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I would like to ensure a sharp focus of my object when shooting overhead (both object and background in focus). However, when shooting in manual at f/8.0 and ISO100 my shutter speed has to be 1/4 for a correct exposure and this is creating a much softer focus than I'd like. I'd rather not have to increase the ISO over 100 due to noise or use another continuous light as this comprises the lighting style I aim for (soft, natural light). The position of the light in the image I have attached is in the perfect position for the style of lighting I'm looking to achieve. I use a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon lens EF 50mm 1:1.4.

I'm trying to achieve the following settings:

Aperture: I want to shoot at f/8.0 to ensure everything (object and background) is in sharp focus

Shutter Speed: I want to shoot around 1/100 - 1/200 shutter speed to ensure a sharp focus

ISO: I want to shoot at ISO 100 to keep the noise to a minimum

I have included a photo of my set-up.

I would have thought this set up would allow me to shoot at my desired settings as I use a continuous light (at maximum power) which gives a nice natural look of daylight. I have also studied the work of many other photographers - some of whom kindly share their camera settings in similar set ups, so I know these are the most ideal settings to have. Am I missing something?

Thank you enter image description here

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    Does this answer your question? What is the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed? – xiota Dec 18 '19 at 12:28
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    If you use mirror lockup to avoid mirror slap and a remote control (wired or else) to avoid vibrations, then you can get tack-sharp pictures at 1/4s (ask astro-photographers...). – xenoid Dec 18 '19 at 12:44
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    @xenoid I regularly take multi-second exposures with mirror lock-up and a 2s self-timer with a 700D on a microscope, so you don't even need a remote. If you've only got a 10s self-timer it gets tedious after a couple of shots – Chris H Dec 18 '19 at 15:40
  • @ChrisH My experience has been that after 2 seconds the camera is often still vibrating slightly. A wired remote for most cameras can be had for as little as $5. Well worth the "investment" (yes, it's actually an expense, but still well worth it). – Michael C Dec 19 '19 at 8:21
  • @MichaelC in work, the camera is mounted via its lens mount to about 15kg of microscope, which is enough to absorb the vibrations from a light press of the trigger. Live view focussing means I don't have to worry about residual vibrations from mirror slap. A tripod mount can be another matter – Chris H Dec 19 '19 at 8:26

10 Answers 10

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There is no reason whatsoever that you need to shoot a static object from a tripod with 1/100s or 1/200s shutter speed. The shutter speed has nothing whatsoever to do with "soft focus": it just has to do with susceptibility to movements of camera and subject. Neither camera nor subject move; in fact, for shooting from a tripod you should disable image stabilisation as it is likely to do more damage than good.

Any shutter speed where the camera does not decide that long-term noise reduction starts being a good idea in order to counter variances in charge leakage on the sensor should be fine. On an older camera I have here, that's about 1/8s. That does not mean that results get worse fast as you go slower, it's just that they deteriorate.

You should avoid shutter press movement. Depending on the quality of your tripod and on sensor size and total exposure time, that may be a small issue, but using self-timer or a remote shutter release will make it a non-issue. Edit: using mirrorless myself, I forgot "mirror-lockup" mentioned elsewhere in a comment in order to avoid vibration from the mirror affecting the shot.

Your real problem is likely depth of field. The Canon 6D is a full-frame camera. For capturing a frame-occupying object that has depth commensurate to its width (namely isn't flat), I need to go F16 already on my 1.7 crop factor camera. On your camera, you'll need F22 or higher for the same feat. That comes with longer exposure times or higher ISO.

If significant post-processing is an option, depth of field can also be addressed by creating a focus stack, namely taking a number of photographs with different distances of the object in focus, and then using dedicated merging software for getting sharp focus throughout.

A reasonably current full-frame sensor should be able to go way beyond ISO100 before noise starts becoming an issue, and you probably are better off using somewhat higher ISO than doing everything via longer exposures since long exposures have their own problems (see above).

