Overcoming Blurry Pet Photos Fixing Missed Focus and Unsharpness in Pet Photography
Frustrated with blurry pet photos that lack focus? You're not alone!
In this guide, I’ll help you identify the cause of your blurry photos and provide you with practical tips to ensure that your pet photos are in sharp focus.
Unsharpness in Pet Photography
As pet photographers, it can be challenging to consistently capture that perfectly sharp image. If you're here, you're probably familiar with the scenario of excitedly going through a session's photos, only to find out that your subject's eyes are disappointingly unsharp.
While blur and missed focus are not unique to pet photography, we do face certain challenges that even seasoned pet photographers may not be aware of.
In this guide, we'll cover the main causes of unsharp pet photos: motion blur and missed focus.
Unless you have a creative image in mind that deviates from this rule, you want focus to be on the eyes.
Focus on the eye nearest to you as the photographer. This will generally produce the most natural and aesthetically pleasing results.
Types of Unsharpness
First, it’s important to distinguish between the different types of unsharpness. To identify the cause of your blurry pet photos, start by asking yourself these two questions:
Is anything in focus?
Zoom in closely on your subject and check for sharpness. If your entire subject appears blurry, look for any other in-focus areas. If your composition includes the ground, make sure to check for sharpness and focus near the front legs.
How consistently does the issue occur?
Analyze multiple images and series. Try to determine the extent to which these focus issues occur consistently, or what conditions the blurry images have in common.
Typically, you'll encounter one of the following scenarios:
Nothing is in focus
Entire image appears blurry.
If your entire image is blurry, it's likely a case of motion blur caused by camera shake. The blur is caused by unsteady camera movements combined with a slow shutter speed.
Subject is blurry
Ground near front legs is sharp.
If it's just your subject that appears blurry or smeared, while the ground beneath is sharp, it's likely that your subject was more excited or animated than expected. Another case of motion blur.
Focus in front or behind subject
Eyes are blurry.
If the focal plane is either in front of or behind your intended focus point, it's a case of incorrect or missed focus. Check your other images for the same issue.
Now that we've identified the main types of unsharpness, let's look at how to fix or prevent them.
The blur from camera shake is caused by unsteady camera movements combined with a slow shutter speed. As a result, your entire image will show motion blur.
To prevent camera shake, it's important to increase your shutter speed to an appropriate level for pet photography. You might have heard of the rule that your shutter speed should be equal or double your focal length. Well, I'd suggest you raise it even further, for multiple reasons. Let me explain.
This rule of thumb originates from a time when cameras didn't produce the resolutions they do today. If you're anything like me, you probably like to zoom in on your images to ensure their sharpness. Well, the downside of these larger resolutions and the ability to zoom, is that any motion blur is a lot more apparent than it used to be. The small amount of force applied by pressing your shutter-release can sometimes be enough to introduce motion blur into your image.
My advice: Examine your images to see which shutter speeds and focal length you start seeing motion blur. Find your personal minimum shutter speeds for the focal lengths you use and stick to them.
Stabilize your camera
If you shoot from a low enough angle, rest your arms or even your camera on the ground. A bean bag can prove to be an inexpensive, but very helpful tool. Tripods never quite worked for the angles I shoot from; they restrict my movement and ability to react to a dog's movements. But if they work for you and the pets you photograph, then great!
A final tip: use your camera's burst mode and shoot in bursts of two or three images. If pressing the shutter release causes camera shake for the first image, odds are you'll have it restabilized by the second and third images.
Another important reason the old shutter speed rule doesn't apply; you're photographing animals, not statues! Most of your models won't stay perfectly still.
The best image stabilization in the world won't produce sharp images if your shutter speed isn't adjusted to the motion of the pet you're photographing. I'm not even referring to action shots here. Slight head movements can be enough to produce an unintended blur.
You'll have to decide for yourself what your desired level of sharpness is and adjust your shutter speed accordingly. Personally, I rarely shoot at shutter speeds lower than 1/500s when photographing dogs.
To understand what causes missed focus, it's important to first understand how focusing works and what the focal plane is.
