BLUR AND NOISE:
DEFEATING THE ENEMIES OF CLARITY

Have you ever wished your photographs were sharper, had more detail and clarity?  Are you cursed by speckled,
smeary images?  If so, you need to defeat the two main enemies of clarity; blur and noise. 

This guide aims to help you recognise which culprits are ruining your toy photographs, understand why they are
happening and identify the steps you can take to defeat them.  

BLUR

Blur is the presence of soft areas where there should be sharp lines, detail and texture.  There are three, main causes
of blur: motion, ineffective focusing and depth of field limitations. 

MOTION BLUR

A sharp picture requires that all parts of the scene remain in the same place as the exposure is taken.  If they move,
you will get a smearing of information across the sensor (the part of the camera that captures the image).  This results
in blur. 

Diagnosis
Motion blur can be recognised when there is softness across the entire image; in the subject and in the background. 
Nothing is sharp.  What differentiates it from general focus problems is the presence of double or multiple images in the
same scene.  If you look at high contrast edges (so, where there is a light area right next to a dark area, with a sharp
line between them), you might see double or multiple edges, indicating the different positions of the camera as the shot
was taken.  It can also show itself as streaks or lines from highlights, smeared across the image as the camera moved.
 
 
The detail shows the raised hand.  If you look at the edges, you can see a double line.  This identifies this hazy picture
as a victim of motion blur. 

Cause(s)

When shooting toys, your subjects are not going anywhere.  We therefore donít have to worry about them.  However,
you will move and there are three types of movement that could spoil your shot.  Firstly, no matter how steadily you
hold a camera, your body and hands will move slightly as you take the picture.  Secondly, the action of your finger
pressing the shutter release button will move the camera slightly.  Lastly, the action of the mirror of your DSLR flipping
up to prepare to take the shot will also cause vibrations that can blur your shot. 
Remedies

Adopt a solid stance

If you are hand holding your camera, as opposed to placing it on a support like a tripod, make sure your posture is as
solid as possible.  This will minimise the shakes and wobbles that humans are prone to. Stand straight with your feet a
shoulderís width apart.  One foot should be slightly ahead of the other.  Tuck your elbows into your sides and hold the
camera close to your body with both hands.  Your right hand should hold the camera body and the left should support
the lens from underneath.  If your camera has a viewfinder, make sure it is resting snugly against your brow.  Take a
minute to make sure you are steady, with your weight squarely over your feet.  Take a breath and let it out slowly. 
Squeeze the shutter release button smoothly without ďstabbingĒ at it. 

Kneeling can also be a stable position.  Place your right knee on the floor and brace your left upper arm on your raised
left knee.  Hold the camera as above, with left hand supporting the lens and right hand grasping the body.  Again,
brace the viewfinder against your brow.

You can also use a firm, stationary object as a stabiliser.  Brace yourself against a wall or the back of a chair (turn the
chair backwards and straddle it, bracing your arms or camera on the back of the chair). 

Use a fast shutter speed

With short exposures (using fast shutter speeds), the amount of movement happening whilst the shot is being taken is
minimal.  When you are hand holding, using a fast shutter speed will therefore reduce the effect of movement on the
shot.  As well as the shakiness of your hands, the severity of motion blur is affected by the focal length of your lens; a
200mm lens will exaggerate the effect and a 15mm lens will minimise it.  There is a fancy-schmancy formula for
calculating the minimum safe shutter speed for each focal length.  However, I am not going to bore you with that.  My
personal (and cautious) rule of thumb is not to go above 1/125 of a second for most lenses when hand holding.

Use a support

With most tabletop toy photography, we are using dim lights.  Increasing the shutter speed means less light is being let
in.  You will therefore need to compensate by increasing the ISO or aperture to levels that you might find problematic
(see the notes on this in the article on noise).  It therefore isnít the best solution when shooting in low light.  An
alternative is to stabilise your camera using some form of support and to let the shutter speed take care of itself.  The
best support is a tripod.  Even a cheap one is better than none at all.  If you donít have a tripod, try resting your
camera on a pile of books, a bean bag or some other support that will keep your camera steady without you having to
hold it.  

