The truth is that there are all sorts of reasons why your photos end up looking blurry. Or maybe they’re not outright blurry, but they don’t have that razor sharpness that you thought they should. How many times have you reviewed a photo you just took on your camera’s rear LCD, telling yourself that you nailed focus only to realize that it’s actually a bit soft when zooming in on it while at your larger computer screen? Don’t worry… we’ve all been there. Trust me.
 
Without exaggerating, I could spend hours coming up with an exhaustive list of why some of your photos end up lacking that crisp sharpness we all strive for. To keep things focused (get it?), I’m going to highlight three of the most common reasons why your photos are blurry by using my own experiences with missing critical focus. They are:
  1. Using a wider aperture than needed.
  2. Not using a fast enough shutter speed.
  3. Camera stability issues, even when using a tripod.
I’ll provide examples for each of these three reasons, as well as include video tutorials showing you how I use Sharpen AI to recover sharp focus even with blurry photos. Sound good? Great! Let’s get started.

1. Using a wider aperture than needed.

If you’re like me, when you buy a shiny new lens with a max wide aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time at that widest end of the spectrum. After all, who doesn’t love that shallow depth of field with that smooth bokeh? However, the risk you run into when shooting at such wide apertures is that you can quite easily miss critical sharpness because of how narrow your plane of focus is.
 
For example, let’s say you’re photographing a person at f/1.8 and their head is slightly turned towards you. Because your plane of focus is so narrow at f/1.8, when you review your photo, you may see that the portion of the face that’s closer to the camera is in focus while the area just behind is lacking sharpness. The image below effectively illustrates what I mean.
When using a wide aperture, you can easily miss focus from a narrow plane of focus.
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever photograph at very wide aperture values. In some cases, being able to open up to f/1.8 or wider is a benefit. Specifically, I’m thinking about astral photography. The more light you can let in, the less likely you’ll introduce minute star trail motion. In fact, in the image below, I wish I could have opened up my lens wider than f/2.8.
Cedar Breaks under a starry sky
Fortunately, we have a solution to help you recover that critical sharpness even if you used a wider aperture than would be ideal. In this video, I’ll walk you through how I use Sharpen AI to recover the details of a photo that were rendered soft because I used too wide of an aperture.

