The ultimate guide to nailing focus in photos


No doubt the most common frustration among photographers, beginners and advanced, is lack of sharpness in images. Whether caused by a lack of focus, camera shake, or moving subjects, the disappointment of finding out the results of that great shoot are unsharp is immensely frustrating – many of us have been there before!

So how can you ensure your images are perfectly sharp every single time you release the shutter? Here’s a list of ways you can learn to get it right (and beat your competition)!

The Basics

1. Physical stability

Camera shake is an obvious cause of shots that aren’t in focus and is often caused by a lack of physical stability. Basically YOU are causing the camera shake. Carrying a tripod or monopod is an obvious solution, though how can you avoid camera shake if you don’t have one handy?

  • Focus on your grip – Hold your camera steady with both hands
  • Widen your stance to control balance better
  • Bring the camera closer to your body, keeping your elbows tucked in
  • Find support from a wall or other stationary subject
  • Holding your camera in your right hand, use your left shoulder as a support, “peeking” back at the subject
  • Gently squeeze the shutter button, rather than pressing it
  • Use a DIY tripod – A simple string with a loop that goes around your foot and has a screw to attach to your camera’s mount on the bottom of the body. Simply pulling on the string with your foot and holding the camera steady provides decent stability.

2. Using a tripod – tips

  • Tripods are useful, although for outside shooting sometimes the sturdiest tripods aren’t the most stable ones. In that case try to weigh down the tripod with something to increase stability
  • Shooting in windy conditions? Try to avoid extending the tripod’s neck, which tends to reduce stability. Also remember to take off the neck strap from your DSLR – it can be caught by the wind and cause camera shake
  • Set a 2-second timer for long exposures. Pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, but by delaying the actual shutter release by 2 seconds you eliminate that possibility. Alternatively, use a remote trigger (wired or IR remote if your camera supports it)
  • If your body/lens offers Image Stabilization (IS – e.g. Canon) or Vibration Reduction (VR – e.g. Nikon), switch it off. It’s only useful when handheld and while the camera and lens are stationary these systems can actually produce slight vibration themselves, while trying to detect movement to compensate for (yes, I know).

3. Check that shutter speed

Motion blur can be a fun effect to experiment with, but when you’re looking for tack sharp images you obviously want to avoid any type of blur. Setting the right shutter speed determines whether your result will be sharp or not.

Although Image Stabilization (IS) oftentimes allows you to get good results at lower shutter speed, the rough guideline is: The slowest shutter speed is equal to or greater than your focal length.

For example:

  • If you’re shooting at 50mm, set your shutter speed to at least 1/50
  • For 100mm the minimum shutter speed is 1/100
  • For 200mm it’s 1/200, etc.

Shooting at 150mm? Take the next shutter speed up – 1/200.

Can’t get a well exposed image with the aperture you’ve chosen? Consider bumping up the ISO. Most DSLRs won’t introduce much noise up until ISO400-800. Above that, most entry/enthusiast range DSLRs will produce visible noise.

4. Watch that aperture

All lenses behave differently at different apertures. For most lenses, when they are at their widest aperture, the image quality will be slightly yet noticeably reduced, especially towards the edges of the image. The optimum aperture varies from lens to lens but is generally in the region of between f8 and f11. It is at this point that the lens is giving the very best sharpness across the whole image.

Take a few test shots with your lens of choice with a range of five apertures and easily find out what your lens’s sweet spot is. To get the full detail a PC monitor will obviously serve you best for this purpose. Once you find out what your lens’s optimum aperture is, make it a rule to only use the lens wide open when you need to.

Obviously keep in mind that when closing the lens down to smaller apertures, you have to decrease the shutter speed, increasing the possibility of camera shake. It’s all very much a balancing act, depending on the available light and the final result you’re looking to achieve.

5. Know how your DLSR’s focus system works

A carpenter is only as good as his tools is the saying; in the case of photography perhaps the measure of how well you know your tools is even more valid. Your camera’s autofocus system is a sophisticated bit of technology which can work with you but also against you. Understanding the how the system works and the results that can be achieved is crucial.

Focus system modes

It sounds obvious though this part is often forgotten: make sure that you learn how your camera’s basic autofocus modes work and when/how to use them to get accurate focus for all your shots. For example, most Canon DSLR cameras offer these autofocus modes:

  • ONE SHOT for stationary subjects
  • AI SERVO for moving subjects
  • AI FOCUS to auto-detect the autofocus required (although this isn’t always as effective).

Focal areas and points

Autofocus (AF) systems on most cameras depend on autofocus points which, in the case of DSLR cameras, are visible in your viewfinder. Each AF point helps the camera’s system determine sharpness on that particular part of your composition. What does that mean when taking your shot?

Single Point Autofocus

With a point-and-shoot camera you typically have one AF point at the dead centre. Looking through the viewfinder you’ll notice it’s surrounded by a box which (on Canon DLSRs) flashes red when the shutter is pressed halfway (accompanied by a beep).

