Camera Shake is probably one of the main reasons for blurry photos. But just what is camera shake and, more importantly, how can one avoid it?
There are a number of reasons why a picture may come out blurry, but one of the main culprit is ‘camera shake.’ This is especially true if you are brand new to photography and are handling your very first camera. But some people have been taking pictures for a long time and still have not figured out how to avoid camera shake. In this article, we will look at some tried and proven techniques pros use to reduce — or even altogether eliminate — camera shake and avoid blurry pictures.
Just What Is Camera Shake?
When you press the shutter release button on your camera, you imperceptibly move the camera. That slight movement is referred to as ‘camera shake’ and is often enough to result in a blurred photograph.
The degree of camera movement depends on how still you hold the camera. We often see people literally pound the shutter release button with their finger. The camera jerks down at an angle and there is no doubt another blurry picture has just seen the day.
Another mistake we often witness is the photographer presses the shutter release button and then immediately moves the camera away. Depending on the shutter speed the camera is using, that fast movement of the camera may happen while the camera is still recording the picture.
Camera movement while the picture is still being recorded is ‘camera shake’ and results in a blurred photograph.
OK, now that we understand what camera shake is and two of the most common ways it occurs, are there any techniques a photographer can use to reduce or eliminate it?
The answer is fortunately, Yes, and you can apply them immediately for instant results.
1. Be Gentle With The Shutter Release Button
Most, if not all digital cameras, have a shutter release button that has three possible positions. The shutter release button can be at rest when you have not pressed it yet, and it can be fully pressed to take the picture. But did you know that there is also an intermediate position between those two when the shutter release button can be half-pressed?
Get your camera out and try it. Rest your index finger ever so gently on the shutter release button. Don’t press it yet. Just let your finger linger on the surface and get a feel for it. This is the position at rest. When you compose your picture in the viewfinder or on the display screen (LCD or otherwise), your index finger should be at this rest position, ready to take the picture.
Now, gently press the shutter release button down but feel for a resistance as you do so. As soon as you feel a resistance, stop. This is the half-press position. Practice getting to this half-press position because this is a very important position, and we will explain why a bit later. For now, practice getting your finger from the rest to the half-press position in as gentle a press as you can. Be light on the button. Be gentle on the button.
Practice holding the shutter release button at this half-press position. [Trust us, practice it.]
Last, from the half-press position, gently apply a little more pressure (“squeeze”) to the shutter release button until it travels fully and the camera takes the picture. Be aware of any camera movement, ever so slight, as you do so.
The exercise here is for you to get from the rest position to the half-press position, hold it as long as necessary, and then continue to the fully pressed position. Most beginner photographers skip this “hold” at the half-press position, and that is the cause of many camera shakes.
So, finger at rest position; compose your scene; half-press the shutter release button when you are about ready to take the picture; hold; then gently squeeze the shutter release button fully to take the picture.
Try this technique and notice that you have reduced camera shake to a minimum already.
2. Hold The Camera Steady
Of course, all the shutter releasing technique in the world is of no value if you are not holding the camera steady in the first place. If your body is shaking, the camera is shaking. If you are in a car with the engine on, then your camera is shaking. If a very strong wind is blowing and the camera is moving in the wind, the camera is shaking.
One way to steady the camera is to hold it against your face, eye to the viewfinder. Of course, many digital cameras nowadays do not have a viewfinder but come with a wonderful display screen. This display screen on the back of the camera allows the photographer to see exactly (more or less) what will be recorded on the image sensor.
Unfortunately, this also means that you have to hold the camera away from your face. We see people hold the camera with both arms fully extended and it is almost impossible to hold a camera steady like that. Try this instead: bend both arms at about 90° and you will find that it becomes easier to hold the camera steady.
How you actually hold the camera is also important, not just for stability but to also ensure that your fingers do not get in the way of some sensor that may affect the quality of your pictures. See the tutorial we wrote years ago on the basics.
Read more about: The Basics
3. Use A Support
We can do with all the support we can get in life — and as far as reducing camera shake is concerned, it’s no different.
The best way to totally eliminate camera shake (you were waiting for this moment, weren’t you?) is to place your camera on a steady tripod. With three strong legs firmly planted on the ground, camera shake is a problem of the past — unless you move the tripod and camera in the process of taking the picture.
But, what if you do not have a tripod with you or simply hate walking with a tripod that is bigger, heavier and more expensive than your digital camera?
Use all the support you can get from whatever is available around you. For example, you may press your back against a wall, place your elbows on a table, place the camera itself on the table edge (edge, because you do want to include said table in your picture), on a pile of books, on top of a drinking glass, etc. etc. Be creative.
