Help: My pictures look flat, out of focus/blurry/not crisp enough, dull, overexposed

Canon Rebel XSi - 450DCanon Rebel XSi - 450DMy Canon Rebel XSi field guide recently mutated into a bit of a support forum for Rebel XSi users and future XSi owners. I love it when my readers are guiding my writing with questions, answers and even corrections or additions to my articles.

One question that seems to plague a few of you is how to give your pictures some pop (one o!). Why do my pictures often look so colorful while your pictures sometimes look a bit flat or out of focus/blurry/not sharp enough/not crisp enough. Do you have a broken camera or are you missing some other magical button.

After Cheryl posted her questions and awakened my curiosity, we exchanged some emails to discuss her problem of seemingly overexposed pictures that apparently lacked sharpness in color and detail (by her account).

With her old Canon PowerShot she was able to capture great pictures.

We quickly ruled out some common problems with monitor calibration and printing. Color Management is a tricky process. I am far from being an expert despite a working knowledge.

I also asked Cheryl if she might have set her camera to Adobe RGB. In the Color Management article I explained how the wrong color space setting may produce flat looking images.  

If your printed pictures look different than they do on your screen, the processing service is usually not to blame. They rely on expensive calibrated equipment. Laptops have often cheap, low quality LCD. Get a better monitor and calibrate it!

Features and Colorspace

Digital SLR cameras offer advanced features and the camera menus and user manuals swamp the casual photographer with information. I was not surprised to learn that Cheryl had no idea what Adobe RGB meant.

Adobe RGB only works in the creative zone modes. It is on the second page of the configuration menu on your camera (red camera icon).

When I processed one of her images through ProPhoto RGB (my color space of choice), it suddenly exploded with color. I do not believe that Cheryl had set her camera to the wrong setting, since other pictures still look oversaturated after I changed the color space.

Comparing the Original to the Processed Image

What happened

Both pictures contain the same information. I generated the second image from the first one, proofing that it already had all the necessary information.

During the relatively simple processing (assign ProPhoto RGB to the image and convert it to sRGB) the contrast in the color information got enhanced. I can achieve similar (but less pronounced) results by simply enhancing the colors in Photoshop. I usually use LAB color mode to separate the color from the brightness information if I want to affect only color (see link). I believe this is all that is required for Cheryl’s images.

But isn’t that cheating?

Whenever a photographer uses software to enhance the perception of images, people usually are outraged. There seems to be a predominant opinion among people who have no knowledge of the subject, that one can create fantastic images with Photoshop alone and that that is cheating. I recommend reading my article on the Ethics of Photoshop Image Manipulation for an in depth coverage of the subject. In short, you cannot turn ugly photographs into stunningly beautiful masterpieces (garbage in, garbage out). Mastering Photoshop is an art in itself and should be seen as such.

The camera IS to blame!

Point and Shoot cameras are usually adjusted for maximum user pleasure with minimum effort. The results are pleasing to most people, simply because the manufacturer adjusted the presets accordingly.

Digital SLR users are often much more selective. We want our color output to be more muted so that we can capture the entire color range without clipping off colors. We rather adjust the color in our software to our own style and liking. Most Consumer SLRs have presets, which let us adjust the color saturation in our JPG images. By default these settings are rather muted for the above reasons.


I usually prefer to capture RAW files and perform my very own RAW processing. This way I do not have to rely on a camera processor making automated decisions for me. Instead I can adjust my output depending on the scene and the lighting conditions. Even the best camera chips do not know your intentions and/or what is in the scene. I can even choose to enhance the dynamic range (HDR processing of RAW).

Digital SLRs are very demanding and require you to rethink how you work with images, but the results speak for themselves. Hopefully some of my Tutorials can help pave the way for you.

Why then do my macros look better ?

Leaf macroI already got Cheryl convinced to learn more about RAW processing. She sent me a follow up question about her macro images that appear much more saturated and seem to pop right out of the camera.

The image on the left is unprocessed.

I do not know if Cheryl used a different lens. Lenses have a strong influence on color rendition. If she used a different lens, I would like to encourage her to try a comparative shot of the same scene with two lenses to find out about the differences.

Dynamic Range Problems

As far as the camera goes, the macro shot has a more limited dynamic range than the forest picture. The camera has to preserve detail in the shadows and highlights of the forest shot and cannot render the shadows and the highlights well enough, since they lie near or beyond the capabilities of the camera.

As a remedy I would like her to try exposing for the shadows or the highlights alone. If you expose for shadows, the shadows should be rendered much clearer. The highlights will be blown out, but that may be perfectly acceptable in many shots.  

