Have you ever said to yourself, my pictures just aren’t sharp enough? What am I doing wrong? You feel like you’ve tried a bunch of stuff, but you still can’t seem to get sharp images? We’ll let’s explore some tips to help you troubleshoot why your images aren’t in focus.
All of these are things I’ve experienced either myself or through teaching others. SO let’s take a look at the tips you can troubleshoot to get sharp images.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #1: Shutter speed is too low to hand hold
This is the biggest area for me in terms of images not turning out to be tack sharp. Where your limits to hand holding certain shutter speeds lie is a bit of a personal thing. Shooting for so many years, I know that my limit sits around 1/125. Anything lower than this and I know that I am playing with fire.
SOLUTION: Capture multiple shots using ‘CH’, (continuous high).
If I need to shoot lower due to lighting conditions, say around 1/80 then I use ‘CH” continuous high to capture a few shots and hope that I am steady enough to get one shot out of three. Knowing where your shutter speed limit lies will assist you getting tack sharp images every time.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #2: Your shutter speed is really low…
Like really low. I’m talking about 1/3 sec kinda low. Funny thing is that I didn’t even really know that shooting this low was a thing when I first started. But seeing a professional shoot it on set with their studio stand opened my eyes to what’s possible. When your shutter speed is super low, it means that the camera’s shutter is open for longer and capturing blur comes into play. This may not be a huge issue with still life photography that doesn’t move, but it doesn’t mean you can forget about it all together.
SOLUTION: You MUST shoot on a tripod and your set-up needs to be completely and utterly stable.
When I am shooting at really low shutter speeds, I take extra precautions (as outlined in the next couple of points) to make sure my setup is rock solid.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #3: Your tripod isn’t stable enough.
If your tripod isn’t solid as a rock, then you open yourself up to vibration or camera shake that can cause blurry images. I’ve learned that good technique and best practices are the way to go time and time again to eliminate this issue and just get back to composing and creating. This is especially important when shooting at low shutter speeds.
SOLUTION: Use a weight to steady your tripod.
Depending on how I have my tripod setup, I will use a photography sandbag or weight to steady it. In lieu of not having this option, you can load up a grocery bag with books or cans. If you want to learn more about tripods, read my ultimate guide here.
HINT: If you have your weight hanging from your tripod, any movement to the weight can also cause vibration and camera shake. Ensure your weight is still before taking a shot.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #4: Reduce camera shake
Camera shake as I have found out over the years of shooting can be attributed to a number of things like unstable tripod, shooting at low shutter speeds and even having shaky hands. To capture tack sharp images, you want to basically eliminate any camera shake.
SOLUTION: Use your self-timer or remote shutter release.
Where possible, when I am shooting on low light and I need eliminate any chance of camera shake, I will use either a remote shutter release option in the following order. When tethering, I use my computer to release the shutter. This would be my go to option. If I am not tethering then I will either use the self-timer or a remote. This ensures that I am not touching the camera and allowing shake to occur.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #5: Autofocus is selecting the incorrect point of focus
Auto focus is a great feature, but it can cause you some headaches if you have it set on auto area focus. With auto area focus, you’re letting the camera choose what it thinks you want in focus. This can obviously be an issue as the camera can’t know what you want to be in focus and will often choose the incorrect subject, leaving your focal subject lacking tack sharp images.
SOLUTION: Use single point focus.
I use autofocus to focus on the subject I tell the camera to. I do this by using single point focus. I will move the single focus point to be on the subject I desire before I focus. This will ensure that I am the one who is control of deciding which subject and where in the frame will be focused on. If you’re not sure where to put your focus point, read more about the best focal point here.
HINT: The single point of focus is most accurate when it is the in the middle, if you’re having trouble getting your subject in focus, I ensure my single point is in the middle. I focus on the subject, then reframe for composition before releasing the shutter.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #6: There isn’t enough contrast for the lens to auto focus on
There have been many shoots when I couldn’t work out why my shots seemed to be blurry, and it came down to two things, low light and there not being enough contrast on the subject or area I was focusing on. This can happen with both tonal and colour contrast. The most obvious is when you’re focusing on negative space in your scene on a white background.
SOLUTION: Use your lens cap to focus on then turn off auto focus to prevent any refocus.
Many times when shooting for magazines or editorials with text requirements, you may have negative space that is in the middle of your image that your camera wants to focus on. In this example, I had to style ingredients around the edge of the frame for text requirements. To get around the camera not focusing, I put my lens cap into the scene, focused on it, then switched off auto focus before taking the shot.
I also use my hubby’s technique of creating a focus target that I put into my scene to focus on, before removing and shooting.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #7: Dealing with moving subjects such as pouring liquids or restaurant scenes
There are times in my career where I have had to capture moving subjects. The worst time was shooting a kids cookbook, where I was dealing with kids and animals. I remember thinking to myself, I like food because it does what it’s told and doesn’t move! Regardless, that shoot made me realise that I am not savvy with moving subject and continuous focus. Too many shots were out of focus and blurry, which seemed like such a waste.
