I love sharp pictures. I work hard to make sure that the crucial pint of focus in an image is tack sharp, and I’m guilty of secretly hating myself when a client wants to buy a picture with a great expression but a slightly soft focus on the eyes. It’s cause I’m a geek and a pixel peeper–I look at my pictures at 100% magnification and ensure that they are sharp.
As I see it, there are two things that make a sharp picture: focus and shutter speed. Let’s talk about the latter.
Freezing Your Movement
There’s an old rule of thumb for shutter speed when hand holding your camera that says your shutter speed needs to be at least the reciprocal of your focal length.
So, if you’re using a 300mm lens, you should have a shutter speed of at least 1/300s (you’ll notice that your camera offers 1/250s or 1/320s. Close counts). Or, if you’re using a 50mm lens, you need at least 1/50s to get a sharp picture. That’s the rule, and it’s referring to a subject that isn’t moving. Things like, ya know, a rock, or a building.
But I’m a big fan of breaking rules when I can, and I can often hand hold my camera with a 200mm lens as slow as 1/15s and get sharp pictures. I have to hold my camera just right (see me previous column Taking a Stand) and it helps to have Vibration Reduction in Nikon Lenses or Image Stabilization in Canon lenses. Finally, I fire off several frames at once without moving, and at least one of those will usually be sharp for me. This works great for street photography, sometimes okay for landscape work, maybe if I’m working with a confident adult, and rarely ever can I get away with a slow shutter speed with children–no matter how still I am, they tend to wiggle of their own accord.
Now, all that’s for sharp pictures, freezing movement. But, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…
There are millions of perfect images out there that are not sharp, or are not freezing motion. Take, for instance, a wedding reception: you want to photograph the crowd dancing and having a good time. Let’s say you could get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. You would have a picture of people standing next to each other. Kinda boring, and not something the bride is likely to be excited about–she’ll put it in an album, but she’ll skip it quickly when sharing the album.
However, what if you could slow the shutter down, show motion, but still have faces looking good and pretty sharp? Cue the flash.
Any flash you an get your hands on will make this kind of picture with every DSLR ever made, and many point and shoots can do it, too. Whether you use the built in flash, a speed light on top of the camera, or an off camera flash, you just need to set a magic setting in the camera to make this work.
The Magic Setting
What you need to do is open the closet, move the christmas wreath out of the way, pull out the witch’s hat from last Halloween, put down the purple snow pants your wore in 1992 (don’t get distracted!)–there it is! The box your camera came in. Now get out your Manual.
I know, I know, you don’t want to think about reading that thing, but sometimes it’s the only way. In fact, I highly recommend that you read it cover to cover every day–that is, read a page every day, and start over when you finish; eventually you’ll want to know how to do something and since you’ve read the manual so much you’ll at least know where to find the method. But I digress.
Go to the index and if you’re lucky enough to be shooting a Nikon, Find the page for setting your camera flash to Rear Sync, or Second Curtain for Canons.
What’s it do? Your camera is set up so that the flash lights up the scene when you press the button. That’s fine if you’re freezing action, but if you want a slower shutter speed to show movement in the scene, then the people in the scene will be lit by the flash and then move through their sharp faces, leaving you with a blurring picture. But, on Rear Sync the flash fires at the end of the exposure. That means that your people move, creaitng a blur in the picture and then the flash freezes them where they are just before the shutter closes. This means that whatever the flash hits is frozen and sharp where it is at the end. So, you get the arms and feet of the dancers blurred and then sharp, really showing the action and showing the party rockers in the house.
The key is that whatever the flash hits is what will be frozen. A great side benefit is that you also get more light in the image from the surrounding scene. Instead of a dark room with bright white limbs lit by the flash, you get a glow from the room, including lights and shadows on ceiling and walls, with the flash lighting your subjects and revealing motion. Try it, you’ll love it.
So, after you set your camera to Rear Sync of Second Curtain (sometimes referred to in general as ‘second shutter’), how do you make this happen?
First, I use manual mode to make this happen. I use an aperture that has the appropriate amount of focus depth, then use shutter speed to add the room light and motion. Take an image and if it’s too blurry for what you have in mind then use a faster speed. I’m thinking that something like 1/5s or slower is where you might start. So, get the blur you want. Now, if you want more or less light in the picture use ISO. a higher ISO will make the room brighter, a lower ISO will make the room darker. Now bring in the flash to freeze your action and light your subjects apart from the rest of the room.
Shutter Speed for motion, ISO for brightness, Flash for freezing.
You need to practice this before you get to the wedding, or the football game, or the shoot with the kids. You need to do this today. With your dog. Or your coworkers. Yeah, crank on some music during lunch hour, dim the lights in the office and go to town!
Turing It Up To Eleven
Now that you’ve mastered this technique, turn it up to the next level by moving the camera during the exposure. Twist it in a circle, or drag it in a line. You’ll love it.
The next next level? Zoom the lens while this is going on. Then, zoom the lens, and move the camera and use Rear Sync!
If creativity or the situation won’t allow a sharp picture, pull this trick out of your bag and beat ’em.