My Pictures Are Blurry, Washed out, Too Dark/Too Light

Introduction

Photo collage.
We all like taking photos of great moments with the family, fun times with friends, beautiful sceneries or silly pets. It's all good when they come out great but sometimes multiple photos can have the same type of visual defects that weren't part of what we were taking photos of.

? What type of visual defects do your pictures have?

  1. Pictures are blurry
  2. Pictures are washed out
  3. Pictures are too dark/light

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Photo collage.
We all like taking photos of great moments with the family, fun times with friends, beautiful sceneries or silly pets. It's all good when they come out great but sometimes multiple photos can have the same type of visual defects that weren't part of what we were taking photos of.

It can be quite annoying when you discover that many of the photos you've taken on your vacation or at an event have turned out to be blurry. There are many reasons why this would happen and we will talk about the most common ones:

  • The camera lens is dirty
  • The image is out of focus
  • The subject moves while the shutter is open
  • The camera moves while the shutter is open
  • The image has a shallow depth of field

The camera lens is dirty

If you walk into a humid indoor environment, your lens may mist up, producing a blurry, soft-focus effect. It's a similar thing if you go from somewhere nice and warm and then go straight into somewhere cold, you'll experience the same thing. Other causes of blur are greasy smears and fingermarks - so check the front of your lens before anything else.

Digital camera lens cleaning kit.
It's recommended that you use a lens cleaning kit. Here is a simple, three-step process for effective lens cleaning:
  1. Remove as much dust and dirt as possible from the lens with an air blower or soft-bristled brush.
    Cleaning lens with blower and brush.
  2. Apply a few drops of lens cleaning solution to a lens tissue or microfiber cloth.
  3. Using a circular motion, gently remove oil, fingerprints, and grime from the lens surface, working from the center outward.
    Cleaning lens with cloth.
Please select an option to proceed.

The image is out of focus

Unfocused image.
Sometimes, when our photos turn out blurry, it's because the image is out of focus. These days with Auto Focus, it's unlikely that the whole image will be out of focus. If your camera has set the focus point on the wrong part of the image, you'll see one part of the image crisp and clear, but others (including your subject) are out of focus. To avoid getting your photos blurry due to poor focus, try taking the shot this way:

  1. First, point your camera towards your subject.
  2. Depress the shutter button half way down to force the camera to lock focus on your subject.
  3. Now move the camera so your subject is where you want it to be in the photo.
  4. Fully press the shutter button to take the photo.

The subject moves while the shutter is open

Blur in photo caused by moving subject.
Anytime you take a photo in low light (especially indoors or at night), your camera adjusts for the darker conditions by opening it's shutter for longer. This lets more light into the camera so the image is correctly exposed (bright enough) but also increases the chance of your subject moving while the shutter is open. You can tell by looking at the subject in your photo that if some parts of the subject are crisp while others are blurry then the subject has moved while the camera's shutter was open, or if the whole subject is blurry while the area around it (that was not moving) is crisp then the subject was moving too fast. The simplest solution for this is to increase the camera's shutter speed.

You can increase the camera's shutter speed in three ways:
  1. Find the shutter speed setting in your camera and change it. Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of a second.
    Digital camera shutter speed setting.
  2. Turn on the flash. This will throw more light on the subject for the split second that the shutter is open so the camera won't need to leave it open for as long. Using the flash does have some disadvantages though. First, if your subject is close to a wall, you'll see a distinct and sometimes unsightly shadow. A flash also tends to wash out the warm look of natural lighting.
    Digital camera flash turned on.
  3. Increase the ISO setting (exposure index rating). The ISO tells the camera how sensitive the image sensor is to light. When you increase the ISO, your camera will know the sensor needs less light so will automatically increase the shutter speed. Because the shutter speed is faster, there is less chance that the shutter will be open while the subject or camera is moving. However, you don't want to increase the ISO too far. As the ISO gets higher, the camera's sensor also becomes more sensitive to noise. It's best you set the ISO value to the second highest setting allowed by your camera. This will help to increase the shutter speed, but at the same time will make sure that not too much image noise gets into your photo.
    Digital camera ISO setting.

