Nature Explored

by Chris Dunford








Nature Photography

Focus and Shutter Speed Problems

The absolute number one fault is for a photo to be blurred. Simple out of focus error has lost me more otherwise well composed shots than I've had hot dinners. Fuzzy ducks
Camera moving and shutter speed too slow

So what's the cure?

It depends on what caused it. If the camera was moving or shaking in your hand then you need to stabilise the camera in future.

This can be done by resting the camera, or your elbow, on a solid surface ie. car, tree, friend's head etc. The more zoom you are using the more this becomes imperative. A long zoom will amplify any camera shake. Arran mountain scenery taken with slow shutter speed
Camera on tripod allows slow shutter 1/15s
in evening light

Even better is a tripod, but it's bulky and if you are walking it's another fairly heavy piece of kit to add to whatever else you are carrying so you may not want to take one with you. A compromise here is a Monopod. It'll give you quite a lot of stability without all the weight of a tripod.

Another point is - always buy a lens with image stabilisation (vibration reduction) on it. And make sure it's switched On. Yes, I've fallen for that one too.

With a nice steady camera you can get away with some fairly slow shutter speeds providing the subject isn't moving. The exact Arran stream in Woodland
Nicely focused on the ferns
in the RH bottom corner
instead of the waterfall
numbers here will depend on the lens but I'd say around 1/15th second for a landscape in goodish light should be possible. Obviously only go as slow as you have to. If you are not in critical need of front to back depth of field then open up the aperture as much as you can. This will help with the vibration reduction by allowing a faster shutter speed, but will make no difference to the actual focus as the lens on a DSLR opens up to its maximum when focussing, then snaps to the desired aperture as you press the shutter release.

What if the camera was nice and steady but instead of a good sharp photo of a waterfall it has somehow insisted on focusing beautifully on a branch 6ft in front of the lens and left your composition a fuzzy mess?

Well you could move to a better location with nothing to interrupt the view, but maybe it's not possible Focus would have been ok but the shutter speed is way too slow for this action shot
Focus would have been ok but the shutter
speed of 1/125s is too slow for this action
so you have to do something about it. The best thing I've found is to use Spot Focus instead of the default setting, which tends to pick any one of the 9 or 19 or however many focus points on your camera at random and mess up a good shot. Set the camera to use the Centre Focus point only. This is often more sensitive than the others anyway. Make sure that the centre point is bang on the subject before pressing the shutter.

If you don't know how to do this then you'll have to bite the bullet and RTFM. I know manuals are horrendous but it's got to be done. You have to know your equipment to get the best out of it, and you may not have time to consult in the field. Lovely! Her head is in focus and no blurring due to a 1/1600s shutter speed
Lovely! Her head is in focus and no blurring
due to a 1/1600s shutter speed

As an alternative here I can use back button focus which puts focus onto a separate button from the shutter release. An advantage of this is that once set it won't change until I press the designated button again even if I move the lens about and take several pictures. Either they'll all be focused or all be destined for the bin. Manual focus will achieve similar results.

So now we have the subject in focus but it's bouncing around like Tigger, and any image will still be fuzzy due to motion blur. Assuming you don't want this effect as a feature of your photo then the answer is to up the shutter speed. For my dog photo I'd be thinking 1/500 second at least and if we are out in the sun maybe as much as 1/2000th if I can get away with it. You might have to boost the ISO of the camera a bit to achieve this, as well a opening up the aperture, if the light isn't really bright. Boosting the ISO increases the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to light, but can decrease the picture quality. It's a trade off between blur and picture quality but I don't think it's really noticeable at ISOs of less than about 800 unless you are planning on having giant wall posters made up.

When you want to stop some fast action with a very fast shutter speed, you could put the camera into shutter priority mode which allows you to fix the shutter speed to whatever you want and the camera adjusts the aperture to get the right exposure.

The usual advice when trying any of this with a telephoto lens is to use a minimum shutter speed of 1 over the focal length, so for my big 400mm lens I'd like to achieve a mimimum of 1/400th of a second at full zoom. Sometimes I just can't but that's what I try for. Focussed on the eye but the shutter is slow enough to show some wing movement
Focussed on the eye but the shutter is slow
enough to show some wing movement

When taking a group of animals or people, pick one of them to focus on - don't focus between them else you'll get a lovely clear background and a fuzzy group of subjects.

Always try and focus on the eye of an animal; for some reason it pleases the viewers and makes the whole thing look like you knew what you were doing.

Finally - clean your lens. Don't use your shirt. It can and does scratch the coating on the lens. I know. I've done it. Get a proper cloth such as the type you wipe spectacles with.