This AF area is particularly handy when you want to compose a shot with a subject that is off centre. First position the subject in the middle of your view, lock autofocus (by pressing the shutter halfway), and recompose your shot while keeping AF locked.

This technique can be very effective, as long as you ensure the distance between camera and subject remains exactly the same when recomposing, especially when shooting with a wide open aperture.

Zone AF

This AF area is available on more advanced DSLRs and allows you to select groupings of focus points. Multiple focus points are definitely handy for moving subjects, making it easier to lock on autofocus. However, with static subjects it can be tricky getting the focus to be right where you want it to be if you all AF points activated.

Auto AF

In this AF area all focus points are activated, which usually results in the nearest subject achieving focus.

Compare multi-AF points to auto mode shooting on your camera – The more you allow the camera to try and accomplish automatically (using artificial intelligence) the less control you have over your shot and the higher the probability is you end up with a less-than-satisfying shot.

Tips & Tricks

  • Use Single Point AF to get full control over what part of your shot is in focus. Most cameras using all AF points automatically will try to get as much of the image in focus as it can, meaning that no single object will be perfectly sharp.
  • Is your camera struggling to focus on a subject? Find a strong light or colour contrast at the same distance from your camera and focus on the contrast line to help out your camera
  • Low light? Make sure the AF assist beam on your camera is switched on. The AF assist beam throws a quick burst of red light in a matrix pattern to help your autofocus system find the right focus point. Note that not all cameras have an inbuilt AF assist beam. Entry-level DSLRs usually rely on a few quick bursts of flash to aid the autofocus system, while the larger models (without in-built flash) sometimes require an external flash, often equipped with a dedicated (and powerful) AF beam.

Manual focus

The art of manual focus is a tough challenge to learn but can definitely be worth it. Two common techniques are using the live view mode for stationary subjects and “pre-focusing” for moving subjects.

Live View on DSLR cameras allows you to compose a shot with the camera’s screen rather than the viewfinder. The benefit? You can zoom in on a detail of your subject before you take the shot and manually focus your lens with greater accuracy than when using the viewfinder. This is far more practical when mounting your camera on a tripod, however. When looking for the best possible sharpness I would only recommend using Live View to establish focus, not to take the actual shot.

6. Keep your gear clean!

It’s a pretty obvious one but often forgotten. Smudges, dust, specks – all types of dirt affect image quality, whether on the front element of your lens, your filters or – worst of all – your sensor.

7. Lens filters

Be aware of lens filters – use them when needed only.

The more advanced (and less obvious) stuff

8. Go RAW – Avoiding JPEG Artifacts

Shooting Raw is one of the best ways not only to improve your image quality, but also to improve sharpness. When JPEG files are saved, the image is compressed, reducing quality. Raw files simply take the raw data from the sensor, adding no post-production or compression, and so maintaining the highest quality.

9. Use a Low ISO

The very best image quality will come from the camera’s lowest or optimum ISO setting. As you increase the ISO, you introduce noise, which degrades the image. If shooting JPEG files, the image can be further degraded by the camera’s noise reduction systems.

Mind you, it’s a common myth that the lowest ISO setting on a camera produces the least noise. On some models it’s actually ISO 160 or ISO 200. Not sure what the optimum ISO setting is on your DSLR? Google it!

10. The glass makes all the difference

All lenses are not created equal – some are sharper than others by nature, but you pay the price. If you look to upgrade any of your gear and you’re a stickler for super-smart images, put priority on your lenses. New DSLRs come and go, and you’ll always find lighter, sturdier tripods than the one you have, but sharp lenses will be important pieces in your gear bag for years to come!

11. Switch OFF Image Stabilization (IS)

Image Stabilization is a proven remedy against blurry images when taking handheld shots. When you use a tripod, however, for example for landscape or night photography, IS can actually work against you when trying to maximize sharpness.

When handheld, the IS system kicks in to stabilize the elements inside your lens when it detects movement. When completely still on a tripod, not detecting any movement, IS systems tend to generate a kind of electrical “feedback loop”. Similar to the buzzing noise you sometimes get on audio systems. That tiny vibration can affect image sharpness.

Having said that, there are modern DSLR bodies and lenses in which the IS system can sense that you’re using a tripod and prevent this from happening. Best check with your manual, or simply make it a habit to switch it off. You won’t need it when tripod mounted anyway!

12. Use the Mirror Lock Up

Using a DSLR, mounted on a tripod and in low light (e.g. for night photography)? Use the Mirror Lock Up function, which is part of your camera’s advanced functions.

The premise is simple: The mirror inside your DSLR’s body retracts when you take a shot, causing the familiar clicking noise. That action can cause a tiny bit of camera shake, so enabling this option will eliminate even that potential contributor to blurry images.

Once enabled, you’ll need to press the shutter button once to retract the mirror and another time to actually trigger the shutter.

So that’s my two cents when it comes to nailing focus in your photos. Although this is a lengthy guide, I’m sure there might be even more tips – so if you have any, please share in a comment below!

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