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I have been taking photos for many years, amateur but always complimented for my great photos. After most of my life using a great point-and-shoot camera - a Samsung VLUU WB500 (HZ10W) I bought in Korea back in 2009 - that keeps everything in focus, I figured I'd step it up a notch and get a mirrorless, a Z50.

This is new to me and while I know the basics, there is a learning curve and no doubt some user error. I have had it for 18 months now, and while I have learned tricks, this issue is yet unsolved and losing me so many memories with blurry photos. This camera has some focus and depth of field "quirks" I hope to learn more about. In addition, video mode has awesome focus, white balance, a different depth of field, etc. which I cannot replicate in my photos, no matter the settings.

I have edited my original question for anyone who shares this struggle in the future as some of the answers are rather helpful. I have also shared solutions I have found on my own that have been working well to alleviate the auto-focus issue in lower light. This question answers a lot of these issues well, though not the reasons for photos taken while set on video mode being solidly in-focus vs. on photo mode.

I most often use a Nikkor DX 16-50 3.5-6.3 lens using F-stop of 3.5. Normal quality JPEG images at maximum image size; using Fine quality doesn't improve things as they are still not fully focused.

Auto-Mode Focus

Trying to be on the safe side, I have used the Auto mode of my Z50. But the Auto mode often takes a second or two to focus in indoor light, despite there being a good 20 lightbulbs illuminating the room. By the time it focuses, the moment is gone. While it isn't a constant problem - sometimes it does focus very well and produce great photos - I get a lot of photos that focus only 70 or 80% even when I allow it ample time to focus on the subject. I have perhaps a 5% success rate when it comes to great in-focus photos in this environment. I often hear the motor's "bzz bzz" sound while taking videos in that environment too, ruining the videos as it refocuses. My toddler is always on the move, so photos are just constantly blurry unless she freezes in time. Additionally, it often finds random things in the background to focus on and can't for the life of it keep track of the subject while taking videos or trying to take photos. Anything diamond-shaped attracts the little yellow focus box, even if it's an inch tall 20 feet away with a person in the foreground. I always have to keep pressing on the subject every few seconds as it finds other things to focus on, making my focus issues even worse.

I have noticed that in other environments, such as fluorescent lights in an arena, my camera takes some pristine images, though mostly with my longer lens. But only when the subject's back is to the camera. If they turn around and it focuses on their eye, it is almost always slightly out of focus and I find the same can be true at home too.

I'm wondering if perhaps there is too much light - some of the bulbs are the old yellow ones and some are newer LED, all pointing in different directions. On Auto mode, my camera often uses a very high ISO that whitewashes photos and videos, as high as 8,000-10,000 even with all the lights on in front and behind the camera. 1/80 10000 isn't uncommon to see on my screen. The more light it lets in, the worse the focus is. Even when there is zero movement and seemingly perfect focus, high ISOs on Auto mode can cause the subject to appear blurry.

I went through my settings to investigate solutions, but many of the settings for Auto are grayed out as the camera automatically selects the proper settings.

Solutions that have been working

I found a set of photos from months ago where for three days, my camera was stuck on ISO 3200. I had likely been using aperture-priority mode and messed around, leaving it like that. The photos were awesomely in focus in an indoor setting, even in rooms with less light than the aforementioned room. These settings - while it doesn't always stay on ISO 3200 and does its own thing sometimes - have proven rather successful. Photos no longer have such an overexposed background, focus is quick and efficient more often than not, and it is just below the point where the image would become grainy. Plus, with the higher ISO, the shutter speed is as great as 1/250 or better, better capturing any motion without blur. Photos on this setting, even without messing with ISO numbers, use half the ISO that Auto is using, so a 1/80 at 10000 ISO on Auto is almost always half that with aperture-priority, such as 1/80 4000 ISO. The lowered ISO produces far better focus without the ridiculously overexposed images Auto gives me. If it works so perfectly on this mode with near-identical shutter speeds, why is Auto mode doubling my ISO numbers and destroying the photos? Auto is still useless for me indoors, but aperture-priority works great.

Video mode clarity vs. Photo mode

On the Z50, you can flip the switch to photo mode or video mode and it's pretty common that I leave it on video and forget to switch it back. If you hit the shutter button on that mode, it will take a photo with your video settings. In my case, Fine quality and 1920x1080.

