PhotoFit #1 - Why are all my images blurry? (Shutter Speed 101)

Let's kick off #photofit by getting right into it: blurry photos.  I hear again and again, about people telling me that when they're at their gym or CrossFit affiliate and they try to shoot their friends doing something awesome, it always comes out blurry!  Now, there are a number of things that could contribute to this, but the leading cause is very likely shutter speed.  Whether you have an iPhone, a point-and-shoot, or a fancy DSLR, you have ways of controlling the camera, and the following tips should help.

I'm going to put together a primer on the basics of  photography that will serve as a blueprint to a lot of these how-to's, but let's pretend I already wrote that, or you have a decent base of knowledge about the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, iso).

The constant battle all photographers deal with is about light.  The unique challenge that photographers of CrossFit - or any kind of indoor actions - have to deal with is the extreme low light.

What happens when you take a shot inside in these lowlight conditions is your camera's computer takes over and figures out a way to get a good exposure.  Depending on how your camera is set, it will generally bring your aperture to its widest setting (as close to f 2/8 or as wide open as possible), raise your ISO to a higher setting (perhaps 1600), and then slow your shutter speed down to a painfully slow setting (like 1/40th of second).

 F/8, 1/40th, ISO 3200

F/8, 1/40th, ISO 3200

If you want to wow your buddies with your action shots, it's time to move away from "auto" mode and move towards either Aperture priority (A on Nikon, AV on Canon) or man-up and just set your camera on "Manual" where you control all three of the settings that go into the exposure triangle.  Right here you can take a short cut and get to the punchline of the post:

PWOD - 7/9/2913

  • Set your camera to manual.  
  • Set your ISO to 1600 or 3200.  
  • Set your aperture to its widest setting (2.8 on expensive lenses, 3.5 on cheaper lenses).  
  • Set your shutter speed to a minimum of 1/200th of a second.  Go out and shoot.  Post experiences to comments.

Now if you want to understand why those are the settings to go with most of the time, let's pick it up here.  What's going on when your camera is in "Auto," is it doesn't understand action is about to go down, so it slows the shutter way down to the point where a person moving comes out blurry.  Now you're a smart shooter and are anticipating action, so you need to set your camera appropriately.

Depending on how fast a movement is, a floor of 1/200th of a second is usually a good baseline.  Occasionally you'll want to get creative and use shutter speeds slower than this if you want  blur - i.e. shooting someone swinging a kettlebell.  With a setting around 1/100th of a second, you'll get a blurry kettlebell, but a sharp face.

 F.28, ISO 3200, 1/320th

F.28, ISO 3200, 1/320th

Now, all your other decisions are based off of getting enough light to get a proper exposure at 1/200th of second.  If you're at some perfectly lit gym, this isn't that much of a challenge.  1/200th of a second could actually lead to an image that is too bright (that's a good problem to have and you'd just lower your ISO or raise your shutter speed).  But most of the time the struggle is to get the image bright enough.  So you have two settings to pull this off - your aperture and your ISO.  Aperture is the easy one and you'll always do the same thing.  Whatever lens you have, you want yours shooting as "wide open" as possible - meaning that it is the lowest number available.  For instance - a Nikon 70-200 2.8 can go to f2.8 at its widest whereas the Nikon 55-200 4.5-5.6 can only open to f4.5 at its widest.  F2.8 lets more light in than f4.5.  Lens get more expensive the wider they go.

ISO is the other challenge.  ISO impacts how sensitive your camera is to light.  Outisde, you'd shoot at ISO 100 - meaning the camera is insensitive to light which allows you to get properly exposed bright days.  As you raise the ISO the camera becomes more sensitive to light, but also introduces a villain to the picture - noise.  Noise is digital static that will impact the color and quality of your image.  You don't want it if you can stop it.  The most expensive cameras, beyond a number of other advantages, handle low light much better and allow you to shoot at extremely high ISO settings (6400 and above) without much "noise." 

 F2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

F2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

So for your ISO, in most gyms I go into, you need to start around ISO 1600 - which may push lower-end cameras in that it will introduce noise, but are easily handled by most DSLRs now.  If you take a test shot at the settings I outlined above  (1/200th of a second, f 2.8 (if possible), ISO 1600)  and it still is dark, the only place to go is up on your ISO - next stop 2000, 2500, or 3200.  Each step up will introduce more noise, but will brighten the resulting image.  If I had the choice between a blurry action shot that didn't have noise or a sharp action shot that had noise (because you pushed your ISO), I would always take the sharp shot.  A blurry shot is garbage - no matter how special the moment might be.  If you capture the perfect moment - the top of a clean or transition of a muscle-up and it's perfectly exposed, no one will care if the corners of the image of noisy.

 Homework time: head to your gym or box, and get out of "Auto."  Start off at the settings I've outlined above 1/200th of a second, your wides available aperture, and a starting point of ISO 1600.  Work up from there and see how the images come out?  I guarantee your images will be sharper than ever before!   Post to comments below.