The camera moves while the shutter is open

Blur in photo caused by moving camera.
If your photo was taken in low light (especially indoors or at night) and the whole image is blurry, then the camera moved while the shutter was open. Just like when the subject moves while the shutter is open, the camera will leave the shutter open for longer when there is not much light around. When the shutter is open for longer, tiny movements of the camera can cause the whole photo to become blurry. Even small movements like releasing your finger from the shutter button, or your breathing can cause it. There are two ways to solve this problem:

  • Increase the camera's shutter speed
  • Hold the camera steady while you take the shot
You can increase the camera's shutter speed in three ways:
  1. Find the shutter speed setting in your camera and change it. Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of a second.
    Digital camera shutter speed setting.
  2. Turn on the flash. This will throw more light on the subject for the split second that the shutter is open so the camera won't need to leave it open for as long. Using the flash does have some disadvantages though. First, if your subject is close to a wall, you'll see a distinct and sometimes unsightly shadow. A flash also tends to wash out the warm look of natural lighting.
    Digital camera flash turned on.
  3. Increase the ISO setting (exposure index rating). The ISO tells the camera how sensitive the image sensor is to light. When you increase the ISO, your camera will know the sensor needs less light so will automatically increase the shutter speed. Because the shutter speed is faster, there is less chance that the shutter will be open while the subject or camera is moving. However, you don't want to increase the ISO too far. As the ISO gets higher, the camera's sensor also becomes more sensitive to noise. It's best you set the ISO value to the second highest setting allowed by your camera. This will help to increase the shutter speed, but at the same time will make sure that not too much image noise gets into your photo.
    Digital camera ISO setting.

Hold the camera steady while you take the shot. The best way to prevent shake (and the resulting blurry images) is to use a tripod. But if you don't have one, or it's inconvenient to use, try these tips:

How to hold and not hold a camera while taking a shot.
  • Hold the camera in both hands, resting it in the palm of one hand with your thumb pointing upward instead of resting it on your thumb, and keep both elbows close to your side to give your camera the most stability. This is also a safer way to hold your camera and you'll be less likely to accidentally drop it.
  • Bring the camera close to your face and use the optical viewfinder (if your camera has one) to compose the shot rather than the screen. This way, your camera is steadied by your body.
  • If your camera doesn't have an optical viewfinder, use the screen to compose and then bring the camera to your face. Or keep your elbows close to your body and move the camera a foot away from your face. This way your camera is still supported and you can also see the screen.
  • Look for some extra stability by leaning against a post or wall. You'll be surprised how much this can reduce blurry images.
  • Just before you take the shot, take a breath. Hold it while taking the shot.

The image has a shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field.
Depth of Field is the name given to that great effect of cameras where your subject is in focus but the background and foreground are out of focus. It makes the subject stand out because that's the only thing you can see clearly. Using the preset scene modes of your camera (or the Aperture setting), you can change how much of the image is in focus, and how much is out of focus. If the depth of field is too shallow, not all of your subjects will be in focus. The easiest way to make all your subjects sharp is to move further away from them. This will increase the range of depths that are in focus. Don't zoom in however, as this will negate the benefits of physically moving further away. Another way to fix that is by changing the Aperture setting on your camera:

  • If you have only one subject you want to take a shot of, then set your camera to Portrait Mode.
  • For more subjects:
    1. Start with setting the camera in Portrait Mode and take a shot.
    2. Find out the Aperture your camera used to take this first shot. Aperture values are expressed in F-stops.
      Digital camera aperture setting.
    3. Change the camera to Aperture Priority mode rather than Portrait Mode. This is a more advanced mode of your camera that gives you finer control.
    4. Set the aperture two settings higher and take another shot.
    5. Look at the screen of the shot. You should see more of your subjects in focus. If not all subjects are in clear focus, increase the aperture setting one more and try again.

      Changing the aperture like this also decreases the shutter speed (to compensate for less light getting into the camera). If you are also in a low light environment you should take some steps to steady your camera as well.

You probably had the experience of taking photos only to find that they are very dark and dull or way too light and washed out. This is caused by incorrect exposure. Exposure is the amount of light that gets into your camera and produces the picture on the image sensor. If a photo is too dark it means it has been underexposed and if it is too light it has been overexposed.

Some areas are okay to be underexposed or overexposed if they aren't the main focus of the picture. You may purposely do that for dramatic or artistic flair.