Use a self timer

A self timer introduces a delay between pressing the shutter release button and the shutter actually opening to take
the picture.  If your camera has this facility, and most do, you can therefore use this to make sure that your finger isnít
jogging the camera as the exposure is being taken.  You will, of course, need your camera on a support to benefit from
this.

Use a shutter release cable

A shutter release cable is a switch on the end of a cable that plugs into the side of the camera.  It enables you to
trigger the shutter release without you having to touch the camera.  Of course, the camera again needs to be on some
form of support for this to be useful.  As it is only a switch, a cheap one works as well as an expensive one.  In my
opinion, if you have spent money on a tripod, you would be daft not to splash out the few extra pennies needed to buy
a shutter release cable.  I consider it an essential piece of kit.

Use mirror lock up

This is an advanced technique and I would recommend you master the other recommendations before tinkering with
this.  The aim of mirror lock up is to remove the ďmirror slapĒ that a DSLR has when its mirror rises to expose the
sensor.  It works by you pressing the shutter release button twice; the first press raises the mirror and the second
takes the picture, once the resulting vibrations have died down.  Of course, it only makes sense if you have your
camera on a support.  You can access the facility from the menu on most DSLRs. 

FOCUS PROBLEMS

A good image requires that the lens has been focused effectively on the subject, or parts of the subject, that you
want to appear sharp.  Blur will occur if this hasnít happened.   The main causes of focus problems are complete focus
failure, inappropriate focus, the subject being too close and depth of field limitations.

I  COMPLETE FOCUS FAILURE

Diagnosis

The sign that the camera has failed to focus is that nothing in the scene is sharp, neither foreground nor midground nor
background.  Everything is a blur.  To distinguish it from motion blur, look at an edge of high contrast, so one where
there is a light/dark boundary.  If the edge is soft, with no multiple lines, the chances are the camera failed to focus.

One of the signs that your camera is struggling to focus is that the focus confirmation light in your viewfinder (usually a
circle) is flashing.  Another sign is that your lens is ďhuntingĒ; moving backwards and forwards, trying to achieve focus
and not managing it.  Your lens might not move at all, juddering each time you press the shutter release.  This means
that the conditions are such that the camera is not even going to try focus. 

Cause(s)

Too little contrast

Most of us use our cameraís autofocus system to achieve focus.  The autofocus system works best when it can find a
sharp line or high contrast edge to home in on.  One reason why it might not be able to do this is that there just arenít
any sharp lines or areas of high contrast in the area you want to get in focus.  The autofocus system therefore has
nothing to latch onto.

Too little light

The second, and related, reason is that there might not be enough light falling on your subject to produce the lines and
areas of high contrast your autofocus system needs to work on.  It again struggles to find anything to work with.

Mechanical problems

Most cameras wonít allow you to take the shot until you have established focus on something.  If the camera allows
you to take the picture, but it is blurry, mechanical difficulties might be the issue.  If the images are always just slightly
off, regardless of what you try, it might be the quality of your lens that is at fault.  Your lens might also not be
communicating well with the camera, so isnít being adjusted in the right way by the autofocus system.  This could be
because the contacts between the lens and the camera have become dirty, affecting the electrical communication
between the two components.  You might also have inadvertently switched your lens to manual focus (there is a slider
switch on the side of your lens that adjusts this).  Another cause might be that you are pushing the lens beyond its
optimal range.  Most lenses produce distortions when set to the extremes of aperture and focal length (if it is a zoom). 
If focus is always on an area just in front of or just behind where you wanted it to be, your lens might be poorly
calibrated.  This is a technical issue that wonít be covered here.  An internet search for ďback focus and forward focusĒ
will show you how to test for this and what can be done about it.

Remedies

More light

The simplest way to help your camera focus is to increase the amount of light in the scene you are shooting.  This will
enhance the sharp lines and areas of high contrast that your autofocus system needs.  If you are using a home studio
with bulbs, use the strongest bulb your lamp will take, given its wattage limitations.  If your lamp can take a high
wattage, you can use a splitter.  This is a cheap device that enables you to plug two bulbs into a single socket and
thereby double your light intensity.  You can also use flash (strobe).  This will produce as much light as anyone could
need, but needs to be used intelligently if you are to produce a pleasing image.  If you are using natural light, position
your subject so that there is plenty of light hitting the most important areas.

