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How to Prevent Image Blur
April 29, 2008

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DSLR News - April 2008

Anticipation is a fascinating thing.

In the same way that buzz can build up for a new product launch from Apple computer or the latest potential blockbuster at the box office, anticipation can build amongst consumers for new digital SLR cameras.

If you don't believe that statement, just take a quick look around the Interent at all of the different web sites - mine included - that track when new digital SLR cameras will be released.

While some sites wait for official press releases from the manufacturers about which new cameras are on the horizon, there are plenty of other sites where speculation and rumors run wild.

All this building anticipation is great for the camera manufacturers - it's free advertising - but it's not so good for us consumers.

Here's why: when enough anticipation builds for a new camera, many people are prompted to go out and buy it the moment it becomes available. The manufacturers have learned this, and the prices of new digital SLR cameras are "adjusted" to take full advantage of this trend.

When you actively track digital SLR prices over a period of time, you'll notice something interesting: the price of a new camera will often drop shortly after its release date, sometimes by several hundred dollars.

Some examples:

  • The Olympus E-510 cost $900 when it first came out - about 5 months later the price was $585
  • The Pentax K20D was released at $1,380 last month - now it costs $1,200
  • The Canon 40D that started out at $1,300 in October 2007 can now be had for $1,150

One key point: this price reduction is applied sooner to the consumer-level cameras than the semi-professional models. Since the more advanced cameras have a wider audience (in both consumers and professional photographers) the price on them often won't drop until many months after the camera's release. Cameras in the semi-pro category include the Canon 40D, Nikon D300, Olympus E-3 and Sony DSLR-A700.

But what does this mean for the average digital SLR consumer? If you can bear it, wait a couple of months after a new camera is released before you buy it.

You'll still get your hands on a shiny new digital SLR camera, you just won't pay the "anticipation" price for it.

In This Issue
  • Buying Advice
  • Why Do Some Cameras Cost so Much?
  • Camera Blur
  • Do You Need a Live View LCD?
  • Photo Links

Latest SLR Guides
Pentax K20D Canon 40D Olympus E-510 Nikon D80 Canon Rebel xTi Nikon D40

Digital SLR Terms
Megapixels Anti-Shake ISO / Image Noise Sensor Dust Crop Factor RAW vs. JPG Continuous Photos Autofocus Points Aspect Ratio

Lens Terms
Focal Length Prime vs. Zoom Maximum Aperture First vs. Third Party SLR Lens Features Canon Lens Glossary Nikon Lens Glossary

New Cameras

Learn about the pros, cons, features and prices of all of the New Digital SLR Cameras of 2008.

Latest Guide

The Pentax K20D Guide will introduce you to a camera with dust control, live view, built-in stabilization and a huge 14.6 megapixel sensor.

Digital SLR Q & A

Question: What do some digital SLRs cost so much more than others?

Answer

Instead of digital SLR cameras, let's talk about cars for a moment.

When you're in the market for a new motor vehicle, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration.

If you're buying budget, then really all you need is something with 4 wheels, an engine, a driver's seat and a steering wheel - everything else is just extra fluff.

But for many, the convenience and comfort of power windows, air conditioning and a sunroof all make the driving experience that much more enjoyable.

Digital SLR cameras aren't all that different: the cameras priced below $600 offer the ability to take photos with the two main benefits a digital SLR has over a compact digital camera (speedy response times and better image quality in low light).

Cameras in the $600 to $1,000 price range have a bit more: extra features like dust control, built-in image stabilization and live view LCDs, paired with higher megapixel sensors and more customized control over how the camera captures color.

SLRs between $1,000 and $2,000 are the "luxury" models. Like BMW and Mercedes cars, these cameras are a step above the rest in terms of speed, performance and reliability. They also allow photographers to adjust every camera feature and setting so that each camera can be tailored for a different shooting style.

Any digital SLR above $2,000 is designed for a professional. The car world equivalent would be a Formula One race car or any vehicle from the NASCAR circuit. The features available on these cameras are there for only one purpose: to perform reliably under extreme circumstances and extensive use.

So there you have it - the reason why there is so much price variation amongst the different digital SLR camera models. Which one is right for you?

Perhaps the car that you've been driving around in will offer up some hints.

Common Problems

For more digital SLR camera techniques and common problems, browse through the back issues of this newsletter.

This month's common problem is: I can't stop my photos from looking blurry.

When it comes to blurry photos, there's one main culprit and two causes. The culprit in this case is shutter speed. The cause that I'll be discussing in this newsletter is camera shake.