The obvious other remedy would be "more light". There is a reason studio photographers work with studio flashes and umbrellas, and in this particular use case, light boxes.

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    for shooting from a tripod you should disable image stabilisation as it is likely to do more damage than good, is that still true with most cameras and lenses from the last 5–10 years? I seem to recall reading this was true 10–20 years ago but that this has become a five monkeys rule. – gerrit Dec 19 '19 at 8:15
  • @gerrit Yes and no. It totally depends on the design/firmware of each lens model. – Michael C Dec 19 '19 at 8:55
  • As an affirmation of this answer, I routinely shoot fine art in antique frames (which can be about 3-4 inches deep on average), and I also need to use about F16 to ensure both the plane of the canvas and the frame itself are in focus. Again, considering grain/noise, I usually shoot F16, ISO 200, and about 3 seconds, and I use canon remote software to avoid shake. I tried the shutter release dongle, but even with a 2-second shutter timer, the cable sway itself can cause issues. I also found stabilization a problem – Yorik Dec 19 '19 at 15:58
  • @Yorik You can dampen cable movement at the camera to a very high degree by wrapping the cable a couple of turns around an adjusting knob on the plate that holds the three legs together and leaving a bit of slack in the section between the knob and the camera. – Michael C Dec 19 '19 at 19:14
  • the dongle is about 6 inches, but "yes" this is what I do for the USB (for remote control) and AC adapter cables. – Yorik Dec 19 '19 at 19:21
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Not sure what your subject is, but as was mentioned, you don't need fast shutter for a stationary subject with camera on a tripod. However, human or animal subjects can move.

But the obvious key word in your question was "continuous light". Using flash instead would make ISO 100, f/8 and 1/200 second be easy, routine portrait settings, but no way continuous light bulbs are bright enough to do it. That's why flash is so popular, they output lots of light, and their duration freezes motion too. Those pictures reporting those setting numbers indoors are using flash.

Your question needs either more light or higher ISO (but ISO has early limits). Flash would be greatly more light, and the specified settings would keep out the ambient continuous light that could interfere with the lighting planning.

See my site at https://www.scantips.com/lights/flashbasics2a.html (down near mid page) for metered comparisons of light bulbs and flash. The top of the page explains why.

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    Possibly worth spelling out that flash with a softbox can look gentle and "natural" — continuous really has nothing to do with it. – mattdm Dec 18 '19 at 15:25
  • Right, the large size and closeness of the softbox makes the soft lighting. I do have reservations about using speedlights (with their focused beam) in softboxes. Speedlights at 24 mm zoom work fine in umbrellas, but studio lights are used bare bulb in softboxes (180 degree beam), and then the softbox provides the reflector aspect. – WayneF Dec 18 '19 at 17:11
  • Yeah. See my experimentation on this here: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/48313/…. In my experience, a push-on diffuser or even flip-down diffuser panel is sufficient for a small softbox. – mattdm Dec 18 '19 at 17:26
  • It would be interesting to see the actual lighting results in the corresponding actual pictures of a not-flat subject (like maybe a coffee cup or base ball) ,with somewhat angled lighting (less direct frontal) making shadow gradients ( meaning like on faces), and also the close background shadows from those same situations. – WayneF Dec 18 '19 at 17:47
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    Opinions differ. Physics students compute this for an infinite plane, but infinite of course means infinite. But a softbox is Far from infinite size. From a couple of feet out, falloff DOES match the inverse square law. You can meter it yourself. The trick to realize that is to measure distance from the actual flash tube SOURCE, NOT from the front fabric, which is just a step function bump. My site at scantips.com/lights/flashbasics1.html#sb has some example measurements. Same with an umbrella, harder, but you just have to measure the actual real path from the flash tube SOURCE. – WayneF Dec 19 '19 at 2:47
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Here are some suggestions:

Move your light source closer to the subject or get a brighter light source.

