Lower end and crop cameras and high ISOs generally get the blame when it comes to a lack of clarity and noise. This leads to people buying cameras to correct the “problem.” Yes sometimes you have maxed out your camera and you need a newer, nicer camera to get the results you expect, but most people don’t get the most out of their camera.

Causes of noise:

All photos are RAW uploaded to default Lightroom 3 settings and no other processing:

1. Slow Shutter Speed

You have heard the rules of thumb before. Keep your shutter speed at at least 1/125 for kids and/or double the focal length of your lens (ie, 50mm lens = 1/100 shutter speed, 85mm = 1/160-1/200, etc). I’ve found that these are bare minimums, you can still get motion blur at those speeds and that will result in a loss of clarity. For example:

This is acceptably sharp at this size:
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ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/200 Mark II and 100/2.8 macro

But take a closer look at 100%

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The first reaction is “why is there noise at ISO 400 on my kick butt camera??!!” Nope. That’s motion blur.

I was having a conversation with him and he wasn’t moving much, but yet I got motion blur.

That doesn’t mean I won’t get lucky some of the time. Same settings, but he was still:

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100%
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Same settings this time with my xti and very still Jackson:

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100%:
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Yes that’s an xti at ISO 400!!

XTI, 100mm/2.8 Macro ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/640

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100%: A little noisy, but not horrid and totally usable

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Xti at 1600 with a little LR noise reduction

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100%
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2. Missed focus due too large of an aperture:

Just because your lens opens to 1.4, doesn’t mean you should use it all the time.

f/1.4
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Of course you can nail it and it’s beautiful, but it takes a lot of practice
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3. Underexposure SOOC:

I read about people saying that they always lift midtones in pp and/or/because they like to expose fair skinned people at 0. Midtones to highlights have more data per pixel than darks and shadows. Don’t you want the most data in your image? Adding exposure or brightness in pp isn’t the same.

An underexposed image where I added about a stop of exposure and some brightness in lightroom:
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100% Large so you can see the noise:

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The exposure was added to a RAW file, a jpeg file wouldn’t have handled the raise in exposure as well.

4. Bad light:

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100%:
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You want clarity first and foremost. Maximize your chances. Use a faster shutter speed unless you absolutely need the light, close up your aperture a bit, don’t be afraid of properly – a bit overexposed photos with high ISOs and seek out nice, pretty, flattering light.