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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!

Photography Tips: Careful Composition

Skill Level: Professional

Although this tip isn't particularly difficult to apply and, truthfully, anyone of any skill level can use it, I'm classifying it as "Professional." This is mainly because this tip is one of those things where your mind really has to be completely freed up in order to use it. In other words, you'll find it hard to use this tip in the field if your attention is even remotely distracted with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, filters, focus, metering, etc. All these things must be second-nature and require hardly a thought, as with a professional, before you can apply this tip with success on a regular basis.

This tip is essentially about being nit-picky with your composition. Finding those tiny little details that no one will ever notice but will make or break the composition.

Next time you're framing up a picture, set aside 10-20 extra seconds to really pick apart the composition to see if there's anything you could do better. And I mean really pick it apart. Look at every intersecting subject, every corner and edge, every line, shape and texture. Then decide if maybe a few inches this way or that way or a slight nudge of the zoom ring will make it better. These tiny little shifts will make a huge difference.

Believe me when I tell you...it's this kind of scrupulousness that separates professional pictures from amateur. Let's take a look at a few examples to see what I'm talking about.

So in this first picture, I framed up a composition I felt was pretty good...

Mono Lake

...but in reviewing it more closely, I saw there was room for improvement. The tufa in the foreground overlapped the reflection in the background just a tiny bit.

Mono Lake

This made the front tufa kind of blend in with the background tufas and, thus, created a little bit of a distraction in the composition. It also pulled away from the depth of the scene (i.e. suddenly the background doesn't look so far away). But just by raising up my viewing angle a bit, I knew that foreground element would drop lower and the background reflection would raise up. This would create the separation I needed between the two elements. It was going to be a hassle changing my position - I was already spread thin as it was - but I knew it would make the shot much better. So with a minor adjustment of my tripod...

Mono Lake

...there you have it. The shot is barely any different, but that minor change made a big impact. Now the foreground is more separated from the background, depth is restored and it doesn't look as cluttered.

Here's another example, also from Mono Lake, where I very carefully adjusted my composition in order to get the reflection of that tallest tufa to line up perfectly in the "dip" of that foreground tufa. Even just a couple inches to the right, left, up or down would have placed that reflection to intersect with the foreground element and render it much less pleasing. This was no accident - it was very deliberate and was vital to creating a strong composition.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

And in this picture from Torrey Pines State Reserve, I positioned myself to place that smaller tree perfectly centered under the arch of the bigger tree. This kept the composition nicely balanced, neat and uncluttered.

Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines

So there you have it. Simple in concept? Yeah. Easy to apply? Sure it is. But don't be surprised when you get home and review your compositions only to think "How the hell didn't I catch that?" This takes some practice and, again, if you have to think twice about anything else out there like your shutter, aperture, ISO, focus, metering, filters or otherwise, it'll be harder to find these things. So learn your photography basics so you can free your mind up to get better compositions!

Photography Tips: Shoot Through Something

Skill Level: Beginner

My forte is landscape photography. It's what I live for. But I do enjoy myself some close-up/macro photography on occasion.

One thing I like to do in some of my macro shots, especially with flowers, is to position myself so something is between my lens and my subject (like some flowers, leaves, grass, etc). Then I shoot "through" this foreground element to my main subject. With the inherently small depth of field you get with macro work and a wide aperture, that foreground element will blur out nicely. If the aperture is wide enough and if the foreground element is close enough to you, this foreground element will blur beyond recognition - it will just become a blurry mass of color and shape.

The result is an image that's a little more artistic than your straight-forward macro shot. With that foreground element completely blurry, the image softens up while still maintaining sharpness in your main subject. Everything around your subject will become silky smooth abstract shapes and colors, but your main subject will be sharp. It's great for pulling more attention to your subject.

I shot through the blurry flowers in the foreground but focused my lens on the three flowers in the background. This made a more creative and artistic picture than your typical close-up.

If you leave your camera's AF focusing points on auto-selection, the camera will try to focus on the foreground element that's closest to you. In order for this technique to work so that the subject you really want in focus is in focus, you'll either need to select the focusing point yourself or use manual focus (I'd recommend manual focus).

Give it a try. Just put something between you and your subject, then focus on your subject. The small DOF will do the rest.