This piece of content is a part of the free e-book Photography for Beginners (E-book with Videos): The Easiest Way to Learn DSLR Photography From the Comfort of Your Home. To see all the contents in this e-book, click here.

11. Soft Image Problems

Now that we are done with the basics of shooting in manual mode, it’s time to move on to some basic problems that come while shooting. One of these problems is that of a soft image.

What is a Soft Image?

A soft image refers to an image that is not sharp and crisp, like the shot below:

You can see that the bird doesn’t look sharp at all.

The opposite of a soft image is a sharp shot. Look at the shot below:

This time you can see the bird is tack sharp.

Of course the second image looks better to the eye because it is crisp and sharp.

A soft image is something that is obviously to be avoided. However, it’s easier said than done.

And that is because sometimes the photographer is not aware as to why an image is coming up soft.

So in this section, we’ll discuss the different factors that can cause an image to become soft.

Causes of Soft Images

Aperture

First, let’s see how aperture can cause an image to be soft.

We know that the main use of aperture is to decrease or increase depth of field.

Aperture can result is soft images when we are dealing which shallow depth of fields when we use a small f-stop number.

Let’s see how this can happen. Look at the image below:

Here you can see that the bird appears very soft. But if you look at the wild plants in the background, they have come out sharp.

This has happened because I have mis-focused this shot. My intended focus was the bird, but accidently, I have focused on the background.

Because I am using a small f-stop number, the area of focus or depth of field has formed around the background, since that’s where the focus locked.

Because of this, the bird is out of the area of focus and has come out soft.

So using a wide aperture or a small f-stop can result in soft shots when there is a case of misfocusing because the main subject will be out of the focus cage.

Apart from misfocusing, it can also happen that the point where you focused was correct but still the shot came out soft. How? Because the shot demanded a large f-stop number or a deeper depth of field, and you used a small f-stop number. To understand this, look at the image below:

This is a group shot that we take after every photography workshop that I conduct here in Pune.

You can see that starting from me in the front, there are at least four rows behind.

This shot is always a ‘selfie’, so I adjust the settings, then join the group and then use a wireless remote or a 10 second timer to take the shot.

When I’m adjusting the settings, I lock focus roughly on one of the people in the centre. So let’s assume in this case, I locked focus on the gentleman directly behind me in the dark t-shirt.

So the area of focus will develop around him. Since there are people behind him and ahead of him (when I join in), I cannot use a small f-stop number like f2.8 or f3.5. Because that can cause the last row and the front row to be blurred because the area of focus will be very small.

So whenever there are a 3-4 rows, I’ll always use something above f8 so that the depth of field is deep enough to cover everybody.

Shooting such a shot a very small f-stop can result in some parts of the image being soft since they will be out of focus.

Shutter Speed

Though aperture does cause soft images, it is still not the main reason why people get soft shots.

Majority of the shots which come out soft are because of problems related to shutter speed.

For instance, let’s look at the shot of the bird we just saw:

Now let’s try to figure out what went wrong here.

First, let’s assume that the bird was moving its body a bit.

If it was moving its body, what can be the cause of this blurriness?

If you answered – a slow shutter speed, then you’re correct!

You know that when the subject is moving, we should use a high enough shutter speed.

Let’s say that the shutter speed in this case was 1 second.

Such a shutter speed will be too slow for a moving subject. Hence, if the bird was moving and shaking, it will result in blurring the bird, just like you see in the shot above.

But let’s assume that the bird was not moving and that it was absolutely still.

Then can you get such a soft looking shot?

Yes, you can!

Because even if the bird was not moving, 1 second is too long for your own hand movement.

We have already learned that we should not go below a shutter speed of 1/40 when we are shooting handheld.

So even if the bird was not moving, a slower shutter speed can make the image look blurry because our camera moved.

And this is what many beginner photographers fail to understand.

Because they always associate shutter speed with only the subject and not their own movement, they assume that shutter speed does not matter if the subject is not moving.

But now you know that it does matter, because it also counters your own hand movement while taking the shot.

In fact if you are using medium sized and bigger sized lenses (called telephoto lenses), sometimes even 1/30 and 1/40 is not enough to stabilize the shake. This is because these lenses produce more of a shake, which needs even a higher shutter speed to counter the shake.

For instance, if you are using a 70-300mm lens and you are zoomed in all the way to 300mm, you may find that at a shutter speed of 1/40, your shot is not coming sharp enough even when the subject was not moving.

So you’ll need to use a higher shutter speed than 1/40, like maybe 1/100 or even higher and then try the same shot.

There is even a rule for this, which is referred to as the RECIPROCAL RULE, which states that the minimum shutter speed that you use at any given moment to counter your own shake should be 1/focal length that you are using. So if you are shooting at 300mm, it should be 1/300.

But that’s something you should just keep in your mind for understanding purpose and not really deliberately follow because it can make things very mechanical.

These days all lenses come with stabilisation mechanisms, which reduce the effects of a camera shake, so you don’t have to really stick to the reciprocal rule.

In Nikon, this mechanism is referred to as VR (Vibration Reduction) and in Canon, it’s called IS (Image Stabilization). Other brands have similar names, like Shake Reduction or Vibration Compensation. But they all mean the same thing.

When you are shooting handheld, you should always switch on these stabilization mechanisms as shown in the images below for Canon and Nikon cameras respectively:

When the stabilisation mechanism is switched on, it will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds, which will in turn enable you to use a lesser ISO.

For instance, going by the example above, if you were shooting zoomed in at 300mm, according to reciprocal rule, you should be using a shutter speed of 1/300.

But if the stabilisation mechanism is on, it will help you to cancel out a lot of the shake, thereby allowing you to break the reciprocal rule and shoot at shutter speeds lower than 1/300, like let’s say at 1/100.

Can you imagine how much light you can save by going from 1/300 to 1/100. All that saved light can help you in using a lesser ISO, which will help you in achieving a cleaner looking shot.

To summarize all this, it can be said that you should do the following things:

  • Keep the stabilisation mechanism ON when shooting handheld.
  • When using lenses that allow you to zoom more than 100mm, you will have to increase the shutter speed more than 1/40 because at higher focal lengths, the camera shake is more evident. Similarly, if you find a lens to be slightly heavy for you, you may have to increase the shutter speed to counter the shake that you will experience.

 

Next Chapter: Colour Balance and Monochrome Filter