Getting Sharp Images while Hand Holding in Low Light

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Brown Thasher
ISO 400, 400mm lens, 1/30sec shutter speed
There are three factors that can cause blurry images: 1) improper focus, 2) subject movement, and 3) camera movement.  I'm concerned here with the third factor.  In low light situations, it's important to take extra precautions to get sharp images, especially if you aren't using an image stabilized lens or can't use a tripod,.  As a general rule of thumb, without using image stabilization, you can get a high percentage of sharp images if you can achieve a shutter speed equal to the inverse of the focal length of the lens--so if you're using a 400mm lens, you want a shutter speed of 1/400sec or faster. Image stabilization can let you achieve equally sharp images 2 or 3 stops slower--that is, 1/100sec or 1/50sec.  If you can raise the ISO to give you a shutter speed that fast, you're probably in good shape.

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Barred Owl
ISO 800, 400mm lens, 1/60sec shutter speed
With my camera I do not like to shoot faster than ISO 800, and my 400mm lens does not have image stabilization.  So in low light situations, I frequently have to shoot much slower than the rule of thumb.  I often bring a tripod with me, and that helps, but using a tripod often slows me down.  So when hand-holding in low light situations, here's what I do to get sharp images:
  1. Brace your lens.  With long telephoto lenses, I find it more effective to brace the middle to front of my lens rather than the base near the camera. Use  your car window, tree branch, fence, anything to keep the lens from moving.
  2. Soft is better than hard.  A hard surface can cause vibrations as the shutter goes off.  I often use a small pillow when shooting from the car.  When using a tree branch, I put my arm on the branch and set the lens on my arm.
  3. Crouch.  I crouch down and rest my elbows on my knees or even on the ground.
  4. Breath slowly.  I set myself and breath out slowly while shooting.
  5. Take lots of images.  With the best practices, I often still have many blurry images.  To compensate, I shoot many images.


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