Photo Basics #5: Capture clear photos

Now, I'll teach you all about focus and why your photos may not be as sharp as you'd like them to be.

This morning, I got an email from one of the students in my Photography Start Course who said she spent $2,000 on an expensive camera and another $1,500 on a high-end lens.  Still, her pictures don't look as sharp as she would like them to, and wondered why that is.  I have to admit that I get this type of question SO OFTEN that I dedicated an entire WEEK of training in my beginner class to teach how to get crystal clear and sharp photos.

It is not uncommon for photographers to think that something must be wrong with their equipment if the photos don't come out sharp, but most of the time I find that the reason is simply a product of mistakes the photographer makes when shooting.  You can avoid those issues by understanding how to properly focus your camera.

The #1 focusing mistake of beginning photographers

The #1 mistake I see from beginning photographers in terms of getting clear pictures is that they aren't being precise with their focus.  I often ask students where they are focusing, and I get answers like, “On the model's face.” The fact of the matter is that “the face” is far too large of an area to focus on for intimate portraits.

Suppose you're taking a portrait of someone.  Now that you've learned how to use shallow depth-of-field from the second part of this series, you want to use it all the time in your portraits to get a creamy background behind the subject.  This means you're usually shooting your portraits at f/2.8 or a similar low aperture.

Suppose that you're using a 100mm lens and standing 7 feet (2.1 meters) from the subject.  Did you know that, with these settings, only 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters) of the photo is sharp?  That means that, if you focus on the person's cheek, their eyes and nose will be partially blurry.

So if you want your photos to come out crystal clear and sharp, you need to focus PRECISELY and make sure you have enough depth-of-field to make the subject come out sharp. 

When shooting portraits, you will almost always focus on the person's eye, since that is where the viewer of the photo will look first.  For landscape photographers, check out this article on where to focus in landscape photography.

How to focus on one spot

When you were shooting in automatic mode on your camera, the camera would automatically find the subject and focus for you.  Now that you're shooting manually, it's time to take control of your focus as well.

Your camera ALWAYS focuses on one specific spot in the scene.  It is physically impossible for a lens to focus on two spots at once.  When you look through your viewfinder, you see a bunch of dots (Canon) or small boxes (Nikon).  Those markings show you where the camera is focusing. This spot generally blinks red when the camera sets focus.

In the picture below, I chose to focus on the ant on the flower, since that is where I wanted people to look.  To do this, I set the camera to spot focus and used the four-way selector on the back of my DSLR to move the focus point onto the ant.

Notice the red illuminated focus point right on the ant? That's where I'm setting the focus for this shot.

Sometimes, the spot in the picture where you want to focus will not have a focus point available.  This is especially true on entry-level Canon Rebel or Nikon D3500 DSLRs, which do not have many focus points.  If you find that this is the case, check out this article on focusing and recomposing.

Focus Selections

I hope I didn't confuse you earlier when I said that the camera can ONLY focus on one specific spot in the photo.  There are ways that you can activate multiple focus points at once, but in doing so, the camera is just choosing the best of both worlds and compromising between the focus selections to set the focus in the middle somewhere.

99% of the time when I'm out shooting I use spot focus, which allows me to move around the focus point in the viewfinder.  My thumb has become adept at constantly moving around the focus point using the four-way selector on the back of the camera as I compose a shot through the viewfinder.  Spot focus is great because you have exact control over where the focus is placed.

However, there are other focus selection options on most DSLR cameras.  Other than spot focus, you have the ability to choose a small group of between 3 and 5 focus points and tell the camera to choose the best of those points, or you could set your camera to determine which focus point to use all on its own. 

I never let the camera take control of focus–it's a recipe for blurry pictures.  When I'm shooting sports or fast-moving wildlife, I'll sometimes set the camera to use any of the center area focus points and choose the best one, because the action happens faster than I can move the focus point.

Although there are certainly situations to use other focus selections, I would encourage you to use spot focus and get used to constantly moving around the focus point around the frame as you shoot for the next few months.

Focus Modes

Aside from selecting which focus point(s) the camera is using, you also need to set which type of autofocus the camera will use.  For most uses, you'll want to leave your camera on “AF-S” (Nikon) or “One Shot” (Canon). This means that the camera will acquire focus when you press half-way down on the shutter button, and then take the picture when you finish pressing all the way down on the shutter button.

The other main option is continuous focus (displayed on the camera as “AF-C” for Nikon cameras and “AI Servo” for Canon cameras).  This mode is used when the subject is moving. Suppose you're shooting a soccer player running toward you.  If you use one shot, then the camera focuses when you press half way down on the shutter, and by the time you finish pressing all the way down, the camera takes the picture.  In that split second, the athlete will have moved, so the picture will not turn out sharp. Continuous focus (AF-C or AI SERVO) means that the camera continues to find focus all the way up to the instant that you snap the picture.