One of the most common culprits at least with my photography that results in a lack of critical sharpness has to do with the aperture that I use with my lens. And a lot of times when I have a lens that’s capable of opening up to say f/1.8 or 1.4, I’ll usually set it to that because I love the shallowness that you get in the depth of field when you’re using such a wide aperture. The problem with that is it’s very easy to miss focus. So let’s look at the info here. You can see that for this photo, this was taken at f/1.8 and I used the Sony 55mm 1.8 lens on the old school Sony A7 camera. I took this photo back in 2014. I was in Tokyo and I went into a ramen house and I just loved the way all the steam was coming up while the chef was preparing my ramen. But here’s the thing. Because I shot it at a f/1.8, let’s zoom in on his face and you can see while there is detail, we missed critical sharpness, right? The eyes just aren’t very sharp and there’s a lot of kind of artifacting going on, and that is because of that aperture, that f/1.8 aperture. And again, let’s look at the shutter speed here. It was 1/60 of a second which arguably is not ideal either. Really you’d wanna be at 1/125 or 1/250 of a second to really snap the shutter exposure, but I was at 1/60 even at ISO 800. And so despite that at f/1.8, you can see that it’s kind of soft. Now let me just show you really quickly, I’ll go into develop over here. This is the original photo, so this was straight out of camera and all I did was edit it just really quickly. I recomposed it, cropped it, and gave it a little bit more contrast, and got rid of some of that color cast from the interior of the ramen house. And what I wanna do is sharpen it and let me quickly show you some of the ways that I use to sharpen and I’ve seen other people sharpen using Lightroom. So let’s go ahead here. Let’s zoom in again on our ramen chef. And one of the things I’ve seen people do is try to use Texture and Clarity and you can see what happens with Clarity. You are getting a little bit more of that edge detail. It doesn’t look any sharper, but it definitely looks noisier. And so that’s not good. Same thing with Texture. We don’t wanna really add texture to skin. That never works very well. And obviously there is Sharpening. Now in a pinch, the Sharpening utility in Lightroom is not bad but it falls apart pretty quickly, watch. I’m gonna bring this up. You can start to see how this image gets really crispy and we’re not really getting much detail. There’s not much information here that’s being recovered. So I’m not a big fan of using the Sharpening in Lightroom. Again, in a pinch it could work. But for the purposes here, I think Sharpen AI is gonna give us a much better result. So what I’m gonna do is right click. We’ll go to Edit In and then I’m gonna go to Topaz Sharpen AI. I’m just gonna work on a JPEG for the purposes of this video here and I’ll just keep the resolution at 72 ’cause we really don’t need any larger. I’m not planning on printing this or anything like that. So with that done, I’m gonna click Edit to move over to Sharpen AI. All right, so now that we’re in Sharpen AI, the first thing I like to do is change my view. You’ll see me do this in just about any video that I record for Sharpen AI or DeNoise AI. So changing the view, I love the Comparison View because it’ll show me multiple AI models at once. So what I’ll do here is zoom to 100% and just put our focus on the face over here. And now I can see these three different AI models at once and just kind of scanning between the three. I like this Out of Focus one the most. Typically what I’ll do is when I select the model, you’ll notice that there are some modes below it and I’ll just click on these to see how they look. And so I’ll start with Normal and Normal doesn’t look good. There’s a lot of extra crispness. Very Noisy is what we had and that looked good, and then I’ll check Very Blurry. And between the two, I think I like Very Noisy more. I’ll also go to Too Soft just to see what that does. So let’s click on Normal here and then Very Blurry. And yeah, I still prefer the Out of Focus here, but what I’m gonna do is drop down that Suppress Noise a little bit more. And with this model selected, I’m gonna change my view to Side by Side View. You can see that we’ve gotten more detail. We’ve also minimize some of that noise because I was shooting at ISO 800 and so it just looks a lot cleaner too. Then the last thing that I’m gonna do before returning back to the Lightroom is change my zoom to fit so I can see the entire image. And let’s also change the view to Single View. So if I press and hold here, you can see the original and the version that was processed with Sharpen AI. There was also another little benefit that I noticed. Let me zoom in over here to 100% and just go on his shirt. Actually I’ll zoom to 200%. So this is also a little kind of benefit with using Sharpen AI is that you see if we toggle, notice how the text was kind of soft as well and it definitely sharpened up a bit. It’s little things like that that I think add up and improve the overall quality of the photo. So with that, I’m gonna click Apply to return back to Lightroom. And now that we’re in Lightroom, I put the original photo over here and the edited photo on the right and we can kind of zoom in and see the differences. Just the overall improvements in detail that was restored while also kind of minimizing some of that noise. And again, we really just brought out more of the detail over here in the face. Also here in the logo on his shirt. Even details here in the check, you can actually make some of the characters out on the order receipt which is kind of cool. And so to recap, one of the most common issues at least with my photography that results in just a lack of critical sharpness has to do with using not an ideal aperture. Just because the lens can open to 1.4 or 1.8 doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. In some cases, you have to when you’re photographing at night with stars and stuff and you really just need to let as much light in as possible, I get that. But if you can get away with closing your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4, or even f/5.6, you’ll probably have less issues related to soft focus. But as you can see here even though I shot at f/1.8, I was able to use Sharpen AI to recover that detail and bring back a sharpness to the photo.

2. Not using a fast enough shutter speed.

It’s not unreasonable to say that the shutter speed you choose is one of the most critical settings for your composition. Not only does it define how much light you’ll allow to hit your camera sensor, it also can materially impact the overall qualities of your subject. For example, let’s say you want to photograph a person as they’re turning and you want to capture just a bit of motion as their hair whips around.

Choosing the right shutter speed in this example is delicate because you have to balance capturing motion in the hair while also getting the face to be sharp. And if you’re handholding your camera while taking the photo, you have to factor in being extra steady so as to not introduce camera shake. This isn’t as big of a deal when your shutter speed is 1/250 sec or faster. However, when you’re hovering between 1/20 – 1/100 sec., this can be a real concern as illustrated in the following photo.

In my experience, when I’m handholding my camera and I really need nail the focus, I’ll sacrifice the amount of light I can let in and drop my shutter speed to 1/250 sec. or faster. I do this because I know that, in most cases, I can easily recover shadows and highlights in post thanks to the uncompressed nature of my camera’s RAW files.

However, if you already have photos that are soft because you didn’t use a fast enough shutter speed, you should definitely try Sharpen AI. In this next video, I’ll walk you through how I use Sharpen AI to recover sharpness from a handheld shot I took at 1/50th sec. It’s pretty sweet.

