"My Photos Are Blurry" — Solutions for Common Photo Problems: Part 1

DSC_2702_6x9So while talking with friends who are all new DSLR owners this past weekend, we discussed the solutions for the most common problems people have with their photos. So of course, it sparked an idea for a blog post. Here is part 1: “My Photos Are Blurry.”

The reason for a blurry photo is that the shutter speed is too slow to stop either fast moving action or camera shake in low light situations. The faster action moves, the faster the shutter speed required to stop the action; the longer your lens setting (telephoto), the faster the shutter speed required to stop camera shake since the shake is magnified (think about looking through powerful binoculars and how hard it is to hold them without the seeing shake); and finally, in lower the lighting conditions, the shutter speed slows down to let in more light, making it harder to hand hold.

So what to do? First, you need to understand what the ideal shutter speed is for hand-holding to avoid camera shake. The quick answer to to shoot at a shutter sped that is no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length setting of your lens. So if you are zoomed out to 300mm to catch sports, nature, wildlife or candid portraits, the ideal shutter sped will be 1/300th of a second or faster to stop hand shake blur. However, with today’s stabilized lenses, you can shoot a 2-3 or even 4 stops slower with no resulting hand-shake. Second, understand that it is almost impossible for anyone to hand hold the camera at any focal length setting if the shutter speed goes below 1/30th of a second. Thirdly, if action is moving fast, like soccer or basketball, you will need a shutter speed of approx. 1/500th of a second. If the action moves even faster than that, such as car racing or horse racing, you will need to shoot even faster (1/1000th, 1/2500th, etc.(.

Solution 1: Open your aperture to let in more light and the camera will pick a faster shutter speed.
If you set your camera to aperture priority, move the aperture towards a wider opening (e.g., F/6.3, F/5.6, F/3.5) and watch your shutter speed get faster. Hopefully, you will be able to get a shutter speed / aperture combination that allows you to have a fast shutter speed for the action or zoom setting. Be mindful that with an open aperture, you have less depth of field, so precisely focusing on the critical part of your image is very important.

Solution 2: If opening the aperture does not give you a shutter speed high enough to action blur or stop hand shake from slow shutter speeds as a result of low light or long telephoto settings, then the next solution is to boost your ISO higher. A higher ISO, will automatically provide you with higher shutter speeds. While your photo might have a little more noise or not as vibrant of color, you will be able to shoot the image. (Some DSLRs have really great high ISO capabilities, so don’t be afraid to try higher ISO settings).

Solution 3 (and my least favorite): If neither solution above works, then you can try to increase the lighting in the scene. One way is by adding flash. Flash will certainly freeze action and eliminate hand shake blur (as long as you are not in night time portrait mode). While flash can lead to an artificial feeling in your shot, hence my reason for it not being my favorite, it can do the job effectively and send you home with images of the moment. Remember, however, that flash can only cover a certain distance, and is sometimes not allowed at certain venues, so solutions 1 or 2 or a combination of both may be your only choices to correct the problem.

The image above would have been completely different had I used flash. So I boosted my ISO to 1600 so that the little bit of light coming into the room could be captured naturally. My lens was zoomed to 60mm, making the magic shutter speed 1/60th of a second. However, with my stabilized lens, I was fortunate to be able to catch the image at 1/8th of a second, the fastest shutter speed I could achieve with the given lighting, ISO setting and open aperture (F/4). The VC stabilization allowed me to shoot 3 stops slower than what would be normally required.

And of course, a solution that works the best for low light situations is a tripod. As long as there is no movement in your shot, a tripod will stabilize your camera and let you shoot at rather slow shutter speeds. Tripods are the most essential tool for landscape and nature photographers since a smaller aperture like F/11, F/16 or F/22 are required to achieve deep depth of field, but shutter speeds are naturally slower.

Next time you are shooting in low light, shooting at a longer telephoto zoom setting, or shooting action, consider the solutions above and you should find your images will be sharp as a result.