So why wouldn't you want to use continuous focus all the time?  Because it's slightly less precise than one shot. So here's the rule… use one shot (“AF-S” on Nikon, and “One Shot” on Canon) for all shots where the subject is reasonably still like landscapes or most portraits.  Use continuous focus (“AF-C” on Nikon, and “AI Servo” on Canon) for all fast-moving shots.

Note: Canon users will also see the option for “AI Focus” when choosing a focus mode.  There is a specific use for this, but honestly it's just outdated technology. I have tried it extensively even in the best case scenarios for this focus mode and have always achieved better results with AI Servo.

You have just learned a LOT of the basics of how your camera works, but there is much more to learn.  If you want more information like this in video format that you can watch at your own pace, you should really check out the Photography Start Course.  It's 22 videos, many filmed on-location, with all the camera settings for each picture, videos of exactly how to put a composition together, and training on getting tack sharp photos.

What's Next?

We have a plethora of resources to help you take your photography to the next level!

First, I would recommend joining the Improve Your Photography Facebook Group. Feel free to ask as many questions as you want and have them answered by photographers just like you!

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Oh, and in case you forgot…

Roses are red,

Violets are blue.

Photography is great,

And you are too.

123 thoughts on “Photo Basics #5: Capture clear photos”

  1. The writer here simply ignored other leading camera brand users such as Sony users, don’t know why!?

    Thanks for the Article though 🙂

    1. Fantastic little series, and thank you very much, Jim!
      For everyone else, I found the following page for various kit reviews and comparisons, which is out of scope for this article.:
      It is the most comprehensive review and tech spec site I’ve seen (& free as well).
      Improve Photogrpahy is one of my favourite sites, and Jim’s beginner video series was great for a know-nothing like me.

  2. Interesting! My photos are NEVER as sharp as I’d like them and I always blamed the glass. You hear about the terror of kit glass and all that and so maybe *I’m* the issue. Thanks for the tips and your podcast is quickly becoming my favorite.

    1. Photos won’t be sharp if you use something like F1.8 to get a full body photo of a person right up against a background (like a wall or door).

      You would have to place the subject far in front of the background for a start (to create good bokeh), if you plan to use a low Aperture like F1.8, as the distance between the subject and the background can significantly improve the “blurriness” of a photo.

      Because using F1.8 with your subject so close the the background (like a wall or door) confuses the focus of the lens and with the lack of space between the subject and the background, the subject will blend in too much with the background, thus causing blur in the photo.

      If you want a clear/sharp photo with your subject close to the background (wall or door or tree if outside) then you have to use a much higher F Stop, such as F5.6/F6/F7.1/F8 and higher etc…

      I hope this explains it.

  3. Great article, thank you! In my experience, the single biggest factor in achieving razor sharp focus is knowing your lens’ sweet spot. Many of my blurry pictures are a direct result of using excessively large apertures. For best results (and this will depend on your specific lens), it is absolutely essential to stop down the aperture, even when using fast lenses. This is especially true when shooting portraits.

    1. If you change the aperture from say 4 to 8 to make the photo sharper then it’s also darker which means you have to up the ISO which means lessening the quality of the photo. How do you still keep it sharp? I think I’m having problems using ISO, aperture and shutter speed together. If I put my shutter at like 1/60 the photo will be light enough, but blurry. Grr it’s so frustrating!
      [email protected]

      1. Be careful with your shutter speed! For most people, 1/60 will result in some camera shake (unless you are on a tripod). There is a guideline that says your shutter speed should stay above 1/focal length. So if you are using an 85mm lens, keep the shutter speed over 1/80; for a 200mm lens, keep it over 1/200. Heavier equipment, longer lenses, and muscle fatigue can all lead to camera shake, so find what works best for you. Personally, I keep my shutter speed over 1/100 because from experience I know I have trouble keeping it steady at slower speeds. Some people have very steady hands and can get away with slower shutter speeds.

        Another thing that will help is your posture while holding the camera. Plant your feet slightly apart and bring your elbows in tight to your body so that they are stable. Keep one hand under the camera as a base, and the other on the side to press the shutter button. For really slow shutter speeds, take a breath in, hold it for a second, and press the shutter.

        In order to get the same exposure, set your shutter speed, then adjust your ISO and aperture. There is always a trade-off (this is called the “exposure triangle”). If you adjust one of these three elements, you will have to adjust one or both of the other two in order to get the same exposure. So if you’re shooting at 1/60, with your aperture at f/4 and ISO at 200 and you want to increase the shutter speed to 1/100 (without changing the exposure/brightness), you will have to either lower your aperture, raise your ISO, or do a little of both. In this example, you can get the same exposure by moving your ISO to 320 (shutter speed 1/100 and aperture f/4). In extreme cases, this may mean that you will have to raise your ISO to a point that you see graininess in the image, but sometimes that is a trade-off that is necessary.