Let's talk about shutter speed first. The shutter speed is the amount of time the sensor is exposed to light every time you take a photo.

Think of your digital sensor like a sponge: in order to capture a decent photo, it needs to absorb a certain amount of light. The amount of light the sensor is exposed to is a combination of three different settings:

  1. Aperture: how wide the lens opens
  2. Shutter Speed: how long the shutter stays open
  3. ISO: how quickly the sensor absorbs light

For every photo you capture with your camera, the shutter speed selected will depend entirely on the other two variables AND on the amount of available ambient light.

Imaging that you're trying to soak a sponge under a faucet. If you turn on the faucet full-force, the sponge will get soaked pretty fast. But if you only turn on a trickle of water, it's going to take some time for the sponge to become saturated.

In this case, the flow of water is the amount of available light. If you have plenty of light (a bright sunny day) then your sensor will suck up all the light it needs while using a fast shutter speed. But it you are working with dim light (indoors at night) then your shutter is going to have to stay open a LONG time so that the small trickle of light can saturate the sensor.

Key Point: as your shutter speed slows down, you run the risk of capturing a blurry photo.

Shutter speeds faster than 1/125th of a second are usually fast enough to prevent blur, but as you drop below this number the risk of capturing a blurry shot increases significantly.

I mentioned at the beginning of this section that one CAUSE of blurry photos is camera shake (really it's camera shake in conjunction with a slow shutter speed).

How can you tell when the blur in your photo is due to camera shake? Simple: EVERYTHING in the photo looks blurry (see below).

Swimming
(Aperture: f/11 | Shutter Speed: 1/40 | ISO:100)

Now that we know the culprit - slow shutter speeds - and the cause - camera shake - let's find out what we can do to reduce and/or eliminate this type of blur entirely from our photos.

Solution #1: Stabilize the camera

The most sure-fire way to completely eliminate camera shake blur from your photos is to stick the camera on a tripod and then activate it using a remote trigger so that you're not even breathing on the camera when it captures the shot.

With this setup, you can use any old shutter speed you want - even if the shutter is open for 10 seconds or more - and you should still be capturing crisp, clear photos. You can't have blur caused by camera shake when the camera is perfectly stable.

Death Valley Sands

But hauling out your tripod every time you want to take a shot with a slow shutter speed is not terribly practical. Sine that's the case, let's talk about a different way of reducing the effect of camera shake.

Solution #2: Keep the shutter speed faster than the focal length of your lens

This solution is a bit harder to grasp than the previous one, but helps when you don't have a tripod and are trying to get some decent shots in dim light without having to use your flash. This last point is key: once you introduce light from artificial flash into the mix, all of the rules change (plus, it's a topic for a different newsletter).

For those taking photos without a flash, here's how to apply the shutter speed/focal length rule.

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode
  2. Turn the command dial so that the lens aperture is open as wide as it will go (this is represented by a small number like f/3.5)
  3. Check the focal length of the lens you're using: if you're using a zoom lens (which most of you will be) you can either judge what focal length you have the zoom set to, or just use the longest focal length of the zoom lens (most kit zoom lenses go from 18mm wide angle to 55mm telephoto)
  4. Set the shutter speed so that it's faster than the focal length - for example, if the focal length of the lens is 55mm, I should be using a shutter speed of at least 1/60th of a second to ensure blur-free photos

But what if the light is so dim that it doesn't let you select a shutter speed faster than the focal length? You must leverage your ISO setting to make the sensor absorb light faster.

Gradually increase the ISO value (to 200, then 400, then 800, etc.) until you can select a shutter speed that's faster than the focal length.

Using this principle means that the more telephoto the lens, the faster the shutter speed you'll have to use. Example: with a 55mm focal length, I can use a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, but if I change to a 200mm focal length, then my shutter speed must increase to 1/250th of a second to eliminate camera shake blur.

This makes sense when you realize that telephoto lenses enhance camera shake. You can take perfectly clear shots at 18mm even if the camera is jittering all over the place, but if you're using a 600mm telephoto lens, the slightest twitch of the camera can result in a blurry photo.

The good news here is that you can SEE this effect when you have a telephoto lens attached to your camera. If you have a 300mm lens attached to your camera and look through the viewfinder, you'll see the image in the viewfinder moving all over the place. If you then zoom out (or change lenses) to 70mm the image in the viewfinder will stabilize and the camera shake won't be as apparent.

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What Do You Need?

This month I'll be answering the question: Do you need a live view LCD?

Canon 40D Live View

The first generation of digital SLR cameras had just one way for you to take photos: in order to see the shot you were about to take, you had to look through the viewfinder.

