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How to diagnose and fix blurry wildlife photos

If you photograph wildlife, some of your photos will not be sharp. As you gain experience, you’ll have more keepers, but even experienced wildlife photographers will come home with blurry images. Better camera settings or techniques can fix some blurry photos, but not always.

The best learning in wildlife photography comes from reviewing your mistakes. Recognizing the causes of blurry images helps you improve your knowledge and skills for your next wildlife session.

Here are examples of each type of blurry wildlife photo, explaining why the images aren’t sharp and how to avoid these problems in the future.

It helps to view these images on a large screen. Click each image for a larger view.

Shutter speed too slow

This elk stood still initially, and we successfully photographed it at 1/500 second. However, when it began running, the image became blurry.

How to diagnose: Everything in the image is blurry. The elk is blurry because it is running, and the background is blurry because the camera is moving. If this were a focus issue, something in the frame would be in focus. It is a motion blur problem when everything is blurry because the shutter speed is too slow.

How to fix: Use the appropriate shutter speed to freeze the action. Read our guide for the best wildlife shutter speeds.

Missed focus

The tree is sharp and in focus in this image, but the elk is not.

How to diagnose: Motion blur is not the issue since the tree is sharp and the elk isn’t moving. The camera’s autofocus system mistakenly chose the tree, not the elk, to focus on.

How to fix: The first fix is to use the appropriate focus mode on your camera. If your camera supports animal eye autofocus, use it to help the camera focus on the elk. When partially obscured by foreground elements like this tree, a series of 3-4 images can help, as sometimes the animal eye autofocus takes a frame or two to catch the correct focus point.

If your camera does not support animal eye autofocus, you may have used a zone focus area that included both the tree and the elk, and the camera selected the tree. Use a smaller focus zone placed precisely on the elk or single-point focus on the elk’s eye.

In this image, the Sally Lightfoot crab is not in focus, but the rock immediately in front of it is.

How to diagnose: Neither the crab nor the rock was moving, and a small portion of the rock is sharp, so it is not a motion blur issue. The camera’s autofocus system focused on the rock immediately before the crab, not the crab itself.

How to fix: Animal eye autofocus systems are unlikely to work on odd creatures like crabs. A small zone-based focus will sometimes focus on the foreground because it is inside the focus zone. Use single-point focus and place the focus point on the crab’s nearest eye.

The osprey is blurry in this image, but the large branch is in focus.

How to diagnose: The osprey wasn’t moving, and the branch is sharp, so there is no issue with shutter speed. However, the camera’s animal-eye autofocus system failed, focusing on the branch instead of the bird.

How to fix: While the osprey’s eye is clear, even the most sophisticated animal eye focus systems sometimes struggle in scenes with messy foregrounds like this. If animal eye autofocus isn’t working with a busy foreground, first try a short sequence of photos and see if the camera picks the eye in other frames. If it is missing the eye frequently, turn off eye detection and use a single-point focus placed directly on the animal’s eye.

Not enough depth of field

In this image, the two bighorn sheep in front are sharp. The sheep with the collar is a little blurry, and the fourth sheep on the top left is quite blurry.

How to diagnose: The sheep on the front left is the focus point, and the two sheep in front are sharp. These sheep weren’t moving, and two are sharp, so it was not an issue with the 1/500-second shutter speed. The aperture was f/7.1, and the focal length was 240mm. Because the sheep in front are sharp, the problem is that the depth of field is too shallow.

How to fix: In a scene like this with a group of animals at staggered depth, use a smaller aperture, like f/13–f/16, to get the entire group in focus. Read our guide for keeping groups of animals in focus using aperture.

Since the depth of field extends an equal distance in front and behind the focus point, you can also place your focus point in the middle of this group, perhaps on the shoulder of the sheep on the top right. To do this, turn off animal eye autofocus and use single-point focus.

Heat distortion

In this image, the bear and its surroundings are all blurry.

How to diagnose: The shutter speed for this image is 1/320 second. While the bear is moving slowly, the grass is not, and everything is blurry, so it is not a shutter speed issue. Look closely at the waviness in the blur in the out-of-focus areas. This type of blur is caused by heat distortion when the ground is hotter than the air.

How to fix: There is no easy solution for heat distortion, as it is caused by a difference in air and ground temperatures, not your camera. Reduce the distance to your subject or photograph early or late in the day when there is less heat distortion. Read more about heat distortion.

Not enough light

In this image, the lions are not very sharp.

How to diagnose: Because the lions were chasing, the shutter speed was 1/1000-second, fast enough for a sharp image. While they were far away, the details on their fur and faces show they are in focus. This image was captured after sunset, and the light was extremely low, resulting in a very high ISO of 18,000. The initial image was extremely noisy because of the high ISO.

How to fix: Heavy digital noise always makes an image look blurry. Noise reduction did help make this image more acceptable, but sometimes, the available light is too low for sharp images—photograph action when there is more available light.

Too far away

The wolf is in focus but not that sharp.

How to diagnose: This image was captured during daylight. There is plenty of light, and the ISO is low. The wolf is in focus, and the shutter speed of 1/640 second was fast enough for the action. This wolf was almost 200 meters away and very small in the frame. This image is heavily cropped, leaving less than 1000 pixels wide. There needs to be more pixels here for a sharp image.

How to fix: Sometimes wildlife is too far away—you need more pixels to create a sharp image. Also, the haze between you and the subject increases as distance increases, leading to softer images.

Issues with your lens

Not all lenses are created equal. Some lenses are sharp when the subject is close but suffer from blurry images at a distance. Some zoom lenses are sharper at one focal length than another. Certain teleconverters are also known to soften pictures, especially at a distance. When all other potential problems are eliminated, sometimes the problem is a limitation of your lens.

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