One of the reasons why some of my photos miss critical focus, has to do with a combination of issues. The first is that I’m hand-holding my camera when I ideally should be using a tripod, but that’s not always ideal or possible or feasible. But the issue that comes with handholding also has to do with not using an ideal shutter speed or shutter speed that’s really fast enough. So let’s take a look at this photo specifically. I’ll bring up the info here and you can see that I took this with the Sony A7R II, and the Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8. And as is mostly the case when I’m photographing, I usually will open my lens aperture as wide as possible, especially when I’m doing street photography. And even though I bumped up my ISO to 1250, I still had my shutter speed at 150th of a second, which arguably is a bit too slow. You really do want to kind of push it to 1/125th, 1/250th or even faster if you can. And so let’s zoom in here and you can see that we just missed focus. Like even though I was focusing on this bread maker, he’s not sharp as you can see. And if we go to develop, let’s go ahead here. I’m going to show you the original photo without any edits. And so even at 1/50th of a second, the reason why I had it at that shutter speed was I was trying to let in as much light as possible because he really was in this dark area over here. So it was hard to expose for him. And this was what I was able to do with some minor editing. You can see here that we have no sharpening applied, nor do we have any clarity or texture. This is just color and tone correction. Despite that again, I was handholding. This was in a very, very narrow corridor in Morocco. And even though I had my focus on the bread maker, as you can see, it’s just not there. Same thing with the surrounding area on the plane of focus that he’s on. You can see that we just kinda missed some of that focus. And so before we use Sharpen AI, let’s take a look at how Lightroom can sharpen this photo. So let’s zoom in on our bread maker over here, we can try clarity and you can see clarity just starts to break the photo apart really quickly. Same thing with texture, just doesn’t look very good. We’re not actually getting more detail restored. In fact, we’re just getting more noise and artifacts and then also a sharpening if we kind of start adding that, it doesn’t look like it’s getting any sharper. All I’m seeing are these weird crispy artifacts. So let’s bring that to zero here. We’ll zoom out and then we’ll send this photo to Sharpen AI just by right clicking, go into edit in and then select in Topaz Sharpen AI. As for the file format, let’s just stick with JPEG and we’ll go to 72 PPI for resolution. Now let’s click edit to start working. Now that we’re in Sharpen AI, the very first thing I do, whenever I start working on a photo, is change my view to comparison view, because I want to see a three up view here of the three different AI models that are being processed on the image. The other thing I’m also going to do is change my zoom to 100. Actually let’s go to 200 here and put the focus box on the Bread maker’s head. So what I’m going to do here is I think motion blur might give us good results. We have motion blur normal selected here and right off the bat, I don’t like the results here, but let’s see what very noisy does. That does actually a really nice job of restoring some of that detail while getting rid of the noise around the face. We can still try very blurry just to be sure, that does a pretty good job too, but I think I like, I actually like very blurry more. What I’m going to do here is reduce the suppress noise slider a bit and increase the remove blur slider. Then let’s go ahead here, let’s change our view to a side-by-side view and you can just see all that detail in the shirt. The graphic on the shirt looks great. Let’s also check out some of this area here that I noticed earlier, that detail has been brought out around this frame over here and the detail on the rock. And then the last thing I’m going to do is zoom to fit and then change my view to the single view. And now if I click and hold, I can see the original and you can see how soft everything is, especially when you see the sharpen results. Everything just looks like it snaps into place. It’s a pretty cool effect, just toggling original and then the Sharpen AI version. And so with that, I’m going to click apply to return back to Adobe Lightroom. And so here we are in Lightroom and you can see this is the original photo. This is the edited photo using Sharpen AI. And we have some really nice detail that was restored in our bread maker as well as all of the other areas that have natural detail like this wall here, this stone wall, obviously has texture that we were able to restore. And it’s just fun, kind of zooming in and seeing all of the detail that is restored, that otherwise would have been lost with the original photo. And so to recap, one of the more common issues that I have with getting critical focus, has to do with one, hand holding my camera, as opposed to using a tripod, which would give me a lot more stability, but I understand that that is not always feasible. And then two, not using an ideal shutter speed that’s fast enough. Again, this was 1/50th of a second, which if this were a more ideal situation, I probably would have used 1/250th of a second. I also would have probably not used a wide open aperture of f/2.8 I might’ve tried for an f/4 or an f/5.6, which would have probably helped by not having such a shallow depth of field. Despite that I was able to use Sharpen AI to recover all those details and get a really great photo that I’m excited to share.

3. Camera stability issues, even when using a tripod.

I don’t want to admit just how much money I’ve invested in tripods over the years. But, I also believe that next to your camera and lens, the tripod is the most important gear investment you can make. A great tripod marries reliable stability with functional usability. With some tripods, you can further fortify stability by using accessories like spiked and rock claw feet. I’ve used both extensively and what I’ve learned is that despite going to these lengths to ensure stability, it is not always guaranteed.