Don’t Let Bright Sun Ruin a Candid Portrait- Move into the Open Shade

Open_shade_sun_comparison
We are not nocturnal by nature, so our photo-taking time is usually during the day. And now that it is almost summer, there will be plenty of bright sunny days on which you want to take photos of vacationing kids and visiting guests. So what do we need to do to get a decent outdoor portrait? The simplest solution is to look for open shade. Open shade is the step you take back from the sunny to the shady. It can be just under a tree. Or a step inside a door frame or porch. Or a tent or any overhang. The open shade eliminates all of the contrasty shadows that appear on the face and clothing of a subject standing in the sun. Look at the side by side comparison, especially the eyes and the shirt of the girl on the left. (Pls ignore the color as I did not reset my white balance from sunny to shade and consequently have some funky color going on; pls be sure to set the WB to auto or shady). Below is a shot that shows you the line between a good and poor candid portrait. The girls were first on the sunny side of the line, and then took a step back into the shade. I love how the light catches in their eyes when you shoot in open shade. For more on open shade, see this post too.
shadow line

Set a Slower Shutter Speed for Fun Photos

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My friend and professional photographer Andre Costantini has this great shot in his presentation that really shows the effect of a slow shutter speed. So while at the park last week, I bravely got on a tire swing with my subject and we were promptly spun until I wanted to throw up. In fact, I closed my eyes and just kept shooting and screaming. But it was worth it to show you how a slow shutter speed setting can make a really fun shot. I had my camera set at ISO 200 as it was a really nice bright day and I put the camera on high continuous shooting. I then set the camera to F22 while in the aperture priority mode, which in turn gave me a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. This slow shutter speed cannot stop the fast action of the tire spinning around, so the sky and trees in the background are wonderful streaky blurs. Yet the subject is in focus (well, relatively speaking and I will explain that in a minute). The reason the subject stays in focus even though the shutter speed is so slow, is that in relation to each other, our position stays the same. It’s as if we were just standing still looking at each other. Now, he is admittedly slightly out of focus since he was a little too close to the camera and had I just kept my eyes open while shooting, I would have spotted this and leaned back a touch. So if you can get yourself on a fast carnival or theme park ride, or a tire swing or one of those merry-go-round things on the playground, position yourself so that you and your subject face each other and relative to each other do not move (i.e., in the same seat), and shoot on a slow shutter speed to really show off the motion of the ride. Tell your subject not to move too much, especially closer or further away from the camera. And have fun. Maybe take some Dramamine® before you head out to take this shot.

tire_swing_3 tire_swing_2

Take a Candid Holiday Portrait by Window Light, and Add a Prop!

easter_portrait_1The window is your best photo accessory for portraits. It’s so easy to use, always there, you don’t need an assistant to hold anything, and you don’t have to pull out your auxiliary flash. I just love the light that streams through my windows in several rooms. Positioning your subject very close to the window, like in the shot at left from early Easter mornning, can give you a nice dramatic light since the light falls off the opposite side of the face quickly and the eyes have a nice sparkle from the window catchlights. To get more of an even light, move your subject just a further away from the window (as in the first photo below- the subject was across the room from the window), or, face your subject perpendicular to the window instead of parallel. In this case, you can actually stand right in front of the window with your subject in turn in front of you and you will not block the light! See this post here for an example of this type of positioning. You can also “fill in” the other side of the face with a pop of the flash as you can see in the second photo below. If you find there is still a slight “artificial” feeling, you can adjust how much light the flash puts out by adjusting the flash +/- button usually found near the flash. Hold the button in and dial it towards the minus side. Perhaps -.7 or -1.0. Review the flash section in your camera manual to see exactly how to set this on your camera. And don’t foget to add a prop that gives your portrait a sense of time. In my case, the tulips scream spring and the eggs of course will remind me this was Easter time when we look back at these photos years from now. (Watch for a forthcoming download card with lighting diagrams for window light positioning).
easter_portrait_3

What I Learned Taking Basketball Photos

_DSC6403_RTIt’s hard. It’s really hard to get a good shot. That’s what I learned. Today I took photos at the basketball game again. I brought along the “big gun” – a 70-200mm F/2.8 lens. And I really assumed this would take care of all of the issues I had previously trying to get a good shot. And it did help quite a bit. But there are several issues you’ll be faced with if you plan to take photos in a gym. The biggest issue is lighting. The lighting in gyms can vary greatly. A gym with windows is much easier to shoot in since the brighter light is not only more natural for color, but it allows you to shoot at higher shutter speeds to stop action. In my case, there were no windows and only dull mercury vapor lights to shoot under. So not only was the lighting so low that I could not stop action effectively with my slower F/6.3 lens, but the color cast I got while using auto WB was unacceptable. So taking the following steps really helped me to finally get a better shot (but I am no Walter Iooss):

