Soft photos are the bane of the serious photographer’s life, and a major reason why images get rejected by stock image libraries or lose out in competitions or photo society distinctions.

Anyone can zoom into images at 100% these days, meaning that any soft areas in your photos are painfully obvious. So what can you do to ensure all your images are tack sharp? Below we look at some of the common reasons why your images might not be sharp, and what you can do about it…

1 Not using autofocus points properly

Don’t just activate ‘everything on’ autofocus and forget about it. While having all the AF points glowing red may seem reassuring, your camera may lock onto the wrong thing.

You need to get used to moving AF points around to exactly where you want the camera to focus – over a person’s eyes for instance (the central point is the most sensitive but outlying points can be used too). Switching to single point AF area mode is the best way of doing this, or forget AF altogether and switch to manual focus.

Autofocus explained: how to get more from your AF system

2 Not using continuous AF properly

For moving objects – eg, a bride walking down the aisle – switch to continuous AF, known as AI Servo on the Canon system. Again though, combine this AF ‘mode’ with single point area AF (check your manual if unsure) and set the focus point exactly where you need to be.

Don’t stay on continuous AF when shooting a static subject, though. The camera is constantly ‘tracking’ what it expects to be a moving object, so sharpness can suffer.

9 times when autofocus will fail you

3 Never using manual focus

Sometimes your autofocus can’t lock onto a subject, as there isn’t enough contrast or definition – try focussing on white paper on a white floor and you will see what we mean. So try switching to manual focus, which also comes in handy when you want the focus distance to remain constant.

You could prefocus on a wall in front of which a cyclist will race past, for example, safe in the knowledge that the autofocus won’t get distracted by the cyclist as they whizz by.

4 Not checking manual focus before you shoot

Manual focus is handy but takes some practice. To boost your chances of success, magnify into the scene using the Live View function on the rear of your camera, or turn on Focus Peaking if you have a compact system camera. Practice makes perfect. You may need to get your eyes checked if your manual focus is always slightly ‘off.’

3 quick tricks for focusing manually with your camera


5 Letting the shutter speed drop

High resolution SLRs, such as the Nikon D810 or Canon 5DS, give wonderfully detailed shots, but the downside is that those ultra-sensitive sensors will faithfully reproduce even the tiniest bit of softness. So as well as using a tripod more often, you need to pre-empt this by doing your best to keep up the shutter speed when shooting handheld.

It depends on the situation and subject, but try to keep the speed at 1/125 sec as a minimum, which may require shooting in Manual mode, or raising the ISO to get higher speeds in failing light. Regardless of your camera, try to keep your shutter speed higher than the focal length of the lens – so at least 1/250 sec when using a 200mm lens, for instance.

6 Using a too wide or too narrow aperture

While it’s nice to shoot ‘wide open’ – f/2.8 or wider – the restricted depth of field means you will have to be very careful where you focus. It’s essential to set AF points yourself when taking a portrait, for example; as so much of the image will be deliberately blurred, the areas that should be sharp will need to be pin-sharp.

If you choose a very narrow aperture (eg f/20) you will get more depth of field, but slower shutter speeds will be needed to ensure enough light hits the sensor – not great when shooting a moving subject.

7 Not controlling noise

While higher ISOs enable faster shutter speeds, you can end up with noisier shots. Excessive noise will reduce sharpness and increase ‘muddiness’ and smear, especially when fixing gross underexposure. So, be conservative with higher ISOs, depending on your camera’s capabilities, and try and get the exposure right in camera.

In poorer light, you may need to switch to a ‘faster’ lens with a wider aperture, or even consider flash (try to bounce it off a ceiling or wall indoors though, to avoid it hitting the subject full on in the face).

8 Not sharpening with software

However good your technique, all raw images will need some sharpening in software. While Lightroom is a good general tool, you might find the raw-processing software that comes with your camera yields better results.

Whatever, use the sharpening sliders conservatively, as over sharpening ‘haloes’ are painfully obvious. Pay particular attention to edge detail. Reducing noise can make images seem sharper, but so will adding a bit of grain – it sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.

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9 Using cheap lenses

While there is a lot you can do too keep shots sharper, you will always be at the mercy of cheaper lenses. It’s worth getting the best lens you can afford – superior optical performance is one of the reasons that pro lenses cost much more than amateur kit.

If buying new is too much, consider buying refurbished or from eBay, but try and get some comeback in case your new old lens is damaged. Or, get a lens with VR (vibration reduction) or image stabilisation (IS) – this can also be in-camera. It gives you more latitude when shooting handheld.

10 Never having any support with you

While it’s important to use a tripod whenever necessary (eg when taking long exposures), they can be a pain to lug around all the time. So keep a handy tripod alternative, such as the Joby Gorillapod in your bag, or at the very least, a cable release – useful if you are able to mount your camera on a wall or similar flat surface. It’s no replacement for a tripod, but is better than having no support at all.