When you struggle to turn out a sharp picture despite good camera settings, you might be fighting camera shake. Camera shake is an inherent flaw that can affect any kind of photograph, leading to a blurry image with washed-out details.
But how does the camera shake happen? How can you prevent it? Exactly that is what we are going to discuss in this short guide. Let’s take a look at everything you can do to consistently turn out sharper photos free of camera shake.
The Difference Between Camera Shake and Motion Blur
Now, before we delve deeper into the science behind how camera shake occurs, let’s make an important distinction very clear. Camera shake is neither the only cause of blur in your photos nor is it necessarily the main cause if you are capturing a moving subject.
One of the biggest contributors to blur in handheld photography is actually not camera shake but motion blur. This happens when your shutter speed is too slow to track your subject’s movement, resulting in a blurry, faded look.
You can tell apart motion blur from other kinds of optical flaws, including camera shake, by its distinctive localized effect. Motion blur is caused by fast movement, so only quick subjects will appear blurred.
Background elements that remain static in relation to you during the exposure should remain sharp.
Camera shake, on the other hand, can be much more destructive. It can affect everything within your frame and does not discriminate much when it comes to moving or static objects.
As for what causes the camera to shake and what to do about it, that’s what we are going to cover in the following, down below.
What Causes Camera Shake?
Camera shake sounds like a simple thing when you say it out loud, and in certain ways, it is. However, there are a few interrelated factors that can lead to this kind of blur while shooting, and it’s important to know and be able to distinguish them.
Low Shutter Speed
Just like motion blur, camera shake sometimes occurs if your shutter speed is too low to handle the conditions of the scene. Unlike motion blur, this doesn’t have so much to do with the movement of your subject.
Rather, it is you whose motion needs compensating for!
Whether you are aware of it or not, composing through your camera’s viewfinder alone creates a ton of unconscious, subtle movement. Your hands can never stay perfectly still, and your breath causes imperceptible movement throughout your whole body.
As a result, it can be very difficult to get pin-sharp images from a handheld shooting position depending on the shutter speed.
Poor Image Stabilization
Many cameras nowadays ship with in-body image stabilization or IBIS. Plenty of modern lenses, especially telephoto lens designs, are also more and more frequently equipped with built-in stabilization tech.
No matter which of these you use, know that they can greatly reduce the effects of camera shake in handheld situations. A combination of IBIS and lens-based vibration reduction can offer multiple whole stops worth of improvement compared to not using any stabilization at all!
Of course, optical image stabilization is only as effective as its implementation allows. A compact camera with a tiny imaging sensor will not be able to offer the same degree of stabilization as a full-frame DSLR.
Using a High Focal Length Handheld
The effects of camera movement and blur worsen with higher focal length lenses. When using a telephoto, especially in excess of 100mm (or its equivalent on full-frame sensors), each small hand movement and vibration will show much more easily in your exposure.
This is why it is especially telephoto zoom lenses that nowadays feature built-in optical image stabilization. In some cases, such systems might be the only thing you can do apart from shooting at extreme ISOs to attain a sharp picture at a high focal length.
Why is Camera Shake Bad for Photography?
To some, this question might look like a way of stating the obvious. Of course, a camera shake is generally a bad thing, isn’t it? Actually, it’s not as clear-cut as you might think.
When we’re talking about camera shake, we usually refer to the kind of unintentional image blur that I have been discussing here so far. For the most part, that type of shake is a nuisance that most of us would like to avoid.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of photographers who make deliberate use of their camera shaking.
So-called intentional camera movement, or ICM, forms a small but important niche within abstract and experimental photography. By consciously manipulating the camera during exposure, it’s possible to create fascinating light patterns and blurry, mystified interpretations of your surroundings.
Especially in low light conditions shooting at low shutter speeds, this effect can be very impressive in the right, unsteady hands.
What to Do to Reduce Camera Shake
Now, assuming that you’re not planning to practice ICM photography, let’s look at some concrete steps you can take to sharpen up your photos.
Shoot on a Sturdy Tripod
No method of stabilizing your camera to eliminate any unwanted movement is more effective, yet at the same time simpler than the humble tripod. A photographer staple since the very earliest days of the medium, you really can’t go wrong with a well-made, metal, or wooden three-legged base for your favorite camera to sit on.
The only real drawback of the tripod is the lack of mobility it offers. That’s why, with today’s modern digital cameras, you have some alternative choices that trade efficiency for compactness and speed. Optical image stabilization may not entirely eliminate camera shake in tricky situations, but it more than does the trick for most people.
In-body image stabilization can be even more effective, depending on the camera model.
And finally, remember you can always mix and match! For example, using IBIS or some other kind of vibration reduction handheld while also keeping a small, telescoping monopod at the ready can leave you well-prepared for unpredictable shooting circumstances while still offering the flexibility that a full-size tripod might not.