The focal plane is the area in a photograph that is in sharp focus. Imagine it being a horizontal line perpendicular to the camera. For wide-angle lenses, that line is actually more of a curve. However, for the sake of this example, imagine the focal plane being a horizontal line. Anything on that line will be in focus. When your camera focuses, it's essentially measuring the distance from your camera to the focus point and shifts the focal plane accordingly.
It also means that your camera can never focus on multiple subjects simultaneously. They would have to be at the exact same distance from your camera to be in focus. A smaller aperture does create the illusion that a wider area is in focus. It adds sharpness to anything outside the focal plane by extending the depth of field. However, remember that only the focal plane can be in perfect focus, regardless of which focus mode is used.
Missing focus means that your camera either failed to measure that distance correctly, or it locked onto a different point than you had intended. As a result, the focal plane shifts to a distance that's either too close or too far away. We call this front or back focus. This will be especially apparent when using a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field.
Now there are a few reasons missed focus might occur.
Low Light Conditions
A lack of light can present a challenge for your camera's autofocus in natural light conditions. When the light is too dim, the camera's autofocus system might struggle to lock onto the subject. Focus might land in front or behind your subject instead, resulting in your subject being out-of-focus.
If you find your camera struggles in low light, try scheduling your sessions to be at a brighter time of day. Reevaluate the location in which you photograph, and see if you can find an area that allows for more light.
For example, shooting in the forest might sometimes require you to move closer to the treeline, where less light is blocked by the trees.
Another potential cause for unsharp photos may lie in your camera settings. In pet portrait photography, there are only two AF-Area modes I would urge you to use. Single-point autofocus or animal eye focus.
Other modes have a larger focus area, giving your camera the option to lock in on points you never intended to focus on. You'd be relying on your camera to guess where focus should be, hoping it chooses to focus on the eyes. This will no doubt result in a few images with your subject out of focus.
Note that I mention portrait photography. Action shots will likely require a different AF-Area mode, but that's a guide for another day.
Animal Eye Autofocus
If you own a mirrorless camera with an animal eye autofocus feature, make sure to take advantage of it. When it works, it works brilliantly. However, there might be situations in which it doesn't work perfectly. Personally I've seen it struggle with certain dog breeds or coat types, in which case I will resort to the single-point autofocus.
Apart from Animal Eye AF, the only AF-Area mode you should ever use for portraits is single-point autofocus. Unless you have a different type of image in mind, you focus on the subject's eye nearest to you.
Remember, your camera shifts its focal plane to focus. It can only focus on one point - one distance - at a time. There is no reason to extend your AF-Area beyond a single point.
Whether you use Single Servo Autofocus (AF-S / AI Servo) or Continuous Servo Autofocus (AF-C / Continuous Servo) is up to your own preference.
Single Servo Autofocus
Single Servo Autofocus is a focusing mode that allows the camera to focus on a subject once and hold that focus until the picture is taken. When you half-press the shutter button, the camera will set focus once and hold that focus until you fully press the button. This also allows you to focus and recompose.
Just be aware that your focal plane moves along with you when reframing. Moving your camera too much will result in your subject being out of focus.
Continuous Servo Autofocus
Continuous Servo Autofocus will continuously change focus in order to keep up with your subject. It refocuses on whatever area your focus point is on. However, this means your camera also refocuses if your subject moves or if you happen to slightly move the camera away from the eyes. This would also cause your subject to be out of focus.
The back button focusing method isn't necessarily its own focus mode, nor does it focus more accurately. Since the question does often come up, here's a brief explanation.
Back button focus is a technique that separates autofocus from your shutter release button and assigns that function to a button on the back of your camera. The advantage of this is that it allows you to set your camera to Continuous Servo Autofocus, yet you're still able to focus and recompose.
Your camera will continuously focus as long as the back button is pressed down. Once you release it, focus is locked. You're then able to reframe and take your shot without your camera refocusing as if it were set to Single Servo.
If your camera or lens suffers from front or back focus, it will have to be calibrated to correct focus. Focus can be adjusted with the AF Fine-Tune or AF Micro-adjustment option in your camera menu. Generally, mirrorless cameras don't suffer from this issue as much, although it's not impossible.
Testing for front or back focus can be done by setting your camera up on a tripod and using a calibration chart. By taking multiple test shots of the chart, you'll be able to determine whether your focus lands where it's supposed to. If your images are consistently front or back focused, you adjust the focus points accordingly, until it focuses accurately.
