How to Avoid Blurry Photos

Four factors can cause blurry photos. These four are key to keeping in mind for any picture you take. This article will show you how to minimize blurring in your photos. The four main sources of blurry photos include motion (from the subject or camera), out-of focus blur, diffraction and lens aberrations.

Camera Shake and Motion Blur

Motion blur is the most common reason for blurry photos. This is due to the subject (or your camera) moving too fast while the photo is being taken. Motion blur occurs when something in your photo moves across multiple pixels.

This blur can be strongly affected by the speed of the objects in your photograph or the quality of your camera’s shake. But those are only two factors that really matter. It is important to know your shutter speed. You can capture any subject with sharp results if you have a fast enough exposure. You won’t notice blurring if you are photographing an animal or bird moving fast.

Deer at 1:1000 second
Crop of deer at fast shutter speed

This is also true for handheld blur. Although it is impossible to hold a camera still with one hand, the motion caused by your hands can be managed. To ensure that you are using a fast shutter speed, just follow the handhold rule. Be cautious. If vibration reduction is turned off, I personally prefer to hold my camera with “1/(2x focal length)” rather than “1/(focallength)”.

Dusk in Amiens

To eliminate motion blur from subject or camera shake, you only need to use a fast enough shutter speed. Motion blur can be removed for most photos by using a 1/8000 second exposure. Fast shutter speeds can lead to dark photos. This is a major problem in photography. You should have a way to compensate for the ultra-fast shutter speed and still get bright photos.

Dark mountain photo

The ideal situation is to use a shutter speed that’s just barely fast to remove motion blur or capture so little that it’s not important. It takes a lot of practice to find the perfect shutter speed. The ideal shutter speed for portrait photos is probably 1/100 second for sports scenes, 1/500 seconds for birds in flight and so forth. If you are photographing a still scene using a tripod, you can use almost any shutter speed. If you want a specific part of your image to appear blurry, the same applies.

Even if your subject is still stationary, it’s possible to get camera shake even with a tripod. Camera shake is caused by moving parts. This includes the mirror on a DSLR, and shutter curtain on most cameras. These vibrations can be seen in your photos at certain shutter speeds. It is possible to see the danger range from 1/2 second to 1/50 seconds with telephoto lenses.

These blurring sources can be minimized by using an electronic front-curtain shutter (if you have it) and mirror lockup mode (or Exposure Delayed mode on Nikon cameras). Remote shutter release is also an option. These techniques are explained in detail in our articles on shutter shock, tripod use and sharp photography.

A flash can be used to completely lighten motion blur in photos. Flashes are very short and freeze motion, even for fast subjects such as hummingbirds. This is not a perfect solution as you cannot light all subjects with flash.

Blur – Out-of-Focus

Out-of-focus blur is another major cause of blurring in photography. You can get this one in many forms.

One, you can miss focus. This is the most obvious example. Your subject may have blurred focus because you either focused too close or too far. Your autofocus system may not be able to lock onto your subject, so your subject could be out of focus.

Out of Focus Photo

To avoid blurry images, take your time and focus on the subject. Magnify live view if you have the time. This will double-check that your focus is on your subject’s eyes and not their nose. Practice is the best way to photograph fast-moving subjects such as sports. Learn how your autofocus system works, what strengths and weaknesses it has, and how you can lock onto your subject every single time.

Another kind of blur is when the depth of your field is too small. Perhaps you are photographing a group and some people are closer than others. It is impossible to simultaneously focus on both the close and far-sighted people. You will need to choose between the two, or at least try to focus at a distance, if you have an object that your autofocus system can lock onto. Even then, your photo will end up with certain areas that aren’t as sharp as you would like.

Landscape Photo at f16 without enough depth of field

This is especially true for macro and landscape photography. You want to make sure your subject is sharp, so you need the most depth of field. You will want to concentrate on the most important parts of your subject, and allow for some blurring in the rest. It is important to use a smaller aperture to get enough depth of field.

Landscape photographers often shoot at small apertures such as f/8, F/11, or f/16. Sometimes macro photographers even shoot at f/22. It all comes down to getting the right depth of field.

You can’t use an aperture smaller than f/22 on every photo. Even if you have more depth of field, it is not possible to just use that small aperture. Apertures like these can make your photos very dark and are difficult to use without a tripod or flash. Diffraction is a type of blur that becomes more obvious with smaller apertures.

Diffraction

Although blur from diffraction isn’t as well-known as the other types, it plays an important part in photography. Diffraction is an essential property of all waves, even light. Interfering with itself is when light passes through a barrier, or a hole like the aperture in your lens. The interference spreads its signal so that a single point of light becomes blurred. This blur is visible in photos.

We have an article on the physics of difffraction. It is important to understand that smaller apertures are subject to greater blurring from diffraction.

Diffraction can be described as any light passing through an aperture. The blurring of diffraction is not important unless it covers multiple pixels. It’s difficult to see diffraction with today’s high resolution DSLRs and mirrorless camera apertures larger than f/5.6, even though it still exists. It is not noticeable until apertures greater than f/8 or f/11. Diffraction can cause significant image quality problems if you go beyond f/16 apertures. The following image shows the effects of diffraction in 100% crops.