This is annoying, but... these lower-quality photos have great focus, depth of field is better, i.e., more of the image is in focus than on typical photo mode where there are focus issues, and hyper-focus on a single eyeball while the rest of the face is slightly out of focus is less of an issue. White balance is better, by far. Essentially, these mistakenly-taken photos using the video mode are what I would expect from the Auto mode I have so many problems with. But there are no video settings. Everything is automatic and nothing can be changed aside from the most basic options. There are no perfect settings I can copy from those perfect photos as the settings are invisible.

So why am I getting such great images from video mode but my photo mode is causing so many problems?

What am I missing here? Is it my lens, camera, or simply user error? Are there obvious settings I need to change? Does white balance affect focusing, especially with so many lightbulbs and with many of them different hues?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does this answer your question? How do I diagnose the source of blurry photos? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 2, 2022 at 21:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Ford GT40 w/its non-synchronized manual transmission is awful. It won't go into the gear I want it to. I've had plenty of people complement me for how I drove a Ford Econoline van with automatic transmission. I never had trouble delivering boxes with it. But I can't keep up with Ken Miles on the course at LeMans in an identically prepared GT40! (Hint: Maybe the skill set that works for delivering packages in an Econoline van is not the same skill set needed to keep up with Ken Miles in a GT40 at LeMans? Maybe the more sophisticated Z50 requires a more extensive skill set than a P&S?) \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 4, 2022 at 2:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelC, thank you for the related answers on the blurry photos topic. It's very thorough and well-written. I am still very curious about why the video mode on the Z50 behaves so differently than the photo mode, such as when I accidentally press the shutter when it's set on video mode and it cranks out a perfect photo I can't achieve on Auto mode for the life of me. The different depth of field, focus, etc. for video vs. photos using the same lens. It is touched on in some comments here, but not in the blurry photos answers, naturally. \$\endgroup\$
    – cckadlec
    Dec 6, 2022 at 5:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have no experience with the Z50, so I can't really help with why your results are so different in video mode compared to stills modes. It's obviously doing something to override at least some of your selected settings in order to optimize the exposure settings for the existing conditions (available light, focal length, max aperture, etc.) But most of what you describe can be attributed to poor shooting technique, which is not that unusual for someone who just moved from a compact to a large sensor camera. There's a learning curve involved. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 28, 2022 at 7:57

2 Answers 2

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What was your previous camera?

I think two things you may be missing are that your new camera has a much larger sensor, which will make the depth of field shorter, plus with only the kit lens you don't have enough light coming in a lot of the time for it to focus, especially indoors.
Larger apertures make for faster focussing.

Smaller apertures make for longer depth of field. Traditionally, the camera will keep the aperture open for measurements until you actually take the shot, then rapidly close it down to your desired opening as the shot is taken. This is why a 'fast' lens is still 'fast' at smaller apertures.

The thing about a point & shoot usually is there is far less decision-making needed as the tiny sensor naturally makes for a much longer depth of field, so focussing can be pretty lax [or even non-existent, fixed focus on a tiny sensor can be sharp enough from 6ft to infinity].

I can only guess that when you set the camera to video mode, it automatically uses a smaller area of the sensor, which will make the depth of field longer, giving an apparently sharper image.

Looking at some of your other numbers - 1/60 or 1/80 is far too long to capture a moving subject. You might need to be up towards 1/1000 or more to actually freeze the action.
Motion blur should not be confused with focus blur.

Additionally, if you have a moving subject, then no matter how good the new focus-tracking algorithms are compared to earlier cameras, you will probably still have to help it out by correctly following your subject yourself. Mine has a 'sport' mode where it will track a moving object, so long as I first centre it as I half-squeeze, & then make at least a reasonable attempt to move with it. if I don't, it will get distracted by something else. It does poorly if many things in frame are moving too.

