Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Photography Tips: Getting Sharp Handheld Images

Skill Level: Intermediate

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Introduction to DSLR Photography." It's just a taste of Week 4: The Shutter Speed.

The shutter speed is a factor of time, so that means it's going to affect motion blur in the final shot - that means the motion of the subject AND your own motion. Whether your shutter speed is fast or slow will determine whether that motion is frozen or blurred in the resulting image.

When handholding your camera, you need to consider the fact that you are moving (ever so slightly). Even with perfect handholding technique and stance, you aren’t all that stable. Breathing, your pulse, trying to hold the weight of the camera — all these things contribute to instability. And you need a fast enough shutter speed when handholding your camera to freeze all of this motion.

It seems to be floating around the photography community that 1/60 of a second is fast enough to freeze your motion. This is false! If anyone teaches you this or you read it somewhere in another resource, ignore it because it is just plain wrong! I don't know if this gets spread around because some of these "experts" really aren't experts at all or because it's just easy to remember...I'm hoping for the latter but suspecting the former.

The correct rule of thumb for an acceptable shutter speed to handhold your camera is

The focal length of your lens is that little number indicated on the lens barrel like “28” or “70”. This number is actually indicating millimeters, but the millimeters have nothing to do with how far away your subject is, should be or needs to be. This number is basically indicating magnification with the higher numbers (e.g. 300mm, 500mm, 600mm) being much higher magnification and the lower numbers (e.g. 25mm, 50mm, 75mm) being lower magnification. This focal length number can range from 10mm to 800mm depending on the lens.

So, the slowest shutter speed you can get away with when handholding your camera is 1 (over) your lens focal length. It'll look something like this:

You can always go faster than this, but if you go any slower, you risk blurring the image from your own motion. And this rule of thumb only affects your own motion blur, not the subject. So if you’re shooting at 100mm, but your subject is a hummingbird, 1/100 of a second will freeze your motion, but it will not freeze the hummingbird’s motion.

The reason this rule works is when you zoom in with your lens (meaning you move to the higher focal length numbers), everything gets magnified — including your own motion — so you need a faster shutter speed to freeze your motion when you zoom in.

Here's an example... Both of these images were taken with a 200mm lens. The first I took handheld at 1/40 sec. This breaks the rule of thumb for handholding and results in a blurry image.

This next image was taken, again, at 200mm, but this time with a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. This follows the rule of thumb for handholding and results in a sharp image.

See how much blurrier the image that broke the rule is?

Keep in mind, though, that this is just a rule of thumb. You might find you need to shoot with faster shutter speeds to freeze your motion, or maybe you’ll find you can shoot with slower shutter speeds and still get a sharp image.

The most common reason for blurry photos is TOO SLOW of a shutter speed when handholding! So really understand this rule and start using it. Utilizing this handholding rule of thumb will prevent blurry photos the vast majority of the time.

Good luck and happy shooting!