There are three components that a camera takes into account to determine the exposure of your photos:

  • The Shutter Speed is the length of time a camera shutter is open to expose light into the image sensor. Slow shutter speeds allow more light into the image sensor and are used for low-light and night photography, while fast shutter speeds help to freeze motion.
  • The Aperture is the adjustable hole within the lens through which light is being exposed into the image sensor. The aperture can be open wide letting lots of light in but keeping less elements in focus, or tiny allowing only a small amount of light in while keeping more elements in focus.
  • The ISO Setting tells the camera how sensitive the image sensor is to light. It is a way to brighten your photos if you can’t use a longer shutter speed or a wider aperture.

These three components work together, and if you alter one the others may be changed too. In order to take a picture that is properly exposed - not too dark nor too light - these three components must be balanced.

If you shoot in Auto Mode, your camera is choosing the shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting for you. You do not have control over the exposure of the photo. In many situations the camera does a great job metering the light and choosing a combination that results in a good exposure. In other cases your camera will not expose the photo correctly. There are a few ways to expose a photo correctly at the time the shot is taken:

  • Adjusting the Exposure Value
  • Using the Scene Modes
  • Using the Advanced Modes
  • Using Fill Flash
  • Using lens filters
Sometimes you can tell whether a photo has been exposed properly just by looking at the camera screen. Other times it may be more difficult to tell. Either way, you can make use of the histogram tool of your camera to help you in that matter in conjunction with the exposure correction methods.

Histogram showing on camera screen.
Most cameras will display the histogram for every photo in review mode, while some cameras with an electric view finder (EVF) will display it in real time. The histogram is designed to give you a snapshot of all the different brightness levels in your photo. It shows you graphically how many dark, medium and bright elements are in your shot. Whenever you have too many of one tone, your photo's histogram will appear unbalanced. For most photos, what you don't want to see are tall vertical lines to the far left or far right.

To figure out whether a photo was overexposed or underexposed, take a look at the histogram right after you took the shot:

  • if the photo is underexposed, you'll see a huge bump on the far left of the histogram.
    Histogram showing bump on far left for underexposed photo.
  • If the photo is overexposed, you'll see the same bump on the far right of the histogram.
    Histogram showing bump on far right for overexposed photo.
  • If the photo is properly exposed, you'll see the dark, medium and bright tones spread across the histogram.
    Histogram showing tones spread across histogram for correctly exposed photo.

If you've determined that your photo is exposed incorrectly, you can apply some adjustments within the camera settings to obtain the correct exposure. Once you've made the adjustments, take another shot and look at the histogram again to see if it needs further adjustment.

Please select an option to proceed.

Almost all digital cameras have an Exposure Value (EV) Compensation setting that allows you to adjust the automatically calculated brightness for your photo. This is an easy way to correct an incorrectly exposed photo in small increments. When you take a picture and still are not quite satisfied the brightness of the final image, this tool allows you to make fixes quickly on the fly.

Depending on your digital camera's make and model, the Exposure Value Compensation may work with all or some exposure/shooting modes of the camera.

To recognize or access this feature look for the +/- symbol on the camera screen or any of the buttons.
Exposure Compensation.

If you adjust exposure in the negative direction, the next photo you take will be darker without making any additional adjustments and if you adjust the exposure in the positive direction, the next photo you take will be lighter.
Same photo with different Exposure Values.

Some cameras may also have an additional feature called Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) which allows you to automatically take three shots one after the other but each with a different Exposure Value. The first will be normally exposed, the second will be underexposed and the third will be overexposed. This can improve the quality of your photos by letting you choose and keep the shot that is best looking.
Exposure Value Compensation & Automatic Exposure Bracketing.

Digital Camera Mode Dial with Scene Modes highlighted.
The Scene Modes of a digital camera help you get the correct exposure for your photos in different types of sceneries and lighting situations. The exposure is calculated automatically by the camera depending on the mode you choose. You can find them either on the mode dial or in the mode menu. We will cover the most common of these modes that you may find in digital cameras:

Depending on the make of your camera, the mode icons may vary slightly.

Portrait Mode.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode works by opening up the aperture as much as the camera will allow. This causes more light to get into the camera and will result in a less sharper photo but draws attention to your subject and makes the objects in front of or behind the subject to appear blurry.

Landscape Mode.

Landscape Mode

Landscape Mode (Scenery) is the exact opposite of Portrait Mode. It works by closing your camera’s aperture to a tiny hole. This causes less light to get into the camera and will result in a sharper photo which is ideal for this mode as it lets you see far and wide. The shutter speed will tend to decrease which can cause blurriness in the photo. Use of a tripod is recommended to steady the camera.

Macro Mode.