Personally, I like to calibrate using the dot-tune method. For an elaborate description, just Google the dot-tune method.
I'll give you a brief explanation. Your camera's viewfinder has focus indicators, consisting of arrows and a focus confirmation dot. These will typically show when your shutter release button is half pressed. This confirmation dot shows up when your camera has locked onto a focus point and achieved focus.
If the camera hasn't quite achieved focus, the dot will blink. If focus is too far off, the dot will disappear. You'll see an arrow indicating whether focus is in front or behind the current focal plane.
However, when your equipment suffers from front or back focus, the distance at which this confirmation dot appears, will be incorrect.
The dot-tune method utilizes Live View mode to help you calibrate. Focus in Live View doesn't use your camera's AF sensor. Instead, it's the image sensor that both focuses and takes the image, similar to mirrorless cameras. This means that focus in Live-View generally doesn't suffer from front or back focus issues. Hence, we can assume focus in Live View is correct.
The next step is to turn off autofocus on your camera or lens, switch from Live View back to Viewfinder mode and check whether the dot confirms focus. If the dot blinks or isn't visible, there is a front or back focus issue. The arrows can help you determine which adjustments your lens requires in order to focus correctly.
If you own a compatible Sigma lens, you can also use the Sigma USB dock to calibrate it. This tool allows you to make adjustments to the lens's autofocus system using your computer. You're able to adjust focus for different focus distances. If you notice your images being out of focus when you're at certain distances, you'll be able to correct these distances specifically. Compatible zoom lenses can also be calibrated at multiple focal lengths.
Similarly, if you have a Tamron lens, you can use the TAP-in console to calibrate focus and make other adjustments to the lens.
Nose Focus - The Pet Photographer's Nemesis
Remember the example mentioned at the start? This is such a common issue in pet photography, yet it's hardly ever discussed or taught. This happens a lot in compositions where the subject takes up a smaller portion of the frame and is facing the camera. My experience is mostly with dogs, but you'll see the issue with certain other animals as well.
Upon seeing this problem in your images, you might initially assume your lens is front focusing. However, this likely isn't the case. Considering the average snout length, that'd be some severe front focus.
What could possibly be causing it instead? You could've sworn the focus point was on the eyes!
The thing is, your focus points are actually rectangles. When that rectangle is positioned over an area, your camera still has to decide what to focus on exactly. The smaller your subject is in the frame, the higher the odds that your focus point overlaps both the eyes and nose. When this occurs, it will often choose to focus on that wet, shiny nose instead, since it's both closer and often shows more contrast due to its texture and the angle relative to the main light source.
The reason this is more of an issue in pet photography, compared to portraits of people, is that our noses generally don't stick out as far as our pets' snouts. Even if focus does land on a person's nose, the missed focus won't be as apparent as it would be on a pet, as focus is unlikely to land on the tip of one's nose.
Luckily, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent nose focus.
Intentionally position your focus point further away from the nose
Shift your focus point.
By deliberately avoiding the nose with your focus point, your camera will have to prioritize the eyes instead.
Increase your relative subject size
By reducing your focus distance or zooming in, you'll increase the relative size of your subject within the frame. This will also increase the relative size of the area separating the eyes and nose.
Have your model slightly turn its head to the side
By having a pet turn its head, you'll expose the side of the snout, the area separating the eyes and nose, thus making it easier to lock focus on the eyes.
Upgrade your Camera
If the focus points of your camera prove too small for the compositions you want to capture, you might want to consider an upgrade. A camera with more and smaller focus points will allow your focusing to be more precise.
Mirrorless cameras that effectively use Animal Eye Autofocus won't have this issue. Still, remember the other tips in case Animal Eye AF fails.
If neither motion blur nor missed focus explain your focus issues, it's probably time to test whether your camera or lens is the culprit. Problems could range from sensor issues to a dirty lens. If possible, test with multiple lenses to determine whether your camera or lens needs servicing.
Hopefully this guide has helped you understand and recognize the different focus issues you may face as a pet photographer.
If you still struggle with blurry images and could use another pair of eyes to assist in recognizing your specific focus issues, feel free to join our community. We'd be happy to have a look!
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