On to indoor lighting. Your eyes have a remarkable ability to see in a huge range of lighting conditions. A camera has a mere fraction of that ability. Indoors, what you consider perfectly reasonable light will be right at the bottom end of a camera's capability. Figures of 1/80 & 10000 ISO tell me it is very much struggling for light.
The only real way to increase the camera's 'eyesight' is to get a much faster lens. A lens with an aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8 would be considered 'fast'. A 50mm f/1.4 is about the fastest you could reasonably expect, but these are not cheap. Nikon has a new 50mm f/1.8 which the world appears to love, again not cheap. Also a very fast f/1.2, at nearly 2 grand!
If you wanted to save some money & have almost the same experience, then if you have the FTZ adaptor you could try an older F-mount f/1.8 DX lens, which are really quite cheap in comparison.

BTW, on a zoom lens with a variable aperture, 3.5 - 6.3, then you only get 3.5 when you're zoomed right out. As soon as you start to zoom in, the lens will quickly move towards the 6.3 end. You can see this happening in the rear screen as you zoom. 6.3 is getting very small [& consequently slow & hard to focus] for shooting indoors.

I would recommend joining a camera club. I think you could use a guiding hand getting you over some of the elementary hurdles such as the exposure triangle, framing & subject tracking. These are far easier to learn when someone is watching you shoot than trying to gather information from a book or online. I think at the moment you are struggling with some of the basic elements & you are becoming frustrated and annoyed because there's 'too much going on, all at once'.
What you bought is not a beginner camera, so even on automatic, you need to be aware of what it's trying to do, that you may or may not want.

I found when I started I got along a lot better in Aperture priority mode, with both aperture and ISO set to manual. That meant all I had to do was watch what the shutter speed was doing. I shoot a lot of wildlife, so I need to keep my shutter speed as fast as it will go. I do this mainly by lifting the ISO in lower light to 'just below grainy' [a number you will have to learn by experiment for your particular camera].

I hope some of this rambling has been useful. There are a huge number of questions, stated & unstated, in your post & some reading between the lines required, so I've tried to at least touch on as many as I can.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Kudos for taking this one on... but using a crop of the sensor (e.g. video mode) either does not change the DOF at all (it only reduces the output size); or it reduces the resulting DOF (when output at the same physical dimensions). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2022 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @StevenKersting - we're hitting the limit of my own maths resolution here;) If it is literally using a 'physical' crop, ie only the middle pixels, then… ah, yup, I get it… I think. Thank you. I shall now go cool my brain in the fridge for half an hour. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 27, 2022 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ You make a good point... I don't think the Z50 actually uses a crop for video modes (unlike some cameras); I believe it achieves the lower resolutions and higher frame rates by pixel/line skipping instead. That means the entire image/sensor area is output at the smaller size/resolution; and that would increase the apparent DOF when output at the same magnification (e.g. 100%)... or it would leave the DOF unchanged when output at the same physical size. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2022 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have noted that the Z50 - mine anyway at the moment - has video mode on Auto locked to f-8, which might explain this. On aperture-priority, it is not locked to f-8. \$\endgroup\$
    – cckadlec
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I found this, illustrating the difference in sensor size between the Samsung & the Nikon. This is a massive difference & will very much be apparent in the resulting DoF - i.stack.imgur.com/7PqRV.jpg \$\endgroup\$
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 29, 2022 at 9:35
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There is definitely some user error and lack of understanding here... I'll hit a few basics:

With the mirrorless cameras, anything that affects the quality of the image in the viewfinder will affect the camera's ability to autofocus... that's because the autofocus is almost entirely based on the demosaiced video stream. That includes jpeg/video settings (sharpness/contrast/etc), white balance (less so), crop (focal length/etc), and exposure (exposure preview).

The Z50 has numerous focus modes with different behaviors which are more/less suitable for different situations... one mode will not be the best choice in all situations (e.g. the wide are modes have a nearest priority). Additionally, the Z50 does not automatically track a moving subject/focus point; you have to activate that.

Are you recording raw images? That is the most likely reason for significant differences between video frames and photos in terms of things like clarity(noise)/sharpness/contrast/etc. If you are recording raw files I suggest you use Nikon's NX studio to open/edit them as it will automatically apply the jpeg settings... or just record jpegs for a while (and try the different picture styles).

And one of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn't is a notebook... write down the settings of the images that work and those that don't work and compare them... what are the differences? what differences are relatively consistent?

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