Image Softness

Potential image softness is a concern shared by many photographers of varying skill levels, and who’s work covers a wide range of genres. This article covers some of the fundamental issues that may contribute to image softness, many of which can be addressed without the need to spend more money on camera gear.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks, and/or to illustrate concepts in the article.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8.1, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, subject distance 7 metres

Shutter speed.

Probably the most common reason why photographers have issues with image softness is that they have a selected an inappropriately slow shutter speed.  Obviously there are creative considerations in terms of how much image blur that a photographer may want in their images. For example, some folks like to have some wing blur to create a feeling of movement, while others want an entire bird to be sharp.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 250 mm, efov 675 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250

Another common reason why insufficiently fast shutter speeds are chosen is people trying to force the use of the lowest possible ISO value. The thinking behind this is that shooting at the lowest possible ISO will deliver the highest dynamic range and colour depth… and also help to reduce noise.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5, 1/400, ISO-16000, image from RAW file processed to taste

It is true that these possible benefits exist… but ultimately they don’t matter at all if the image is out of focus, or if a high degree of image softness is present, due to the use of an unacceptably slow shutter speed. When it comes to choosing between ISO and shutter speed, choosing the latter can reduce the frequency of image softness.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS PRO @54 mm, efov 108 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-5000, Hand-held Hi Res Mode

Poor handholding technique.

Each of us has our limits when it comes to the slowest shutter speed we can effectively use in specific situations. The longer and heavier the lens, the higher the risk of image softness due to poor handholding technique. It can be very beneficial to regularly practice our handholding technique at slow shutter speeds.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 90 mm, efov 243 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-2800, MOVO extension tubes used

We can then establish realistic shutter speed limits based on the size, weight and focal length of the lens we are using, as well as with the specific camera to which it is mounted.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-6400

We also need to remember that teleconverters reduce the effectiveness of our camera’s IBIS system. A 1.4X teleconverter reduces IBIS effectiveness by 1 stop. A 2X teleconverter creates a 2 stop penalty.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focusing stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 290 mm

Time lag between handheld auto-focus acquisition and shutter release.

As soon as we acquire auto-focus on a subject it is important that we smoothly follow through and depress our shutter release. The longer the time lag between focus acquisition and shutter release, the greater the risk that we’ll create a soft image. It only takes a split second for our bodies to sway slightly. This can impact our image by putting it slightly out of focus as our focal plane may have shifted.

This can be very noticeable when doing handheld macro photography. Some people use C-AF rather than single AF as it can help reduce the risk of image softness due to body sway.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/20, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focusing stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 285 mm

One of the reasons why I use a short stool when shooting handheld macro photography is that it enables me to significantly reduce the potential of body sway during the capture of a macro image.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 244 mm, efov 488 mm, f/6.1, 1/250, ISO-1000, handheld in-camera focus stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 1.4 metres

Using too many auto-focus points.

The fewer auto-focus points we use, the more control we have on how our cameras acquire focus. I’ve used a single auto-focus point for the vast majority of my images for a very long time.  This has been my standard practice with a wide range of camera gear including full frame, APS-C, Nikon 1 and M4/3 equipment.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, -0.7 EV, 1/5000, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3721 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.4 metres

As noted in many articles on this website, my use of a single auto-focus point includes engaging it with computational photography technologies such as in-camera focus stacking, LiveND, Handheld Hi Res, and Pro Capture L/H.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, efov 120 mm, f/5.6, 1/25, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, full frame capture, subject distance 290 mm

We need to remember that the auto-focus systems on cameras are under continual improvement so photographers will need to adjust their shooting technique to make the most of the newest auto-focusing technology. Modern auto-focusing systems are becoming more complicated. Spending time experimenting with our camera’s auto-focusing options can help reduce image softness, as we learn to select the most appropriate option for a given shooting situation.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/5000, ISO-800, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2677 pixels on the width, subject distance 5.7 metres

Generally speaking, using a larger AF array can result in a camera’s AF system grabbing focus on other birds, or something in the background or foreground, as more elements enter into the frame when panning with a subject bird.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 14.2 metres

Post processing skills.

There have been some incredible improvements with post processing software over the past number of years. Learning how to best apply some of this new AI technology can help us overcome some image softness with a modicum of effort in post. Experimenting with our software can help us expand our post processing capabilities.

