There is an urban legend that states you cannot hand hold a camera at a
shutter speed slower than 1/60 second. It is time to lay that urban legend
to its final resting place. With today’s cameras in particular, you can hand
hold right the way down to ½ a second, if you are using the correct
With image stabilization now being commonplace in digital cameras for the
past few years, photographers should really experiment more with the slower
Let’s look at the shutter speed down from the magic 1/60. This is probably
the most underused shutter speed ever, and yet it can help make your
photographs very much better.
The reason to use 1/15th is to expand the light range in which you can take
shots without flash, such as sunsets for example, or to bring out the
background, even when using flash. You know the shots taken at a function
where you get someone looking like a startled rabbit in blackness, where if
you had used a 1/15th shutter speed you would have got a nice mellow
background to soften the picture.
Of course there are a few tricks to hand-holding at the slower shutter
speeds. The first is to steady yourself and that can be done easily by
leaning against a wall or a pole (preferably not a chrome one attached to a
go-go dancer). The second is to hold the camera firmly in both hands, take a
breath in and hold it and then gently depress the shutter button. I have
even shot at ½ a second by holding the camera firmly pressed down on the
back of a chair. Take a few as some will have obvious camera shake, but you
will get at least one good one.
Try shooting at night with the slower shutter speeds, and you will also see
the color changes that occur, with a warm amber shade from the tungsten
lighting still used in many interiors.
Still on the numerical approach to photography. There are many f-stops
possible to be used by the photographer. F stops after all are only a way of
measuring the diameter of the aperture inside the lens, to bring it to its
simplest terms. As you go through the usual f-stops of f/8 to f/11 to f/16,
you are actually cutting the light down by one half each time. The f stop
scale is also an inverse ration, as the bigger the number, the smaller the
diameter. There is a good mathematical reason for this, but just believe me.
If you really want to get technical, for example, f/16 means that the
aperture diameter is equal to the focal length of the lens divided by
sixteen; that is, if the camera has an 80 mm lens, all the light that
reaches the sensor passes through a virtual disk known as the ‘entrance
pupil’ that is 5 mm (80 mm/16) in diameter. The location of this virtual
disk inside the lens depends on the optical design. It may simply be the
opening of the aperture stop, or may be a magnified image of the aperture
stop, formed by elements within the lens.
The f stop scale is a sliding one, allowing for fractional differences in
the light allowed through to the film (or the digital sensors). Most old
cameras had an aperture scale graduated in full stops but the aperture was
continuously variable allowing the photographer to select any intermediate
aperture, and thus it would be possible to shoot at f-anything.
The continuously variable aperture cameras slowly disappeared, when
‘click-stopped’ aperture became a common feature in the 1960s; the aperture
scale was usually marked in full stops, but many lenses had a click between
two marks, allowing a gradation of one half of a stop.
On modern cameras, especially when aperture is set in the camera body,
f-number is often divided more finely than steps of one stop or half a stop.
Steps of one-third stop (1/3 EV) are the most common, since this matches the
ISO system of theoretical film speeds. Enough technical details! Time to
just believe me again and get out there and take photographs.