Switzerland is the perfect country for travel photography. It has the most beautiful landscapes and townscapes that one can put in front of a lens. It also has seemingly endless miles of hiking, biking and climbing trails, as well as amazing train journeys to get you to unique vantage points. But just getting to the right position won’t guarantee a great shot.
One of the most common issues a potentially strong photo can suffer from is blur caused by camera shake, yet it’s something that can be eliminated easily by proper holding of the camera, use of a tripod, and understanding what shutter speed necessitates a switch from handholding to a tripod. Understanding what causes camera shake and what can be done to avoid it can help ensure that you capture the beauty of a place, and avoid returning home with disappointingly soft images.
SHAKE, BLUR OR OUT OF FOCUS?
Often the word "blur" is used to describe the areas of an image that are out of focus. Let’s not use that word in this case. Instead, let’s describe the areas that were not captured within the depth of field of the camera lens as they are: out of focus.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Selective focus—using the lens’ aperture to limit depth of field and direct attention to what’s important in the image—is one of the most important tools a photographer can use. Like many other professional photographers, I shoot in aperture-priority mode because I want to constantly be aware of, and control, my depth of field, while keeping an eye on my shutter speed to not let it fall below the minimum that’s required for a given situation.
The motion of a subject can cause the blurring of what would otherwise be a frozen moment in time. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some photographers, like fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth often incorporate a sense of movement in their photos. Handholding the camera for a 1/30 or 1/15 sec. exposure can give a sense of motion, but not so much that it overwhelms the image. Other photographers will pan with a subject at these slow shutter speeds to keep the subject relatively sharp while blurring the static surroundings.
For my style of photography, I prefer my subjects to be tack sharp, so it’s rare for me to shoot at less than 1/125 sec. if there’s a person or other moving subject in my frame. Even a person standing still is still moving to some degree.
The photojournalist’s mantra is "ƒ/8, 1/250, and be there." Breaking that down, an aperture of ƒ/8 will normally ensure enough depth of field to have the subject of the photo in focus; the 1/250 sec. shutter speed will be fast enough to stop or slow down the action to define it; and "be there" means that the photographer is prepared (or lucky) enough to be at the right place at the right time to get the shot. For our purposes, we’re focusing on shutter speed.
HOW SLOW CAN YOU HOLD?
It depends on the weight and length of your lens, your biology and your camera-holding technique. In the workshops I teach, I frequently see cameras being held incorrectly. A DSLR camera is designed for the right hand to depress the shutter and the left hand to focus the lens and adjust the zoom, with the left palm supporting the base of the camera or lens—not facing out toward the subject of the photo. While holding the camera in the correct position, it’s important to use the thumb and the index finger to focus and/or zoom the lens so it doesn’t accidentally end up in your picture (which is prone to happen with a wide-angle lens).
Holding the camera in the correct way—and not creating a two-step process by palm-out focusing first, and then holding the camera—will help the photographer capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the "Decisive Moment," rather than capturing "The Moment After the Decisive Moment." If the photographer depresses the shutter holding the lens in the palm-out position, there’s weakened support for the camera, which can cause camera shake.
Do the "Harris Mirror Test" (HMT) if you’re like the millions of other photographers who suffer from BHT (Bad Holding Technique). Stand in front of a mirror and focus the lens with your left palm out. Doesn’t that look amateurish? Then focus using the technique described above. Now you look like a pro! And more importantly, you have taken a major step toward photographing more like one by creating a solid platform for the camera and lens.
Now that you’re holding the camera correctly, find out how slow of a shutter speed you can handhold before you get camera shake. Go outside and take a series of images of the same subject matter in open shade in the shutter-priority mode at 100 ISO using shutter speeds from 1/250 sec. down to 1/8 sec. On the LCD screen on the back of the camera, the results might look about the same, but the differences will be apparent when you look at them on your computer screen. Zoom in to the image and you can really see the point where sharpness falls off. The camera’s settings are stored in the metadata of the image, so check it to see what shutter speeds worked and, just as importantly, which ones didn’t.
PROPER USE OF A TRIPOD
Just putting a camera on a tripod will not guarantee an end to the shakes. When a DSLR camera button is depressed, the mirror that allows you to see through the lens flips up out of the way to allow the sensor to record the image. This rapid movement causes vibration, so even if you’ve put your camera on timer or you’re using a cable release, the vibration will still occur at the beginning of your exposure.
To avoid this movement affecting the image, many cameras allow for the mirror to be locked up out of the way in advance (which also is useful for cleaning the sensor). In this mode, the first depression of the cable release will lock up the mirror; the second will trigger the shutter. A good cable release has a second advantage of allowing the shutter to be locked open in the "B" (bulb) position for exposures longer than the camera’s longest timed exposure.
Not all tripods are created equal. A solid tripod is a must, especially in windy conditions. Some tripods have the ability to have a weight hung from the center column to help add stability. A tripod made of carbon fiber will be lighter without giving up quality and is the best type for travel photography. A ballhead attached to the tripod will offer the most flexibility in terms of camera angle. Make sure to turn off image stabilization on a lens that has this option when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
LONGER LENS, MORE SHAKE
While image stabilization on a lens will assist in handholding at slower shutter speeds, the length and weight of a lens has a major influence on camera shake. The basic rule of thumb is to take the reciprocal of your lens’ focal length and find the closest shutter speed to that number. For instance, if you’re shooting with an 85mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/85 sec. The closest shutter speeds to that are 1/80 or 1/100 sec.—so choose 1/100 to be safe. If you’re using an all-in-one lens like a 24-300mm zoom, you need to take the length of the lens into consideration even when you’re shooting with it at its widest angle.
LOW LIGHT WITHOUT A TRIPOD
As the light level goes lower, the ISO settings have to go higher, resulting in more noise (digital grain). If you constantly find yourself shooting in low-light situations and a flash is not practical, consider a camera that has good results at high ISOs. Newer camera models are typically better at higher ISOs, as sensors have improved and noise-reduction technologies have become more sophisticated. Fast lenses—those with large maximum apertures—will help reduce the need to go to high ISOs. I recommend medium and short zooms that have a consistent maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 or faster, as opposed to those with a variable aperture. These lenses can be expensive however, so a good rule of thumb is to work with the fastest lens you can.