NIKON D800 + TAMRON 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 6400, 1/80, f/6.3

Lens optical quality.

Professional grade lenses command a higher price due to their optical quality, weathersealing, auto-focusing speed and reliability. Typically when we purchase more modestly priced camera gear, for example a long telephoto lens, it comes with some trade-offs. Some image softness when the lens is fully extended, is a fairly common one.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/6400, ISO-1250, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4418 pixels on the width, subject distance 5.8 metres

To overcome this issue some photographers choose to stop their lens down a bit…. say from f/6.3 to f/8.  This can help sharpen up an image, as can finding the ‘sweet’ spot’ with the various lenses you own. Often a lens is at its sharpest when stopped down one or two stops from wide open. As noted earlier, modern AI software can really help effectively deal with some image softness in post.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, 1/1600, f/6.3, ISO-500, cropped to 4031 pixels on the width, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, subject distance 17.1 metres

Shooting in bursts.

Image softness is sometimes difficult to avoid when photographing fast moving subjects, or when using quite slow shutter speeds. Shooting in bursts in both of these scenarios can be helpful to generate at least a few sharp keepers.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 253 mm, efov 506 mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-320, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3517 pixels on the width, subject distance 9 metres

Using cheap filters.

Many photographers use UV filters to help protect their lenses from front element damage. This is a prudent thing to do… but using a cheap filter can contribute to image softness. It pays to use good quality filters.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 @ 13 mm, efov 26 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg adjusted in post

Atmospheric haze.

Regardless of our skill level and the quality of camera gear that we may be using, atmospheric haze can cause image softness. Atmospheric haze is caused by various particles in the air. These can include moisture, dust, smoke and various industrial emissions. These particles can scatter light and cause our images to have reduced clarity.

OM-D EM-1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/3200, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2337 pixels on the width, subject distance 6 metres

Using a long telephoto lens to try to photograph distant subjects can accentuate the image softness that is associated with atmospheric haze. To reduce these effects we can try to get in closer to our subjects. Some software programs have functions like DxO ClearView that are designed to help increase clarity in hazy images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 104 mm, efov 208 mm, f/8, 1/60, ISO-1600, Handheld Hi Res, full frame capture, subject distance 700 mm

Shooting through glass.

It can be tricky to photograph subjects that are in glass enclosures, or when we need to shoot through a glass window. Some image softness and/or distortion can result if the end of our lens is too far away from the glass surface, or if we shoot through glass at an inappropriate angle. To help reduce image softness when shooting through glass it is helpful to remove the lens hood on our equipment and place the end of our lens flush against the glass panel. Keeping our focal plane parallel to the glass surface can help lessen image softness due to distortion.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-200, in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 365 mm

Choice of aperture and focal length.

Some image softness can occur when we select an inappropriate aperture for our photograph. Shooting a lens wide open can result in image softness as it delivers shallow depth-of-field. Stopping a lens down one or two stops will increase the depth-of-field. We can also use focus stacking to increase our depth-of-field. We need to be careful not to stop our lens down too far as diffraction can occur.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, efov 14 mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO-200

Shooting a lens wide open doesn’t automatically result in image softness, as the amount of our composition that is in focus will also depend on the focal length of the lens used. When shot from the same position, using the same aperture, a wider focal length lens will always deliver more depth-of-field than a longer focal length shot under identical parameters.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/8, -0.5 EV, 1/1500, ISO-200, handheld HRD2, full frame capture, focusing distance 2.2 metres

Choosing the focusing point in a composition.

Image softness can occur if we choose the wrong focusing point in our composition. Spending time studying the impact of aperture, lens focal length and distance to subject with an online depth-of-field calculator can help us understand where we should be focusing in specific situations, given the camera gear we are using… and our creative intent.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 45 mm f/1.2, f/1.8, 1/100, ISO-6400

Heat distortion.