4. Exhale (Shoop Shoop)
As the inimitable Ms. Houston says in her song, “you’ll find a point when you will exhale.”
Just before you press the shutter release button from the half-press position to the fully depressed position, that is the point when you exhale. You stop breathing for a fraction of a second. Take the shot, then don’t forget to breathe again! Or, do the reverse: take a breath, hold it as you take the shot, then exhale. You may prefer one or the other; use whichever works best for you. The very act of breathing can cause camera shake, so we stop breathing at the moment we press the shutter release button fully.
5. Use the Cable Shutter Release, Remote Controller or Self-Timer For Long Exposures
If you are going to use a long exposure (in the seconds), say for a night shot, there is no way that you can hand hold the camera for such a long time without moving it. The best thing to do here is to, first, place your camera on a sturdy tripod, then use a cable shutter release (which is a cable that connects to your camera’s shutter at one end and has a thumb-operated shutter at the other end) to take the picture. Because of the long cable, you will not move the camera when you take the picture.
Better still, if your camera has one available, use a Wireless Remote Controller. This allows you to be physically a certain distance away from the camera so your movements do not introduce camera shake. [For example, the floor may not be too stable and standing (and moving) close to the camera may cause the floor to shift slightly.]
The cheapest alternative is to simply use the self-timer that is available on every camera. This self-timer is usually defaulted to 10 seconds but certain cameras have in addition a 2 second option or even allows you to define how long you want it to wait after you press the shutter release button before actually triggering the shutter to take the picture.
I personally like a 2 second interval wait unless I have to physically move away from the camera, in which case the 10 second interval is preferable.
6. Image Stabilization, Anyone?
No, we haven’t forgotten that most digital cameras nowadays come with a nifty feature called an Image Stabilizer.
There are two types [and two types only] of image stabilizers: the first one, Optical Image Stabilization, is based on moving a lens element to compensate for camera shake; the other one, Sensor-shift Image Stabilization, moves the image sensor itself inside the camera to compensate for camera movement. Other types of image stabilization you may read about are all digital (or electronic) based and almost always decrease image quality in a compact digicam.
One image stabilizer is no better than the other, though each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The important thing is that an Image Stabilizer, as its name implies, can help stabilize the camera and hence reduce, or even eliminate, camera shake. It’s not a panacea and it won’t help at all if you shake the camera like a dish rag while taking the picture. But in certain situations, it can help so much that you may not need to worry about using a support or even be concerned with any of the techniques we’ve mentioned above. It is a really wonderful technology and there is no reason your next digital camera should not include one or the other type of image stabilization.
On compact digicams where the lens cannot be changed, it does not matter whether the image stabilizer is optical or sensor-shift. On DSLRs, optical image stabilization is lens-based and you’ll need to purchase the image stabilized version of the lens to take advantage of this technology.
7. Don’t Move The Camera Until The Picture Appears
Whether you are using a tripod or hand holding the camera (with or without image stabilization), you must wait until the picture is fully taken before moving it. The best way to ensure that the camera has finished taking the picture is to wait until the picture appears on the display screen. The camera may still be writing the picture to memory card (the light is blinking) but as soon as the picture appears on the display screen, you’re safe to move the camera.
If you are taking a night shot and the shutter remains open for a long time, say 8 seconds, your camera may then enter a phase called “Noise Reduction” (NR) and another 8 seconds may pass before you actually see the picture on the display screen. As soon as the camera enters that NR phase [you’ll usually hear the shutter close], you can move the camera, even if the picture is not yet displayed on screen. This is because the picture has already been taken and the camera is just processing it internally.
8. Use A Fast (Enough) Shutter Speed
We said earlier that camera shake causes blurring when the camera moves while it is still taking the picture. In other words, the shutter is still open and recording the picture and you move the camera.
But what if you move the camera after it has finished taking the picture? No camera shake. The picture is already safely taken, so you can move the camera to your heart’s content now.
Therefore, if we can use a fast enough shutter speed, the camera will be able to record the picture so fast that any slight movement on our part always occurs after the picture has been taken. Hence, no camera shake!
But what shutter speed to use?
The rule of thumb that photographers have used for generations is that we can safely hand hold a camera (without introducing camera shake) if we use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens.
Don’t panic, let me explain what this means.
The lens in your camera has a focal length which you can usually see engraved on its barrel. It will be a number like 6mm or 50mm or, if it is a zoom lens, a number range such as 6-36mm or 80-200mm.
If you can’t see it on the lens barrel or on the camera body, then just look in your User’s Manual under Technical Specifications. Under the Lens or Focal Length or Optical Zoom entry, you’ll see a number or range as we mentioned above. If you have a compact digicam or a DSLR with an image sensor smaller than “full-frame”, you will also see a “35mm equivalent” number (or range). So for the 6-36mm, you could also see mentioned (35-210mm, 35mm equivalent). On this site, we just abbreviate this as (35-210mm equiv.).
