Tell me if this sounds familiar…
You frame up a portrait, you’ve ensured there’s a pleasing background, the subject’s wardrobe is on point, and they are smiling and looking good.
You think you have a winning shot.
Then you zoom in on the image, only to find dreaded soft focus.
What you thought was the perfect image with crisp, clean edges that are sharply in focus is actually blurry.
At least in my experience, so many other things that have gone right are for naught because nothing ruins a portrait like focus that’s not quite there.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that getting tack-sharp focus is a simple matter of trying one of many different techniques.
Let’s take a deeper look at some of the best ways you can get the focus spot on in your portraits.
Focus on the Eyes
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul for a reason…
When taking a portrait, focusing on the subject’s eyes will render you the most pleasing result.
That’s because we naturally look at other people’s eyes when we converse with them, and the same holds true for viewing a portrait.
By focusing on the eyes, you ensure that the most important feature of your subject is tack-sharp.
Even if your depth of field is extremely small and other elements of their head (i.e. their ears or hair) are out of focus, the shot will still be one that viewers enjoy because they can actually see the subject’s eyes.
That concept is on display in the image above. Note how the model’s eyes are perfectly sharp, and even though the rest of her body is not, it’s still an image that reads well and is pleasing to view.
Use a Different Lens
It’s easier said than done to use a different lens, but hear me out on this…
Though there are many great things about a kit lens, one of them is not sharpness.
That’s because kit lenses use lower-quality optics than higher-end lenses. On top of that, zoom lenses like your kit lens typically don’t produce images that are as sharp as prime lenses because zooms have more elements and those elements move around. All that glass and movement degrade the sharpness.
So, if you want sharper photos, you might consider adding a prime lens to your kit.
Prime lenses aren’t just sharp, but in many cases, you can get an excellent lens for a great price – under $150.
On top of that, many prime lenses have much larger maximum apertures than kit lenses and zoom lenses.
That means you can open the aperture, let in more light, and avoid slow shutter speeds that often cause blurry images (more on that below).
For Group Shots, Use a Smaller Aperture
The difficulty of photographing groups is that there are often people arranged in multiple rows.
That means that the people in the front row are closer to your camera, and if you focus on them, the people in the rows further away from your camera might be out of focus.
To get around this issue, dial in a smaller aperture to increase your depth of field.
Then, compose your shot, focusing on the person in the center of the frame in the front row.
Since the person in the middle of the group will draw the most attention, it’s most critical that they are in sharp focus.
But, because the depth of field extends further behind your focus point than in front of it, by selecting a smaller aperture, you should gain enough depth of field to get everyone in the shot as sharp as possible.
In the image above, by focusing on the woman in the middle of the front row, the photographer was able to get everyone in the shot in good focus.
Watch Your Shutter Speed
One of the most common culprits of blurry photos is a shutter speed that’s set to slow for handheld shooting.
This can occur whether you shoot in manual mode or aperture priority mode.
A general rule of thumb is that you need to keep the shutter speed at least as fast as the inverse of the focal length of the lens in use.
That means that for a 50mm lens, you’d need a shutter speed of at least 1/50th of a second.
Granted, not all situations allow you to shoot with a sufficient shutter speed due to a lack of lighting.
When you can’t speed up your shutter speed, try opening the aperture to allow more light in. In many cases, that will allow you to boost the shutter enough so that you can get sharper results while shooting handheld.
Another option is to increase the ISO setting, thereby making the camera’s sensor more sensitive to light. The result, again, is that you can increase the shutter speed to keep camera shake at bay.
There are also a number of shooting positions you can use to keep camera shake at bay. Check those out in this in-depth tutorial.
Get a Good Tripod
When I shoot portraits, I’m much more comfortable shooting handheld.
At the same time, there are occasions when mounting my camera to a tripod is the only recourse because I can’t get the shutter speed fast enough for the amount of light I have available to me.
Of course, not all tripods are made equal.
That doesn’t mean you need to go out and drop $1,000 on the best tripod you can find.
You can find excellent tripods that give your camera a solid, stable base for under $100.
But when looking for a tripod, think about how you’ll use it.
If you primarily shoot portraits, a heavier aluminum tripod might be more advantageous.
However, if you also shoot landscapes or nature shots that require you to do some walking or hiking to the shoot location, a lighter carbon fiber tripod might be warranted to lighten the load you have to carry.
Bonus Method: Sharpen in Photoshop
Any one of the methods outlined above should help you get sharper photos.
But if you want to enhance that sharpness even more, you can do so quite easily in post-processing.
The caveat here is that sharpening can go wrong very quickly, so it’s a good idea to do everything you can to ensure your image is sharp in-camera.