In some cases, I’ve had my tripod legs extended too far during very windy conditions and the heightened center of gravity coupled with those gusts introduced just enough movement and vibration to negatively impact the sharpness of my photo. Take this photo I took one evening in Norway’s Lofoten Islands as an example.

Even though my camera was on a tripod and my shutter speed was set to 1/400 sec., the wind was gusting so strongly that it negatively affected the critical sharpness of the shot, as illustrated in this zoomed-in crop.
Another example where tripod stability was impacted despite my best efforts was when I was photographing on the coast of Bandon, OR. As I explain in this next video, I had attached spiked feet on my tripod to anchor each leg deep into the sand. Even with all that extra effort, my photos still suffered from motion introduced by the waves and moving sand. Fortunately, I was able to recover A LOT of detail and sharpness that I thought would be impossible thanks to Sharpen AI.

You’d think that when you use a tripod to photograph landscape photography that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get sharp focus, that your photos won’t be blurry. But trust me from experience, that’s not always the case and this is a perfect example to illustrate what I mean. So this was a photo that I took in Bandon, Oregon on the coast and I was using a tripod. And not only was I using a tripod but my tripod had spiked feet on them. And in case you don’t know, spiked feet are exactly what they sound like. They are these giant metal spikes that sit on the bottom of each tripod leg and they’re great for these kind of coastal shoots where you’re photographing in sand with moving water. I had my tripod jammed straight into the sand, and as you can see I was standing in the water so the ocean waves were kind of rushing over the tripod legs and my feet. And let’s bring up the info for this photo. To get this kind of movement, I set my shutter speed at .6 seconds. That’s something that I do quite often. I took this photo back in 2013 when I was a Canon shooter using the 5D Mark III and I was using a 24 to 105-millimeter f/4 lens. So at f/16 at just over half a second, I was able to get this really great motion in the waves because they were constantly moving. And I especially liked the formation of the waves, the way they’re crashing over here. But even though I was using a tripod and even though the tripod was really secured with the sand, the movement of the water still created this out-of-focus, negative result. And you would think that there is no way to recover this, but I’ve got some really fun stuff to show you here. But before I do, let’s just jump into Develop. Let’s close our info view. Let me show you what the original photo looked like. So all I did was fix the orientation just a bit to rotate it because I was slightly off and I just kind of brought out some of the color in the sky as well as detail in the foreground. Now I didn’t use any sharpening here to try to correct it. We’ll take a look at that in a second. I also didn’t add any texture or clarity to the photo. So here’s the thing with trying to use Lightroom to correct for this. Let’s zoom in here on this haystack rock and let’s start using Clarity. Maybe we can bring out some detail and that’s just looking really bad. We don’t like that. Same thing with Texture. You’d think maybe if we add texture that would bring some of that detail, but that doesn’t work. And then finally we’ll go to Sharpening and bring that up. And that’s not doing anything. That’s just making the image crispy and worse, so let’s not use that. Instead what I will do is send this photo to Sharpen AI to see if we can recover this which seemingly is not recoverable just because the focus was missed so badly due to the moving, crashing waves of the ocean. But let’s see, let’s right click. We’ll go to Edit In and then go to Topaz Sharpen AI. And then I’m gonna work off of a JPEG for the purposes of this video and we’ll click Edit to move on. And so now that we’re in Sharpen AI, the first thing I wanna do is change my view to the Comparison View and I’m also gonna change my zoom to 100% just so that I can fill each of these quadrants with the haystack rock. Now between the three different AI models, I think Motion Blur has the most potential. But before I just commit it, I wanna try these other modes. So let’s click on Very Noisy and Very Blurry. And you can see just by comparing the original and the model with Motion Blur applied, just the improvement especially on the edge details. And if we move our focus box over here, you can see all of that detail restored. Now before I wanna commit these changes, I wanna see what the impact of the processing has on the entire photo. So I’m gonna change my view to Single View and change my zoom to Zoom to Fit. And I’m glad I did because as you can see while we did recover detail in the rocks in the background here, we did also over-sharpen the waves and I just don’t like the way that looks. If you press and hold on the image, you’ll see the original and that’s actually the look that I want in the water. I just wanna get the detail back in the rock. So if I let go, you can see that all of that edge detail is restored. Fortunately, there’s a really easy way to control where the Sharpen AI processing will apply to your photo and that’s by using the in-app masking. To access that, just click on this icon right here on the bottom. By default, the mask will apply to the entire image, so you’ll have to paint in the areas that you want sharpening to apply to. First thing I’m gonna do is check this Edge aware just to have a little bit of a cleaner brush stroke and I will also select the Overlay so I can see where my mask is being applied. Next, I’m going to increase my brush size a bit and reduce the feather. Then I’m just gonna start drawing my mask and I just kind of wanna keep it on the rock. Then I’m gonna paint on this rock here. Let me increase my brush size a bit. And I’ll paint over here in the background. Now to see the effect of the mask, I’m gonna disable the Overlay and I’ll zoom to 100%. And that looks a lot better. So if I go ahead to Zoom to Fit again, you can see that the rocks are sharp but we aren’t over-sharpening the waves. Now that I’m happy with the mask, I’m just gonna click Apply Mask to go back. You can see if I click, Sharpen AI is only processing the area that we masked in. So just toggling, you can see how focus, and sharpness, and edge detail are snapping back to those rocks which is pretty awesome. Now that I’m done, I’ll click Apply to return back to Lightroom. And you can see here on the left this is our original photo and on the right is the photo processed with Sharpen AI. If we zoom in, you can see all that really nice detail that was restored. I mean, just comparing the two, it’s pretty amazing. And more importantly, we only applied that Sharpening to the areas that we care about. We didn’t over-sharpen any of the waves. We still have that really nice motion from the long exposure. And so this is a good reminder just because you’re using a tripod depending on the environment that you’re using it in doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get tack-sharp photos. And fortunately Sharpen AI is up to the task to help you recover that missed focus.