Often called heat haze, heat distortion occurs naturally when light moves through air of varying densities. There are a couple of basics in play with heat distortion. The first is that hot air is lighter than denser cold air.  The second issue is that light travels at slightly different speeds depending on what it is travelling through. It can move through lighter, hot air faster than it can through denser cold air.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/9, 1/1000, ISO-3200, subject distance 5.4 metres

Image softness can occur when there are layers of hot air and cold air in close proximity to each other. These different densities of air can cause light to refract or bend. Heat distortion is most noticeable when there is a significant difference in temperature between the ground and the air above it.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 @ 215 mm, efov 430 mm, f/6.7, 1/1600, ISO-640

It is common for strong sunlight on rocks, pavement and darker surfaces to cause heat distortion in our photographs. This makes objects appear fuzzy and slightly out-of-focus. In some cases straight lines can have a wiggly appearance.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-900, cropped to 3805 pixels on the width

It is important to remember that it doesn’t need to be hot outside for heat distortion to be present. Heat distortion can be triggered even at colder temperatures if there is a large variance in adjacent air masses. For example, shooting through an open car window while seated in a heated automobile in the winter.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4013 pixels on the width, subject distance 1.5 metres

The effects of heat distortion are most noticeable when using a long telephoto lens to photograph distant subjects. One strategy to reduce image softness from heat distortion is to move in closer to your subject… or wait for the subjects to come to you. Avoiding shooting in the heat of the day is an obvious approach, but is not always possible. Using a lens hood can help reduce glare. Using a UV filter, or a polarizing filter can also be helpful. You can also choose subjects that are further away from hotter ground surfaces.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS @ 28 mm, efov 56 mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-200, focusing distance 3.8 metres

Lens calibration.

If you find that a lens that used to perform well, but now has issues, it may make sense to send it in for service and have a lens calibration done. Lenses that are subject to jolts or bangs can require servicing. Unfortunately many of us jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong with our lens when we experience some image softness. We may end up sending it in for repairs or calibration that are not actually needed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600 mm, f/13, -0.7 EV, 1/800, ISO-800, cropped to 4708 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.2 metres

Image softness is not the end of the world.

Most of us will experience a degree of image softness from time to time. Rather than getting upset… it is far more productive to learn how to minimize image softness whenever possible. And, use software solutions to improve our images when possible.

Like most folks, I’ve had my share of soft images. After doing some investigation and assessment with this images, I discovered that the cause of the image softness I experienced was always self-induced. I either used my gear incorrectly, or make mistakes with camera settings, or dealing with shooting scenarios. It was never the fault of my camera gear.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from jpeg or RAW  files using my standard process. This is the 1,356 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Image Softness”

  1. Hi Thomas,
    Just a quick note on my 40-150 f2.8. I was out today and testing the 300 f4 with MC-14, and the MC-20. I found that my 300 needed an update to use the MC20. Did that, now the 300 f4 works amazing with the MC14 and MC20.
    However, it’s a different story for the 40-150, neither MC’s produce a nice sharp shot no matter how I try. I might have to send in the 40-150, as I think it got bumped many years ago. It does make very sharp image all by itself tho.
    Anyway the 100-400 will be here next month so it might be a moot point for the 40-150 and and TCs on it.
    Curious on your thoughts.


    1. Hi Randy,

      I’m not a technical guy at all, but I have heard that sometimes a good bump can cause a lens to need recalibration. Perhaps your PRO 40-150 f/2.8 is slightly off and using the teleconverters makes it more apparent.


  2. Thomas,
    Excellent article. Some great points for me to brush up on the upcoming bird and critter season in the mountains east of San Diego. I’ll pull the trigger on the 100-400 probably in March to be ready and also have the 300 f4. I’m still having good focus problems with the TCs on the 40-150 f2.8 Pro, The lens by itself is amazing, but the TCs really degrade the photos. Still researching that one. Another reason to get the 100-400 to get the reach I need without a TC. Historically, I have never really had any good luck with them. I have been a bird shooter for a long time so I know a problem when I see one.
    Anyway, the best,


    1. Hi Randy,

      It’s interesting to learn about other people’s experiences with their camera gear. I’ve been quite pleased with the results when using the MC-14 and MC-20. When I first made the switch to Olympus, my main birding kit was the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150mm f/2.8 with the MC-20. I had no issues with it. I don’t use the MC-20 with the M.Zuiko 100-400 very often, but quite frequently use the MC-14.

      For as much as I’ve personally had no issues using teleconverters, I am interested in the M.Zuiko 150-600 for the extra reach without any loss of light.


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