Since you are using a tripod, and your subject is stationary, there is no need for fast shutter speeds. 1/4" is a little slow but 1/60" on a tripod should be fine.

Modern Full Frame cameras like the 6D have excellent high ISO performance and there is no need to use ISO 100. Try using ISO 400 or ISO 800.

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As @user88525 has said, there are solutions you can do with your lighting. I'm going to address one that you may not be aware of- tripods can 'vibrate'. You can see this by making your setup as usual and then 'thwacking' a tripod leg lightly with your finger.

Depending on how high your tripod is, how thin your legs are, and whether or not you're using the center column too high you can run into a situation where something as simple as moving will set your entire camera setup harmonically oscillating ... and it won't stop so long as there's any movement.

I usually carry a weight and a hook for my tripod to drop additional weight on the center column, and unless I'm desperate I don't raise the column much more than 20% of it's maximum height. In addition, I use the timer release (2 second) and mirror lockup. Even 2 seconds sometimes isn't enough to dampen vibration (that's what the free hanging weight does- it acts as a 'sink' of oscillation- skyscrapers have them too).

If you haven't learned already - photography needs a LOT of light. There's a reason makeup keeps getting applied in studio shots- the heat makes people sweat a lot.

Good luck and enjoy learning :)

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    It was specific to address the 'soft focus' part of the question- Rehashing the lack of necessary photons was something I thought best left out. – J.Hirsch Dec 18 '19 at 21:43
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    The OP said they are trying to shoot overhead. Assuming the photo in the OQ is representative of their setup, the tripod's center column is convertible to a boom, to move the camera away from the center of the tripod, so that the tripod legs aren't in the overhead shot. So the center column isn't extended "above" the tripod in this case. However, your point about an extended column (horizontally, here) is still very much germane. – scottbb Dec 18 '19 at 22:19
  • Okay, I missed that earlier (addressing soft focus part), but the question is, "Why can't I shoot with a fast shutter speed?" Not, "Why do my photos have much softer focus than I'd like?" Or "How to photograph a rolled up towel on a table from straight above?" – xiota Dec 18 '19 at 23:33
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    @xiota Usually it's always a combination of issues :) Very rarely is there one absolutely simple solution. And sadly bringing up the tripod, as I did, could further confuse and create problems for them. Personally, getting a bunch of small strobes and 'syncing' them all together will make all the light they need. There's not much that can't be lit with 3000w/s of power... except Theaters. Grrr.... – J.Hirsch Dec 19 '19 at 0:21
  • "except Theaters. Grrr...." -- Seems you might have a question stewing. – xiota Dec 19 '19 at 1:40
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Why can't I shoot with a fast shutter speed?

Because you don't have enough light to shoot at ISO 100, f/8, and 1/100-1/200 second.

To use ISO 100, f/8, 1/200 you need to increase the amount of light falling on the subject by about 5 2/3 stops, or about fifty times more light than you're using now.

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As others have noted, you just don't have enough light to shoot at the aperture, shutter speed and ISO you want. Besides adding more light or using a longer exposure time (and trying to minimize camera vibration while doing so), you can also try taking multiple images and stacking them together. There are at least two ways to do this:

  1. You can use a wider aperture, take multiple pictures with the focus set at different distances, and use focus stacking to combine them into a single image with a greater effective depth of field.

  2. Alternatively, you can shoot multiple pictures at a higher ISO and then stack the images and combine them with median blending to reduce the noise. Besides being more effective at removing noise than just simple averaging (which is what a long exposure effectively gives you), this method can also reduce the effects of camera shake by allowing you to align the stacked images before they're blended. Good image stacking software can even do this automatically down to a subpixel precision.

The main down side of both of these methods is that they're generally only suited for mostly static scenes that won't change substantially between the shots. Focus stacking can sometimes be used with moving subjects (or even to combine a fast wide-aperture shot of the moving subject with a longer narrow-aperture exposure of the background, as illustrated e.g. in this tutorial) but it generally still requires you to capture the entire subject properly in a single shot or you'll get weird stitching errors. Median blending, meanwhile, is great for erasing moving foreground objects (e.g. people walking by) from a photo of a static background scene, but that's obviously only a good thing if that's what you want.