Close-Up Mode

Close-Up Mode (Macro) makes it easier to take pictures of bugs or flowers from a very up close perspective. It works by changing the focusing distance on the camera’s lens to be able to get right next to the objects while keeping them in focus. This also brings a little more magnification out of the subjects. With this mode, the camera will tend to open the aperture wider than in Portrait Mode. Without much breathing room, the slightest movement can render the subject out of focus, hence use of a tripod is recommended as.

Sports Mode.

Action Mode

Action Mode (Sports, Kids & Pets) increases the shutter speed of the camera in order to freeze action. As this happens, the aperture is sometimes opened wider to let in a little more light. The subject is kept in focus and will appear sharp. This mode is good for sports, fast cars, moving children or animals, and anything that requires you to freeze action.

Night Mode.

Night Mode

Night Mode (Night Portrait, Night Scenery) will use the flash and decrease the shutter speed to capture the surroundings and background lighting with a pleasant motion blur effect.

Digital Camera Mode Dial with Advanced Modes highlighted.
The Advanced Modes of a digital camera give you partial or full control to get the correct exposure for your photos in different types of sceneries and lighting situations. You can find them either on the mode dial or in the mode menu. We will cover the most common of these modes that you may find in digital cameras:

Depending on the make of your camera, the mode shortcuts may be labeled differently.

  • Programmed Mode (P) automatically adjusts the aperture and shutter speed of your camera, but allows you to manually adjust the ISO setting and other parameters to create the proper exposure for your photos.
  • Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv) allows you to set the shutter speed and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture and other parameters to values that will work with the shutter speed you’ve chosen.
  • Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av) allows you to set the aperture and the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed other parameters to values that will work with the aperture you’ve chosen.
  • Manual Mode (M) gives you full control over the shutter speed, aperture, ISO setting and all other parameters to create the proper exposure for your photos.
Photos with no flash and fill flash side by side.
It is a good idea to use fill flash whenever the light source is not directly on your subject or it is too dim. If the sun is behind your subject, your subject is in the shadow of some other object, or the sun has gone down and it's light is too faint to get a good exposure, use a flash.

Fill-flash option highlighted in camera menu.
Using a flash may be tricky sometimes however. If the flash is too bright or you're too close to your subject it can result in a flash blowout. In these situations you can either move a little further and zoom in on your subject, or, if your camera allows, change the Flash Output or Flash Exposure Compensation of your camera. Changing the flash settings can help create a good balance between the exposure of your subject and the exposure of the background.
Flash Exposure Compensation option highlighted in camera settings.

Flash Exposure Compensation is different than Exposure Value Compensation. Using the flash adds more lighting to the ambient lighting, hence flash settings are added on top of any other exposure settings the camera has and they do not affect each other.

Polarized Filter.
A filter is an element made of glass, resin, polycarbonate, polyester or plastic material that can be placed in front of the lens. It modifies the light that enters the lens and can be used for any of the following purposes:
  • To reduce or eliminate glare on reflective surfaces such as water or glass
  • To enhance the saturation of colors in an image
  • To allow for a slower shutter speed during an exposure
  • To capture images with a high contrast range
  • To correct color balance
  • To produce special effects such as starbursts, motion blur, sepia, etc.
  • To convert a lens for macro or close-up use
  • To provide extra protection for the lens

Depending on the purpose you want to use a filter for there are a variety of filter types you can choose from:

  • UV/Haze filters cut down on haze and protect lens from dirt or dust. They can be used anytime, anywhere.
  • Polarizing filters reduce or eliminate glare or reflected light. They are used for shooting water, sky, or any highly reflective surface; they darken the sky and improve color saturation of outdoor subjects.
  • Neutral Density (ND) filters reduce the amount of incident light and allows for longer exposures. They can be used to create a misty "angel-hair" effect in running water; allows slow shutter speed in bright light, which can be useful for panning or for removing moving subjects from a scene.
  • Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters reduce the contrast of a given scene. They are used in high-contrast scenes where the dynamic range between foreground and background is too broad.
  • Cooling/Warming filters correct color balance, remove color cast. They are used primarily with film cameras. Application is similar to the white balance setting on a DSLR camera.
  • Special Effects filters create optical illusions and effects. They can be used to add enhancements such as a starburst effect, motion blur, sepia, bokeh or a soft, dreamy look.
  • Close-Up filters reduce the minimum focusing distance of a lens. They allow normal lenses to be used for macro photography.
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