Forest scenes present a drastic challenge for cameras. Try shooting on overcast days to avoid bright spots on the ground and exclude the sky from your photographs to prevent blown out highlights. Your pictures should turn out much better.

Another less obvious reason may be that Cheryl is using the scene modes of her camera. Maybe the macro mode simply is adjusted to produce more saturated colors. Maybe you could try it out and post the results here?

What did I forget?

I probably forgot to mention a few things. If you happen to have some more ideas, feel free to post them below.

blurry pictures

I have the Canon XSI. I also use the Canon 17-55mm 2.8 lens. I mostly use the auto settings but for some reason most all the pictures come out blurred. I'll take landscape pictures, indoor basketball games, etc. On the back of the camera they look clear until you zoom in and they are all blurred. When I transferr it to the laptop it is still blurred. Also, when I'm pressing the shoot button down half way, the lens is jumping back and forth trying to focus and a lot of times I miss the shot because of it. It also does it with my Canon 55-250mm zoom lens. Is it the camera, the lens, or me?


Just a quick shout from my mobile phone:
-Check your focus mode (servo vs single shot). Servo is for keeping track of moving subjects.
-Check if you have all focus points activated !
-Check your metering modes (set it to evaluative)
If everything checks out, vary the parameters (spot focus and single focus point and see if you can obtain focus on a well lit high contrast subject.
If that doesn't work, send if to their repair center with a detailed problem description but call first to get a case number.

dull pix

I get dull results too with the 18-55 kit lens. I would like to set the settings in the camera rather than have to run everything through Photoshop to fix. If you look at the Picture settings menu you will see that the camera defaults are dull, plus sharpness is not maximized. I think I can configure the Standard Picture to what I need, at least I can bump up sharpness, maybe saturation and contrast too. Will try. I took over a hundred shots of new Buckeyes coming up and was disappointed by the lack of color. Has anyone already done the trials of these settings and come up with recommendations?



That is absolutely right David. Thanks for adding this information. Most modern cameras have these options and it usually comes down to taste what you should set.
A word of warning: Don't go overboard on the settings. I often find that my taste changes and since RAW files are neutral, I can always change the way I process my pictures as long as I keep the originals.
I usually like to increase sharpness and saturation and often try to adjust the color tonality so that skin color is rendered correctly under controlled conditions (white balance set manually).
Since in-camera processing also burns a white balance into your pictures that you cannot change later you have to pay more attention. On the other hand you can automatically process all your images on the computer which is fast and often yields better results.

XSI- unnervingly soft images, especially on full auto mode


I came across your site and was just enamored with your ability/willingness to help people with thier xsi "problems". I am a new owner as well and have had the camera for a couple of days now.

While the camera is befuddling to a dslr noob like me, the one thing i did not expect to see is the utter lack of any sharpness in the simple full auto mode, as well as any others. I simply cannot pick up and shoot in full auto and get a sharp shot, and im trying to figure out if its a camera error, lens error, etc. I will be getting the efs 50-250 lens this afternoon and i can compare the sharpness, but right now im very worried.

here are links to two images i took this morning- one is from the xsi, and another from my trusty sony p200. The lack of sharpness is flabergasting, and both are in full auto mode:



my problem is that the expensive dslr in full auto mode is only about half as sharp, which i find, well, CRAZY. It's really driving me bonkers. I cant seem to get a sharp line no matter what my focus or mode is, and i'd like to sort it out before more events come around and im taking all these soft shots. I have read of others doing a reset, or software bugs that can result in focusing errors, but this is just oo obvious- from the first shot i took with it. I have shot some "nice" pictures with it over the weekend, but sharpness is not a feature of any of them.

Your advice would be highly appreciated, and thanks in advance

Try this

Hello Edward,

I looked at the file and I can see that you shot the picture at 53mm focal length with an exposure time of 1/60s. Since the camera has a crop factor of 1.6, you will have a hard time shooting pictures holding the camera.

The Rebel always uses 1/60s when you use the flash, but you can set another exposure time (Tv) if you wish.

Secondly I can see that an aperture of 5.6 at 53mm will result in a relatively shallow depth of field.

Third I know that 5.6 is the maximum aperture of the Kit lens at 53mm. Eery lens is sharper when you stop down (to f/8 for instance.

Why the P200 is sharper: I also have a P200. It has a very small sensor and thus inherently a much much greater depth of field. The smaller sensor also translates into a much shorter focal length, which means you will not have problems with camera shake. DSLR require a bit more attention, but the control over depth of field will give you much better creative options.

What to do: First find out if there is a problem with your camera and then report back. Here is what you should do:

-Either shoot on a bright sunny day or use a tripod to eliminate camera shake.

-Use the same focal length (e.g. 50mm).

