When we run our wildlife photography workshops and individual training sessions, some of the most common complaints we get are: “My photos are soft and not sharp”, or “Myphotos appear blurry and out of focus”. In this brief article, we discuss wildlife and nature-based photography, and in that, we are referring to the use of longer zoom lenses. Here are a few possibilities as to why you are not getting pin-sharp images.
Don’t go too low
This is almost the number one reason for getting blurred and soft images. When we look at a client’s metadata on an unfocused image, we more often than not find that the shutter speed is far too slow for the zoom length. The inverse rule for shooting with zoom lenses is a pretty good initial guideline. This guideline suggests that if, for example, you are zoomed in to 600 mm, then your shutter speed should not be slower than 1/600s. Once amateur photographers master shooting at higher shutter speeds, their image sharpness usually improves dramatically, which obviously improves their photography.
We all shake or move a little when trying to handhold a camera and large lens steady without any support. Rest the camera and lens if at all possible. I have found that using a bean bag when shooting from a car window helps to significantly stabilise your camera and lens, especially when you are zoomed in. Reduced camera shake will also
result in sharper images.
Capability vs user expectations
Depending on the use a person has for their camera, cheaper level gear simply cannot compete against professionals’ high-end equipment. That doesn’t mean one can’t take very decent photos with the lower-end gear and kits. It is, however, not fair to expect to compete with someone producing images using their R100 000 to R200 000 gear if you have invested in a standard camera and lens kit valued at around R12 000 to R15 000.
Poor quality lenses
In today’s modern technological era, when we buy cameras or lenses, we expect them to work perfectly and produce crisp and clear photos. Sadly, this is not always the case. In reality, some lenses just aren’t as sharp as others. Sometimes a particular lens does not perform well on a specific camera body. Occasionally one can also get a bad copy of a lens. Due to the high cost of original brand lenses, people often have no option but to look to the generic lenses to acquire a lens with the required focal range. Although the generic lenses have improved substantially, don’t necessarily expect a generic zoom lens to be as good on your camera as a more expensive original brand lens.
Zoom and Sharpness
Some very popular lenses for wildlife and birding photography zoom all the way from 150 mm through to 600 mm. At the maximum zoom length, photographs won’t always be at their sharpest. Try zooming back out just a fraction to see if your image clarity improves. One can crop a sharp image but can’t do much with a soft or blurred photo.
But don’t over-crop
When processing your images, if a bird, for example, is a tiny part of the entire photo, don’t expect to crop it all the way in to fill the frame – pixels don’t work that way. If you crop an image too tight, what remains is likely to be soft or appear out of focus. One only has so many pixels to work with!
Some lenses are sharper at certain apertures
Most of us love the blurred background effect we get from shooting at higher apertures (using lower f-stop numbers), but your lens may not be at its sharpest at the highest possible aperture that the lens affords you. For example, your subject may be sharper at F8 or F9 than at F6.3. It may take time, but you will have to find the sweet spot regarding
aperture for your lens.
Built-in image stabilisers
When a camera and long lens are handheld and not supported, it is a good idea to have the lens image stabiliser switched on. Some lenses’ image stabilisers are more effective than others, so don’t expect an equal amount of stabilisation from every lens you put on your camera. Some lenses don’t have image stabilisers at all. Lens image stabilisers are effective tools when used correctly. They will assist in shooting in poor light and at slower shutter speeds, but whilst they can play a critical role in getting sharper photos, a stabiliser is not the silver bullet.
Control your focus points
Don’t shoot in ‘AUTO MODE’. In auto mode, you have no control over your focal points. In auto mode, the camera decides where it wants to focus. With wildlife photography, we usually recommend ‘APERTURE MODE’. In auto mode, the camera can often focus on something else, like a nearby tree or even the grass in front of your subject, which can leave your subject out of focus. Make sure you control your focal point/ points. The focus should be precise and preferably on the eye of the subject.