How can I get sharp focus every time?

“I’ve noticed that when I look at some of my photos, they seem to be in focus – but when I zoom in to take a closer look, they aren’t. What can I do?”

  • Bryce Canyon, Utah

    Bryce Canyon, Utah

  • Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

  • Death Valley, California

Focus is an issue that lots of photographers struggle with, and there are various reasons why you might have problems getting sharp focus in your photos. Here are some tips for solving the problem.

  • Always use a tripod. You don’t need anything fancy – just something that will keep your camera nice and steady when you are shooting.
  • Try using a remote release so you don’t have to touch your camera as you release the shutter. If you don’t have a timed release, most digital camera have a 2-second delay that will wait two seconds after you push the shutter release in order to minimize camera shake. You just press the shutter and then take your hand away. 2 seconds later, the camera will take the picture. If you are using a DSLR, you can select the “mirror lockup” setting as well. When you release the shutter, the mirror inside the camera will pop up, then the camera will pause for 2 seconds, and then it will take the photo.
  • Try setting your autofocus and then switching to manual. The idea is to get your focus just right, and then switch out of auto-mode. Many cameras will automatically adjust focus when you depress the shutter button part-way. Sometimes, photographers set the focus on their subject and then shift their composition before releasing the shutter. That’s a good way to focus on something that isn’t in the middle of the frame… but if you don’t want to accidentally change your focus, you need to make sure you turn off the autofocus option after focusing. Of course, many cameras have multiple focus points, so it’s often possible to focus on a specific point within your composition simply by choosing the right focusing point.
  • Check your aperture. The wider your aperture, the narrower your depth of field will be. If the point where you focused is sharp, but things that are further away or closer aren’t, then you need a narrower aperture. You can also back up a little and see if you can get a better focus.
  • Your camera can’t focus in the dark – so if you are trying to focus during sunset, you might have problems. Try using a flashlight to light something in your scene so you can focus on it. Then turn the flashlight off before you take the shot.

Getting really sharp images can be a challenge, but you can make it happen with a little knowledge and practice. Our In Sharp Focus course offers a solid focusing workflow that highlights technical knowledge and encourages creativity. Filmed on the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii, this course shows you how to get sharp photos every time.

If you want to dig even deeper, Josh Cripps’ Practical Lightroom Tutorials Vol-4 provides a firsthand look at how a professional photographer edits images from start to finish.

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About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Wendy

    Every time I see an article like this, think, “Maybe I’ll find the solution to my problem!” and every time it turns out to be another “how to avoid camera shake/accidentally refocusing your image onto something that isn’t your subject when you press the shutter.” Well, all that doesn’t help when you can’t get in in focus BEFORE you press the shutter. I use mostly manual lenses an I’ll twist and twist and twist and won’t get a sharp image through the lens, with or without help from the focus assist. I’ve got a hyperfocal zoom that I finally stopped using because the focus was soft no matter what distance I used it at.

    • Hi Wendy – it’s a frustrating problem, for sure! Have you tried adjusting the diopter setting on your viewfinder? If you are having problems with more than one lens, and you aren’t able to focus as you are looking through your viewfinder, that might be the problem. If the diopter adjustment is wrong – and it’s easy to accidentally turn the knob without realizing that you’ve done it – the view through the viewfinder will be out of focus no matter how you adjust your lens. I do hope you find the solution to your focus problem. Good luck!

  • Jon

    I am trying to visualize Toms method of setting Focus on the back button but cannot wrap my head around this as well as Geralds on the Sony A7R ( I am still shooting both Canon 5DMk2 and Sony A7R ) Good sharp focus has been evading me and really need to learn the Hyperfocal method to add to the flow. As soon as I can, I plan on purchasing your Course on Focusing and Hyperfocal Distance. I had so may shots done with the third into the frame and was disappointed in the results and other times everything clicks perfectly

    • It is not that difficult to learn…once you master the workflow it will be second nature to you.

  • Gerald

    Agree with Tom, I shoot with a Sony a7r (formerly Canon) and use a custom button to set focus and completely remove it from the shutter.
    Use live view and if the situation does not require using hyperlocal table, I have the live view set with the thirds grid. Very easy to move the focus square to the the bottom third line and follow the general rule of going one third into the frame.

  • Mary Kavanagh

    I use the zoom in in live view to check my focus for moon shots especially. Not sure if that would work for landscape though if everything was to be in focus.

  • Tom Healy

    In addition to your tips:
    On my Canon, I use live view when I wan’t extra sharp because it forces the mirror lockup.
    I also have set my focus to a back button (in my case the asterisk button) so I can lock it in and then it is not affected by the shutter button.