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Photography Tips: Fixing Blurry Pictures

Skill Level: Beginner

Blurry pictures are one of the most common reasons a student will contact me for private lessons or an online photography course. It’s a problem as old as photography and still continues today despite all the technological advances with digital. Fixing blurry pictures involves changing the way you shoot, not getting new equipment or hoping Photoshop will undo the blur (it won’t). 

Often times a shooter will attribute their soft photos to their “crappy kit lens” or their entry-level camera. If only they had sharper glass and a better auto focus system, then blurry pictures would be a thing of the past. And with all the bloated lens reviews on the net comparing side-by-side images and MTF charts, it’s no wonder people assume lens sharpness is a big issue.

Well, it’s not. I can almost guarantee that your blurry photos are not blurry because of your lens. I have tons of students come to me with blurry photos and almost every single time, the blur is not due to a soft lens or bad focus.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

This photo is blurry (as can be seen in the 100% crop below)
but the culprit is not a bad lens or poor focus.
It's blurry because the shutter speed was too slow.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

When it comes to fixing blurry pictures, we first must establish that there are 2 basic types of blur in photography: out-of-focus blur and motion blur (let’s not get in to diffraction). Out-of-focus blur can be intentional and pleasing, like a blurry background in a portrait. Out-of-focus blur can also be unintentional and can ruin a shot. That would be like when the camera focuses on the wrong thing and so your subject goes out of focus.

Motion blur, on the other hand, comes from subject movement or camera shake during the exposure. And whether or not this results in blur is dependent on what shutter speed you use. You’ll get less motion blur with fast shutter speeds and more motion blur with slow shutter speeds.

In my thousands of hours of experience working with aspiring photographers, I can confidently say the number one reason for blurry photos is from camera shake at shutter speeds that are too slow. This is why blurry photos are especially common in low light scenarios, like indoors. The camera needs a slow shutter speed in low-light environments in order to create a correct exposure. Sometimes that’s the only way the camera can get enough light. But this slow shutter speed makes it nearly impossible to freeze camera shake and subject movement.

So the key to fixing blurry pictures caused by motion is to use a faster shutter speed. And how does one get a faster shutter speed? Well, it isn’t as simple as switching over to shutter priority mode and dialing in a faster shutter. You can’t take away light with a faster shutter speed unless you give the camera more light from the aperture or ISO.

To get your faster shutter speed, you must raise the ISO and/or open up the aperture. It’s that simple. Anytime the shutter speed is too slow, just raise the ISO or open the aperture and you’ll get a faster shutter. You may have to do this a few times. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Fixing Blurry Pictures

With a wider aperture and higher ISO,
my camera was able to use a faster shutter speed, 
resulting in a much sharper photo. 

Fixing Blurry Pictures

Now it may happen sometimes where you raise the ISO to its limit and you open the aperture all the way, and the shutter is still too slow. Now what? Well that’s why God gave us flash. Alternatively, you could get a new camera with a higher maximum ISO or a lens with a wider maximum aperture, but let’s not run out and drop a few grand on new gear just yet.

The bottom line is you need to know shutter speed, aperture, and ISO like the back of your hand. If you know those things well, you’ll be in complete control of motion blur and out-of-focus blur. That’s why I devote over half of my Introduction to DSLR Photography online course to shutter, aperture, and ISO. You really can’t know these things too well.

So next time you’re faced with blurry photos in low light, try raising the ISO and/or opening the aperture. Oh, and you sure as hell can’t be in full auto mode for this one!

Featured Testimonial: Online Photography Course

A student of mine recently had this to say about my online photography courses:

I have taken two of Nick's online courses and I am thrilled with what I have learned so far. I am a novice and Nick has a great teaching style - his courses are easy to understand and he gives tons of examples and resources. Nick's courses are well worth the money and he is always available to answer questions; he takes a genuine interest in your progress.

- Terri T. 

As Terri pointed out, I'm always available to answer questions for students of my online courses (and even for alumni after completion). This is because my online courses are run more like private lessons than group classes. With many other online course providers, the instructor can be difficult to reach and, believe it or not, they often don't even answer their own emails. The instructors at the big online course providers often farm out their correspondence with students to interns or assistants.

With my online courses, I will always be the one answering your questions. I'm interested in you growing as a photographer. Teaching is my business and I don't work for some big parent company. I have a vested interested in your success.

If you want the attention of private photography lessons but in an online course format, click here to learn more about my online photography courses.

UV or Skylight Filter: What’s the Difference?

UV or Skylight Filter

In the process of shopping for a UV filter, you may have come across something called a Skylight filter and wondered which one you should get: a UV or skylight filter.

The difference between a UV and skylight filter is subtle but notable: UV filters have no color cast to them. Skylight filters have a faint orangish-pink color cast. So UV filters are simply clear glass - that’s it. A skylight filter is just a UV filter dyed with a faint warm color tinge.

Why would you want a warm color tinge on a filter that will be on your camera all the time? Well, for the answer to that, we must go back. Way back. To the days of film! *gasp* Do they still even make film?!

UV or Skylight FilterSkylight Filter on the left, UV on the right
Notice the orangish-pink color cast on the skylight filter

Skylight filters were originally designed for use on traditional analog film and they really just don’t serve any purpose in digital photography. See, when shooting color transparency film like Fuji Velvia or Kodak Kodachrome, there is no adjusting color balance after snapping the shutter. In other words, it’s like the white balance was “baked in” to the film when it was manufactured. These films are usually manufactured with a “daylight” color balance - meaning they will get accurate colors in outdoor scenes in the sun, but not really under any other type of light source. Try using this “daylight” film indoors and you’ll get some seriously ugly yellow colors. Try to use it in the shade and your pictures will be too blue. There were also some films manufactured with an “incandescent” white balance for use indoors and those couldn’t be used outdoors without creating inaccurate colors.

So let’s say you have daylight film loaded in your camera, but you want to photograph someone in the shade. Well, that’s a bummer. Your film is designed for daylight, not shade. So if you take the photo, the picture will come out really blue.

What is a poor photographer to do?

Aha! What if we put yellowish-orange filter on the lens, then took the picture in the shade? The warm-tinged filter should cancel out the blue color cast from the shade, resulting in accurate colors.

Until digital photography hit the scene, this is how photographers would “adjust white balance” on color slide film before digital white balance existed. That’s why warming filters were so common. There was really no other way to adjust color balance than to use filters.

And this is why skylight filters were popular for shooters using color slide film. The faint warm color of the skylight filter helped to cancel out some of the blue created by an atmosphere rich in moisture. For example when photographing landscapes, often times distant subjects like a mountain range will turn out a little too blue on color slide film simply because there’s a lot of atmosphere between you and the mountains. But with a skylight filter, you’ll “cut through” that blue a little bit and get more accurate colors.

Plus, it just so happens that most (not all, but most) nature photography looks better if the colors are “warmed up” just a bit. Fall color, sunsets, sunrises - people tend to prefer warmer colors in these types of shots. So that’s another reason skylight filters were a common choice amongst outdoor photographers using slide film.

But with digital, it’s all replaced by white balance. There’s no need to use colored filters because a tweak to white balance creates the same effect. Rather than use a skylight filter or a warming filter, you could just use a “warmer” white balance setting, like cloudy instead of daylight, or shade instead of cloudy. Or better yet, just shoot RAW and tweak the WB in the computer. Want a little more warmth? No problem, just drag the slider.

So when it comes to digital, don’t bother with skylight filters. They will offer no benefit over UV filters. And besides, if your camera is set to auto white balance, the white balance will just cancel out the warm colors of the skylight filter anyway.

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