As you zoom, the focal length of the lens changes. Say, our camera has a 35-210mm (equiv.) zoom lens. This means that at wide-angle, the focal length is 35mm (equiv.) and at max. zoom, the focal length is 210mm (equiv.). In between there are many possible focal lengths, set as you zoom the lens.
The rule of thumb above simply says to take the focal length you’ve set the lens to and take the reciprocal of the number (which is simply a fancy way of saying, divide 1 by the number).
For example, at the wide-angle of 35mm, our camera can be hand held safely without worrying about camera shake if we use a shutter speed of 1/35 second or faster.
At the max. zoom of 210mm, our camera can be hand held safely without worrying about camera shake if we use a shutter speed of 1/210 second or faster.
In between these two focal lengths, we may zoom to, say 125mm, and our camera can be hand held safely without worrying about camera shake if we use a shutter speed of 1/125 second or faster.[Faster means the smaller number, e.g. 1/1,000 sec. is faster than 1/210 sec. is faster than 1/125 sec. is faster than 1/35 sec. is faster than 1 sec. is faster than 8 sec.].
Of course, this rule of thumb is general and your hands may be steadier (or not) than that. It’s a good idea to experiment to know where you stand personally.
If there is enough light for you to use a shutter speed fast enough for the focal length you’ve set the camera to, then you may not have to worry about camera shake at all. Use a fast enough shutter speed and camera shake is not an issue anymore.
Unfortunately, using a fast enough shutter speed is usually possible only in brightly lighted situations. For most indoor normal light photography, you will find that there is just not enough light to obtain a correctly exposed picture at the shutter speed that will avoid camera shake.
This is where all the techniques above come into play and where an effective Image Stabilizer can really help.
9. Use The Flash
Most people don’t like using the camera’s onboard flash because the pictures often come out flat and unnatural looking. But, if you own a DSLR, one of the best investment you can make is to buy an external flash with a bounce head.
When you shine the flash straight at your subject, the result is flat and unappealing. However, if you can rotate the flash head and point it toward the ceiling (a white one), then the light from the flash bounces off the ceiling and scatters around the room. The result is a simulation of natural light and the result is a flattering photograph of your subject.
Light from the flash also provides enough illumination so that now you can use a shutter speed fast enough so you don’t have to worry about camera shake. Besides, light travels so fast that it hits your subject and is reflected back to expose the image sensor before any of us can move. Light travels so fast that it seems we are all fixed in place.
Of course, the onboard flash on your compact digicam will also work but the result may just not be as natural looking as with bounced flash.
10. Panning, Or Move With Your Subject
Panning is a technique that, once mastered, can give your pictures that professional look. Sports photographers use this a lot when they want to depict fast motion. The principle itself is quite simple to explain and understand, but the execution requires lots of practice.
Panning is moving your camera in tandem with your subject as you take the picture. In fact, you need to use a slow shutter speed so that camera shake is introduced as you move the camera! However, because you are following your subject’s motion with the camera, the subject is recorded more or less sharp while the background goes blurred.
Let’s say you want to take a picture of cyclists who are going to race by you. You position yourself ahead of the pack, prefocus the camera [using the half-press technique we taught you earlier] at a point where the cyclists will bike through when they pass right in front of you, and then hold the shutter release button half-pressed [you practiced that, right?]. Still holding the shutter release button half-pressed, you then turn back to follow them in the viewfinder or on the display screen.
You smoothly follow their progression and, as they pass at your pre-determined focus point, you fully depress the shutter release button, and [this is important] you keep following them as they swing past you. The tip is to practice following them smoothly from a distance, take the picture at your pre-determined (and pre-focused) point, and continue following them in a smooth arc.
To explain what happens: when you fully depress the shutter release button, the shutter opens to record the cyclists. Because you are using a slow shutter speed, camera shake occurs and as you swing the camere to follow the cyclists biking past you, everything in the scene records blurred.
Everything? Not quite. Because you follow the subjects with your camera, keeping them centered in your viewfinder at all times [preferably a viewfinder, as a display screen will go dark as soon as you press the shutter release button fully], the main subjects will relatively not have moved and thus will record more or less sharp. The effect of a sharp subject(s) with a blurred background suggests fast motion. Any slight blurriness of the subject (especially at the edges) also suggests fast motion (like they draw them in comic books) and can even enhance the desired effect.
There, you now possess the 10 techniques pros use to reduce or eliminate camera shake. Practice them and, after a while, they’ll become automatic and you won’t even think as you use them in your daily photography.
Read more great tutorials:Digital Photography Tutorials.