Help! New fancy camera, blurry photos?

In Photo Basics by Jeff Harmon

Blurry indoor photo due to low light and bad camera settings

Blurry indoor photo due to low light and bad camera settings of shutter 100, aperture f/3.5, ISO 3200

So you have a new (or new to you) “fancy” camera!  Just got it this past holiday season but have been disappointed blurry photos?  Are you beginning to wonder if the camera isn't so fancy after all?  Even worse, maybe you got a lemon?  Good news!  Your camera is great (most likely).  No really, it is.  You just need a little help with what all of the settings are and what they mean.  Read on for some help 

 

Blurry Photos

The exposure triangle - click for larger version

The exposure triangle – click for a larger image

There are a few things that can make a photo blurry, but the most common problem is too slow a shutter speed.  At least a shutter speed too slow for the situation (action + a low amount of light).  Our eyes are amazing things that can adapt extremely well to different lighting conditions.  So good in fact, you may not believe the room in your house where those children are doing their awesome tricks doesn't have plenty of light.  I know that was a hard thing for me to believe when I first picked up my DSLR.  I thought my new camera that was 5x more expensive than a point-and-shoot was magical and should immediately change my photos to be awesome.  Yet even for the latest cameras anything indoors is actually low light, which is harder than you might expect to deal with – even with a fancy camera.

OK, so what does “too slow a shutter speed” mean?  How do you fix it?  In order to understand that you need to understand the exposure triangle – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  The image above is a nice illustration of the effect those three things have on the shot your are taking.  I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on the triangle in this post.  If you don't understand it then I suggest you take a break and head over to Jim's article here where he goes into each element in a lot of detail.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

Really, you won't be able to make a lot of progress on this or really any other issue you have with your photos until you fully understand that exposure triangle.  OK, assuming you have that down, let's talk about what you can do about the blurry indoor action shot.

Increase the Shutter Speed

There, problem solved!  OK, I know.  Easy for me to say “all you have to do is increase the shutter speed.”  If you are like me you are wondering what does that mean and more importantly, how do I do that with all of the knobs, buttons, and menus on this fancy device?  I remember being in this exact situation in early 2012 after I got my first DSLR (Canon 60D) for Christmas.  I figured this new magical camera would make me into a photo wizard overnight and wanted to get some shots of my children jumping onto a bean bag while catching a football.

With the lens that came with my camera (called a kit lens because it came with the camera) attached to the magic box, I headed down in the basement (even lower light) all excited at the award winning shots I was about to get – only to very quickly become completely disappointed with the results.  One of them is at the top of this article.  Blurry shot, after blurry shot.  To make it worse, when my wife saw the shots she asked if I was sure I had bought the right camera, worried we had just wasted our money.  Ouch.

I wish I could tell you specifically for your camera how to increase the shutter speed, after all that is the article I wish I could have found as I was trying to figure out what to do.  Unfortunately there are so many different “fancy” cameras out there I can't possibly tell you exactly which button, knob, or menu to use for it.  But hopefully the next section will really help.

Shutter Priority Mode

Camera Mode Dials

Camera Mode Dials

The first thing I recommend doing as a beginner is to stop using the fully automatic modes on your camera.  You know, those icons on your camera where you spin the dial to the generic theme of what you are shooting and the camera figures everything out from there.  Some of them are kind of obvious, like the person running being fully automatic settings for sports or action.  Some of them may not be, like the difference between the flower which is fully automatic settings for macro (where your camera is an inch or two from the subject), and the mountain which is fully automatic settings for landscape.

These automatic settings are surprisingly effective a good portion of the time.  It is a huge advantage we have with digital photography, these cameras have a lot of smarts built into them.  But if you use these fully automatic settings then you will get snapshots.  Good snapshots (a lot of the time), but since these fully automatic modes are on every camera then everyone else can take that same picture as well.

At other times they will simply fail, which is why when you chose your running person icon on the mode dial your picture came out blurry, dark, or both.  The fully automatic mode will do it's best to try and get a perfectly exposed image using the same exposure triangle elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) that you need to be familiar with.  Putting the mode dial on action tells the camera that you prefer it to have a faster shutter speed if it can, but you aren't giving it strict guidelines on what shutter speed to use.  In a scene that has low light (remember this is really anything indoors) then it will decide that it has to decrease the shutter speed in order to get enough light to expose things properly – making a blurry image.

The solution then is to put the camera into a semi-automatic mode where you tell it exactly what shutter speed you want and it does its best to figure out what the aperture and ISO (if ISO is set to auto) settings should be.  On Canon this is the “Tv” mode, “S” on Nikon.  Yes, Nikon using an “S” makes a lot more sense than Canon using “Tv” (stands for time value, meaning you are trying to freeze time), but photographers always refer to this mode as shutter priority mode.