-Select the center focal point

-Point that focal point on a clearly defined subject (clouds don't have enough definition, the edge of a flag pole does)

-Vary the aperture (Av) between f/8 and f/5.6 and take two test shots

-Look at the shots right where the focal point was and let me know if that is sharp bot times.

pics blurry

I have a canon rebel. I shoot in manual. I think im finding out that it is not a good camera for low light situations. I like to shoot my clients around 5 when the sun isnt so harsh. I did a session with my shutter speed at 6.3 1/40 iso 200. they arent sharp. it looks like alot of noise. Im taking a photography class and my teacher keeps saying its my shutter speed. But ive even tried using a tripod at 1/30 and they still werent very sharp...What do you think? Am I expecting too much out of my rebel or should I send it in to get looked at?


Hello Jessica,

the shutter speed information is more meaningful together with information on the lens.

  • For instance 6.3 is often the maximum aperture of a budget lens at the long end (e.g. a budget Canon or Sigma lens at 200mm). In which case you can expect significant softness from the lens itself. You need to "stop the lens down" to achieve better sharpness (e.g. use it at f/9 instead of f/6.3).
  • The focal length also matters when you shoot hand held. With 1/40s on the Canon Rebel, you should not use a focal length longer than 40/(crop factor) = 40/1.6 = 25mm. If you shoot at a longer focal length without image stabilization, you will get blurry pictures. If you have image stabilization, you can add two stops (25mm*2*2=100mm) no more.
  • You also need to consider your subject speed and distance, to make sure your subject isn't exhibiting motion blur. I wrote an article about Shutter Speed and Motion that can help you in this respect.
  • You need to shut off image stabilization on your lens when you shoot from a tripod. Otherwise the IS has the opposite effect, it makes pictures blurry.
  • Finally there is always the chance that your lens (usually the lens not the camera) has a front or back focusing issue. To detect this, you need can photograph something on a flat surface, like a sidewalk. Put a little stone on the sidewalk, select the center focus point in your camera, and focus on this stone, with the camera on a tripod while observing the above rules. Then see where the focus in the image is sharpest. On the stone (good lens), behind the stone (back focus problem) in front of the stone (front focus problem).

I think the camera itself is rarely to blame, but it does happen. You need to try different lenses if you have them to be sure.
Let us know what you come up with.

Flat color etc . .

I am find the same thing with my Rebel XSi -- wanting to take my photos to the next level, I know it is I having the learning curve. I bought a Spyder pro to help calibrate my Sony Vaio laptop, but when the printer called this morning and said my images were flat --- I came searching more info.

Flat color

Can you check what color space your image is in? Whatever you do, you should convert it to sRGB before sending it out, using perceptual as your setting. Otherwise your image will simply get mapped to sRGB. Assuming it was using Adobe RGB before, this results in flat looking colors. See my post: Color Management for more information. The side by side comparison of the Mission Picture demonstrates this.
A good indication is, if the colors look good in Photoshop on the original.
If that's not it, drop me an email (contact button above).

soft images with the Nikon D50 slr

After much experimenting with my newly acquired Nikon D50 slr, I am absolutely non-plussed as to why I cannot get results as clear, let alone better, than my coolpix camera. Applying unsharp mask to an image shot on the D50's lowest sharping setting, as recommended in Imaging Resource's review, doesn't help. Are Dslr cameras with their poorer depth of field at any given aperture inherently more difficult to use? Please advise.

Kind Regards,
Michael Lee

Depth of field

Hello Michael,
You can achieve the same depth of field with a SLR that a P&S camera gives you, but you can dial in a lower Depth. Basically a DSLR gives you more choice. Unfortunately this also includes the option of setting the dials to a less than ideal position.
Sharpening a blurry picture does not really solve the issue.
Fortunately I am working on a series that should help you identify the cause of blurry pictures. When you know what is happening, you can get a better grip on how to fix it.
Go to the home page and read my last articles on Motion Blur and Camera Shake. I will soon publish the next in the article.
Also let me know if you want to email me the picture.

Buy a point and shot camera

Buy a point and shot camera and make it easy for your life. I was at my sister's wedding with my cheap camera, I took the same shots when ever the photographer with big expensive clunky camera took, When later I compared my photos vs the photos that my sis paid thousands of dollars for, I couldn't tell the difference unless you have professional eyes to catch the differences. I usually raised my slim $100 cameras and clicked and always got nice sharp photos. I just bought a Canon DSLR EOS and even I tried to keep my hands sturdy, half of my shots were blurry.

just came from a vacation. I

just came from a vacation. I am a newbie to the DSLR world but still the shots i took are ok but the shots i am in (meaning taken by other's ) are blurr...background is focused while person in front is blur. is there a way to sharpen the image ? i went through the article, but couldnot come up with working picture !!


