Nobody likes soft images, unless of course you’re deliberately going for a vintage, out of focus look. If, like most photographers at one point or another, you’ve been struggling with photos that tend to be a bit soft or where focus is missed more often than not, you might be strolling the web and Youtube for help figuring out why your photos are not tack sharp.
In this post I’ll try to tackle that very issue and give you 17 tips that should help you figure out the issue and get back to shooting ultra sharp photographs. The tips are in no particular order, and not all tips will apply to you depending on your gear and on your camera settings.
This post will be especially geared towards getting sharp images using your camera’s autofocus (AF) instead of using manual focus.
Let’s get started:
1- Increase Distance or Focal Length
The way optics work, the closer you are to your subject, the narrower the depth of field will be. If you’re shooting really close to your subject and on top of that you’re shooting at a very wide aperture, then your depth of field will become razor thin. That’s something that adepts of macro photography are well aware of.
The only way around that would be to increase the distance to your subject, shooting using a longer focal length (which allows increasing the distance), or close down your aperture.
Otherwise, if you want to stay really close to your subject and keep a wide aperture, get ready to follow the next tip on shooting a lot…
2- Take Multiple Shots
No matter the amount of experience you have, if you shoot wide open on a very fast lens you’re bound to miss focus on a lot of the shots. The only real way around that is to take multiple shots of the same scene, refocusing each time.
3- Are You Shooting Fast Enough?
Sometimes your images will appear out of focus, but in reality what you see is motion blur from camera shake. As a rule of thumb, make sure that you’re shooting at a shutter speed that’s faster than your focal length. So, for example, if you’re shooting at a focal length of 70mm, you’ll want to use a minimum shutter speed of 80mm. And that rule of thumb applies to subjects that don’t move, as for fast-moving subjects you’ll want to increase your shutter speed much more than that.
4- Shoot at a Low ISO
While higher ISO sensitivity is usually associated with introducing noise to your images, high ISO will also make your images muddy and the details will get lost, which results in images that look soft.
So you’ll want to shoot with the lowest native ISO possible, given that it doesn’t mean you have to start dropping your shutter speed too low.
5- Proper Shooting Technique
For extra stability, try putting your camera on a tripod.
If you’re shooting handheld, make sure that your arms are locked into your body, that your feet are stable and that you have a wide stance. For the wrist that holds the camera, keep it steady but not too stiff, place your left hand under your lens to help stabilize it. Finally, when you’re ready to press the shutter button, try holding at the end of a breath at the same time you release the shutter, to minimize camera shake.
6- Be Careful with the Focus and Recompose Technique
This is mostly valid for DSLR shooters because now most mirrorless cameras have focus points up to the very edges of the viewfinder.
Focus and recompose is a technique where you focus on the nearest available focus point, and then recompose slightly to get the desired composition/framing. That’s done because DSLRs don’t have focus points that cover the entirety of the viewfinder, so if your subject is composed very off center you won’t be able to put a focus point exactly where it needs to be in the final composition.
Normally focus & recompose is a perfectly valid technique, but you’ll have to be careful if you’re shooting with an f-stop that’s lower than about f/5.6. That’s especially true if, say, you’re shooting from a low angle and recomposing means that your camera angle changes. With the angle change, the focal distance between your camera sensor and your subject will tend to change much more then you would think.
One way around that would be to shoot using a wider crop, so that you don’t have to recompose as much. You’ll then crop-in in post-production to achieve the desired framing.
7- Use the Center Autofocus Point
This tip goes a bit contrary to the previous tip. With this, you won’t want to set your focus point to be the closest possible to your subject. Instead, you’ll want to use the center focus point, or a point that’s near the center, and then use the focus and recompose technique.
The reason why you’d do this and maximize the focus/recompose instead of minimizing it is if your camera’s far focus points tend to outperform. The most accurate focus point will always be the center one, and the furthest you get from the center the least accurate the focus point will usually be.
So for this, you’ll have to test things out and see if you get soft images mostly when you shoot using a focus point that’s near the edge. If that’s the case, fix that using your center focus point and making use of the focus & recompose technique.
8- Clean/Dust Your Camera’s AF Sensor
Your camera doesn’t just have an image sensor, but also has an Autofocus sensor. That sensor can get dirty/dusty over time, so it’s a good idea to dust it once in a while to clean it up.
Use an air blower such as this one, set your camera on Cleaning Mode to lift up the mirror and blow air on the AF sensor, which is located at the bottom of the camera. Try to be in a dust free environment when you do it, and turn off the AC or central air to limit air circulation. Another good tip is to try and hold the camera down while you do it, so that dust can fall out.
9- Clean Your Camera and Lens Connectors
If you change lenses often, the connectors on the lens and on the body will eventually get dirty. You can use a cleaning product such as this one along with a microfiber cloth to clean the connectors on the lens and on your camera body.
10- Calibrate Your Lenses
It’s a good idea to perform calibration on all your lenses to find out if some of your lenses need adjustments. Your camera has a setting to allow fine tuning your different lenses. You can purchase a lens calibration tool such as this one and calibrate your lenses at home easily.
11- Find Where Your Autofocus (AF) Point Actually Is
The autofocus point outline that you see in your viewfinder doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual precise area where the autofocus point is located.
Follow the instructions from this excellent video by Steve Perry to see how to find where your autofocus point is located. The interesting part for this starts at right around 5 minutes:
I recommend you watch the whole video too, because he also goes over cleaning the connectors, dusting the AF sensor, and calibrating your lenses.
12- Shoot at a Smaller Aperture
This one is may seem obvious, but it’s a good reminder that shooting wide open is not necessarily what you want to be doing on a day to day basis. Lots of Youtubers like to show off their gear by demonstrating the nice bokeh achieved by shooting wide open with fast lenses, but the fact of the matter is that shooting wide open will produce more shots with missed focus.
Wider aperture does not equal better photos, it’s all about what you’re trying to achieve in terms of depth of field.
Try to shoot wide open only when that’s really what you want for the shot, and otherwise just open up your aperture to give you more leeway and a wider depth of field.
Plus, as you’ll see with the next tip, your lenses have a sweet spot and are sharper at a more closed down aperture.
13- Mind Your Lens’ Sweet Spot
Every lens has a sweet spot where it’ll be at it’s sharpest. That sweet spot will never be wide open or fully closed-out, but rather will be somewhere in the middle. As a rule of thumb, that sweet spot is usually between f/5.6 and f/9, but you can also find out where the sweet spot is for your specific lenses by following the instructions in this video by Pixel Viilage:
14- Make Sure There’s Enough Contrast
Photos appear at their sharpest when there’s a lot of contrast in the scene. Flat images and images with very minimal tonal differences will, therefore, appear less sharp. Ensure that there’s enough tonal range in your images to maximize the appearance of sharpness in your final images.
15- Select the Appropriate Autofocus Mode
Your camera has many autofocus modes available. Each comes with its set of benefits and tradeoffs. Most of the time faster modes will also mean less accuracy. For me, I like to shoot in single AF mode with a single focus point, which gives me the most power over the autofocus behavior. Continuous autofocus and group mode can be good in certain circumstances, but they’ll give you less fine-grained control and more of your shots will tend to miss focus.
Another good AF mode would be if you have a mirrorless camera that has the eye AF functionality, which may give you great results for portraits.
If you want to learn more, this post from Photography Life goes in-depth about the different autofocus modes.
16- Send Your Camera In for Repair/Maintenance
When all else fails and if you’re still consistently getting out of focus images, your camera body or lens might need to be sent in for repair. It’s not unusual for the AF sensor to become out of balance and need some TLC by the manufacturer. Try to isolate if the problem is from your camera body or if it’s from a particular lens, and then visit your nearest camera repair store to let them know about the issue.
I sent my Nikon D800 in for repair recently and was out of my main body for about 2 weeks, but then in the meantime I used the occasion to rent a Sony Alpha 7R III, and it was fun to shoot on totally different gear for a change.
17- Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If you want to shoot very wide open and/or if your subject moves relatively fast, then you will miss focus on some of the shots, and that’s only natural. Just shoot a lot to ensure you have enough in-focus shots, and remind yourself that it’s totally normal and is the same for top photographers.