The Real Reasons Your Photos Aren’t Sharp

If there’s one thing that we are asked the most here at Nature TTL, it’s how to take a sharp photo. The difference between a sharp photo and a soft one is huge; it can easily make or break a picture. Being unable to achieve that crisp, razor-sharp image is probably the biggest frustration amongst our readers. If you’re having this problem too then don’t worry – you’re not alone.

There are two ‘categories’ of factors that contribute to the sharpness of a photo. They are either to do with your equipment or your technique. In this tutorial, we’ll look at some of the reasons that your photos aren’t quite up to your expectations.

how to get sharp photos
Taken with the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens.

Problems with Equipment

It is definitely possible that a lack of sharpness in your photos is to do with the equipment you’re using. However, big issues with sharpness are because of poor technique. Even so, consider the following things you may come across and ensure that they aren’t causing problems with your photos.

#1 Poor Quality Glass

The quality of the lens you are using is a significant factor with regards to the sharpness of your photo. It’s also probably the one thing people don’t like hearing, as it can often be expensive to upgrade to a better lens. If you’re upgrading your equipment, you should prioritise the lens over the camera body. Even the best cameras can’t take pin-sharp photos through poor quality glass. You could easily be paying upwards of £5,000 for a professional telephoto lens, but these lenses have such refined glass within them that a lack of sharpness (coupled with good technique) is rarely an issue.

But just because you aren’t shooting with the most expensive lens, it doesn’t mean your photos can’t be really sharp too. Even budget telephoto lenses can produce sharp photos – just look at the sample photos in our review of the Sigma 150-600mm lens, for example.

#2 Using Filters

Filters add another layer of glass (or resin) that your camera has to look through, and they can definitely contribute to a reduction in sharpness. Just like with lenses, the more you pay for a filter then, generally, the better quality it is going to be. One thing you are paying for is a more refined material, reducing its impact on your photo’s sharpness.

why aren't my photos sharp?
Photo Credit: Robert Emperley, CC 2.0 License.

You definitely don’t need to stop using filters altogether, but it could be worth trying to take the same photo with and without a filter to determine its impact on sharpness.

Further Reading: “The Ultimate Guide to Filters for Landscape Photographers

#3 Not Cleaning Your Glass

If your lens is dirty then that’s definitely not going to help keep your photos sharp. Make sure that you clean your lens every so often and ensure it is free of dust and fingerprints. Remember to also clean the rear element of the lens, as well as any insertable filter elements (usually present in high-end lenses), as they will pick up dust too. Professional grade telephoto lenses often come with a big UV filter already on the front. You can twist this off and clean it, and the glass underneath, fairly easily (it may take some effort to loosen the filter if you haven’t done so before).

clean your lens
Make sure you clean all the different elements of your lens. This Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens has 4 different glass elements that can be cleaned, as indicated by the arrows.

#4 Badly Calibrated Lens

calibrate your lens sharpnessIt’s possible that your lens needs calibration to ensure the focus is 100% accurate. Some DSLR cameras have a functionality in their menus that allow you to fine-tune the focus and calibrate your lens. For Nikon users, this is called ‘AF Fine-tune’; for Canon users it’s known as ‘AF Microadjustment’.

If you find that your focus always seems to be slightly off from the point you focused on, then this could be your issue. Buy yourself the SpyderLensCal – it’s a tool used to properly calibrate your lens. Using the very fine measurements, you’re able to precise adjust the focusing effort of your camera to ensure you’re always nailing the focus.

If you don’t have the option of fine-tuning the focus within your camera (this is the case for entry-level DSLRs) then you will need to send your lens back to the manufacturer for adjustment. This can be expensive, so make sure you’re positive this is your issue.

#5 Teleconverters

If you’re using a teleconverter then you can expect some serious reduction in sharpness, especially if you’re not using a professional-grade lens. Some converters are said to have little effect, such as the Nikon 1.4x teleconverter, but I’ve used this and still noticed a drop in sharpness. I can’t speak for other brands, but the 1.7x and 2x converters from Nikon will reduce sharpness even further.