This was in stark contrast to every compact digital camera on the market, which allowed you to use the camera's LCD screen to compose your photos (which was mostly due to the fact that - unlike SLRs - compact viewfinders don't show you an EXACT view of the image you're about to take).

When a digital SLR finally did include the capacity to compose photos with both the viewfinder and the LCD, it was dubbed a "live view LCD".

The first camera to include this feature was the Olympus E-330, and ever since the release of that camera, live view LCDs have been popping up on many of the new digital SLR cameras of 2008.

Today, you can buy Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and Sony digital SLRs that have live view LCDs.

But how useful are they?

The answer to this question depends a lot on how you take photos and what you want to photograph. Action photographers will find little use for a live view LCD, since many of the live view systems don't leverage the full power of the camera's autofocus system (except for the Sony A300 and A350).

The live view mode becomes more useful for portrait photographers, because it means you can maintain eye contact with your subject while still getting the right composition. However, if you're working with portrait subjects who can't stay still - children and pets - then not being able to use the autofocus once again becomes a problem.

Live view modes work very well for anyone who takes photos of static subjects (plants, still life, etc.) where it's not always convenient to peer through the viewfinder.

For example, if your favorite photographic subjects are plants and flowers, you'll find many times where you can't capture the image you want AND look through the viewfinder due to the subject's proximity to the ground (especially if you don't fancy lying down in the dirt to get the shot).

Live mode also works well for landscape photography, where you can set the camera up on a tripod and then make adjustments to the composition using the live view LCD.

Live view LCDs really come into their own when they are paired with an LCD screen that articulates away from the camera body: this allows you to see the LCD easily from high and low angles. If the camera is above your head, you can tilt the LCD down, and if the camera is near your waist, you can tilt the LCD up.

For those interested in live view LCDs that also flip out from the camera body, there are currently only three models for you to choose from: the Olympus E-3, Sony DSLR-A300 (to be released in May) and the Sony DSLR-A350.

Photo Fun

Since no new digital SLR cameras have been announced recently, this month I'll turn your attention toward a new way to engage your photographic creativity.

There's only one catch to the technique: you can't use a digital SLR camera to do it (I'll explain why in just a moment).

A new type of "image" has showed up recently on several different web sites, and it's already been given a name: the Long Portrait.

A Long Portrait sits somewhere in between a still image and a video. Essentially, it's a short video clip of a person/place/thing where the ambient sound helps to set the tone for the image. The video may either be motion, or just a still frame with the audio in the background.

Here are some examples of Long Portraits:

  • Rather than snapping a still image of a sandy beach, take a 20-second video clip of that same beach so viewers can hear the waves crashing against the shore
  • When taking a person's portrait, switch your camera to video mode and ask them a question about their day
  • Capture the hustle and bustle of a big city with a short clip of cars and people passing by

The trick here is to keep things short. Don't think of these as video segments, think of them as moving photographs with sound.

Long Portraits are a great way to get your creative juices flowing, and help you pay more attention to the micro-events happening around you each and every day.

The only problem...you can't use your digital SLR to capture them, since no digital SLR camera has a movie mode (the closest that I've found is the burst mode on the new Pentax K20D).

So now you have a fantastic use for that old compact digital camera, even though you have a brand new SLR. Keep the SLR around for any high-quality still images that you want to capture, and permanently set the compact camera to video capture mode, to start taking some Long Portraits to go with your other static images.

Here are some examples of Long Portraits that I've taken: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croberts/sets/72157604643847791/

I'm just starting out and am getting a feel for what works and what doesn't. To see a significantly larger collection of Long Photos check out Heather Powazek Champ's 10-second collection: http://www.hchamp.com/10seconds/

New Cameras

Find out more about all of the digital SLR cameras set for release this year. New Digital SLRs of 2008!

Links

The following collection of links will help to keep you posted about what's new at the Guide and in the world of digital SLR cameras.

Recent Updates to the Digital SLR Guide

Other Photography Sites

  • Betterphoto.com - a wealth of photography learning opportunities
  • Photojojo - a great site with tons of photography do-it-yourself (DIY) projects
  • Flickr - THE social media site for photographers
  • Strobist - everything you ever wanted to know about lighting with external flash
  • Photo.net - lots of learning resources and plenty of examples of exceptional photography

In Conclusion

That does it for this month's newsletter.

Coming up in the next month: how to prevent SUBJECT image blur, the return of the marketplace (with more SLR gear for sale), and the usual grab-bag of tips and new camera information.

Until then, happy picture taking!

--Chris Roberts, Your Digital SLR Guide

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