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Depending on the subject matter, you might also be metering wrong - if there are many dark parts in the scene, or the subject is dark colored (and supposed to look dark in the picture too), relying on the meter will both overexpose the picture and force you to use a slow shutter or wide aperture or high iso.

Something else already said in another answer bears repeating: Use a remote shutter release with a tripod whenever you can, it makes all the difference. Also consider using the mirror lockup feature. Especially with an overhead tripod setup like that - these tend to be less stable and balanced than a normal tripod....

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If you mean by soft focus, slightly out of focus, one reason may be shaking as explained in other answers.

I don't know your camera. One thinks that such reputed camera should have a mirror lock-up setting, but some cameras don't have that feature in the menu. Some cameras have a setting that delays the shoot after rising the mirror to avoid the camera shake, try it if yours can't lock the mirror.

If you don't have a remote release you can

  1. use the self shooter to avoid shaking, or
  2. many new cameras can be controlled from a cellphone, you can use it as a remote control.

I agree that a camera like yours should have a very low noise sensor for higher ISO settings, but you can still take it with your full frame camera using your 100 iso setting.

If you are concerned about the depth of field, remember that when the lens length increase the depth of field is reduced. i.e. with a wide angle you could have more depth of field.

One of the advantages of a full frame camera is that you can have a narrower depth of field because the normal lens is 50mm instead of 35mm in the APC sensors. Are you sure that you want to take it with a wider depth of field? I can't distinguish what is your subject. It seems a bread on a black carpet, and your camera seem to be far from the subject for a 50mm lens. If there is something that cant't be seen before the bread, you may take two shoots, one focusing each object, and mixing them during post-processing with your favorite program.

Are you shooting raw or jpeg? With raw you have more control with a post processing program. You can play with contrast, sharpness, colors, ...

Other reason may be that your closest object is more near than the minimal focus of your lens. But I can't see something so close to your lens in your setting picture.

Other reason, very strange, may be that the focusing screen is not well fitted. Don't play with it is very fragile. It could happen if it was changed by a non original one and is very difficult to adjust it without special calibrating equipment. In that case the soft focus would be a constant in every manual focused picture. Also see if you have note moved the dioptry adjustment, specially if your focusing screen doesn't have prisms nor split image.

A lens for such quality camera should have very good definition. Today electronic processing control the chromatic aberration, a good lens will take details like thin hairs or particles of dust, but wont see sharp for the unaware eye due to the chromatic distortion, that is something that can be adjusted during postprocessing of raw images.

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First let me be sure that we are talking about the same thing.

Soft focus is a very slight out focus caused by the optical aberrations of the lens. Is a quality of the lens derived from how the designer balance the difference optical aberrations.

In your question is not clear what do you mean by soft focus. I understood that you refer to the out of focus part of the image that is behind or rear of the focused part of the picture in profundity called the_depth of field_ (DOF). Because you want a faster shutter speed, many answers are addressed to prevent the camera shake when shooting.

My understanding of your settings from your picture and description

In your picture of the setting, I see your camera mounted on a tall expensive tripod that one expects to be very stable. Your camera is pointing to the floor where your subject seem to be a bread (a baguette) on a black carpet.

A full frame camera with a 50mm normal lens at that height (maybe 1-1.2m/3-4ft) should cover a more large area than the bread size, although at that distance the DOF should cover the height of a bread (maybe 5-7,5cm/2-3in), although you need to crop the image. I think that you can take it closer, to get a neat image.

An improvement of your setting

A reputed tripod like that, should let you to insert the column with the head pointing down (see the manual), in that way, the camera can be attached centered between the legs. That setting is more stable and the camera will be closer to the subject (the bread). That position may also allow you to put closer the light box, with less problem to avoid the shadows of the legs. Your light box is before the window, if you take your picture during the day, you can get more light from the same direction. The black carpet reflects the light, Had you considered to use a mate (opaque) one? With less undesired light reflections in the background you can play more freely with the illumination.