Sweet, so you have your dial set to do shutter priority mode.  But hold on, you're not done.  Remember, this is only semi-automatic, you need to tell the camera what shutter speed you want.  Again, this is different by camera, for some you will have to go into the menus but most have a grooved wheel you can spin to change the shutter speed value you want the camera to use (just behind the shutter button on Canon, and on the upper right of the back of the camera on Nikon).  Found it?  Good.  But what should you set the shutter speed to be?  That deserve another section.  Read on!

Shutter Speed Setting

What should your shutter speed be to make it so that you get sharp shots that freeze the action in a low light situation?  You will hear this far too much from photographers when you ask questions, but it is because it is true – it depends.  The level of light is going to be pretty different.  It is actually going to vary from hour to hour even in the same room if there are windows letting light in.  But there is a general rule of thumb that will give you a good starting point.

The basic rule is based on the focal length you are shooting at.  Focal length refers to the relative “zoom” you are shooting at.  Your lens has markings on it that tell you the zoom.  If you only have a kit lens then it is probably something like 18-55mm or 55-250mm.  As a quick side note, it is going to be next to impossible to get a good, sharp action shot indoors with any kit lens.  For this guestimation at what your shutter speed should be, you need to know what the biggest of the numbers is on the lens – the maximum focal length (55 on the 18-55 and 250 on the 55-250).

There are actually 3 things you have to consider for this action shot in low light.  The first is what the minimum shutter speed should be if you are hand-holding the camera.  Even if you have the steadiest of hands, nobody has enough fine muscle control to keep a camera COMPLETELY still for more than a small fraction of a second.  To compensate for the camera shake your hands will add to the camera, the general rule of thumb should be that you need to set your shutter speed to be at least as fast as twice the focal length (or put the camera on a tripod):

Good light, still subject handheld formula: Focal Length x 2 = Minimum Shutter Speed

In most cases this will get you close to being able to take a sharp photo of something that is NOT moving – like a portrait where someone is holding still – in good light (outdoors or with flash).  Let's assume you are using the 18-55mm lens since that is the most common one to come with your camera.  The maximum focal length is 55, so just to compensate for your hands moving allowing you to get a sharp photo of something not moving:

55 x 2 = 110 (1/110th of a second minimum shutter speed)

Your camera probably doesn't have a 110 shutter speed, so go the next number up, which is probably 125 (1/125th of a second) here.  If you are one of those lucky people with really steady hands then you might be able to get away with 100 or even a little slower like 80, but that would really being pushing it.  But what about image stabilization?  Doesn't that compensate for this?  YES!  This is precisely what image stabilization is for!  You have to figure out if your lens (or in some cases your camera) supports image stabilization, and if it does you may be able to get away with not having to start off by doubling things here.  But for now, let's assume you don't have it.  Now let's bring low light into the equation:

Low light, still subject handheld formula: Focal Length x 4 = Minimum Shutter Speed

You double it again.  So for that 55mm maximum focal length you have 220, which your camera probably does not have, so you go the next higher which would be 250.  You'll need to do all you can to hold as still as possible while you take your shot, but this should allow you to get sharp photos in relatively low light so long as you are shooting something that is holding still.  Finally, let's get to low light and a moving subject:

Low light, moving subject handheld formula: Focal Length x 8 = Minimum Shutter Speed

For that kit lens with the 55mm max focal length to freeze a moving subject in low light you should start at a shutter speed of 440.  But your camera probably only has 400 and 500 shutter speeds, so you should go up to 500, but I would try 400 first to see if you can get away with that.  How do you know if it has worked?  Check out the photo on your LCD screen and see how it looks.  You may have to zoom in to see that it is actually sharp.  If it is then you can try decreasing the shutter speed until it is blurry and just bump it up one click from there.  In some cases you may want just a little bit of blur to show motion is happening and can go a little lower than 400 (check the image at the end of the post that was at 200).  What's that?  Your shot is horribly dark?  Yeah, so that is the next section.

High Aperture Required

Remember how we talked about the exposure triangle – shutter speed, aperture, ISO?  Seriously if you don't know that triangle yet you have to learn it before you can do much with photography.  If you are like me, that only comes through experience and trying settings for each of those in different situations to figure it out.  But let's talk about why your photo came out horribly dark when you had your shutter speed at 400.

