Don’t Blame the Lens  – Anyone who is seriously in to wildlife photography is going to own at least one long lens, a 400mm, 500mm, 600mm or longer.  And all too often this lens is mounted on a sub-standard tripod and the owner of this new beauty who has never shot with a long lens until this moment is unaware that there are a host of things that they need to be aware of in order to avoid blurry images.  And so after a great day of shooting grizzly bear cubs my friend,  whom we will call Fred, returns home from his Alaskan adventure only to discover that he has captured hundreds of blurry images.  Fred immediately concludes that it must be the lens, it’s not sharp so he calls his local camera shop where he bought the lens to complain.

Fred is not going to like the response he receives from his dealer which will undoubtedly make reference to one or more of the many issues that can cause blurry images when shooting with longer lenses.  Thus the blame falls squarely back on user error and 99.5% of the time it is true even though it will take Fred a few hours of research and conclude for himself that what he has been told is true.  On very rare occasion you may get a bad copy of a lens however that needs to be looked in to after you’ve accounted for all of the factors listed below.

I can tell you from experience that long lenses are not nearly as forgiving as your shorter lenses, especially when paired with a high megapixel body which is commonplace now a days.  Motion at the end of long lenses is the main contributor to blurry images and there are several reasons that motion may occur and be prevented.  Fred researches “Why Are My Images Blurry” and lands on this page where he finds a comprehensive list of all of things he should have been aware of before he headed off to Alaska on his dream trip of a lifetime.

Blurry Images Tip #1: Long Lens Technique- Take note of the image above of me shooting with my 600mm lens.  I am placing my hand and arm along the top of the lens to reduce the amount of vibration that will travel down the lens.  Next you will notice that I have my eye socket/forehead pressed against the back of the camera. which further aids in dampening any vibration.  I’ve always found the stock eye pieces on cameras are uncomfortable so the first thing that I do when I purchase a new camera is replace the eye piece with a Hoodman Eye Cup.  They make using this technique so much more comfortable.  Do not jab at the shutter button, use a slow rolling motion with your finger and finally taking a burst will help you to get sharper images as the first one or two are when the most vibration is introduced as a result of you pressing down on the shutter. 

Blurry Images Tip #2: Wind – Most of the time you’ll be shooting that long lens from a tripod and those long lenses can act like a sail in the wind.  If you find yourself shooting in windy conditions consider the following:

  • Take off your lens hood – This minimizes the surface area of your lens and hence the motion created by the wind.  The verdict is still out on whether hanging a bag or back pack under the tripod makes a difference, some say yes and others say no.  I’ve personally not done this myself.
  • Lose the center column – One thing that is definite is that you should never use your center column in the wind.  Remember the goal for sharp images with a long lens is to minimize motion as much as possible and sticking your big lens on top of a single pole that is a foot in the air is a bad idea.  I would argue even further that wind or not, do not buy a tripod for a long lens that has a center column, it will never be as stable as one without.  You’re better to get a good tripod with longer legs,
  • Get down as low as possible – If your subject permits it take your tripod down as low as possible.  The best tripods today will let you ago almost flat to the ground, this will really help your cause on a windy day.  Not to mention for a lot of wildlife, shooting at eye level is the preferred vantage point anyway so get down and dirty for sharper images and winning shots.
  • Take more bursts –   If you normally take one image of a static animal take 5-6 when it is windy. Wind can be gusty, and you have no way of knowing when your image will be sharp or blurry in the wind so your best bet is to capture additional frames to increase the odds of getting a sharp image.

Below is a sample image from Fred’s 600mm lens of two grizzly cubs in Alaska that would have been a great image if it weren’t so darn soft.

Grizzly Bear Cubs Blurry

 

Blurry Images Tip #3: A Stable Platform – A good tripod is just as important as that $15,000 lens you saved up for so DO NOT cheap out in this department.  My recommendation is to get a good quality carbon fiber tripod with sturdy heavy gauge legs to carry the load.  I’d suggest you look at the Jobu-Design Algonquin or the Gitzo 5 series.  And per my earlier suggestion look for one without a center column.