Unfortunately if the focus is off, you cannot do much. You may be able to increase perception of sharpness, but the tools cannot regain any information (invent pixels) that isn't there.
My favorite Sharpening tool is "Topaz Labs InFocus". You could give this a try, but I wouldn't expect it to restore a completely messed up picture.
I usually pre-focus my camera and then switch to manual when I let others take my photograph. You also need to make sure you have sufficient depth of field (small aperture) to get the background AND yourself in focus.
You learn from your mistakes. It reminds me of my first year with a SLR.

i have acannon amx410

i got a new cannon and the pictures come out dull looking i had a cannon before and it worked just fine untill the end what can i do

soft in the details

I've been shooting with my Rebel XTi since 2008 and it hasn't been able to produce images that are crisp and well-defined -- esp. when I zoom in on the images. I have used a few different lenses (including the Canon kit), different ISO/f-stop-shutter speeds/tripods, etc, etc. to improve my images. I have set the standard sharpness at 5, 6, and 7 and still I get soft edges upon close inspection. I've looked at other photogs online images on my laptop and they mange to look very crisp (even while zoomed and images are at web standard 72dpi) I don't know what the problem is. I shoot manual and auto settings, I have manually and auto-focused shots. I feel like I've done everything to improve the crisp-ness and nothing's worked. Any ideas besides throwing the camera out the window?

Thanks for posting this one.

Thanks for posting this one. I'm still exploring my camera. I've been practicing many techniques actually. Keep posting. Kyle Thomas Glasser

I am absolutely non-plussed

I am absolutely non-plussed why I can not get clear results, let alone better, than I COOLPIX cameras. The recommendations of the review of the D50 image resources, the lowest sharpening setting, captured images applied Unsharp Masking, there is no help.
auto diagnostic tool

hey i have one problem i

hey i have one problem i took my pic in full auto mode for my project but now my prof. says u should take in manual mode. when i check my photos in properties its showing all in detail full auto can this be changed by doing anything can i change that to manual in any other way pls help but it shold not be edited it should be real but fake settings pls help me !!!!!!!!

I have seen a wedding

I have seen a wedding photographer work, and after he took the pictures, he did some photoshopping on it. I have always wondered whether it was cheating, but it seems everybody is doing a bit of touch up to photos these days. So on top of knowing how to take good pictures, you also need a working knowledge of photoshop.

My pictures look flat, out

My pictures look flat, out of focus/blurry/not crisp enough, dull, overexposed; How to avoid a “bad" memory card; How to become a good photographer.. and Reflectors Usage,Help: My pictures look flat, out of focus, dull, overexposed,Help: My pictures look flat, out of focus/blurry/not crisp enough, dull, overexposed ...

Picture at a special moment

Picture at a special moment and images come out soft/blurry or out of focus. ... shoot my subjects in a very sharp, crisp look ... my flash is not enough and also photos …

Fuzzy photos

If my photos used to be crisp and suddenly are not, would it be a camera or lens issue? I'm going crazy with it and I don't know what to try short of taking my camera in

Av tv

First of all thank you for this great forum. I have a problem with my AV TV setting. It seems like lately my camera is overexposing whenever I shoot in either setting. Manual and auto looks fine. What did I do to it??? Help please

Very nice post and

Very nice post and photos,for taking a nice photo the photographer must be expert and the camera should be good feature with a quality lens.
royalty free images

Not the lens

Photoshop is not cheating, it is a tool used to spruce up and fix your images plain and simple. Your camera is not the one that takes the pictures its you. It doesn't matter what kind of camera you use either, some pros use an iPhone believe it or not to take photos. Whether you have a DSLR or point and shoot it has nothing to do with how the image will come out. The only difference between a full frame dslr and a crop sensor is the size of the chip inside. Full frames have a 35mm equivelent to the old film days whereas crop is not as big. Crop sensor cameras actually are better for Macro photography work since it zooms in more than the full frame. If you want your crop sensor to have the same view as a full frame then throw on a 10mm lens and your equal.

Every pro photographer on the earth from Jeremy Cowart(celebrity,fashion, and portratis photography) to Joe McNally (Commercial Photography well known) this guy even has a soft box made by Lasolite named after him, to Joe Maisel have used Photoshop to tweak their images and even have workshops on it. It is part of a photographers gear.

At the end of the day what really matters is how you paint with light. If you don't know what I mean then you haven't studied photography 101.

Camera compared to our Human Eyes

It should also be mentioned that your camera cannot see exactly the same as us humans. There are even certain lighting conditions where the camera will not even pick up on where we can. Our eyes are really remarkable so keep that in mind too. The camera is not as advanced as our eyes are.

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