Four Reasons Your Photos are Blurry, And How to Avoid Them

3. Subject Movement

This is what we usually think of when we think of “motion blur”. When your camera is not using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze action, moving objects in your picture will be blurry.

How Can You Tell?

When subject movement is the problem, only part of your image will be blurry. If you’re taking a photo of an athlete, for example, the fastest moving parts of the person (feet, hands, forearms, and lower legs) will be the most blurry, slower moving parts will be less blurry, and the ground or other stationary objects should be sharp (assuming that they are also in focus and there’s no camera shake).


How Do You Avoid It?

There are two ways to avoid motion blur: first, by using a sufficiently fast shutter speed, and second, by lighting your photo entirely with a flash (or multiple flashes) and using ANY shutter speed. Note that using a lens with image stabilization or a tripod does not help.

As a general rule, if you’re taking sports pictures, you’ll need to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second. This will stop most action, but the fastest moving parts of the subject may still be slightly blurry. A shutter speed of 1/1000th or faster is ideal, and will stop nearly anything.

For slower moving action, 1/250th is usually fine. It’s also enough for catching a “peak” action. “Peak” actions are found when, for example, a player is jumping up to catch a ball: there will be a moment when they’ve stopped rising and are beginning to fall, and during that “peak”, they’re stopped or moving very slowly. Many sports have this type of action at some point, and it can be useful to try to catch it when you’ve exhausted your options to get a faster shutter speed.

There are a couple of way to get your camera to use its fastest shutter speed. Most commonly, I set the camera to Aperture Priority (again, Av on Canon, A on Nikon), and open the aperture as wide as possible to let in lots of light. This will provide the fastest shutter speed possible while still giving a correct exposure. You can also use Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon, S on the Nikon dial) and set the shutter speed directly to the setting you need, but if the aperture can’t open wide enough, you may under-expose your images (or, if you use auto-ISO, you may end up with very noisy images).  Again, if you don’t have a firm understanding of how these changes affect your picture, I recommend watching my video (only 8 minutes long) about the Three Basics of Exposure.

Using a flash to stop action  is possible when the flash is the only light that is contributing to the exposure (ie, if it’s dark enough otherwise that if you took a picture with the same setting and no flash, the resulting picture would come out black or mostly black). If ambient light isn’t getting recorded, then it doesn’t matter how long the exposure is… the shutter is as good as closed, except while the flash goes off. This means that the duration of the flash becomes the effective shutter speed, and flashes are fast— usually between 1/1000th sec. and 1/128,000th sec. or faster. That’s bullet stopping speed. Flash can be very useful if you’re shooting night sports outdoors, or most sports indoors, if you have powerful (or multiple) flash units.

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  • Thanks for the tips on AF. I have been having some trouble getting images that are nicely focused and I know it’s not the equipment I’m using.

    • Hi Sally,

      Some of my cameras are capable of storing fine tuning settings for lenses, but I’ve never had a significant enough problem to have to mess with it. If you do notice that your focus is consistently off, though, and your camera allows micro adjustments, it’s certainly worth considering.  I find that it’s usually only a major issue with Macro photography (I don’t do much of it). With landscape photography (or other photography that allows you to use live-view focus, it is not a concern… it’s only an issue with the standard, through-the-viewfinder autofocus.

      – Matt

  • Amongst many of the new shooters I know, the reciprocal focal length guideline for shutter speed is virtually unknown. They are constantly wanting to shoot a candle flame or some other ridiculous thing across the dark room at 300mm to test their “high ISO”. Pushing boundaries is nice sometimes, but when did pushing technical boundaries start to supersede making good pictures? Hopefully some of these guys will read your article.

  • One thing to point out: Even if you are using Auto-ISO, the camera will usually let you set a limit for the highest it can go, so you can limit the ISO to 1600 (or whatever you like).

    Great article, btw.

    • Thanks Bill :) This is one of those articles for which I have lots and lots of example photos! I probably will add some additional examples, though (and make some minor changes to the text). I’ll have to see if I still have a copy of yours.

      – Matt

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