  1. Use a fast lens if you can. I used an F/2.8 lens that lets in lots of light
  2. Set your camera to aperture-priority and open the lens to the widest opening your lens allows since this will make the camera default to the highest shutter speed it can to stop action.
  3. Boost your ISO to 1600 or higher. Make sure you are able to get a shutter speed of at least 1/250th of a second to stop the action. If the camera is shooting slower, you will need to boost your ISO some more.
  4. Search thru your menus and see if you can find a setting to turn on “High ISO Noise Reduction” and set it to high. This will help reduce some of the noise you get when using an ISO over 800.
  5. Use manual white balance to get the best color that you can. See this post for information on how to set a manual white balance. And see the download card here for information about white balance in general.
  6. Position yourself near your team’s basket if you can so that you can get facial expressions when they have opportunity to shoot. Shooting under the basket does require a wider angle lens. Shooting from across the court calls for a telephoto lens.
  7. Shoot vertically as most action is vertical rather than horizontal. This will allow you to get full length shots, get the ball while in the air, and get players and the net in the shot.
  8. Watch your framing. I found I cut off the feet of my players quite often as I was concentrating on the ball so hard. Footless platers are sort of disturbing.
  9. Look for side line action like coaches giving their players direction, player interaction after a score, and details like the ball, the scoreboard, etc.

I hope these tips will help your sports shooting. And of course, practice and knowing the game go without saying.

Bring a Symbol of the Holiday Into Focus

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I have made this same picture over and over and I still love it. Birthday cupcakes with lit candle, a number of fingers held up to signify a birthday year, a lottery ticket, a dyed Easter egg, and more. This time it’s the four leaf clover my subject plucked from a pot in the yard (look closely since at first glance it looks like three, but it is four). I was actually taking pictures of her cute Valentine’s outfit when she found the clover and held it out to me to inspect. The resulting image is really cute and the clover pops out not only because my aperture was set wide open at F/2.8 and I focused on the clover (thus blurring the background), but also because of the contrast of the green against the red and white of her clothing. So whether it’s your child’s favorite stuffed animal, a perfect test score, or a special holiday object, this effect is a great way to bring focus to the event or milestone while still keeping the subject’s face present in your photos.

Take a Portrait With Shallow Depth of Field

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This is a repeat, but one that needs repeating since I think we all want to achieve great portrait shots— even when it’s just a quick candid shot we’re grabbing before the cake is served or before the kids are leaving for school. And using shallow depth of field is a key to great portraits (along with expression, lighting, angle). Shallow depth of field, when the parts of the image in front of and behind the subject are out of focus, makes your subject pop off the image. The example here (a repost from the summer), for instance, shows the eye and smile in sharp focus, yet the tip of the nose, ear and hair are out of focus. Another advantage of shallow depth of field is that you can eliminate distracting backgrounds like indoor clutter, foliage, cars on the street, etc., It makes the background less defined with soft colors.

To get shallow depth of field, the key is to set your camera to the “A” mode: Aperture-Priority. You can leave your ISO setting at 200 or 400 (or higher if the lighting conditions are low) and leave your camera in autofocus. You will then use your thumb-wheel to dial in the smallest number you can, like F/2.8, F/3.5, F/5.6. Focus on the eyes of your subject, or the eye that is closest to the camera. Depending on how close you are to your subject and what lens you are using (telephoto lenses and closer proximity make the effect even more apparent), you will notice that the background is just soft to almost unrecognizable. If you want the photo to have some context of where you are (like cooking in the kitchen), then maybe F/5.6 is a better choice. But if you want the crowd in the background to go really soft, “open the lens wider” to F/3.5 or F/2.8 if you can.Please review the aperture download card here.

