How Slow Can You Go?

Stability shutter speed testBack in the take a shot and see the print three days later good old happy days of film we all knew what is our human limitation when it came to shutter speed. The golden thumb rule said that if you shoot slower than 1 / (your focal length) you will end up with an unusable artistic blurry image.

Just to give an example or two it means that at shooting safari animals at 300mm meant you can not go below 1/400. And when shooting portraits at 80mm, you should not go below 1/75 or 1/100.

Of course this rule had some exceptions, especially if you were an FBI hitter and could keep a concrete steady hand for minutes at a time. Well, this does not apply for the most of us. Especially not to me. I shake like an earthquake while holding a camera. I lost one of my favorite shots to the shakes. It was sunrise at Messada, and the light was low and golden. I took a picture of one of the older guys holding a prayer book along with a knife in the same hand. A great frame (130mm@1/50). Only at home when going through he images I was upset to find out that the shot was blurred and as sharp as a brick. Take a look your self (Holy cow, I make mistakes too).

Example of a blurry image
(Click on the image to see my floop supersized)

With the entrance of digital cameras, the rule was changed a bit. Now it is don’t shoot slower then 1/(focal length * crop factor). Most DSLRs has this factor set to 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon). But this is still just a thumb rule. The best way to learn what is your shake limit is to conduct a test.

Test for Stability

  1. Go out side on a sunny day (that alone is a reason to make the test). Take a newspaper and some tape with you.
  2. Find a shady spot with a wall, and post the newspaper on the wall.
  3. Now step back a few steps and start taking pictures.
  4. Use the camera’s “Shutter Priority” mode and start with the fastest shutter speed your aperture will allow you. (Note that you may need to compensate your exposure if you are shooting a white paper).
  5. Take more picture, each time cutting the shutter speed by half (“Shutter Priority” mode will take care of aperture) – You should be able to take about six to eight pictures.
  6. Repeat this test with several focal lengths

Now go home, and over a nice cup of coffee analyze the results. Basically, this test will reveal your chances of winning a gun duel (or how steady you are). You should be able to fund the shutter speed at which you are still sharp. After you are done, you will know your limits.

My Personal Test

Below you will find my personal tests – I made several: First test was done with the with the Nikon 18-200 VR (B&H) @200mm with VR on; The second for the second test, I used the same settings only turned the VR off; The third test was done with the great one-and-only Nikkor 50mm prime f/1.8 (B&H); and last but not least I tested with the excellent Nikon 85mm prime lens (B&H), on which I’ll write a review soon. Click any of the images to view the large version (recommended for comparison).

200mm VR on – Blur point @ 1/100

photography stability test 200mm with VR

200mm VR off – Blur point @ 1/200

photography stability test 200mm with NO VR

50mm – Blur point @ 1/100

photography stability test 50mm

85mm – Blur point @ 1/200

photography stability test 85mm

My Results and Analysis

On 200mm I can shoot down to 1/200 with no VR and have acceptable result. (This is just what the thumb rule says, when you take the D70 1.5 crop factor into account). Turning the VR on, got me to 1/100, but not more.

With the Nikon 85mm, anything less then 1/200 was a bit fuzzy and shooting at 1/50 gave the nice quality of a sea at storm.

The 50mm could take it up to the 1/100 spot.

The final conclusion is that I am a human being and I should stick to the thumb rule. I do have a friend however, that can go 2 stops below 1/focal length, hand-held, and still get a sharp image. What I’m saying is that you should do the test and know your limits, so you won’t get disappointed later. I’d love it if you shared your results in the comments. Let’s see who is the steadiest man in the Wild West, and who like me, can not hold steady if my life depended on it.

How to Eliminate Blur?

The easiest option is to bump the ISO setting up. When you do so and leave the aperture untouched, you can get smaller shutter speeds. There is a cost however; higher ISO setting will have lower image quality. Remember: A noisy image is something you can use; a blurry image is a dead one. Just remember – knock the ISO down again when you are done.

If you can not bump up the ISO, you can use some accessories to stabilize your camera (I’m ruling out the tripod solution, as we are looking for a hand held solution): you can use a monopod (or make one yourself), and use can use a string stabilizer.

You can also turn the VR feature of your lens on. Don’t have VR on your lens? Be prepared to say good-by to a nice bundle of money.

Have more methods to eliminate blur? Share them with us on the comments.