This is probably the most common question we hear from beginner photographers, and there are many possible explanations. Here’s the checklist you should run though to make sure user error isn’t the culprit.
1. Is Your Shutter Speed Sufficient? A very common mistake is to get so caught up in the moment of shooting that you forget to check your shutter speed. There’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind when you’re shooting pictures hand-held. Your shutter speed should be 1/focal length of your lens. This means that if you’re shooting at 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/60th or faster to get sharp pictures. If you’re shooting at 200mm, you should be shooting at 1/250th or faster.
2. Are You Using a Tripod? To get really sharp images, using a tripod is a must. I agree that not all situations warrant a tripod. For example, street photography is difficult with a tripod. Often, street photographers are trying to be unseen and need to react quickly to situations and scenes that unfold. But in landscape photography, the scene isn’t changing rapidly and a tripod gives you the proper support to shoot sharp images.
3. Do You Have Image Stabilization (Canon)/Vibration Reduction (Nikon) Turned Off? This is the number one mistake made when shooting on a tripod, and I have fallen victim to this one myself. Sophisticated lenses have special technology called IS (Canon) and VR (Nikon) which actually works to compensate for the small movements you make when hand-holding your camera to take a picture. When you put your camera on a tripod and leave IS/VR in the ON position, the lens “thinks” you’re hand-holding and makes the necessary micro-adjustments to compensate. As a result, the images come out slightly blurry. It’s imperative that you turn IS/VR to OFF as soon as you put your camera on a tripod.
5. Are You Using a Cable Release or Your Timer Function? Another consideration is that when you actually push the shutter button, you’re probably moving the camera a little bit, even on a sturdy tripod. One way to eliminate this is to use a cable release button so you’re not actually touching your camera. The cable release button is useful if you’re trying to take a picture at an exact moment. I often just use my 2-second timer function when I’m taking landscapes. The sun isn’t setting that fast that I need to snap the picture at a precise moment.
Running through this check list generally resolves any issues with complaints about image sharpness. If using these techniques doesn’t resolve sharpness issues, you’ll need to consider whether your tripod is sturdy enough, whether you’re using your tripod correctly, or whether you genuinely have an issue with the lens on your camera.