Are you often frustrated with out of focus images?
Do you struggle to achieve tack sharp images?
You are not alone!
Quite possibly the biggest struggle photographers have is achieving tack sharp images. Now what do I mean when I say tack sharp? I mean that when you zoom in to your image at 100% you can count your subjects eyelashes. It is clear and completely in focus. You can read more about how to know if your images are really sharp in this post from last week.
Achieving sharp images doesn’t have to be hard or frustrating. Once you master the basics you will achieve sharp and in focus images like a pro!
Tip 1: You need to control your focus points.
You have a brand new dslr camera and you are so excited to start taking gorgeous pictures of everything. I mean everything, you take a picture of the flowers in your yard, your friends, your dogs, your food, everything. Then you jump on the computer to look at your images and only 5 of the 100 you took are in focus. The rest of the images? Those are a blurry mess and you don’t know what went wrong.
The answer is simple my friend, your camera chose the focal point, not you. When your camera is in auto focus mode then it does it’s best to find what to focus on based on contrast. Imagine for a minute you are standing in front of a crosswalk. Your camera sensor will look for a point of contrast and focus on that. Because you aren’t telling your camera what you want to focus on your camera will choose any of the white lines in the crosswalk. If you are lucky it will choose the line you want, but let’s not rely on luck shall we?
The idea of setting your own focal points though is that your camera has multiple focus point settings. When you are viewing the focal points it will look like a diamond grid. To achieve tack sharp images you will need to choose one focal point instead of all of the focal points. Do this by scrolling through the focal points and choosing the focal point that is directly over the part of the image you want to be in focus. For the image above of the man walking on the sidewalk, you would choose a focal point that is directly over his leg to ensure that plane of focus is tack sharp.
How do you know what focal point to choose? ALWAYS ALWAYS focus on the eyes if they are in the portrait. If they aren’t then focus on the most important part of your portrait.
To choose your own focal points you are going to need to choose manual focus points in your camera. Each camera is different so this is something you are going to have to look up in your user manual or google.
Tip 2: You need to master back button focusing.
You are all set with choosing your focal points instead of your camera but your pictures are still out of focus? Now it’s time to enter the big leagues and really start shooting like the pros. You have probably been taking pictures by pressing your shutter button halfway down, waiting for your camera to lock focus and then pressing it down the rest of the way.
That my friend is a recipe for user error and camera shake.
This again is going to be different for every camera so you are going to need to google or search on you tube for how to set your camera to the greatest focusing mode on earth . . . back button focusing.
What is back button focusing you ask? It’s where you press a specific button on the back of camera (it’s the one that looks like a star). If you hold this button down while focusing on your image and taking your picture then you will achieve tack sharp images almost every time you take a photograph. The key is to never let go of that button once you lock your focus. Want proof that it works?
My husband captured this portrait of me using back button focusing and he is not a trained photographer. I chose all of the settings. Then I handed him the camera. I showed him what button to press and told him to make sure the red dot was over my. Then he pressed the shutter down. He nailed it with no previous experience. If he can do it, you can do it!
Tip 3: Check your focus mode
Notice how I said you will receive tack sharp images *most* of the time? How about we change those odds and make it the *majority* of the time. Sorry perfectionists but even the best miss focus sometimes (which is why they always take more than one shot). How do we nail the focus the majority of the time?
Simple, my friend. Follow tip 1 and 2 then make sure your camera is in the right focal mode.
Your camera has 3 focus modes: Al focus, Al servo and One shot. Say what? Let me break it down into English for ya.
Al focus: if your subject isn’t moving choose this mode
Al servo: if your subject is moving (jumping, dancing, running, spinning) choose this mode.
One shot: I’ve never used this mode so I don’t recommend it.
Why does it matter? If your subject is jumping and you have your camera set to Al focus then it will be out of focus because it locked the focus on one plane in the image so the minute your subject moves they are no longer in that plane and you lost the shot. Al servo is your best friend in those circumstances because it continuously resets the focus with your subject.
Tip 4: Understand how aperture mode works
Everyone loves those beautiful bokeh filled images with shallow depths of field. They are absolutely my favorite types of portraits to create. But they are also the easiest to miss the mark on achieving tack sharp images.
While your lens may be able to open up all the way to a 1.2 the reality is that your depth of field will be so narrow that only one eye will be in focus, or only the nose and not the eyes. If this is something you are struggling with close down your aperture until you find your sweet spot. I will go more into detail on this subject in another blog post. For now, I would recommend not going any lower than 2.8 until you master that depth of field, then you can play with opening up your aperture more.
Bonus tip: That beautiful bokeh filled background has more to do with how close you are to your subject and how far away they are from the background.
In the image above I chose an aperture of 2.5 to ensure both eyes were sharp and the background was slightly blurred.
Tip 5: Bump up that shutter speed!
Slow shutter speeds equals camera shake which equals out of focus images. Our goal is to take control of every setting in our camera so we can achieve tack sharp images every single time. If you want to make sure your images are always tack sharp then it’s best for you to choose a setting of 200 or higher for your shutter speed.
Why does that have an impact? Your shutter speed controls how long your camera takes to capture the portrait. The higher your shutter speed the quicker your camera takes the picture and the sharper your images are.
Bonus Tip: Practice, Practice, Practice
The best way to really master sharp is images is to do what I like to call focused practice. Sometimes using your children or significant other isn’t the best for this type of practice because they get bored quickly, but I find bribery to work well if I really need to use them as the subject.
With a focused practice session you are going to sloooooow way down and make clear conscious decisions about what settings your are going to use.
If you haven’t mastered manual mode in your camera yet then take a couple shots with your camera set to av mode (aperture mode) and adjust your aperture, this will automatically change your ISO and shutter speed settings for the proper exposure.
Take several practice shots and then switch your camera to tv mode and do the same thing.
Change your focal points and take note of if you hit the mark or if you missed the mark. Remember to ALWAYS focus on the eyes.
After you have finished your focused practice session upload your portraits to your camera, zoom into 100% and take note of what worked and what didn’t.
I have created this incredible resource for you to use as a reference guide. Simply clip your image in, enter the settings you chose and then save it as a jpeg to print as 4×6. This resource for you is completely and it is what I used while I was learning photography to serve as a reminder of what works and what doesn’t. You will find this resource to be incredible in helping you learn to recognize and create tack sharp images every time.
Do you have a favorite tip that you use to ensure you have tack sharp images every time you create a photograph? I’d love to hear it, leave a comment below so we can all learn from you!