Why is my picture blurry?

Why is my picture all blurry?

I hear this all the time from both experienced and new photographers.

Well, here’s why.


  • You have not focused properly. Solution: select ONE focus point; focus; hold it; and only then shoot.
  • You are using a shallow depth of field. At f/1.4, it is hard to focus.


  • Your subject is moving fast. Solution: pan with the subject or increase ISO, open aperture, or shoot the subject at the apex of its jump, say.

Shutter speed:

  • You are using a slow shutter speed (slower than twice the lens length, say, so on a 100mm lens you are using a shutter speed slower than 1/200th second). Solution: open the aperture or increase the ISO).
  • You are using a long lens (say a 300mm lens). On that lens, fast enough shutter speeds are hard to obtain). Solution: Zoom out, increase ISO, open the aperture, or use a tripod.
  • You are not using a tripod when you ought to. Solution? use a tripod!
  • You are using a slow lens. An f/3.5-5.6 consumer lens will never do as well as an f/2.8 pro lens. Solution: need I say?
  • You are using a small aperture, like f/8, when you should be using f/2.8. Solution: open your aperture.

Miscellaneous technique:

  • Your subject is in the dark – where it is muddy and blurry. Solution: Light your subject well.
  • You are not using flash when you should be. Solution: need I say?
  • You are  not using IS/VR. These are great features: stabilized lenses are superb and give you several stops. Solution: get an IS/VR lens.


  • Your camera is faulty – this is very unlikely, but have it checked out.
  • Your lens is faulty – this is also rather very unlikely, but have it checked out.

Clear? (Pun intended). Try all these and you will see your images improve amazingly.  Yes, I know, there are a lot of them. Yes, it’s complicated. But yes… you will take brilliant images once you get all of these right.

Remember these tips:

  • Bright pixels are sharp pixels (that is Willem’s Dictum);
  • Flashed pixels are sharp pixels;
  • VR/IS works;
  • Use one focus spot;
  • Hold the camera right;
  • A tripod is a good thing.

Have fun – a crisp, razor sharp picture really is a joy.

Hyper real

With today’s fast cameras, big sensors, and great noise reduction technology, like that in Lightroom 3 tha I described earlier (magic), we can see better with our cameras than we can in real life. It is fun to experiment with that.

Like in Montreal the other day. Here’s a street the way it looked to me:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark

But with my camera (a Canon 1D Mark IV) set to auto ISO, and at 3,000 ISO, I got this:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark, at 3000 ISO

And by white balancing this RAW imaging to correct the yellow Sodium light, we get this:

McGill College in the dark, photographed by Michael Willems

McGill College in the dark

I can actually see better with my cameras than I can see in real life.

And I suggest you all try this. Go out and use auto ISO or a very high manual ISO. Apply noise reduction (in the camera if you shoot JPG, or in Lightroom so you get more control). See what happens!

1600 is the new 200

I am now using Lightroom 3, having upgraded from 2.6. Strongly recommended. Very strongly: worth every penny of the $99 upgrade fee.

If you do not yet know about Lightroom: you need it (or if you use a Mac, Aperture, the other option. For PC, Lightroom is the only option). The apps organize, keyword, rate and find your files, or rather allow you to do so; and they allow you to do 99% of the editing you’ll ever need, non-destructively and quickly. Much more quickly and conveniently than in Photoshop, which in spite of its name is aimed at illustrators.

Lighroom 3, which I will review in more depth soon, is superb. The major function is the noise reduction. 1600 ISO is the new 200. It is magic.

Look at this image of a student at the Henry’s imaging show recently (and I know you are reading this!). Shot at 1600 ISO with the Canon 1D Mark IV. Click on the image to see it larger:

An image shot with off-camera flash at 1600 ISO

An image shot at 1600 ISO

Superb quality!

But the original was more noisy, especially since I had to push it half a stop (yes, it was a dark room).

Here is a piece of that image. When you click it, you see it at its original size.

An image shot with off-camera flash at 1600 ISO, before Lightroom noise reduction

before noise reduction

Now look what happens when I apply some noise reduction:

An image shot with off-camera flash at 1600 ISO, after Lightroom noise reduction

After Lightroom noise reduction

And that is just after dragging the slider,. I could play with the parameters to make it even better.

Magic, pure magic. I shall be shooting tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvah party muchly at 1600 ISO, I imagine.

Reader Question

Reader Craig asks:

Is it possible to get auto ISO to play nice with external flash (I’m using Nikon equipment)?  I haven’t played with it in a while, but I specifically stopped using auto ISO because I was finding it would give me ISO 800 based on the camera metering when the flash had plenty of power to push it to say ISO 200.  It seems odd to me that since there’s a preflash, that that information wouldn’t be shared with the camera to set the proper ISO automatically.  Just curious if that’s your experience as well or if there’s a way around it.  There are a a few scenarios where I’d be happy to use a (functional) auto ISO limited to ISO 800 and just deal with the noise reduction in post.

Good question. And as always… the answer is “it depends”.

First: if you take my “Advanced Flash for Pros” workshop, I go into all the nitty gritty details of both Nikon CLS/iTTL and Canon E-TTL. That will answer some.

But let me give a simple answer here. Typically when I am using flash, I will not use auto ISO. I prefer to keep things simple. Setting it myself means simple.

You expose the background using Aperture and ISO and Shutter Speed.  You make it look as dark as you like – say, two stops below ambient as a great starting point. Auto ISO means the camera will likely overrule your brightness/darkness settings. Manual exposure settings become a sort of “exposure priority” setting instead.

So while auto ISO can work well when using flash (just set expsoure two stops below ambient in S/Tv mode), it is not necessarily ideal when using flash:

  • In M mode, you cannot set exposure compensation
  • In S/Tv mode, you may get funny apertures
  • In Av mode, you may get slow exposures.

In fact on a modern Canon DSLR like my new 1D Mark IV, when using flash, ISO will automatically go off auto and will set itself to 400 when the flash is detected.

The preflash helps the camera set the flash power level for the foreground, lit-by-the-flash subject. The aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings set the background brightness. And again, typically I will be in manual exposure, and will set that to -2 stops, metered average (two stops below ambient). Auto ISO negates that!

So while it depends, it does not depend that much.  When using flash, I will usually set ISO to a manual. Yes, you can set limits to auto ISO (Nikon is much better than Canon at that!), but it is still better to do your own, and to keep control.

The above applies to indoors flash shots where the light is consistent enough for you to use manual exposure settings. Outdoors it would be different – except there is so much light you do not need auto ISO.


A quick snap from my Canon 1D Mark IV taken at 12800 ISO. I applied very slight noise reduction in Lightroom and upon export, reduced the size to 1200 pixels wide.

If I had not mentioned it, would you be able to tell that was taken at such high ISO?

For high ISO shots, it is imperative that you light the shot well. Remember Willems’s Law: “Bright Pixels are Sharp Pixels”.

I shot that with the 1D Mark IV, at 12800 ISO, with the 100mm EF [corrected!] Macro lens, and shot at 1/60th sec handheld at f/2.8. A slow shutter speed like that (lower than one divided by the lens length) needs a steady hand and a bit of luck – oh and shoot ten pictures to get a few very sharp ones.  Better still, use a tripod.