Using Flash for Indoor Photography

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I have to admit it. Flash is my least favorite type of photography. I suppose since it seems so technical and the results can vary from situation to situation, looking artificial, too dark or too washed out. Luckily, today’s flashes can run pretty much on auto pilot and can be used for creative effect with just a little practice. But this time of year, and for the next four or five months, we’re all stuck indoors a great deal of the time, especially during the holiday season when we take so many candid photos at get-togethers. So I thought I’d share just a few basic flash tips to improve your indoor photos:

1) Your pop-up flash, the one that is part of the camera and pops up automatically if you are shooting in the “green box” total program mode, can cover just a short distance. Most of the time, any subject further than ten feet cannot get enough of the flash illumination for a properly exposed shot and that is why they look dark. You can boost your ISO to higher than normal (try 800 or 1000) to try and get more reach.

2) When you position your subject too close to a wall and use your pop-up flash, you are bound to get harsh shadows behind your subject. Eliminate this by having your subject step a few feet away from the wall and by shooting from a little bit above the subject (which is also a more flattering angle for portraits).

3) Your pop-up flash can cause red-eye quite often. This is because the flash is so close to the lens. It is worse on point-and-shoot cameras than DSLR cameras, but typical in either case. To eliminate red-eye, you can use the red-eye reduction function that throws out a pre-flash to make your subject’s eyes close down, but I find often that people think you’re done and move before the photo is actually shot. You can also try turning up the lights in the room to help the iris naturally close down a little.

4) If you are in a very dark room, the camera/flash may over-expose your subject (you know, the white face that appears to have nothing but eyes and lips) since the camera reads the room as very dark and wants to make it brighter. This also happens if you are too close to your subject. One solution is to back up to correct the latter, and turn up the room lights if you can for the former. If you cannot control the lighting, try moving your subject closer to a room light like I did above.

An on-camera auxiliary flash, like the one for my camera shown above, elevates the flash away from the lens and helps to reduce red-eye dramatically. This type of flash also helps in other ways: a) it can throw the flash further allowing you to be further away from your subject; and b) you can change the position of the flash to get more even lighting with much less shadows. This is called “bounce flash.”

{bounce flash}

{bounce flash}

The photo above of my very Thanksgiving-weary subject was taken with the auxiliary flash in a bounce position. The flash bounced off of the ceiling and back down onto my subject. You can see the lighting looks much more natural and softer than in either of the two photos below where the shots look more artificial and harsh. In the photos below, you can also see the harsh shadow under the lamp and on the futon frame. And, there are hot spots on her cheeks. You can also see how quickly the flash “drops off,” meaning the couch gets darker, whereas in the photo above, the couch and subject are all evenly illuminated since the bounced flash showers the whole area with light. One caution–always bounce off of a white wall or ceiling as the flash will take on the color cast of what it is being bounced off of (e.g., a green ceiling will produce a ghoulish effect).

{pop-up flash on camera}

{pop-up flash on camera}

{straight-on auxiliary flash}

{straight-on auxiliary flash}

 

Like learning how to control your depth of field to blur backgrounds, mastering your flash is a must for anyone who is looking to take better people photos. So this season, try to remember some of the tips above when shooting your flash candids at family gatherings. And if you can get an auxiliary flash made for your camera onto your wish list, it will be a worthwhile investment for many years.

Photos by Candlelight

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Taking a photo by candlelight can be a little tricky. But boosting your ISO and opening your aperture to its widest opening can really help. In this photo, I asked my subject to move his face close to the cake (but not so close as to get burned). My ISO was set to 1600 and my aperture at F/5.6. I held my camera as steady as possible and used the image stabilizer on my lens. I metered on his face and zoomed out a little to compose and focus. The result is a warm image from the candles, and a nice highlight in his eyes. Use a high ISO and position your subject close to candles for any birthday celebration, or for the lighting of the menorah this holiday season.

Change Your Position for Better Photos

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Just like changing the scenery can give us a whole new outlook and change our mood, so does changing your position when taking a photo. It is very common for all of us to just shoot pictures from a standing position, but this leads to somewhat boring images. We have all gotten a much better shot just by crouching down or standing on a chair or bench. Not only do you get a whole new perspective, but this helps to eliminate distracting backgrounds for a clean, more professional look. For this shot, I was standing on the bulkhead while my subjects were down on the shore, allowing me to give a real sense of where they are since I was able to show both the sand and the beach grass in the shot. Plus, the busy background harbor was now out of the shot. Look for the next photo tips card download about positioning yourself for better photos to come shortly (see previous photo tips cards: #1 here; and #2 here).