Jobu-Design Algonquin TCF-36

Blurry Images Tip #4: Loosen Off The Tripod Head – I prefer to shoot from a gimbal head as it balances that heavy lens effortlessly.  I reviewed the Jobu Pro2 Gimbal Head in a video on my You-Tube channel.  If you are not familiar with gimbal heads check out that video to become familiar with the advantages it will bring to your long lens shooting.  All gimbal heads have two knobs which you tighten for transport so your lens does not move around while you’re walking about.  They are intended to be loosened for permitting you to pan horizontally or up and down when shooting.   Loosen off the knobs enough so as not to be firm but not so loose things swing when unwanted. Shooting with the knobs tightened introduces unwanted vibration through the lens which as you guessed it creates blurry images so keep this tip in mind when out in the field.

Jobu-Design HD4 Gimbal Head

Blurry Images Tip #5: Increase Your Shutter Speed – If the light permits maintain as high a shutter speed as you can, something like 1/1000th unless you are intentionally looking to create motion blur for an artistic look.  This may require you to raise your ISO and I encourage you to run tests with your camera so you know where the quality of the picture gets so noisy that it’s just not worth shooting.  Having said that you can really push the limits of ISO given tools like Topaz Labs Denoise AI let you remove a lot of that noise in post editing.

Be sure to read my full review on Topaz Denoise AI, so you can see for yourself how image noise can be reduced or eliminated from your images.  Remember, you are better off to have a sharp image at ISO 3200 at 1/500th second than a blurry image at ISO 100 and 1/15th. The blur created from camera shake is much worse and less recoverable in post than the noise introduced from higher ISO’s so it’s definitely worth pumping up the ISO when needed.

What Does Changing Shutter Speed Do?

 

Blurry Images Tip #6 Pay Attention to Your Depth of Field – One of the advantages of these expensive long lenses is that many of them shoot at f/2.8 or f/4 which means they let in a lot of light compared to f/5.6 or f/6.3 lenses.  This allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds without increasing your ISO.  They also provide that soft, dreamy bokeh background that really sets the subject apart from the surrounding landscape.  However, you need to be aware that racking out that lens to f/2.8 (large Aperture) makes for a very shallow depth of field and that means that your margin for error is significantly reduced.  

 

Depth of Field Demo

 

At f/2.8 you might find that the nose and eyes of the squirrel are in focus but the body and the tail are not but at f/8 (smaller aperture) the same image would have everything in focus.  If it is a static subject you are shooting I recommend you vary your shooting, take some images at f/2,8, some at f/4, f/5.6, f/6.3, etc. so you have a mix of images to review when you get home.  As you study those images in post you will quickly learn which f/stop yields the best results with what subjects.  If you are shooting a bird in flight I almost always shoot at f/8 to make sure the eye and the wings of the bird are in focus.  If I am shooting two subjects interacting like two bear cubs I will shoot at f/11 or f/13 to try and keep both pairs of eyes in focus.

 

Maynard Loon Chicks

 

By paying attention to tips one through five you have a much better chance of coming away with a sharp image and not ending up disappointed like our friend Fred.

However the lesson is not over yet, there are five additional tips for taking care of blurry images that I want you to pay close attention to.

Blurry Images Tip #7: Image Stabilization – Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction (VR) and Canon calls it Image Stabilization (IS) and it can either be in the camera known as In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) or in the lens.  I’m going to speak to the lens image stabilization to help you understand it and when to apply it in your shooting. Depending on your camera model image stabilization within the lens allows you to capture sharp pictures at shutter speeds 3X, 4X, 5X slower than you could have otherwise done without it.  There has been a long standing theory on capturing sharp, handheld imagery and that is that you shouldn’t handhold a camera at shutter speeds slower than the equivalent focal length of the lens. This means a 400mm lens shouldn’t be handheld at speeds slower than 1/400-second.  But that theory goes out the window when image stabilization gets added into the mix.  With image stabilization turned on you I can capture sharp images of still objects with my 600mm lens at speeds down to 1/60-second, 

It’s a great piece of technology but you need to understand what it is doing to make effective use of the technology.  It would be quite logical to think that if image stabilization gives you sharper pictures at 4x slower shutter speeds why not leave it on all the time but that logic is flawed and here’s why.  Image stabilization only allows you to capture sharp images of STATIC SUBJECTS at slower speeds. Note that I said static subjects, moving objects such as birds in flight will equally blurry whether image stabilization was on or off and in some cases worse. 