Choose a Faster Shutter Speed
As I mentioned before, the effects of all types of blur, including the kind caused by camera shake, get worse in long exposures. Using faster shutter speeds may not always be possible, but when you do have the choice, it’s an incredibly straightforward solution.
At speeds beyond 1/500th of a second, and especially at 1/1000th and up, the minor subconscious movements of your body and the motion blur of most subjects will be almost entirely imperceptible, and you should feel secure shooting handheld at most focal lengths.
Increase Your ISO
While your film speed does not directly affect camera shake, you can use ISO to your advantage to curb the negative effects of blur.
Remember the exposure triangle? By using a higher ISO setting, your camera sensor can achieve a higher exposure value under the same lighting conditions. This allows you to switch over to faster shutter speeds, which is one of the best ways to kill camera shakes for good.
Of course, this all applies within certain limitations. While lens focal length does not have any impact on the effectiveness of high-ISO shooting per se, you will find that, especially with telephotos that need a lot of vibration reduction, sufficient sensitivity settings to counteract blur on your main subject might require you to deal with exceptionally high noise levels.
You will also need to watch your lens aperture. Stop down too far to balance out the high ISOs, and you might run into diffraction issues.
Shooting Handheld with Image Stabilization
If you cannot afford to use any kind of purely physical stabilization (such as a tripod) and you have to shoot entirely handheld, try to employ some kind of mechanical image stabilization wherever you can.
Whether lens-based or sensor-based, image stabilization is one of the easiest and best ways to stabilize your image when working in high-speed environments.
Fast Lenses Can Help
Choosing a high ISO number isn’t the only way of playing with your exposure to achieve blur-free images. Fast lenses with wide apertures offer a neat way for any photographer to balance out the natural tendency toward handheld camera movement.
By shooting at a wide aperture, especially with short focal lengths, high ISOs – and their drawbacks – can be avoided while at the same time benefiting from the advantages of high shutter speeds. The best of both worlds, so to speak!
Keep Your Zoom in Check
As I iterated on previously, blur can vary in appearance depending on your focal length. If using a zoom lens, make sure to position yourself such that you’re capable of framing your subject without the need to creep too far into the telephoto range.
The higher you go on your zoom ring, the harder it will be to prevent blur from showing up in your shots. If you can at all afford to and are willing to take the chance, I’d recommend forgoing the zoom altogether and challenging yourself to take pictures with a prime lens!
Obviously, the rules here are the same as with zooms. A low focal length with a wide field of view will inherently render images with lower degrees of a blur than a prime telephoto.
Use Weight to Your Advantage
Whether you are shooting handheld or not, think about using weight balance to further entrench your camera in its position and prevent camera shake.
A heavier camera shakes less easily than a lighter one, and that includes everything attached to it. On a large, heavy-duty full-frame camera, you might be able to avoid excessive blur up to handheld shutter speed settings of 1/30th of a second. With the right skill and a very robust choice of kit, even slower exposures might be possible while maintaining acceptable sharpness.
The absolute best digital cameras in this field are full-frame and medium-format digital mirrorless cameras, which further reduce vibration compared to DSLRs thanks to the lower number of moving parts.
Using a compact body on the other hand, you might need to compensate by shooting a few stops faster at the same lighting conditions, just because light cameras will be that much easier to shake.
Even if you may not be able to afford a new digital camera body right now, choosing a different lens, using a battery grip, or even changing the way you wear your neck strap can all affect the weight balance of your gear. Try it out for yourself and see what works best!
Practice Good Posture
The way you hold the camera you’re using, including how you press the shutter button, affects the level of blur you’ll get. Try to keep your kit at arm’s length, suspended by a neck strap. For even greater balance, and especially with heavy gear, consider attaching your strap to a chest harness.
Try to maintain a neutral position with an upright back and sufficient muscular tension to keep your gear balanced. However, make sure not to get too tense either, as this can actually cause a different kind of subconscious muscle movement by itself.
Here is a video tutorial on how to hold your camera steadily to take sharp photos:
Study your camera’s user manual for the best technique for holding your camera. In particular, read up on the recommended ergonomics for resting your finger on and pressing the shutter button.
The moment at which you release the shutter is the most crucial for minimizing blur, and if you accidentally move the camera somewhat while firing, you can end up accidentally ruining the shot. Therefore, practice these motions carefully and try to find what ergonomically works best for you and your gear.
Can Camera Movement Be Useful?
In the end, I want to make it clear that this isn’t a guide on how to minimize camera shake and blur per se. Rather, I hope that your main takeaway from this article is that the degree of sharpness and blurriness in your shots is entirely within your control.
It is up to you whether to embellish your photos with a washed-out, dreamy look courtesy of ICM techniques or to use any of the tips and tricks we talked about above to get them pin-sharp and blur-free.
Your photography can only ever benefit from you being in more control over your gear and your technique. With that said, I hope you have a great time trying out the things you have learned today! Till next time!