches away from your face, all you see is blur. But if you were to observe the same train, going just as fast, but at a distance, you would not see a blur, you would see it maybe even moving deceptively slowly. It’s just how we perceive speed. Same with your camera – the objects really close to your camera will appear to be moving faster, and will register as blurry on your photos. That’s why it’s so hard to take sharp photos of your baby’s feet when they’re awake – since you have to get close to them, any movement they do will be exaggerated

  • Zoom out
  • The more you’re zoomed in / the longer your lens, the more sensitive to movement your camera will be. Zoom out and you will find it easier to capture the motion.

    REASON 3. Your camera was too slow to keep up with you

    This could have happened, even if you’re standing still and taking a picture of an apple on the table. And it’s all due to light.

    Let me explain : in order to take a well exposed photo ( not too dark, not too bright) your camera needs to fill the sensor with a given quantity of light. For the sake of simplifying, let’s say it needs a pint of light to get that photo.

    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 pint of them and getting them into the camera is easy.

    But when it’s a bit dark, those fireflies are spread out around the space in a much looser density.They’re no longer densly packed one next to another, but just giving each other quite a bit of personal space. This is when we might talk about ‘poor’ light.

    To ‘catch’ a pint worth of them into the camera will naturally take longer OR IN OTHER WORDS it takes longer for your camera to actually capture the picture. You might have noticed that the ‘click’ of the shutter happens a little while after you’ve actually pressed the shutter.

    And if it takes such a long time for the camera to take the picture, you may find that your own movement – micro vibrations from your hands, your breathing and generally being a living human and not a statue, get recorded on your camera in form of that gentle blur – the one that just makes everything that little bit fuzzy, a little bit soft – but not in a good way. And if your child is moving too, even slightly, it all adds to the fuzziness.

    If you are in Auto your options are limited. But if you’re in semi-auto or manual mode, you can manipulate your settings – and particular something called ISO to make your camera take the same photo, just as well exposed but with much less light. We’re not covering it in this bootcamp but do in detail in our courses.

    So what’s the answer?
    A few things actually.

    1. Eliminate movement from you.

    That means – find a way to steady yourself ( back against the wall, elbows tucked into your torso, release the shutter on exhale) or even put the camera down and use a self timer to take the picture – it’s not just for self portraits you know!

    2. See if your camera has a ‘high sensitivity’ preset.

    If you have one, it will normally make your camera more sensitive to light = allow you to take the picture with fewer “fireflies”. If you haven’t got a “high sensitivity” preset, sometimes setting your camera on a ‘night’ setting or similar will do the trick. Worth a check.

    3. See if you can actually control your ISO

    In many cases your camera in full auto mode disables the option of you changing this setting, but some cameras will still let you do it. Without going into details, with poor light you want a high ISO number – 800 or higher. Just don’t forget to bring it back to Auto afterwards!

    to check on your camera:

    FOCUS:

    – Can you see through your viewfinder where your focus lands as you take the photo

    – Can you direct where your focus goes by pressing the shutter button a few times

    – Can you switch from multiple points focus to single point focus on your camera?

    – Can you ‘lock and recompose’ your focus?

    SPEED:

    – Do you have a ‘burst’ or drive mode on your camera?

    – Can you observe how close movement registers more as blur on your camera?

    – Can you observe how when you zoom in your camera is more sensitive to movement?

    LIGHT

    – Do you have a high sensitivity setting on your camera?