 

 

Nikon Image Stabilization

 

Image Stabilization Use On A Tripod: My recommendation is that you read the manual that came with your lens as there are differences in image stabilization between lenses.  A tripod is generally believed to prevent image blur, but camera shake can occur due to the movements of the quick-return mirror or shutter curtain, or high winds which we discussed earlier. This camera shake movement has different characteristics compared to normal camera shake caused by handheld shooting. Nikon’s VR technology on some lenses makes it possible to detect (Tripod detection) and compensate for this type of camera shake, but not all Nikon lenses have this feature.

If your lens does not have a specific tripod detection feature such as those listed below for Nikon lenses then I recommend you turn off image stabilization when you are tripod mounted and here’s why.  When there’s not enough motion for the image stabilization system to detect, the result can sometimes be a sort of electronic ‘feedback loop,’ somewhat analogous to the ringing noise of an audio feedback loop we’re all familiar with. As a result, the VR lens group might move while the lens is on a tripod and that can introduce vibration and result in blurry photo’s.

Nikon’s VR System offers Normal mode and Active or Sport mode, original technologies to help you cover various shooting situations. In Normal mode, slow and wide camera movement is regarded as recomposing movement and VR operation is controlled accordingly. In Active or sport mode, however, even large amounts of camera movement are compensated for to give a smooth viewfinder image. This mode is quite useful when shooting from a moving vehicle or some other unstable position.  Below are a list of the Nikon lenses at the time of this writing that support image stabilization from a tripod.

Nikon VR Tripod Detection Lenses

One more thing to keep in mind regarding image stabilization is that it eats up battery power fast, especially with the larger prime lenses so if you don’t need it turn it off.  And if your shooting video you will hear the VR movement in your sound byte so turn it off in this scenario as well.

All said and done, image stabilization when used hand holding in low light allows you to capture sharp images that would otherwise not be possible.  So if you want to reduce the number of blurry images you come back with after a shoot, I highly recommend you spend the extra dollars on a lens that has image stabilization, especially if you shoot in low light.

Blurry Images Tip #8: Heat Waves – Another reason that contributes to blurry images are heat waves.  If there is a heat source with a higher temperature relative to the outside temperature between you and your subject the heat wave impact will cause your images to blurry.  The longer the distance between you and your subject, the more impact those heat waves will have.  Heat waves are usually caused by the sun creating a heat source but not always.  Here’s a great use case for wildlife photographers to consider, I see this quite often. 

You’re driving along one beautiful winter day when you spot a deer in a meadow, you pull over, stop your engine, hop out of your car and because your in a rush you use the hood of your car as a stable platform from which to shoot.  You capture your images and move along down the road.  When you get home you notice you have a memory card full of blurry images.  The most likely reason is that the engine of your car was hotter than the ambient temperature and as such there were heat waves radiating from it between you and the deer.  As a best practice do not use your car hood as a platform for shooting, even if the engine is cold the sun’s energy will be absorbed by the hood and create heat waves.  Quite often these heat waves are visible to the naked eye, especially over top of dark coloured objects like asphalt.

Heat Waves

 

What can you do about this problem? Heat waves are an image quality factor that you often times have very little control over, other than cases like my car hood example.  Better cameras and sharper lenses are not going to help in this situation. The good news for wildlife photographers is that we most often shoot at dusk and dawn when the sun has less of an impact for creating heat waves.  However if you are shooting when heat waves are an issue all you can hope to do is find a different location, shoot at a different time of day or choose a cloudy day to minimize the problem. In the end if you choose to shoot through the heat waves, move as close as possible to your subject, the less air that light passes through, the less likely that heat waves will cause your images to be blurry.

Blurry Images Tip #9: Shooting From A Vehicle – I often find myself shooting out of my car window and I do so because the vehicle serves as a blind of sorts.  Many animals and birds are very skittish and as soon as you open your car door they vanish.  Even pulling over and rolling down the window can be enough to send some birds flying and critters running.  If I am lucky enough to pull over and the subject stays put I will already have had my window rolled down and bean bag placed on the window frame with my camera in my lap. 

