Had a few students ask – Why do my images seem to be out of focus?

Well, before I can answer that, there are two questions that need to be addressed up front – Are the images themselves out of focus after the camera shoots them, are do they appear out of focus while you’re looking thru the viewfinder?

If, while you’re looking thru the viewfinder the image seems out of focus, that’s an easy fix, which you may want to do on a regular basis anyway. Pretty much all DSLR and a handful of hybrid type cameras have a tiny little diopter wheel tucked to on side or the other of your viewfinder. Point the camera towards an object in a nice bright area and hold the shutter button half-way down, allowing the red focus-squares you see inside, blink, indicating it’s locked it’s focus on that object. Now, without moving too much and still looking thru the viewfinder, remove your finger from the shutter button and rotate the tiny little diopter wheel to the side of the viewfinder until that object looks tack-sharp focus to your eye. Try it again on another object, assuring that when the camera locks focus on something, that it looks sharp to your eye too. That little diopter wheel is adjusting the viewfinder glass to your vision. The camera does the rest of the work getting object in focus, but now they look in focus to you too. Don’t let anyone mess with that wheel now.

If the images captured by the camera are actually out of focus, then there are a couple of things that can correct that.

Actually, before we get started, there are a couple types of “out of focus” issues to look into first.  Either the camera’s focusing magic thing isn’t working properly (unlikely – it’s magic after all), or, and I’ve seen this often, either the Auto-focus switch is turned off or there’s a large thumb-print sized smudge on the front (or back) of the lens.  Think… Did the baby get a hold of your camera, dogs nose bump against or maybe that great secret sauce on the burgers down at the Brown Lantern Ale House. It might be time to do a lens cleaning party.


If that’s not it, the most likely culprit is that you and or the subject moved/wiggled or jostled during the shot.

That’s where learning better camera techniques comes into play. Here’s a couple of those tricks to learn. If the subject is moving (cars, horses, kids chasing puppies) then you’ll need a faster shutter speed to stop that action. If you’re shooting in the semi-auto ‘scene’ modes, chose the Sports Mode “running guy”. The camera will give you as fast a shutter speed as possible in the available lighting conditions. If it’s you that’s doing the moving, which is indicated by everything in the image looks blurred, then a tripod is the best tool for that. Actually, a tripod is one of the best accessories for all photographers. But, if you must hand-hold, then you have to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to stop your movement in this instance. 

Set your camera to “Shutter Priority”. You’re going to set the shutter speed and let the camera choose the best Aperture for the available light. The ‘rule-of-thumb’ for the minimum/slowest shutter speed you can use, and still be sharp, is to look at which lens you have, say you have an 18-55mm. Make sure the shutter speed is faster (larger number) than 1/ the lens length. i.e. If you’re shooting at 18mm, then your shutter speed should be at least 1/18 sec or faster so 1/25 would be the safest. If you’ve zoomed out to the 55mm range, then 1/55 or faster, which would be 1/60 as the next common stop.

Just take that same thought from there to your other lens. If you have an 80-200 and have zoomed out to that 200mm range, then you’ll need at least 1/200 of a sec or faster to hand-hold that steadily. Which is why bigger lens are harder to hand-hold, not only are they heavier, but you need faster shutter speeds too.

Now remember, each time you increase the shutter speed, your reducing the amount of light that’s available to the sensor. Each stop (or click) faster equals half as much light.

The vibration reduction features built-in to many lens today help amazingly with this, so make sure it’s turned on too. They’re not going to be a fix-all, make all in focus, but the do help in lower light situations by allowing you up to 3-stops of extra shutter speed. Which, in the case of a 300mm would allow you to ‘stop-down’, or select a shutter speed that is 3-clicks (if the word clicks on your wheel makes more sense than ‘stops’) slower than normal. Still… get a tripod.

Speaking of Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization, there’s still some debate on whether to turn it off when your camera’s on a tripod. It could work in reverse if the camera’s not moving and actually introduce vibration (I know, odd). Plus, it’s using your camera battery too. Some of the newer lens are ‘smarter’ and they say you don’t need to worry about it. I always turn mine off just in case.

There are more techniques that can be learned too, such as proper breathing; Don’t hold your breath, steady yourself, exhale slowly while pushing the shutter, steading yourself against a tree/wall/fence, etc.  Make sure you’re not inadvertently twisting the camera when your finger is pushing the shutter button. I see that happen a lot with point-in-shoot cameras, especially those that don’t have viewfinders. Hold the camera steady.

Hope that helps, it’s at least a start. We’ve got several more classes coming up soon. One on Infrared Photography (Google Infrared Photography to see some great ideas of what’s possible) which is an interesting technique, the other is 4-days in the Palouse in Eastern Washington and Western Idaho farmlands, shooting the color and shapes of the fields, landscape, barns, old buildings, etc. Plus, everyone’s staying at a working Dude Ranch instead of a plain ‘ole motel.

Don’t you need a vacation in the end of August? Go to Alternative Focus Workshops to learn more.

Thanks, Tony

About masterofmadness

Semi-pro photographer & musician. Co-own a photo gallery with a digital photo-lab in a small tourist town, on an island in the Pacific NW of USA. I also teach and ongoing series of workshops in photography, Photoshop and Apple computers. I shoot mostly landscapes, in the mountains - Giving me a great excuse to go climb them. I also do a lot of fine art, macros and abstracts.
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