Chose a useful autofocus point

You should also make sure your autofocus point is over an area of sufficiently high contrast for your camera to use. 
Eyes tend to be high contrast and, as they are usually the point of interest of a portrait, they are a good place to set
your autofocus point.  If you canít place an autofocus point over an area of high contrast and still frame the shot in
the way you want, you can use the ďlock and reframeĒ trick.  With this, you place your autofocus point over an area of
high contrast that is at the same distance from the camera as the area you want to be in sharpest focus.  You then
press the shutter halfway down.  This focuses the lens and, for as long as you keep the shutter half pressed, it will
hold that focus.  Then move the camera to reframe the shot as you want it.  When you are ready to take the picture,
press the shutter down the rest of the way to release the shutter.  This works best when the camera is on a support,
as even the slight backwards and forwards movements you make will be enough to throw the focus.  However, it can
be done handheld, with care.

Switch to manual focus

If you are struggling with autofocus, you can focus your lens manually, if it will allow it.  That way you can decide
exactly which part of the image you need to be sharp and judge how effective you have been in achieving that.  As
most autofocus systems are largely effective, this one should be reserved for the situations where it is likely to fail,
such as in low light or when doing extreme close ups.  You can use the live view screen as you focus, zooming in on
your subject to make sure it is pin sharp.

Check your equipment

The solution to a poor quality lens is to buy a better one.  The better the glass, the sharper the image you will get.  If
you are on a budget, which all of us are, a good quality prime lens (so, one with only one focal length, as opposed to a
zoom) will give you most bang for your buck.  A 50mm prime is a popular choice for toy photography.

Avoid using the extremes of the lens.  Donít open the lens up or close it down right to its extremes of aperture.  If it is
a zoom, donít use it at the top or bottom ends of its focal lengths.  Avoiding the extremes can conserve a little, extra
sharpness.

If the camera doesnít appear to be communicating effectively with the lens, make sure the lens is screwed fully into the
camera body.  You can also try cleaning the contacts.  Search the internet for guidance on how to do this without
damaging either.  Finally, check that you havenít inadvertently flipped the focus switch on the lens to ďmanualĒ.  That
wonít help your autofocus.

Post processing

A final solution is to sharpen the image in post processing.  This isnít really a solution, as sharpening canít turn a
terminally blurry picture into something useable.  However, it can correct slight blurring.  As over sharpening can
produce unsightly haloes around areas of high contrast and exaggerate noise, use it in moderation.

II  INAPPROPRIATE FOCUS

Diagnosis

The sign that your camera has focused, but on the wrong thing, is that some parts of the image are sharp, just not the
parts that you wanted to be.  Scan the picture to identify what has happened.  Is the hair sharp but the face not?  Is
a detail in the background the only thing in your image that is in focus?  The chances are it is a problem of
inappropriate focus.
Here is a classic case of inappropriate focus.  We have lovely, sharp architecture in the background.  The doll?  Not so
much. 
Here is a more subtle but probably more familiar example of inappropriate focus.  The dollís face is frustratingly soft. 
However, the texture on the cardigan is beautifully rendered.  Not really what you were aiming for.

Cause(s)

When you use an autofocus system, you can generally tell the camera where in the scene you want the lens to focus. 
This is determined by selective the active autofocus point (check your camera manual for how to do this). 
Inappropriate focus occurs when you havenít placed your autofocus point over the area you want to be sharp.  It
therefore focuses on some irrelevancy.  This can be a particular problem if there is an object in front of your doll, such
as overhanging hair.  The autofocus system might latch onto that and give you beautiful, crisp hair and a hazy face. 
No one wants to see that.

Remedies

Take a minute to move your autofocus point every time you take a photo, so that it is always over the most important
area of the scene.  If there isnít an autofocus point just where you want it, you can use the lock and reframe
technique outlined above. 