The biggest cause of blurry images when shooting from a vehicle is created by vibration from your engine, most folks rest their big lens on the window frame as a support which is fine however if your engine is still running the vibration from your engine will travel through the window frame and in to your lens which is another reason your images are not sharp so it is a best practice to turn off your engine. In addition to turning the engine off, I have found a bean bag to be the best choice for support when shooting from my vehicle, it really does an excellent job of dampening the vibration. I had a hand in the design of the Apex Bean Bag shown below, it can be used without the plate and mount just as easily.  

Photography Bean Bags

Blurry Images Tip #10: Lens Calibration – We are now getting down in to the fine tuning aspects of things and this tip is one that many photographers don’t know about.  Most assume that when they buy a lens the auto focus is going to be accurate.  This is rarely the case whether that lens is used or new out of the box, The chance of getting a perfect lens from the manufacture is low and this is why I strongly urge you to have your lenses calibrated. 

You can whether it needs to be calibrated by zooming in on an image where you know exactly where the focus point was and if you notice consistently that the image is sharper behind or in front of your focus point then your lens needs to be calibrated. This phenomena is called front or back focusing depending on where the picture is sharpest.  I personally calibrate each lens regardless just to make sure things are spot on.

Worth noting, you must perform this calibration for every camera body and lens combination including tele-converters. 

Reikan Focal Lens Calibration

How To Calibrate Your Lens: There are a three ways to perform lens calibrations as follows:

  1. Some camera manufacturers include a fine tuning option from within the camera menu system.  I have personally not found this to be the best choice, accuracy is all over the map.
  2. You can purchase any number of off the shelf software solutions. I have used Reikan Focal Pro myself but you’ll find a number of other options through a quick Google search.  I am hesitant to recommend any others that I have not tried myself but I will tell you that Reikan Focal Pro does a great job.  If you do plan to do this yourself you’ll need a laptop that you can hook up to your camera body so you have access to the software.  And if you are calibrating a longer prime lens you need an area of 40 – 50 feet plus depending on the length of the lens where the light does not change during your test and there are no heat waves or wind.  Oh ya, depending on how many lenses, camera bodies and tele-converters you wish to calibrate this is going to take hours not minutes.
  3. For those reasons I now prefer to outsource the job to a professional for the long lenses that I shoot with 95% of the time.  I have that done this for both camera bodies and the 1.4 tele-converter that I use most often. Most professional calibrators charge per calibration  Thus if I had two camera bodies, one lens and one tele-converter that would be four calibrations.

I’m going to leave it at that for now as the subject of lens calibration is an article in itself.

Blurry Images Tip #11: UV Filters – I see this tragedy happening all the time in the field.  People buy an expensive lens and then screw a $25 UV filter on the front of it to protect the front element.  Just think about that for a moment.  I needn’t say more on this subject, other than don’t do, it’s another variable that can be the cause for blurry images.  If I can’t convince you not to do it, at the very least go for brand names like B+W or Hoya. 

B+W UV Filter

Blurry Images Tip #12: Killer Tip. Sharpen Images In Post – Even after following all of the above tips I always add a little sharpening to my images in the edit phase.  I have tested many sharpening tools but hands down the best one is Topaz Labs Sharpen AI.  If you don’t own a copy I highly recommend you read my full blog review which includes images that were blurry and by running them through Topaz Sharpen AI I was able to bring them back in to focus. 

Topaz claims their Sharpen AI software allows you to bring back focus to a blurry image by as much as 10 pixels.  I have tried it and it really does work, I show you an example of that in my blog post for Sharpen AI.  Topaz has also added selective adjustments to the software so you can now sharpen only the parts of the image that need to be sharpened.  That same blog post contains a step by step video where I walk you through how I sharpened a bald eagles eye.  

Below are the Topaz Labs products that I suggest every photographer have in their kit.  You can purchase them separately or as a bundle.  The bundle is the most cost efficient way to purchase as you will find in time that you want them all.  I have reviewed the Topaz Labs Utility bundle and if you decide to make a purchase of any Topaz Labs product you can use coupon code coolwildlife15 to get a 15% discount.

Topaz Utility Bundle AI