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Four Frequent Focus Follies

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

The 4 most frequent questions received in 2017 regarding focus.

“My photos are all blurry! What am I doing wrong?” These are the 4 most frequent causes of blurry pictures in 2017:

1) Slow Shutter Speed while hand-holding the camera

This is the number 1 cause of blurry photographs. Many photographers simply overestimate their ability to hold perfectly still during longer exposures. Knowledgeable photographers know four things that can improve hand held shots:

  1. Shutter speeds should be the reciprocal of the camera lens focal length. eg. A 100 mm lens would require a shutter speed of no less than 1/100th of a second.

  2. Every photographer has a minimum shutter speed, that is, the slowest speed at which a person can hold the camera and take reasonably sharp pictures. Try this exercise to find out yours: place the camera in shutter priority mode (S) and take the same photo at 1/500th. Lower the shutter speed one stop at a time and take photos all the way down to 1/15th. Enlarge the images on your computer and take a critical look at them. What shutter speed do you first notice a lack of sharpness? Most seasoned photographers rarely go below 1/60th of a second without using a tripod.

  3. How you stand while taking a photograph can affect the sharpness. For the best stability, use the “official photographer stance”: stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly forward, firmly planted to stabilize your body. Support the camera by gripping the lens from underneath with the left hand and use your right hand to grab the grip and gently press the shutter button. Tuck your elbows tight to your chest forming an upside-down “V”. Use the viewfinder rather than the live view, as holding the camera to your face will also provide stability.

  4. Many modern lens have image stabilization built into them. Enabling this ability will improve the sharpness in your image but don't consider it a big improvement. Note that most lens manufacturers suggest you turn this feature off when using a tripod.

2) Manual/Auto Focus switch in the wrong position

More than once I have answered a photographers' call expressing frustration about the blurriness of their photos. Their blankety-blank auto-focus is not working. In 9 times out of 10 cases it's because the auto/manual focus switch on the camera body or lens has been set to manual. It happens. More times than I care to admit I have shot a whole sequence of photographs out of focus because I blindly assumed the camera was operating in auto-focus mode, only to learn I had the switch(es) set to manual. I have become compulsive in checking that switch on the front of my Nikon.

3) Focus and Forget It – doesn't always work Canon AF-On Button

Canon's AF button

Normally, to focus you depress the shutter button halfway; the camera focuses on the active focus point (the active dot or square) in your view finder, and then when you depress the shutter button all the way it takes the photograph. This system works ok most of the time, but has its issues – if you press too lightly the camera may try to re-focus, or if you press too hard the camera takes the photo before you are ready. If you take multiple pictures in succession, it will try to focus before each shot.

For these reasons, seasoned photographers use the auto-focus button on the back of their camera. (See larger images below)

This is a button on the back of your camera labeled “AF-On” "AE/AF"or “Fn”. Usually it is set up by default, otherwise you may have to activate it in your camera’s menu. When you press it, the camera focuses and won’t focus again until you press the button again. This allows you to re-compose and take shot after shot, and the camera won’t change focus every time you depress the shutter.

This is particularly useful when taking group photographs or landscapes. Not so useful for objects in motion. Focusing on moving objects is a blog of its own.

4) Diopter not adjusted for your eyesight ikon Diopter Dial Location

Nikon Diopter Dial

If you find that despite your best efforts, your photos are blurry while using manual focus, or if you think your eye sight is failing because you just can't see as clearly through the viewfinder as you used to, check your diopter setting. What is a diopter and how do I set it you ask? Good question. Your camera's diopter allows you to adjust the view finder's focus to your eyesight.

The diopter is adjusted with a dial or wheel right next to the viewfinder. While looking through the viewfinder turn the dial until the image is sharp. It is that simple.

By the way, if you wear glasses, you can take them off if you like and readjust the diopter to suit your vision.

Canon Diopter Dial (Below)

Nikon Autofocus Button (Below)

About the author: JS Engelbrecht cut his teeth in photography in the fashion industry before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty." Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine are gallery.

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