SOLUTION: Shoot on continuous AF.
A simple technique is to set you camera settings to continuous autofocus when capturing moving subjects within food like pouring liquids or capturing chefs cooking in restaurants. Using this in conjunction with single point focus (where you are in control of selecting the focal subject) with allow you to keep focusing on your subject as it moves.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #8: Shooting too shallow depth of field
I remember getting my weddings photos back and thinking that a bunch of them were out of focus, when in fact they were shot with the 58mm Nikkor f/1.4G. A lens notorious for being super duper shallow. That silky smooth shallow depth of field is what gets a lot of us into photography and excited to shoot with a DSLR. But shooting on a really high aperture can make our images look out of focus. Especially if you miss focus even just slightly.
SOLUTION: Capture a range of apertures to be on the safe side.
When I started shooting for clients and was still finding my feet, I would shoot a couple of different apertures so I had a range of images with varying depths of field. It was like an insurance policy against images looking out of focus when they actually, in fact, were just shallow. Over time you will get better at knowing which apertures work best at what angles.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #9: Shoot too small an aperture
Sometimes when we are facing blurry image issues, we think that the solution is to shoot at a really small aperture, (like f/18 or f/22), so we significantly increase the depth of field. Smaller apertures increase the impact of diffraction. Diffraction is the ‘bending of light’ or interference of light waves with one another. This bending prevents the light from focusing and the more unfocused light reaching the sensor, the more softer the image.
SOLUTION: Capture a range of apertures to be on the safe side.
And if possible stick to higher apertures and adjust your settings.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #10: Your lens could be front/back focusing
I was shooting exclusively with my 100mm macro for quite a few shoots when I started to notice that I wasn’t getting tack sharp images using my single point focus. My settings and stability of my set up were ideal for sharp images. I decide to shoot a range of angles and noticed that this was only occurring for overhead shots. This led me to do some tests and I found that the lens was forward focusing.
SOLUTION: Ensure your lens is calibrated.
After calibrating my lens, I noticed that it was significantly better at focusing on the selected area. I still didn’t think it was 100% fixed, so when shooting with this lens, I play around with the single point focus on my chosen subject until I find that sweet spot of focus perfection. I find this only occurs with this lens, so knowing how your lens is and should be performing will help you better troubleshoot the issue.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #11: Shooting with a poor quality lens
Lenses are super important when it comes to producing quality photography and tack sharp images. Most of us will start off with a kit lens as professional lenses are investments. A lot of us will be swayed by zoom lenses that incorporate a range of focal lengths in a bid to save some money. Zoom lenses can be less sharp than professional primes, and entry level lenses aren’t always good quality.
SOLUTION: Try to avoid shooting at either extremes of the aperture range.
Entry level kit lenses and some zoom lenses won’t be at their prime focus at all aperture ranges, especially not at the extreme end of the range. This will depend on the lens, but the 18mm – 50mm won’t be as sharp at f/3.5 as it will be for say f/5.6. Knowing your lens and where its sweet spot in terms of the aperture will help you to get sharp images. And in the meantime, save up for a professional prime lens to add to your kit.
Read the lenses I recommend for taking beautiful images of food.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #12: Not adjusting the diopter correctly
At one of my workshops, I was helping a student to master manual mode and she was having trouble with focusing. As she was using manual focus, she was focusing but her images were coming out blurry. When I took a look at her camera, I noticed that they were blurry regardless of what we were doing. The giveaway was that they were blurry through the viewfinder.
SOLUTION: Scroll your diopter wheel until the viewfinder looks perfectly in focus.
The diopter allows you to make adjustments to the focus on view in the viewfinder to suit your vision. This doesn’t change the imaging sensor but will help you if you’re using manual focus. You want to make sure you have adjusted this setting correctly so you can see exactly how the image will look in the viewfinder.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #13: You need to think differently about shooting with a macro lens
If you’re shooting with a macro, it is going to act a little differently to your other lenses. I have seen students when they first get their hands on a macro lens feel like there is something wrong with the lens as it appears to take shots that are out of focus, or blurry.
SOLUTION: Change your angle and plane of focus to get your subject in sharp images.
Macro lenses are going to be a little shallower than your average prime, at similar apertures. If you feel like you’re not getting enough of your subject in focus, then you will need to change angles so that your plane of focus spans your subject differently.
HINT: Shoot at a smaller aperture than you normally would with a prime. Like f/5.6.
Tack Sharp Images Tip #14: Clean your lens!
It might sound simple, but make sure your lenses are clean! A dirty front element on your lens is a sure guarantee to have inaccurate focus. Taking all of these steps and keeping them in mind is a big step to eliminating blurry and ensure you get tack sharp images every time!
If you struggle to take tack sharp images of your food photography, then I want to hear from you! Let’s troubleshoot through these tips and get your images to be crisp! Leave me a comment below outlining your struggles with getting sharp images.