      2. Try A or AV mode (depending on what camera you have.
        Set F Stop to the widest it can go, preferably F1.8 (very good bokeh)
        Leave ISO on 100

        Go to large indoor room that is lit in one area, but darker in the other.
        Take a photo in both the light area and dark area of the room and compare what shutter speed has been used for both photos.

        Then try this all again but use F Stop of F8 (clear background), whilst keeping ISO at 100.
        Again take a photo in the light area and dark area of the room and compare shutter speeds.

        All the above will help you to get the correct exposure and to help you with determining the correct SS/AV/ISO

        Then you can see what your SS is for the light/dark areas of the room in both F1.8 and F8 and when you decide to use manual mode, you will have a much better and clearer idea of how to get the correct SS/AV/ISO balance.

        I hope this helps you 😀

      3. rule of thumb is that shutter speed must be greater or equal to the focal length of your lens..if you are using a 50mm lens on a dx format body with the crop factor of 1.5 for the nikon bodies 50mm will be equal to 75mm so use atleast a shutter speed of 1/80 or higher to avoid camera shake and compensate with other exposure values like ISO or aperture to get the right exposure .

    1. You focus on the subjects eye nearest to you.

      If you have more than one person in the photo, then try to focus on an eye of the person in the middle or towards the centre of the frame.

  4. Thank you so much for the info! I have an environmental background and will be going on a course documenting marine mammals, but I needed to be equipped with photography basics!.

    Thanks again.

  5. Absolutely the best explanation ever. I’ve taken photography classes this entire school year in h.s, 9th grade. . And you have explained more, in an understanding fashion w/I 20 minutes, than my teacher had all school year! Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks…great tutorial ……simple explanation without all the over the top tech jargon …looking forward to following the advice. Lets face it, the reason we all bought DSLR cameras was to move on from point and shoot…… 🙂

  7. I use a Sony camera nd I don’t get sharp images as expected…my images looks sharp on d camera but when it’s viewed on a pc,it’s blur…

  8. If you want SONY, go buy a TV or Camcorder, That’s what they are good at making. If you are a serious 99% photographer, then is really Nikon or Canon. The others competitors are a waste of money for the most part.

    Pay attention to World Cup, or any main event from sports, to fashion, or whatever it is, you will see that are mostly white lens (canon), and Nikon. 50/50%… Rarely you will see journalist, or professional photog using anything other than this 2 major makers.

    Do search as be wedding photographer and they are either canon or nikon.

    1. Are you kidding?! The times where only Canon and Nikon produced serious cameras are over, or, as a matter of fact – there never were such times!

      Pentax, Leica, Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Hasselblad – there are many manufacturers that produce outstanding equipment for photography.

      The reason why you see so many photographers at the world cup using CaNikon is because they have the best AF.C (i.e. focus tracking) coupled with full-frame.

      Pentax is building class leading APS-C DSLRs (the K3 bests everything Canon or Nikon produce in this class for pretty much every photographic aspect apart from autofocus and video), Leica cameras wipe the floor with Canon and Nikon for street photography and overall lens quality, Hasselblad and Pentax medium-format cameras are widely used by professional studio photographers.

      Just because you see more Canon and Nikon out in the wild doesn’t mean there aren’t any other serious cameras out there.

    2. Wow with such a comment i take it that you are a real professional photographer who knows everything and anything about photography, I suppose People like Jason Lanier or gary Fong who earn their daily bread from taking photographs havn´t really got a clue what they are doing, why have they changed from Canon and Nikon to Sony? I can tell you why, Sony aren´t scared to make a change in the photography world, the a77, a77 ii, a99, just to mention three aren´t chasing Canon, Nikon and co they have overtaken them, lets just see what Canon brings out this year to try and make the narrow minded Canon minority happy again.

  9. Creativity is much MORE important than gear. If you like Sony, shoot Sony. Don’t feel shamed into buying Canon or Nikon. All three brands have pros and cons. Albert Tom’s comment seems to come from someone who wants to LOOK professional, rather than BE professional. If you enjoy photography, willing to put in a ton of work, and always strive to learn more, you will be on the right track.

  10. I am a beginner and was wondering how you use a single focus point when shooting a picture with a couple of people in it. I want everyone in the picture to be clear and sharp. Where would I put the one focus point? I don’t want to use auto focus.

    1. I am a beginner I use a canon rebel t3i some times have issues shooting in a room with poor lights, I use a speed light but it makes the objects forehead white. please what do I do?

      1. Kelly, you don’t want to point you speedlight right at the subject. Light looks better when it’s coming from its natural direction, which is the sky. If you can’t use the ceiling, used a near wall to bounce the light. If you can, point the light high on a near wall, and bounce the light back onto the subject. If you getting over exposed photos, reduce your speedlight’s power.

  11. i read most of your article and its such a great help,each time i was wondering how long will it take me to learn all these with my new d750 nikon but with your help,i just made it in a day.
    thank you

  12. OMG Thank you, I have had my DSLR for almost 3 years now and finally I feel confident to shoot in manual mode!! I’m so excited for all my future photos!

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