How to fix “Blurry Photos” with telephoto lenses

Alabama linebacker (8) Dylan Moses recovers blocked punt. No.1 Alabama defeated No. 3 Florida State 24-7 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, the first college football game to ever be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. [Nikon D5, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, TC-2001, ISO 16000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000]
The number one problem with people’s photos has always been blurry photos.

The four main causes of blurry photos are:

  1. The subject moves while the shutter is open
  2. The camera moves while the shutter is open
  3. Out Of Focus
  4. Depth Of Field is too shallow

The first two can easily be addressed through the proper shutter speed.

Shutter Speed

Minimum Shutter Speed [seconds] = 1 / Focal Length [mm]

If you have a 200mm lens on your camera then the slowest you want to handhold the camera to take an in focus photo is 1/200.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at the Ramadan Iftar with ISB Atlanta [Nikon D5, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, TC-2001, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/100]
Now in this case where the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, is speaking I am on a tripod shooting at 600mm. Since she is not moving all that much I was able to shoot at 1/100 because the camera is on a tripod.

When you are shooting something where the subject is moving and the camera is moving to capture an image as in sports you need a really fast shutter speed.

Chick-fil-A Kickoff
Georgia Tech vs Tennessee [Nikon D5, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, ISO 5000, ƒ/2.8, 1/4000]
I can tell you in this photo the football players are moving very fast. Over the years I have come to realize I need to have the shutter-speed up pretty high to get sharp photos.

When I started shooting sports with film the highest ISO I could shoot was ISO 1200. This kept me shooting around 1/500 for most sports.

[Nikon F4, Nikkor 500mm ƒ/8, ISO 1/100, ƒ/8, 1/500]
Only during day games was I able to get truly razor sharp images.

Tennessee’s tight end (82) Ethan Wolf is pursued by Georgia Tech’s line backer (51) Brant Mitchell, which he drops the pass, during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. [Nikon D5, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, TC-2001, ISO 18000, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000]
Besides shooting at 1/4000 shutter speed I am also using a monopod.

Daniel Shirey has a photo assistant working with him during the game.

Most photographers on the sidelines of a football game use a monopod to help steady the camera.

Out of Focus

If your subject isn’t moving that much, like my person speaking, start by switching from multi-point to single-point focusing. On many cameras there is either a joy stick or pad that lets you move your focus point around. Move this to the person’s face and as close to the eyes as you can.

You need to know that your camera has limits and certain situations are difficult for the camera’s technology to properly work. Here are some for you from my Nikon D5 camera manual.

 ToO Shallow Depth-of-Field

If your lens is wide open at an aperture of say ƒ/2.8 or wider ƒ/1.4 then the depth-of-field is quite shallow. The other piece affecting this is how close you are to the subject.

The closer you get that depth-of-field will get even more shallow.

The top of the line cameras tend to have the best focusing systems which will track with subjects allowing you to get that razor sharp image. It is the combination of the best quality lenses and cameras that can allow you to shoot wide open and get sharp photos.

However if you cannot afford a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens and have a 300mm ƒ/5.6 lens while you think that the depth-of-field is greater your photos may not be in focus because the lens is too dark for the camera sensors to focus.

The other problem you may have is you have a fast lens, but the focus system is just struggling to keep the subject in focus. This is where you close down the aperture to give you a little more wiggle room in the depth-of-field that your photos are still sharp.