The Kiss diffraction

I still shoot at f/11 or f/16, despite blurring from diffraction. These apertures are two of my favorite landscape photography apertures. The depth of field benefit is often worth the tradeoff. However, diffraction blur can be seen at these apertures so I prefer to use f/8 whenever possible.

An advanced article will show you how to calculate the aperture that mathematically balances depth of field and diffraction for any photo. If you don’t wish to get into the details, this guideline will suffice:

  • Do not worry about diffraction at apertures larger than f/5.6
  • Diffraction can be seen at apertures ranging from f/6.3 up to f/10. However, it is not very noticeable.
  • Diffraction can be clearly seen at apertures ranging from f/11 through f/16. However, it won’t ruin your photo.
  • Apertures beyond f/22 should not be used unless there is a very special reason.

These values assume that the camera has a full-frame sensor. Divide your crop factor by the equivalent range for your camera. Large format 8×10 and 4×5 photographers use insane apertures such as f/64.

Warm and Cool Colors in Aspen Trees

What if you need an aperture smaller than f/22 to achieve sufficient depth of field? Do you think it is worth the extra diffraction? While this might be necessary in certain cases, you might consider using focus stacking instead. You can also use a sharper aperture, such as f/8, to take several photos that are focused from front and back. Each image will be overlapping the depth of field. To get the sharpest image, merge the photos in post-processing. This works only if your subject is still stationary.

11 Image Focus Stack Using Nikon Z7 Focus Shift Feature

Lens Aberrations

The lens aberrations are last on the list. This is blurring simply because your lens hasn’t been sharp enough.

This is the most common source of blur in photography. You can improve it by purchasing new equipment. It is not the most important reason for blurred photos. Many times people mistakenly believe that the blurry lens is due to out-of-focus blur. The blurry corners of a landscape photograph are usually blurrier than the rest of an image. This is often due to out-of-focus blur.

Lens aberrations can still occur, but they are more noticeable when certain lenses are used than others. These aberrations are most noticeable at larger apertures, such as f/1.4 or f/2.8. They can also be seen in the corners. Lens aberrations can become very noticeable when you shoot a difficult subject such as Milky Way photography. You might also notice aberrations at f/5.6 or f/8 if your lens is particularly blurry. Again, the problem lies in the corners more than the center.

Samyang 14mm f2.8

Take a look at these two images. The Samyang 14mm F/2.8 is the first image. This popular lens is great for astrophotography but has some lens aberrations. The second image is from the Nikon 14-24mm F/2.8. This lens has a lower degree of aberration which results in sharper stars closer to pinpoints. 

Nikon 14-24mm f2.8

You can find a lot of information online about lenses that have lens aberrations. This is because they are completely due to the camera equipment. You shouldn’t get too carried away here. A lens with low aberrations can only improve the overall sharpness of a photo. The differences will not be noticeable unless you crop the photo significantly.

It should still make sense that the sharpest fstops on most lenses are usually between f/4 and f/8. These apertures balance lens aberrations, which are worse at large apertures, with diffraction, which is worse at smaller apertures. There are many reasons to shoot beyond this range to achieve the depth of field that you desire. These apertures are best for brick wall photography.

Other causes of blurry photos

These are the main causes of blurry photos. However, there are other factors that can be a problem.

A low-resolution image has more detail than one with lots of pixels. This is assuming everything else is correct. This isn’t “blurry”, but more like “blocky”; however, it can look blurred if you increase the size of the image. This isn’t a major problem with modern high-resolution digital cameras. You should not crop too much of your photos, as they may lose some of their resolution. Also, avoid choosing JPEG (rather RAW) as your file type, especially compressed JPEG. This will remove data from a photo and can cause it to lose low-level details.

High ISO Grain

Your ISO value also plays an important role in image detail. You will see a lot more visible noise if you shoot in dark areas at high ISO. This can cause blurring of details, not the same as blurring, but certainly graininess. The result can look blurry or plasticky due to noise reduction during post-processing.

Photography with supertelephotos can sometimes experience blurred from atmospheric distortion, particularly when the focus is farther away. This is particularly true for distant wildlife photography and deep-sky astrophotography. This is also the most difficult type of blur to fix. It is best to wait for atmospheric distortion to decrease, or to take multiple photos in order to get a sharper image.

There are also simpler methods to capture blurry photos. Decentered lenses and soft-focus lenses can also cause blurry results. These examples are still considered lens aberrations but they deserve their own mention.

Conclusion

There are many ways blurry photos can be created. If blurry photos are what you want, there is nothing stopping you from creating blurred photos in Photoshop. If you want to avoid blurry photos, you need to be aware of four key sources of blurring: blurred images, blurred focus, blurred lenses, and lens aberrations.

You can’t eliminate all blur sources completely. Sometimes, one source of blur can make another even worse. As you progress to more technical types of photography (for example, astrophotography and macro photography), this becomes increasingly difficult. You’ll eventually reach a point where even merging images won’t save the day.

This makes it even more crucial to learn how to avoid blurring and capture sharpest images. There is something that you can do to get sharper photos in almost any situation. Understanding the causes of blurring and how to reduce them is the first step.

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