Are you using the right equipment?

One of the advantages of a full frame camera is that you can have a narrower depth of field because the normal lens is 50mm instead of 35mm in the APS-C sensors (w/1.6 crop factor).

If you are concerned about the depth of field, remember that when the lens length increase the depth of field is reduced. i.e. with a wide angle you could have more depth of field.

A 50mm/f1.4 is a good portrait lens, because it is often designed with soft focus, that feature soften skin imperfections and the wider aperture is there to get a narrower DOF, a great Bokeh, etc. That is the opposite that you are looking for. You want to capture the texture of the subject with the best detail, Right?

Consider to use other lenses that you have

  • Start with the wide angle range.
  • Don't discard beforehand your zooms. In the digital photography era any geometric distortion is automatically compensated by the post-processing software, which use the lens specifications to set the right parameters of the transformation.
  • You don't need to physically try each one in your camera, use a DOF calculator before to analyze each possible setting. I found this online calculator with a quick web search DOF-Master.
  • Try it, take notes for future works.
  • Try each lens with and without movement compensation. Some lenses take worse pictures when used in a steady tripod with the movement compensation turned on.

Still concerned about camera shaking?

  1. Many DSLR cameras with no mirror lockup, have a setting that delays the time gap between rising the mirror and shooting, delayed shutter. The silent mode may also affect camera shaking.
  2. Newer DSLR cameras can be controlled from a "smartphone", that is another alternative to a remote control or self-timer.
  3. If the camera is very stable in the tripod, and you have done everything to prevent shaking, take into account the stability of the rooms floor. Is it of wood, are there vibrations from motors, be near to a highway or heavy traffic, a very loud music around, wood floor, etc.

Strange possible causes

If all your manually focused pictures are slightly out of focus, but the automatic focus take them focused.

  • See if you have not accidentally moved the dioptry adjustment, specially if your focusing screen doesn't have prisms, Fresnel (the one with many concentric circles), nor split image.
  • Other reason, very strange, may be that the focusing screen is not well fitted. Don't play with it is very fragile. It could happen if it was changed by a non original one because it is very difficult to adjust it without special calibrating equipment. In that case the slightly out of focus would be a constant in every manual focused picture.
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    Regarding "A reputed tripod like that, should let you to insert the column with the head pointing down...": The OP is using a Manfrotto 055 tripod, which has a patented 90° center column system that can swivel to a horizontal position. This is very different from most other tripods, and can take some finesse to use properly. You might want to take a look at my answer. – bwDraco Dec 28 '19 at 3:19
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Your camera is mounted on a Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 tripod. As someone who has the carbon-fiber (MT055CXPRO3) version of this tripod, I've found that the 90° center column can take some finesse to use properly. Here's some hints:

  • The tripod is set to full height, which is too far from the subject given the full-frame camera and 50mm lens. I would suggest not extending the lowest section of each leg, and instead spreading the legs wider (depress the leg angle lock levers as you spread the legs to allow them to open farther apart). The taller your tripod is set up, the more likely vibration will be a problem.
  • When the center column is in the 90° position, it's a lot more prone to vibration. You can increase stability by adjusting the center column so that the camera is closer to the center of the tripod. Also, ensure that the center column lock is properly tightened so that it doesn't wobble.
  • Try using Live View. Autofocus in Live View tends to be more accurate, and manual focus can be much easier. Live View also allows you to easily preview the depth of field before actually shooting so you can determine precisely where to focus and what aperture setting to use. To use DoF preview, press the small button towards the bottom of the lens mount near the hand grip (at the 7:30 position with the lens facing you).
  • As suggested by others, use the mirror lock-up and/or 2-second self-timer modes. This will reduce vibrations and help produce a sharper image.
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