Try taking a photo with and without your teleconverter, and you’ll probably see a big different in sharpness. Teleconverters will quickly degrade the quality of a photo, which is one of the main reasons that people buy long telephotos instead of combining a shorter lens with a converter.

Download our eBook – So You Want to Be a Wildlife Photographer?

Problems with Technique

Pay attention, because these reasons are most likely the cause of your sharpness woes. You won’t be able to fix all your problems overnight, but practising your technique, whilst keeping the following points in mind, will soon have you taking much sharper photos.

#1 Camera Shake

You hear it all the time, but camera shake is a big culprit when it comes to keeping a photo sharp. It’s not always a big, obvious blur either, sometimes only coming to light when you zoom in on the photo. A good rule to adhere to is to shoot with a shutter speed no slower than 1 over the focal length you’re shooting at. For example, if you’re taking a picture at 400mm, you should shoot with a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second or faster.

If your lens has some form of vibration reduction or image stabilisation, then make sure you turn this on. You might find that it has two modes of stabilisation too – these vary between whether or not your position is moving whilst you’re taking a photo (such as shooting from a boat). Make sure you look at your manual to determine which stabilisation mode you should have selected. For Nikon users, ‘Active’ should only be selected when you’re moving.

how to get sharper photos
1/320 @ 400mm. Zooming in on this photo of a wild capuchin monkey, there is some camera shake evident.

It goes without saying that you should use a tripod where possible too. Some people recommend that you turn off image stabilisation when you are using a tripod, but this varies between manufacturers. Tripods offer great support and prevent you from introducing camera shake whilst handholding your camera.

You can also introduce camera shake just from pressing the shutter and pushing on your camera. This is most likely to occur when you’re taking a long exposure. It’s good practice to use a remote release to fire the shutter of your camera in these situations (or you can use the self-timer mode).

#2 Choosing an Aperture

Some lenses aren’t as sharp when shooting at wide apertures (low f-stop values). You may find that your lens performs better with a smaller aperture, usually somewhere around f/8. Take some test photos by focusing in the same place on a subject at different apertures and try to determine which, if any, appears to be the most sharp.

Further Reading: “Aperture: Is Bigger Always Better?

#3 Not Using Single-point Focus

Whilst the AF performance of cameras is always improving, you should try to use single-point focus on your camera. When you look through the viewfinder, you want to see only one AF point highlighted, rather than allowing the camera to select from a group of them. If you find that the point your camera focuses on changes automatically whenever you half-press the shutter, then you’re shooting in AF-area mode or with a cluster of focus points.

get sharper photos
Taken using single-point focus. 1/1250 @ f/8, ISO 3200.

Instead, dive into your camera’s menu and change this to single-point focus. It varies between manufacturers, but this is the symbol you’re looking for on the top LCD: . You can move this focus point around as you wish, but you’ll be able to pin the focus on whichever part of the scene you desire. For wildlife photography, this should almost always be on the eyes of an animal.

#4 Motion Blur

You need to think about how fast your subject is moving too. Whilst camera shake (also known as lens blur) is introduced by you moving the camera, you can also have blur from the subject moving quickly. Make sure that you are using a sufficient shutter speed to freeze any movement.

This varies depending on what you are photographing. For a bird in flight you’ll probably be needing shutter speeds upwards of 1/1000th of a second. You can also use flash to freeze very fast movement in your photos, such as when photographing hummingbirds or similar small birds.

how to get sharper photos
A racket-tailed hummingbird photographed using flash.

#5 Not Sharpening Your Photos

Believe it or not, every super-sharp photo you see online will have had sharpening applied during post production. You can go overboard if you’re not careful, but editing your photos is essential to ensure they are conveyed properly to the viewer. Plus, if you compress a high resolution photo right down for web-viewing, then you’ll find that it is much softer unless you apply further sharpening.

Have a read of our advice on how to sharpen photos in Lightroom or in Photoshop.

Brush Up On Your Technique

Hopefully you’ve identified some areas for improvement and adjustment with this tutorial. I’d also recommend you look at some of the following articles to help develop your technique and get sharper photos:

Of course, you can also download our eBook ‘So You Want to Be a Wildlife Photographer?‘ which has over 100 pages of tuition and will help you perfect your technique for better quality photos.

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