unsharp images – so what went wrong this time?

checking my technique to ensure sharp images

I love sharp images.  Crisply sharp. However, I’m not stuck on the idea that the image has to be sharp over the need for an image to have impact.  Images that draw us in, usually have emotional impact of some kind.  But still, I like sharp.

How sharp your subject appears, is a balance between a bunch of factors we have to balance,. These factors might be with careful forethought, or just something we intuitively adjust for.  Shutter speed, choice of aperture, subject movement, your own movement, choice of equipment, and our own technique.  All of these things splinter further into numerous choices we have to make at the moment we take the shot.

I offer the following as an anecdote about recent problems I had with soft images.  There’s no real advice here, except perhaps that we sometimes need to step back from our habits, and look further to find the actual source of a problem.

I noticed that when I shot vertical portraits with my Nikon D3 and Nikon 24-70mm lens, that I would often have soft images.   They would either be slightly back-focused or slightly front-focused.  The horizontal images though would be pin-sharp.  I even tried a second copy of the lens on my other D3 body as a way to isolate the problem, and see whether it is my camera or the lens that were causing the image softness.  Big surprise … the same thing would happen.  I’d randomly get unsharp vertical photos.

I just couldn’t entertain the thought that two lenses were faulty in exactly the same spurious way. There had to be another cause for the problem.

Then during one shoot, I noticed something in my handling of my camera and lens ..

In switching to a vertical positioning of the camera, the bump in the front of the camera’s grip would push my hand slightly forward  as I moved my left hand. This bump on the camera’s grip would then also change my grip on the lens.  My edge of my palm moved forward slightly when I held the camera vertically, and I’d accidentally keep the focus ring from moving with a light touch .. or perhaps I would accidentally nudge the ring.  This would unpredictably change the focus for me ,without me realizing it.

It was something as simple that, yet subtle as this, causing me problems.  Of course, now that I know, I can easily avoid it.  But it took me a while to figure this out because I instantly looked at my equipment, rather than my own technique.

This is similar to when I used my first Nikon D-series body – the Nikon D2H.  The camera would occasionally refuse to focus.  It turned out that with my large hands, the edge of my palm was pressing the vertical shutter release when the shutter release was enabled .. with this this, the camera would “refuse” to focus, since I was already accidentally doing the focus-and-lock thing with the edge of my hand.  I felt very foolish when I realized it was me, and not my camera.

17 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1olympus_fotograph says

    hello neil,

    i have read something (in internet or in a book, maybe i can find it)rough a year ago, that there is actual a difference in shooting horizontal or vertical concerning the sharpness of the pic.
    i don´t know exactly but maybe there was something told about mirror or shutter–diff in function or mass moment.
    i will take a look if i found something.
    *knocking on my head….where was it??*

  2. 2Ambar Hadi says

    Hi Neil,

    I still have difficulty to get sharp picture like what you did in every picture you pubish. Do you still need sharpening the picture that you shoot in post production or originally taken from your camera ?

    Recently I use Canon 5D Mark I and Canon 24-105 f:4, and still wondering how could you do to get sharp and crispy picture.

    Jakarta, Indonesia

  3. 3 says

    Ambar, I keep my sharpening at whatever default ACR (Bridge / CS4) uses. But you absolutely have to sharpen for web. Downsizing for web use does change how sharp the image appears.

    Even then, I keep the sharpening process very simple. So simple in fact, that someone at a recent workshop laughed at me when I revealed that I just use Smart Sharpen in Photoshop as the final step with web-sized images. But hey .. it works. The images have a snap to them that I like.

    Neil vN

  4. 4Jose says


    Have this improved the sharpness of your vertical pictures? The reason I ask is because this lens has an interesting resolution characteristics at the APS-C border of the lens. I wonder if the subject, or eyes of your subject lie on the APS-C border causing some softness on your vertical pictures. Check out http://www.photozone.de/nikon_ff/456-nikkor_afs_2470_28_ff for information on the optical characteristics of the lens.

