Shutter Lag

Shutter Lag
Even if you don’t know what the words mean, shutter lag, you’ve probably experienced it.  You have your camera at the ready, you’ve composed the shot, the athlete is now in position and you press the shutter button at the exact moment you want to capture the perfect picture…………….but the camera doesn’t take the photo, it waits for what’s seems an eternity and then fires.  You find the resultant photo is not the one you had prepared for, the athlete is not framed properly or they are now in an awkward looking position, or it’s out of focus all because the camera delayed in taking the photo. 

This is what is known as shutter lag.  Sports photographers need cameras that shoot with minimal shutter lag and shoot quickly. You the sports photographer can also take steps to reduce this lag and not miss photo opportunities or poorly capture them. 

What is it?
Shutter Lag is the delay between pushing the shutter button and the camera recording the picture on the image sensor.  Whereas the shutter lag on a film camera was minimal and primarily a result of the mechanics of the aperture opening and closing, digital cameras have that lag plus the processing of the image.  There are many steps the camera must take prior to and when taking a photo, all of which are not related to the shutter, but practically speaking shutter lag is the time from when you press the shutter button until the time the camera takes the photo.  A lot must happen during this time.  Your camera adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance then it opens the aperture, captures the light on the image sensor, converts the light to a digital representation and writes it to your memory card.  That’s a lot to do in a short amount of time and while electronic circuitry and processing is improving shutter lag continues to be a factor.

What can you do about it?
As a sports photographer there are a number of things you can do about it.  The first and most obvious is to buy a camera with a short shutter lag.  You will find measurements in the specifications and it never hurts to test the camera out on a sport you want to shoot.  Even the best digital cameras still experience shutter lag but there is still more you can do.

Prepare in advance
The work you camera must do can be significantly reduced by preparing your camera in advance.  When you push the shutter button half-way down you are telling your camera to focus and make the proper adjustments.  Continue holding the button down, and then when you press the rest of the way down it will more quickly take the photo.  This is not always possible when shooting sports, but when you can it will help you reduce shutter lag.

Anticipate
This is another trick that can reduce shutter lag.  Anticipating or predicting where the action will be occurring will allow you to shoot the camera a bit ahead of the actual shot you want to get.  By anticipating what will be happening next and shooting the camera just before that moment you will capture the exact moment you want.  The more you shoot a particular sport the better you will become and you will find yourself capturing magnificent photos and not noticing the shutter lag at all.

Continuous or Burst Mode
Good sports photography cameras will have a continuous mode or burst mode.  When set to this mode, when you press and hold the shutter button, the camera will take a rapid set of photos one right after the other as quickly as it can.  This can make the art of anticipating a bit easier since you can begin before the action and end afterwards.  This will increase your chances of getting that perfect action photo.

Increased Shutter Speed
Another way to reduce shutter lag is to shoot with a faster shutter speed.  You will be doing this often anyway as you attempt to capture sports and freeze the action.  This way you will obtain clear photos without blur.  In low-light conditions if you increase the size of the aperture or opening you will allow more light to reach the sensor in less time allowing you to use a faster shutter speed.  This will help you to freeze motion for sharp clear photos.

Decrease the photo resolution
By lowering the quality and thus the size of the photo you are taking allows your camera to process the information faster, since there is less information to process.  Just common sense really, if your resolution is set to 8 megapixel per photo, the processor in your camera must process all those pixels, convert them to digital numbers and write them to your memory card.  Obviously your camera will take less time to process fewer mega pixels, so shooting at a quality mode that requires 4 mega pixels will process quicker.  Pick a quality mode on your camera that meets your needs, but still helps you reduce the shutter lag. 

And don’t forget to practice and practice and take many photos.  This will improve your timing as well as give you a chance to capture some great sports shots while learning to compensate for shutter lag.

ProPix Photography
The Sports Photographers

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