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How to Get Sharp Shots (Or, ‘Why Are My Shots Blurry’)

It’s a question we all come to at some point in our photographic journey… ‘Why don’t my shots look super sharp like the pros do’? Or, ‘How can I make more of my shots come out sharper’?

Lots of reasons. There are basically 3 things to consider, we’ll look at each one below:

  1. Camera movement
  2. Subject movement
  3. Lack of light

Camera Movement

First let’s look at why this is a problem. The exposure is determined by aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You can open your aperture, increase the amount of time the shutter is open, or bump your ISO to get a brighter exposure. Or you can add light. ┬áIn a low light situation, you are probably going to start with opening up the aperture. If you are at your minimum aperture setting (typically f2.8, but depending on your lens it may be f4.0 or f5.6) then the only way to brighten further is to increase shutter open time or bump ISO. Better glass gets you wider apertures, which you of course pay for out of the children’s college fund. (Kidding. The wife’s wedding ring upgrade fund. Again kidding. Kinda.) With the new, fancy lad cameras you can get away with higher ISOs than ever, but at some point you will have to deal with noise. It may be 800 ISO or 3200 ISO, but you will quickly find the limit.

Which leaves us with shutter speed. For sports or fast action, you’ll usually want to be at 1/500th at least, probably better to stay at 1/1000th or above if you can. For portraits you can get away with 1/100th or so depending on your focal length and how much coffee you drink. Kids move faster, so stay at 1/250th or faster. For landscapes that don’t move around much, you can pretty much pick whatever shutter works at the best ISO performance your camera will work at. With landscapes you also want clean noise performance, so pick the lowest ISO your camera has without going into ‘lo-1 or lo-2 mode’. The general rule for handheld is to shoot at 1 over your focal length – for instance if you are shooting a 24-70 Nikon or Canon at full zoom (70mm) you’d want to stay at 1/70th of second or faster given normal circumstances. Don’t forget if you are on a crop sensor camera like a d40 or rebel that you need to account for that too – 70mm with a 1.5 crop factor is actually an effective focal length of 105mm (so you’d be at 1/105 shutter speed, but since there is no such thing pick the closest one 1/100th).

VR or vibration reduction is neat technology that can give you a few extra stops of stability (and ability to shoot at lower than normal shutter speeds). You’ll usually find VR (or IS, for the Canonistas in the house) in higher end lenses with longer focal lengths, usually over 100mm. I love the new Nikon VR-II 70-200 lens; the VR works quite well and makes a significant difference when handholding in low light. It is, of course, suitably priced.

Here’s the main thing to keep in mind about camera movement – you’ll always have some movement of the camera unless you are on a tripod. This is why many pros will always shoot with a tripod, no matter what the scenario – tripods almost always equal sharper shots. If you’re on a tripod, sometimes you can go for mirror lock up and a shutter release as well, which works well for fairly static subjects like landscapes and night photography. Or fireworks. Using those will help you get a small measure of increased sharpness, but not nearly the gain from say moving to a tripod. This approach does not work so much for portraits though. Gotta go with the ISO bump or flash or VR for the wedding and portrait crowds. Break out the credit card!

If you are going to have to handhold a shot, you might want to try ‘da grip’. Joe McNally gets credit for this one. You should also try what professional marksmen do – control your breathing. Inhale, hold, exhale, shoot. Don’t shoot on an inhale or exhale, and keep that camera pressed up against your shoulder or face to keep it still! Get the camera as steady as you can. This takes practice to really get good at it – you want it to be almost automatic, so get the prework and practice done while you aren’t in front of the subject.

The last trick is to take a bunch of shots in ‘continuous shooting’ mode. You will find that almost every time, the first and/or last shots will be not sharp, but at least one of the middle shots in a given sequence will be sharp. Delete the bad ones and keep the good ones, and you can really save the bacon this way. This sounds dumb but try it out and you’ll see it works.

Subject Movement

Ok, so you’ve taken all of the advice above and now you can shoot at 1/30th, or maybe even 1/15th of a second reasonably well and with good sharpness handheld. You are invincible, no?

Almost. Unfortunately, we’ve only solved for one half of the equation. You’ve got the camera steady, but now the subject moves during the exposure and you’ve got blur from subject movement. Curses Batman!

There are a few ways to try to solve this, each has plusses and minuses.

Use a flash. The flash exposes the subject and the ambient ‘burns in’ around the flash lit part, causing you to get a better overall exposed photo. You’ll need to use rear curtain sync, and shoot in manual mode, and know how to dial these things in to make it look reasonable. You’ll also need to experiment to get things right. And unless you want to have motion blur in your photos (from the longish shutter speed) you’ll probably also want to be on a tripod. Using flash it is possible to get a sharp subject at 1/15th or less, and also get a decent background exposure (albeit subject to motion blur). A tripod will help making the background sharp, but sometimes a blurred background looks cool too. Sometimes I try for the artistic thing and it works out, but sometimes you want it technically perfect.

Use panning techniques. If you can move with the subject you can usually get some parts of the image sharp while blurring the background. When done properly, this can look absolutely amazing and give a sense of depth and motion to your shots. Be prepared for lots of shots coming out really bad. Many photos will be taken, few will be good. Even fewer will be truly amazing. Practice makes perfect though, and will help you get more keepers and fewer rejects.

Bump ISO and deal with the unruly noise. Sometimes noise can look really cool in a black and white photo, so you may be able to shoot higher ISO and convert to BW in post with some good results. Generally, for most cameras the limit is going to be ISO 800, while on a D700, D3, or 5dMarkII you are going to be able to get away with ISO 1600, 3200, or above. I’ve heard the new Nikons are capable of even better, but have not tried them yet. Going above that you’ll be into some noise which you can reduce with a noise reduction program or you can just convert to BW and call it a vintage or artistic shot. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, this can create some great results.

Lack of Light

Really, a lack of light is what got us into this situation in the first place. If you could shoot at f5.6 at 1/1000th you’d not need to worry about these things! In a low light setting you can either choose to adapt to the situation around you (use a tripod, camera steadying techniques, and camera stabilizing techniques such as VR or shutter release cables) or you can change the situation by adding light to the scene with a flash or by turning on ambient lights when available. Or maybe a combination of both.

Sometimes I find low light photography to be the most interesting and rewarding type of photography. No one ever sees slow shutter speed photos, with their surreal streaks of light and amazing time display in two dimensions. Motion blur, while annoying to some, can really add a completely new dimension to your photos if you learn to be one with the chaos. Here are some slow shutter speed, low light shots to leave you with. Each of these are handheld in low light. I hope you find more sharp shots in your pile of digital negatives or at least some artistic freedom to try a crazy exposure out and see what comes of it. Good luck.


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