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Photo Tips

JULY 2011


by Mike Rosen


Hi <<First Name>>,

Have you ever sat down to look at a new batch of photos, only to discover that some or even many of them are blurry? I certainly have, and there's nothing more annoying. So this month I want to focus on focus--plus various other techniques to create sharper images.

Learn how to focus

There are two steps to optimal focusing. First, you must understand how to control the autofocus system on your camera correctly. (Sad to say, this will likely require reading your instruction manual again.) Here, very simply, is how to do it: 
  1. Frame your image so that your focus point (typically a little rectangle you'll see in the center of the frame) is positioned on your primary subject, even if you don't want your primary subject to be in the center of the final photo.
  2. Push the shutter button half way down, which locks the focus. You'll probably see a solid green light or hear a beep to indicate you're in focus.
  3. While still holding the button half way, recompose the scene placing your subject where you want it in the frame. This is your last chance to adjust compostion.
  4. Finally, take the picture by carefully pushing the shutter button the rest of the way down.

In this example, I positioned the focus point on the young man kicking the soccer ball, locked the focus, and then moved the camera a tiny bit up and to the right to get him out of the center. He and the ball are in sharp focus while the others are a bit blurry, which is fine. A fast shutter speed (1/1600 of a second) stopped the ball effectively.

There are many camera-specific focusing subtleties and features that can be used to refine this simple approach, particularly with DSLRs and advanced compacts. You can also turn off the autofocus system and focus your camera manually. All of this must be learned by studying your user's manual and practicing (or otherwise getting some outside help). But the above approach should work just fine for most cameras in most situations.   

Second, you must take the time to identify your primary subject so you know what to focus on. This means you've consciously decided why you're making the image in the first place. Only when you know that will you know where you want to lead the viewer's eye. That's your primary subject and that's what you focus on.

After watching this Shanghai street card game for a moment, I knew I wanted the subject to be the guy with the shrewd, knowing, "gotcha" grin. I didn't care if the other players and kibbitzers were soft and only partially there. I waited for an opening in the onlookers' circle and set the focus point on his face.

If it's a landscape image or wide street scene, focus about one-third of the way into the scene from the bottom. For people or animal photos, focus on the eyes. 

This woman was sitting outside her flat in a small Croatian town. She smiled and commented about my "high tech" camera, so I asked if I could take her picture. I set the focus point directly on her eyes. The image is sharp enough to see  every wrinkle, every hair, every skin blemish. I cropped out some disconcerting stuff on the left side.

On the other hand, I somehow didn't get it right in this photo of my grandson on a hike in the Canadian Rockies. Evidently I didn't set the focus point on his eyes, so his entire face is a bit soft. It's still a nice image, but not as crisp as I'd like it. Another possibility, of course, is that I didn't hold the camera steady enough.

Hold your camera steady

It should be obvious that if your camera is moving, even slightly, while you're pushing the shutter button, the picture will be soft, or downright blurry, even if you've focused properly. It's not so easy to hold still. Here are some tips:

  1. Concentrate on steadiness when you're pushing the shutter button the final half way down. Push it slowly and firmly; don't jab.
  2. Use a tripod. It's inconvenient, and maybe heavy (though there are some really good lightweight tripods out there), but it's the gold standard for sharp photos.
  3. Absent a tripod, find some other camera support. Place it on a table, a fence or a rock, anchor it against a tree, steady yourself against a tree or building, hold the camera close and firm, exhale for a second and snap the picture.
  4. Get a camera or lens with built-in "Vibration Reduction" (Nikon's terminology), "Image Stabilization" (Canon), or similar. This will enable you to use slower shutter speeds, smaller apertures and/or lower ISOs and still get sharp images.
  5. In lower light situations, or if your lens is zoomed out (harder to hold steady), increase your ISO ("film speed") and use faster shutter speeds
  6. Use your camera's "continuous shooting" feature to capture several images rapidly, as long as you keep the shutter button pressed. Or just take lots of pictures of your subject, a great idea in any event. The more you take, the better the odds of finding a keeper, and you can delete the rest later. Storage cards are cheap!

In low light, a tripod or other very firm support is critical. One evening in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, I put my camera on a tripod and used a very long (six second) shutter speed to capture this sharp image. A low ISO of 100 and an f/11 aperture provided excellent depth of field.
Finally, if your photo is reasonably sharp, you can make it noticeably crisper with your editing software. You can't make a blurry shot sharp, but you can make a decent one better.

All the best,



comment on Photo Tips, July 2011: Sharpen up!









Other Stuff


You can view and purchase any of my photographs at my website (click HERE). Better yet, just email me (click HERE), or feel free to phone me (a nearly obsolete technique, I'm well aware) at 612-374-2766.


The show, at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, will close at 5:00 on July 31. It's titled "Nature, Wildlife and Landscape Images from Around the World,"  and the positive response and compliments have been gratifying.

   --Photo by Leighton Siegel

It's open every day from 9 to 5 except Mondays. Take the 34th Ave. S. exit from 494 in Bloomington, head south for one block, then turn left at American Blvd. (E. 80th St.) and proceed a quarter mile. It's across the street from the Airport Hilton, on the right. Please sign the guest book so I'll know you were there.


I'm often asked for recommendations by folks looking for a new camera. There are so many types of cameras and lenses out there, with continually improving technology, picture quality and features, that there is no way I can pretend to keep current.

But one great source of unbiased information, ratings and purchase recommendations in nearly every style and price range is Consumer Reports. The current (August) issue has an update very much worth looking at, not only for the ratings but also how to go about choosing from the hundreds of available devices. View this excellent article by clicking HERE.

For serious photographers seeking much more comprehensive evaluations, take a look at Digital Photography Review. Click HERE.


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