    Let me know if you think this can be cause of the softness in your vertical images. Thanks,


  5. 5 says

    Jose … yes, this did solve my recurring problem. It was definitely related to that specific mis-handliing of the lens in the vertical position.

    Regarding the review you linked to … they certainly did a thorough job on it. And reading it, makes me even happier with that zoom. : ) Thanks for the link!

    Neil vN

  6. 8 says

    Neil, I am getting the same problem with D3-24-72/2.8…
    sometimes the camera refuses to focus outside of the center point
    with static subjects, I have to use the center focus point and recompose..

  7. 9 says

    Michael .. I don’t get consistent performance either with the focusing points on the outer edges of the D3, so I predominantly just use the center focus point while the camera is set to Dynamic Area AF, with my camera mostly set to single focus mode. I like the simplicity of that and being able to decide.

    Neil vN

  8. 10 says

    Thanks so much for this post. Uncanny timing on it actually. This past weekend I saw the *exact* same symptoms you were describing when culling down the images from the day. Only difference from you is that I am using a D700 + Vertical Grip with the 24-70.

    I read your post last night and checked my vertical holding technique this morning. The shot you included here could have been replaced with my own hands :-) I’ve got a rather large set of “bear paws” myself and my left index finger was in fact touching the manual focus ring when shooting vertically. Makes me wonder if this is only an issue for us large-handed people :-)

    Thanks again for your transparency and dedication to sharing!

  9. 11 says

    Mike … then I feel good about having posted all this. At first I thought that the entire post might be too trivial, but if it directly helps others, then it has value. Pass it forward. : )

    Neil vN

  10. 12Lance says

    I did this (or something very similar) when I had rented the 14-24mm f/2.8 to play around with on my D40. The focus ring always seemed to be under one finger or another, and I had no idea why over half of my shots were coming out completely out of focus. I was just bumping the focus ring! D’oh!

  11. 13Steven Seelig says

    I have also done the same thing and try as I may, I probably still do, just not as often. BUT…I have observed something else as well (D700 with 24-70 lens, but I think the same thing happens with me 70-200 as well)

    I almost always use spot focus. The center focal point will focus whether the contrast/lines are either horizontal or vertical. But the outer focal points when camera is held in a vertical position have a very difficult time focusing on horizontal contrast/lines. You can test it for yourself using a light switch plate on the wall (use one that is very plain). There are two horizontal (top & bottom) and two vertical lines (either side) and just move the focal point around and observe performance. It is not absolute because it will occasionally focus, but the failure rate is very high.

    I am very curious as to whether anyone else can replicate this experience.

    I discovered this phenomena because I was having some difficulty getting my camera to focus in the vertical position when doing portraits and after the experiment above, i concluded that I was trying to focus on peoples eyes (horizontal lines when camera is in vertical position) and the auto focus failed. This provoked a ‘work around’ of just rotating the camera a bit to make the eyes not horizontal, locking focus, and then rotating the camera back to the position I want, but I really don’t like doing that.

  12. 14 says

    I have to agree that is is an informative entry. While I don’t have large hands, I do think this has happened to me as well. My grip on the lens is close the the focus ring and even the slightest nudge while pressing the shutter release button will mess up the focus. I’ve had a few out-of-focus shots in a series of shots, so I was wondering if it was me or the camera.

  13. 15David Lee says

    Hi Neil,

    I usually get more out-of-focus shot with my EF28-135, maybe due to accidentally nudge the ring too. I’ll try to take note on my next shooting. Thanks for pointing out this possibility.

  14. 16 says

    Hi Neil.
    Having small hands does not help if you don’t pay attention to your technique.
    I have small hands but I had a similar issue free switching from 28-70 to the 24-70. I believe this last lens handles quite a bit better than the old one (larger zoom ring set a bit further from the camera) but one’s enthusiasm could lead to somewhat sloppier technique ( it did for me).
    Thanks for posting this.

  15. 17Fred Hoegeman says

    It seems this is a hand-held issue.
    Do the shots (vertical) improve overall when a mono or tri-pod is used?
    This leaves the left hand with less to do.:-)

    Fred Hoegeman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *