How To Make Sharp Photos

Lesson 6 Module 2

Have you ever seen a blurry photo in National Geographic?

I didn't think so.

Photo editors will tell you that your images should be 'tack sharp'. And even if you've captured an otherwise amazing photo, if it's blurry or out of focus it will never get published anywhere.

The only exception to this rule might be if you snapped a frame of a rare / mythical beast--remember the famous Loch Ness Monster photo?

So unless you know where Nessie or Big Foot hangs out, you're going to need to think about keeping your photos sharp. The good news is that it's not so hard to do—here's a few common reasons why your photos aren't sharp.

Shutterspeed and camera shake

The most common cause of blurry photos is camera shake.

When you're holding your camera to take a photo, your hands are not going to stay perfectly still. Especially in situations where the light is a bit low (sunrise, sunset, or indoors), there's a very good chance that your hands are going to shake enough to knock your photo out of focus.

Let's start with the easiest way to fix this: increase your shutter speed.

With a fast shutter speed, even if your hands are shaking slightly the shutter will not be open long enough to see any blurring. On a typical point and shoot camera, this usually means 1/60th of a second or faster.

But as we talked about in the last lesson, whenever you increase the shutter speed you will have to balance the faster shutter by opening up the aperture (dial down the F-stop while using the 'Av' mode on your camera) or increasing the ISO sensitivity of your sensor.


Set your camera to the 'shutter priority' mode (for example, the 'Tv' setting on most Canon cameras). Dial the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second or higher, your camera will automatically adjust the aperture to balance your exposure.

If there's not enough light available for a good exposure, most point-and-shoot cameras will show a little camera icon with shaky lines around it. This means that you will need to use a small tripod or rest the camera on a table top, fence post, tree, or something else that's not going anywhere.

Grainy photos and higher ISO

The other option is to manually increase the ISO setting (the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to the available light). For most shooting in the middle of the day, your camera's ISO will be set to somewhere around ISO 200. But if there's not enough light to properly expose your shot at 1/60th of a second, try increasing your ISO setting to either ISO 400 or ISO 800.

As we talked about earlier, the tradeoff with higher ISO settings is increased pixilation or 'graininess' in your shot so you'll want to use the lowest ISO setting that still allows you to shoot at 1/60th of a second or faster.

Give your camera a brace

Another trick that I use in low light situations is to brace your arms against your chest to make the camera steadier. I usually press my elbows against my chest to form something like a 45-degree angle between my forearms and my chest.

Holding the camera in your hands this way will make your shot steadier than it would be if your arms were unsupported.

Other sources of blur: Confused autofocus

Autofocus has come a long way in the past ten years, but as of now your camera still can't read your mind.

Your camera will try to guess where you want to focus the lens and adjust the sharpness. For the average photographer snapping group photos and landscape scenes, this works totally fine. The camera focuses on whatever is in the middle of the frame and makes it tack-sharp.

But what happens if you're trying to follow the 'Rule of thirds' and place your subject off-center in the frame? The easiest way to fix this is a little-known feature that most point-and-shoot cameras have called auto-focus lock.


When you're composing your photo, center your subject in the frame and hold the button down halfway. Your camera be perfectly in focus.

Here's the trick: Before you take the photo, keep holding the button down halfway as you re-compose the shot. Once you have your new and improved composition set up, press the shutter as normal and your subject will be in focus even though it's not centered in the frame.

Another source of blur: A dirty lens

Since 2007 I've been working with an amazing community-based photography program called Photovoices. One of the first projects the organization launched in Indonesia was at a traditional whaling village in the eastern part of the archipelago.

Sixty cameras were given out to volunteer photographers who then documented their daily lives for six months. Since the community has hunted whales for several centuries, many of the photos were dramatic scenes of whalers risking their lives by jumping out of small wooden boats to harpoon whales as long as 60 feet.

With all the chaos, blood, and salt water from hunting the whales the lenses of the little cameras were getting smudged and spattered with all kinds of gunk. Some of the photos looked like they were shot in a hazy fog even though the photo was taken on a clear sunny day.

Even though you're probably not going on a whaling expedition with your camera, it's still very easy to get fingerprints, dust, salt spray and other stuff on your lens when you're traveling. It might not seem like much, but over time it can make the difference between a great photo and a mediocre one.

That's why it's so important to always check your lens from time to time and if you find you have fingerprints or other smudges on there, use a little microfiber lens cleaning cloth to polish it back to new.

What's next?

So far we've covered how to get properly exposed, sharp photos into your camera. In the coming lessons we're going to cover the most important question related to taking photos with impact:

What makes a photo eye-catching?