But What About Those of Us with Bad Technique?

This is the image that first surprised me with its sharpness. I had been stalking hummingbirds in the yard, and then saw Meemo laying on the picnic table. This was shot at my hummingbird shutter speed of 1/640 of a second.

Some of my recent images were sharper than usual, and that puzzled me for a minute or two. I’m using all the same gear I’ve had for a long time, so why a sudden change in results? Well, the answer is quite simple: I’ve been doing a lot of home improvement projects lately.

What’s the connection? I’ve been exercising my upper body and I’ve been reciting an old mantra: “let the saw do the work.” The exercise improves my strength and coordination, allowing me to hold the camera more steadily and squeeze the shutter release more smoothly. The mantra reminds me that, even in my best physical condition, I’m a fairly shaky person whose photographs benefit from high shutter speeds; I should let the camera do more of the work. (I wrote about the value of good technique here, but that doesn’t mean I can always practice what I preach).

Higher shutter speeds improve sharpness. This is especially true with handheld images like this one. Of course, higher shutter speeds also increase the likelihood of underexposure, so it always comes down to a matter of photographer's judgment. Usually, I don't want to capture a well-exposed blur.

The surprisingly sharp images occurred because I switched the camera to shutter-priority and 1/640 of a second to shoot some hummingbirds and then decided to leave the settings there for several days. Digital cameras allow us to use higher ISO settings and therefore higher shutter speeds with minimal loss of image quality – so why not let the tool do the work?

Even when a hummingbird is stationary, I need fast shutter speeds to compensate for my movement.

However much we concentrate on technique, faster shutter speeds produce sharper pictures. This week I remembered¬†that I have ALWAYS depended on fast shutter speeds. Even as a teenager, when I got my first “auto-exposure” camera, I chose shutter-priority while my friends all chose aperture-priority. My friends got greater control over depth-of-field, but I got consistently sharp images and compensation for my poor technique.

When I'm using a long lens to capture a distant subject, shutter speed matters even more. Conventional wisdom holds that 1/focal length is the minimum handholdable shutter speed, but that doesn't apply to me at all. I generally need to shoot my 200mm lens at a minimum of 1/400 second to get minimally acceptable sharpness. My personal rule of thumb is 1/2x-focal length. What's yours?

Somewhere between “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Go ahead, make my day,” Dirty Harry’s catchphrase was “A man’s got to know his limitations.” This photographer’s limitations include shaky hands. Fortunately, technology provides numerous opportunities to overcome such challenges, provided I remember to use that technology.

Notice that all of the images in this blog post feature still subjects. Later this week I'll face a more challenging shutter speed vs. exposure vs. technique situation, as I photograph a dance concert for the first time in several months. Fast moving subjects from a great distance through a long lens in a low light environment. Stay tuned.

When you need sharpness AND a lower ISO/shutter speed combination, it won't kill you to use a tripod.

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