III SUBJECT TOO CLOSE

Diagnosis

A sign that your subject is too close is that you are in your dollís face and the lens is doing its ďhuntingĒ thing,
struggling to focus and being unable to.  If you do manage to focus and take the shot, the chances are that you have
fallen foul to inappropriate focus and that the camera has taken the opportunity to focus on something at a more
comfortable distance, usually the background.  A way to check this is to move back slightly from your subject.  If the
lens stops hunting and focuses, chances are you were just too damned close.
In this one, the small doll is just too close for the camera to cope with.  It has therefore waited for a moment when it
could focus on the background and taken the shot you really didnít want.

Cause(s)

All lenses have a minimum focusing distance.  This is the shortest distance from the sensor to the subject at which the
lens can still focus.  This information should be with your lens.  Anything closer than this minimum distance will be
beyond the reach of your lens and it will not be able to focus on it.

Remedies

Use a longer focal length

Move back to beyond the minimum focusing distance from the subject, so that the lens can focus.  Then, if you have a
telephoto lens or other lens with longer focal length than the one you were using, switch to that.  You will then be able
to magnify the scene and get the framing you want. 

Crop it

If you donít have a lens with a long focal length, step back to take the shot and crop it in post processing.  However,
severe cropping can compromise the quality of the image, by magnifying the effects of noise (see more on this in the
second article).  It is therefore not an ideal solution.

Use a macro lens

If you see yourself doing enough of this close up work, you might want to invest in a macro lens.  This is effectively a
lens with a very short minimum focusing distance.  You can therefore get very close to your subject and still focus. 
However, macro lenses tend to be pretty expensive, so you might want to try the other solutions first.  Extension
tubes work in a similar way and enable you to use your normal lens but reduce its minimum focus distance.  They are
cheaper than dedicated macro lenses and might be a good place to start if you are considering macro photography but
are not yet ready to commit.

DEPTH OF FIELD PROBLEMS
The amount of a scene that can be captured in sharp detail, from front to back, is limited.  The amount of the scene
that is in acceptably sharp focus is called the depth of field.  Any areas that fall outside of that zone will appear blurry.

Whilst a narrow depth of field can be used for artistic purposes, such as blurring a background to reduce it distracting
qualities or producing those lovely, sparkly bokeh effects, it can cause problems.

Diagnosis

The point at which you placed the autofocus point is sharp.  However, the important areas in front of or behind it are
unacceptably blurry.
See how the dollís face and body are blurry, but the hands are pin sharp.  The depth of field has been deliberately
narrowed to get that lovely bokeh.  As a consequence, it has become too shallow to encompass both the body and the
outstretched hands.  This is made more noticeable by having placed the focus on the hands rather than the face, the
most important part of the image. 

Causes

The depth of field you were using was too narrow to be able to encompass all the parts of the image you wanted to be
sharp. 

Remedies

Increase the depth of field

The obvious solution is to increase depth of field.  This is done by adjusting the size of aperture.  This is the hole in the
camera that lets light onto the sensor.  Aperture size is measured by f numbers.  The higher the f number, the smaller
the aperture will be.  The rule is, the smaller the aperture size (so the higher the f number), the larger the depth of field
you will get.  So, shut down the aperture until you can get all you want in focus. 

Step back

Depth of field shrinks the closer the camera is to the subject.  This is most apparent in macro photography, where the
camera might be only a few centimetres from the subject, producing a few millimetres depth of field.  Shutting down
your aperture to f/22 might not be enough in that situation.  You can therefore use the methods described in the
minimum focus distance section to step back and take the shot you want. 

Line it up

Make sure all the interesting elements are lined up at the same distance from your camera.  So, to get a close up shot
of a tiny face, shoot it straight on, rather than at an angle.  This will avoid half the face fading away into blur. 

Use the available depth of field sensibly

If you have a scene that is deep, such as a group shot with subjects close to and further away from the lens, you will
get the most useful depth of field by choosing an autofocus point that is one third to halfway down the depth of the
important parts of the scene.  This will make the most of the depth of field you have, enabling it to cover as much of
the scene as it can.
Next section: Noise
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