Sharper images are possible.

If there’s a common theme in this article, it’s that how you choose your camera settings and use your camera gear plays a major role in the output of your photos. I know that sounds overly simplistic and self-evident, but it’s worth stating nonetheless. The better you can get at identifying what the optimal exposure settings are for your particular subject and environment, the more likely you’ll get a sharp photo. However, in those instances when you really want to recover a photo that suffers from a lack of critical sharpness, I highly recommend giving Sharpen AI a shot. You can download a free trial by filling out the form below to see for yourself.

Try Sharpen AI for free today!

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Be sure to leave a comment sharing your thoughts on this article. What tips do you have to ensure critical focus and what have you done to try recovering soft shots?

About the Author: Brian Matiash

Brian Matiash serves as Product Marketing Manager for Topaz Labs and manages the Topaz Labs Learning Center. He is also a photo educator and author, with his work being featured in dozens of international publications. Learn more about Brian by visiting his website.
Published On: August 9th, 2021 / Categories: Sharpen AI, Tutorial /

8 Comments

  1. Ronny Geenen August 14, 2021 at 11:54 am - Reply

    After reading your article from Brian, I have the feeling I miss something. As an old Photographer I think I do not need all that info why some pictures are blurry. I am way more interested in using the software how to solve that problem. I love to see you showing that, including explanation, in a video.
    What is the best use of Noise AI and what is the best use of Sharpen AI. Especially because I work often with old negatives and pictures (50 to 100 years old) which I receive from friends and family members. I add those pictures to articles on my blog.

    • Brian Matiash August 14, 2021 at 3:23 pm - Reply

      Great feedback, Ronny. I have an idea for a new video that’ll help explain when to use DeNoise AI and when to use Sharpen AI. Stay tuned!

  2. Dan Brown August 13, 2021 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Will Topaz work with JPEG photos too?

  3. Barbara A Whitlam August 13, 2021 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Thank you I could never quite understand why my photo were just off a bit. I hope you keep up with the education series.

    • Brian Matiash August 13, 2021 at 1:41 pm - Reply

      I’m glad you found this article helpful, Barbara! And you can be sure that we’re just getting started with our education series! In fact, if you want to submit ideas for us to consider, use this form to let us know!

  4. Carl Lum August 12, 2021 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Good basic tips we need to drill into people over and over again. People get very overconfident if they’re on a tripod, or think they have steady hands and their camera has great IBIS. You should also mention that not only is your DoF every thin when shooting wide open, you also won’t get your optimum sharpness at wide open either. We will have to let the ISO drift up and rely on Denoise AI, or see if Sharpen AI can bail us out. Those products are magic!

    • Brian Matiash August 12, 2021 at 7:28 pm - Reply

      Absolutely spot on, Carl. Oftentimes, lenses have that “sweet spot” range with aperture settings. I tend to hover between f/11 – f/16 with my landscape work. And it’s also worth mentioning that while you can lose out on sharpness when your lens is wide open, you can also introduce diffraction and suffer sharpness issues when you close your aperture way down to f/22 or smaller. Thanks for commenting!

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