April 12, 2011

Getting Sharper Photos with Hands-Free Photography

Landscape photo shot from tripod with self-timer

One of the most important criteria for excellent photography is achieving sharply focused pictures. Cameras' automatic focus systems are very good at doing this. But even if you achieve proper focus with the lens, you can still have an image that's not quite sharp. This is most often the result of the camera moving (even slightly) at the time the exposure is made.

When you are photographing a stationary subject (such as a landscape or still life close-up), you can improve your chances of creating a tack sharp photo by doing two things. First, place your camera on a tripod so you do not have to hold it. A tripod doesn't breathe or have a heartbeat, both of which make humans a moving platform. Second, don't touch the camera when you take the exposure. Here's how:

Turn on the Self-Timer
All digital cameras have a self-timer feature. This is the setting that creates a delay (usually 10 seconds but 2 seconds is available on some cameras) between the time you press the shutter button fully and when the camera takes the exposure. Most people use this feature when they want to join their family or friends in the picture. 

Standard, 10-second and 2-second Self-Timer Icons

But using the self-timer also means that at the moment of exposure, you are not touching the camera. It is taking the picture all by itself. So there is no danger of your jiggling the camera body by pushing the shutter button. As a result, you will get a sharper photo (if the subject doesn't move during the exposure).

To use the self-timer, locate the control on your camera. It may be a button on the back or top of the camera. Or you may have to access it through a menu choice. (See your camera manual if you have trouble locating it.) Once you find the control, turn it on. The self-timer icon will appear on the LCD screen or panel on your camera.

Next, frame the scene and set any exposure or white balance adjustments you want to make. Press the shutter button halfway down to confirm that the camera focuses properly. Then press it the rest of the way down. You will know you pressed the button far enough when you hear the camera beep or see a light flashing from the front of the camera. (Some cameras do both.) The camera counts down the seconds and then takes the photo. When you see the image on the back of the camera, you know the picture is finished.

After the picture is taken, check to see whether the self-timer is still turned on or whether the camera canceled the setting. This varies from camera to camera. Learn which way yours works so that you don't end up with the self-timer still active when you try to capture a moving subject!

Evening at Big Hole Lodge, Montana

Use a Remote Shutter Release
A self-timer is effective, but its drawback is that pesky delay. If you are trying to time your exposure of a wildflower to the moment between puffs of wind, then the camera's delay can be frustrating. If you're willing to spend the money for a remote shutter release, you can better control the timing of your picture, still without touching the camera body itself.

A remote shutter release (in the old days we called it a cable release) is literally a shutter button on a string or an infrared remote like the one for your television. Which one you use is dependent on your camera model. Entry level digital SLRs usually have a wireless remote while more advanced models offer the wired (cable) type.

Wired (left) and wireless (right) remote shutter release

To use the wireless remote shutter release, you have to set the camera to receive the wireless signal. This is usually associated with the self-timer feature. Turning on the self-timer/remote setting does not mean there is a delay, only that the camera is "looking" for the wireless signal instead of the shutter button being pressed. Also, you have to be at the right angle (usually in front of the camera) for the
camera sensor to see the wireless signal (just like for your TV). Check your camera manual for additional details on using the wireless remote.

If the remote shutter release is a wired version (on a cable), all you have to do is attach it to the proper socket on the side of your camera. Then it works exactly like your shutter button; no other steps are necessary.

Wired cable releases tend to be pricey for what they are, mainly because they are electronic, not mechanical. You can purchase the "official" wired remote from your camera's manufacturer. To find the model number, check the back of your camera manual under the accessories section. Or you can look for third party companies that sell compatible remotes for less money.

Using either the self-timer feature or a wireless or wired remote shutter release keeps your hands off the camera at the time of exposure and helps you take that next step to a razor sharp image.