With a shutter speed as high as 400, your camera sensor is only going to be exposed to the scene for 1/400th of a second.  That's good for what you are trying to do because not a whole lot changes in that kind of time.  There also isn't nearly as much light that gets to the sensor in the amount of time.  Since we don't want to decrease our shutter speed so that we can let more light in because we want to freeze the action, then we have to increase the exposure of the scene using the other two controls in the triangle – aperture and ISO.

We really don't want to increase the ISO if we can help it.  The higher the ISO number, the more “noise,” or grainy look there is to the photo.  But in a low light situation you have no choice.  The more expensive / newer cameras deal better with this than others.  In general, the more expensive the camera, the better it will deal with high ISO.  But as a beginner you probably don't have a camera that can do high ISO really well, but most cameras within the past 10 years are decent up to an ISO of 1600.  So, as a staring point, I would set the ISO at 1600 as you try to freeze this action shot in low light.

Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6

Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6

Aperture is the thing that would be best to change, and it really took me a long time to understand how this one worked.  Still seems a little backward to me.  The LOWER the number, the more light gets let in, and the smaller the depth-of-field.  You need to try and memorize that rule.  Aperture is measured in something called f-stops, so in books and other instruction you will hear it as “f/X” where X is a number.  Just like the focal length is printed on your camera in millimeters, the maximum aperture is there too.  On that 18-55mm kit lens it is probably something like 1:3.5-5.6 (look on the front of the lens).  That means that at 18mm the most wide open aperture you can use is f/3.5, but as you zoom to 55mm the most wide open the aperture can go is only f/5.6.

Confusing, huh?  At f/3.5 you get a lot more light to the camera in 1/400th of a second than you do at f/5.6.  It also changes the way focus works where at f/3.5 there is less in the shot that is in focus than at f/5.6.  In this case you probably don't care and may even like having the background blurred with only your moving subject in focus, but it means you have to nail your focus on the subject so that you don't have a shot of the back wall in sharp focus and the person moving blurred.

Hopefully you have wondered another question as you have read this section.  I recommended putting the camera in shutter priority mode, where you tell the camera exactly what you want the shutter speed to be, and since this is a semi-automatic mode the camera then is going to pick the aperture value.  So why in this section am I talking about the aperture?  It is because this is the reason you picture came out dark.  We fixed it not being blurry by increasing the shutter speed, and the camera tried to get the shot to be exposed properly by opening up the aperture as high as it could go for you automatically, but your 18-55mm kit lens can only open up to f/3.5 when you are fully zoomed out at 18mm.  It wasn't enough, and the bad news is there isn't anything you can do to change it.

Camera + Lens Limitations

Hate to be the bearer of bad news.  You have reached the limitations of your camera and your lens.  You can't increase the ISO because then the image gets so grainy it is ugly and useless.  You can't open up the aperture more because your lens doesn't do any better than f/3.5 (like f/2.8, f/1.8, or even f/1.4 with some lenses).  You can't decrease the shutter speed because you don't have enough light and it will get blurry.  So what can you do?

You can add flash.  There are limitations here too since flash can't recycle (get ready to flash again) fast enough to get more than one shot as someone is moving, making you have to guess when you should hit that shutter button to catch what you want rather than holding it down and getting 5-10 shots to choose from.  So it isn't ideal, but it is a relatively cheap solution to the problem, and something you will need to learn eventually (I am still working on flash).

You can get a better camera.  Remember, the ISO can be increased a lot more on newer and/or more expensive cameras.  The full frame cameras generally do a lot better here as they have better sensors.  Some of the newer crop sensor cameras also deal with high ISO better.  But this is going to be a really expensive way to get there.

Sharp(er) shot at f/2.8, shutter 200, ISO 1600

Sharp(er) shot at f/2.8, shutter 200, ISO 1600

You can get a better lens.  Ahh, this is the one I recommend.  See that kit lens that came with your camera is really not very good.  The image quality is only decent when the lighting conditions are perfect.  Can you get good shots with the kit lens, absolutely.  With good lighting conditions it will do just fine.  But you get what you pay for with lenses and that kit lens was really cheap.  So what lens?  Here we go again, it depends!  I think the best overall solution for your second lens to improve the image quality of your shots and provide MUCH better aperture possibilities is the “nifty fifty” lens – a 50mm prime (meaning it doesn't zoom in or out) lens that opens up to f/1.8.  Check out an article on that here.  Trust me, the money spent on a nifty fifty lens will amaze you at how much more you can do in lower light.


About the Author

Jeff Harmon

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The hobbyist editor here at improvephotography.com. IT Professional by day, passionate hobbyist photographer ever other second possible. Living in Herriman, Utah. Loves trying to capture the beauty around every day and family portraits occasionally. Be sure to check out my portfolio at http://jsharmonphotos.com.