Inside: Struggle with blurry photos? Check out these 7 tips for sharp focus in your photos.

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7 Tips for Sharp Focus In Your Photos

I call it “download disappointment.”  You may know the feeling.

You’ve taken a set of photos you love.  Your child smiled and looked right at the camera and you captured a beautiful, natural expression. Not an easy feat!

You can’t wait to get the photos off your camera and share them with the world.

But once you download your photos to your computer you realize they look blurry or a bit out of focus.  Or maybe your child looks out of focus but the tree behind her looks sharp.

So discouraging! 

{Ask me how I know}

Ready to give up on your digital camera?  Not so fast!

Let’s troubleshoot and help you get the sharp focus you want in your photos.

Tip 1: Always Zoom In To Check For Sharp Focus

After you’ve taken a few photos, zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of your camera to check for sharp focus.  If it’s not sharp, you’ll know you need to make some adjustments.

Depress the image review button on the back of your camera (it looks like an arrow), then depress the + button to zoom in and check for sharp focus:

Tip 2: Fast Shutter Speed = Sharp Focus

If you’re shooting in manual or a semi-manual mode make sure your shutter speed is set to 1/125 or faster.  A shutter speed any slower than this will yield blurry photos.

A faster shutter speed, like 1/500 or 1/1000 will freeze motion in your photos.

When you photograph children I recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/500 for sharp photos.

Here’s an example: as the flower in the photo below blew in the wind I froze its motion and captured it in sharp focus with a fast shutter speed.

sharp focus

Another important tip: be sure to set your shutter speed higher than the length of your lens.

For example, if you have a 200 mm telephoto lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200.

If you need help understanding shutter speed and your other camera settings be sure to check out How To Use Your DSLR Camera.

Tip 3: Choose Your Own Focal Point

Unless you change your focus mode, by default your camera will be set to attempt to detect where it should focus.  This produces inconsistent results.

But you’re smarter than your camera!  Your camera doesn’t know what you’re trying to photograph.  Only you know which part of your image you want in sharp focus.

I recommend changing your camera to single point focus mode.  This enables you to choose your focal point and place it over your subject.

Check out this post to learn how to switch to single point focus.

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Tip 4: Use Continuous Focus Mode 

I used Continuous Focus Mode on the image below to capture my daughter in sharp focus as she twirled around on the beach.  I use this mode 95% of the time when photographing my children.

how to take your own family photos

Continuous focus mode will help you achieve sharp focus when you photograph moving subjects.

Camera manufacturers give this camera setting different names:

On Nikon, Sony and Fuji cameras, it’s called AF-C.

On Canon cameras, it’s called Al Servo AF.  

Here’s how your camera’s focus system works:

your camera focuses when you partially depress the shutter button (the button you use to snap the photo).

With Continuous Focus Mode, as long as you keep the shutter button partially depressed it will continue to focus and refocus until you press it all the way down to take the photo.

Always use this mode for moving subjects.

Here’s what happens when you don’t use Continuous Focus Mode: imagine your child walking (or perhaps running!) toward your camera.  If you lock focus on your child, then take the photo one second later, your camera will lose focus because your child continued moving after it locked focus.

But in Continuous Focus Mode the camera will continue to focus until you take the photo, so it’s better able to capture sharp focus as your subject moves.

Check your camera manual to find out how to change your camera to Continuous Focus Mode.

Tip 5: Look For A Point of Contrast

Your camera always looks for a point of contrast it can use to grab focus.

On a face, for example, your camera wouldn’t be able to grab focus on the cheek but could grab focus on the eye because its distinct from all the skin around in color and brightness.

When you choose your own focal point as recommended above make sure you toggle it to a point of contrast.

For example, when I photographed this piece of pottery I placed my focal point over the potter’s mark.  The dark edges around the mark provided a point of contrast for my camera to grab focus.

When I tried to focus on other parts of the pottery piece my camera struggled to find focus.  If I’d taken the photo then, it would have come out blurry. 

Tip 5: Hold Your Breath and Lock Your Elbows 

When you hand-hold your camera (vs. when you use a tripod) blurry photos are more likely due to the movement of your body and hands.  This is known as “camera shake.”

To minimize this, think of yourself as a human tripod.  Lock your elbows against your body, take in a breath and hold it before you press the shutter button.  

If you’re standing, plant your feet firmly on the ground or lean against something, like a wall, to steady yourself.

This can make a big difference!  You’ll increase your chance of capturing sharp photos when your body is steady. 

Give it a try!

Tip 6: Raise Your f/stop Setting 

Your f/stop (or aperture) setting determines how wide or narrow your photo’s “depth of field” will be.  Depth of field is the vertical “sliver” of the image that’s in focus as illustrated below:

sharp focus

Try raising your f/stop number a bit so you’ll have a larger “slice” of your image in focus.  This provides more wiggle room for getting all the important parts of your image in focus.

When you photograph groups of people a larger depth of field is vital to getting everyone in sharp focus. 

how to take your own family photos

Test out your lens.  Most lenses have a “sweet spot” in terms of aperture where your photos will come out with sharp focus. 

Take a series of photos of the same subject at different aperture settings to find the f/stop setting that consistently yields sharp focus for your lens.

For more on f/stop and depth of field check out How To Decide What Aperture To Use.

Tip 7: Calibrate Your Lens

If you’ve tried all the tips above and you’re still struggling to get sharp focus, I recommend you check your lens for front or back focus problems.

For various reasons, a lens’ focus may be off.  Its point of focus may fall either in front of (front focus) or behind (back focus) the focal point.

No amount of camera skill can solve this problem because it lies in the lens.  The answer is lens calibration.

Lens calibration is needed every time you get a new lens and it may be needed periodically because it can shift over time.

Here’s an article with instructions on lens calibration.

I also recommend an internet search for “how to calibrate lens on (your camera model).  You’ll turn up a wealth of tutorials on YouTube.

I’ve also had success with the “Dot Tune” lens calibration method.  You can find this on YouTube as well.

Remember…

Always zoom in on your LCD after you take a photo to check your focus.  If you don’t know your photo isn’t in focus you won’t be able to troubleshoot.

And no need to give up on your DSLR – with these troubleshooting tips you’ll be on your way to beautiful, sharp photos you’ll want to share with the world.

Do Photography Terms Sound Like a Foreign Language?  Let Me Simplify It For You: