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Answering Photography Questions Vol. 2

This question comes to us from “Christopher” in Long Beach, CA.

Hi LPS team!

I know in my typical hand held shots many things can cause an image to appear soft, such as camera shake and shutter speed being too low. This is especially true for long telephoto shots of birds in flight.

What I am doing is I get focus on a static subject (perched owl) with the AF while on a tripod then I reach up and switch the lens to manual focus. So, I know that the AF has focused and the image should be sharp.

On top of this I am also using a shutter release to mitigate all camera shake, I still find myself going through a ton of shots, trying to find the shot that is just a little sharper than the rest.

Why are my pictures still soft even though I am on a tripod, using a shutter release, and I locked focus manually?

If your team at LPS can help me that would be great!

Thank you! -Christopher

Any time we zoom in a lot with a telephoto lens the already tiny amount of movement required to cause a shot to appear soft is magnified by the factor of the zoom.

In photography a rule of thumb for getting sharp pictures with a telephoto is to keep the shutter speed at 1x-2x the focal length of the lens. This means if you have an 800mm lens, you should go to 1/800th of a second at a minimum to have a sharp shot.

It’s really a question of shutter speed. Just being on a tripod doesn’t mean you can start shooting at 1/2 a second with a telephoto. Different rules apply!

When it comes to things like bird photography you can forget about using slow shutter speeds, even if your lens is on the biggest most sturdy tripod ever made.

A common mistake is to think that the 1:1 shutter speed rule applies to handholding only. That would be incorrect. Magnification of movement due to zooming affects the magnitude of camera movement and subject movement.

Sure, it looks as if the perched bird is still to your eye, but it’s not.

If you’ve ever tried photographing the moon it is easy to see. Zoomed in to 1200mm its possible to see the moon moving across the frame quite easily. But to the naked eye the moon looks totally still.

Always follow the 1:1 shutter speed rule. With really long focal lengths it’s nearly impossible to avoid some amount of shake or movement even when you’re on a tripod.

If you’re photographing Owls in low light, guess what? You’ll just have to live with some “soft” shots. As long as some of the shots are sharp enough, you’re good to go.

Hope that helps answer your question!

To those of you reading, feel free to send your questions to


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