Recently I was talking to a friend who was having trouble getting sharp focus with her Nikon D3000. She was unclear if it was her, the camera, or maybe her computer. As we were discussing the subject of focus I thought back to when I started taking photography seriously, getting off the “P” setting and wanting to create artistic shots: I knew nothing about all the many reasons that I might not get sharp focus in a photograph. This made me start listing all of the reasons I could think about why an image might not turn out as sharp as I hoped and I came up with more than 15 reasons why focus might not be sharp! Wow, it’s a wonder we ever get a sharp shot!
We all know that one of the key components of a good photograph is focus, sharp or soft, as intended, and where the sharpest focus is as set by us. It sounds so easy, point the camera, set the focus and shoot…but it’s not, that’s why hundreds of people have written books and articles on it, it’s just not always that easy even with today’s high-end smart cameras. In many, if not most cases, the main reason for a focus that is not sharp is that the photographer is shooting at too low of a shutter speed. I can recall being told when shooting film photography that 1/1000 of a second was fast. But “fast” is a relative term and I think digital photography is not actually the same as film photography in many ways, including setting shutter speed.
Ducks on a Log: Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO 2500. On this shot, taken very late in the evening, the ISO was important for lightness but I also wanted the water to sort of blend into the background so a lower shutter speed was important for that. The shutter speed chosen got the motion of the main subject, the duck ruffling its feathers sharp, but not the foot of the other duck that was scratching its face and I was ok with that as I got the smooth water look that I desired and the main motion sharp.
Click for an enlargement
I photograph a lot of moving subjects, mostly birds and other animals (I’m not interested in sports although I do shoot cars and bikes and airplanes when the opportunity arises) and I’ve found that my shutter speed needs to be, for the most part, way up from 1/1000. I was actually happy to read what a well-known wildlife photographer recently said, that his main go-to shutter speed for wildlife “was most often 1/3200 of a second” and that he had shot as fast as 1/8000 of a second to get the shot (I ended up doing this for fast-moving sea otters). If an animal is sitting still a slow shutter speed, 1/250 of a second or even slower, can work out just fine but if they are moving, and this applies to any subject, animal or nature (i.e., a flower in the breeze), a faster shutter speed is required to get a sharp shot. This article is not about ISO so I’m not discussing it but, yes, ISO would need to go up higher or the aperture would need to be opened wider (which would affect your depth of field in some cases) to get the faster shutter speed…darn that triangle and its limitations! In general, I like to use shutter speeds of 1/2500 or higher (if conditions prevail) for moving animals and most often “the higher” part is in play since I want to be ready for any movement.
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