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Things to Consider if You’re Having Focus Issues

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)

Keywords: focus, dof, d500

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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Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on March 17, 2021

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Hi Elke, Unfortunately photography is about choices and sometimes we just don't get offered the choices we'd like! The choices in shooting wildlife are somewhat limited and, sometimes, we just cannot get the shot we want due to low light or limits in our equipment. You might take a look at the new AI (Artifical Intelligence) noise removal software, Topaz DeNoise AI is one that people really seem to like. I've used it and it can do a great job at removing noise in some files. You could also look at purchasing a f/2.8 lens, but they are generally very expensive. I find that the D500 does create files with a lot of noise at higher ISOs, but some people say that is not so and of course each situation when we shoot is different. The sensor on a "crop" camera, like the D500, does not compare to a sensor on a full-frame camera, for example the D850. Buying a full frame camera will allow for better opportunity for lower ISO shots. The only other option is to add more light to the mix and some people do use fill flash for some shots, although I have never done that. You can also set your ISO to not go beyond a certain ISO using the auto ISO feature: this could mean you won't get the shot in some cases but it will limit the ISO to something manageable for the shot at hand (it's best to use manual mode with auto ISO). Have you tried shooting in manual mode? Sometimes it seems that you can push manual mode and get closer to what you want. Shooting in RAW also helps with lightening shadows in images successfully in some cases. Check out the information that Steve Perry puts out, I think his ebooks might help you with your wildlife shots. Hope these ideas help you.

Elke Hoffmann (photogirl18) on March 14, 2021

Hi Connie, I read your article Things to Consider when you’re having Focus Issues. I have a D500 and 200-500mm lens. My experience level beginner to intermediate. Love bird photography especially BIF. I understand shutter speed should be fast in order to freeze and aperture wide and ISO high. My pictures turn out too grainy. If I adjust ISO the photos are too dark. What am I not doing? Thank you for your help in advance. Elke

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on January 14, 2021

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Hi to Martin, Gary and Terri...thank you so much for your words regarding my article. I know what a struggle it can be to get that shot! Anything I can do to help I am happy to do and I also enjoying getting inspiration and guidance from others who know a lot more than I do. Keep shooting!

Martin Schneider (mssgrgmem) on January 6, 2021

Thanks for the comprehensive article. Although Nikon has addressed the problems focusing with higher megapixel cameras in the technical manuals that accompany their user manuals, including using higher shutter speeds and using the live view to pinpoint focusing, your article was extremely helpful for hand held cameras and moving subjects. You expanded my understanding of the camera and its settings. You made the solution to what was to me an impossible to solve problem seem obvious with your technical expertise and the way you explained your ideas and methods.

Gary Worrall (glxman) on December 4, 2020

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Another great informative article Connie Fine tuning is my biggest hurdle Regards, Gary

Terri D Brown (newdawn62) on November 28, 2020

Excellent article, especially the tip about shutter speeds and wildlife.

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on November 20, 2020

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Thanks to both txstone12 and dm1dave. I still need to have my friend who was having a hard time read the article, but she upgraded her existing camera with a used D7100 and I think, if she pays attention, she may start getting sharper shots.

David Eyestone (txstone12) on November 16, 2020

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

Enjoyed your article, Connie. AF is one of my special interest topics so always interested in more information and suggestions of others. Your example photos are very well done.

David Summers (dm1dave) on November 16, 2020

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Nicely written, great advice!