In photography, there’s a rule—well, more of a guideline—that says you shouldn’t use a shutter speed slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens with a handheld camera. In other words, if you’re using a 200mm lens (accounting for crop factor), you shouldn’t use a shutter speed slower than 1/200th of a second without a tripod. For a 50mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/50th of a second, and so on.
But what happens if for some reason—artistic or light related—you need to go slower and can’t use a tripod. Let’s find out.
Before diving in, I should say that we generally only recommend dropping your shutter speed to increase your exposure as the last resort. Increasing your ISO or widening your aperture will, in most situations, give you better images.
Use a Camera or Lens With Optical Image Stabilization
Optical image stabilization is built into some lenses (Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction or VR) and cameras. It’s specifically designed for situations where you want to shoot with a slower shutter speed than you could ordinarily handhold. It’s normally rated in stops; for example, two-stop optical image stabilization will enable you to use a shutter speed two stops slower than you otherwise could so, if you’re using a 200mm lens, you could handhold at 1/50th of a second (two stops slower than the reciprocal 1/200th).
The image above shows that in action. I shot the same image at 1/40th of a second with a 200mm lens. The shot on the right has IS turned on. You can see how much sharper it is.
It’s important to remember that using a faster shutter speed doesn’t just stop camera shake. It also freezes everything in your image. Lowering your shutter speed to less than 1/50th of a second means that moving objects will probably look a bit blurry even if your exposure is good. A slow shutter speed is always a tradeoff.
In the last few years, optical image stabilization has improved a considerable amount, especially with longer lenses. It’s by far the best way to shoot at a slower shutter speed, although you will pay more for gear that includes it. Lenses are also heavier.
Brace and Shoot a Burst of Photos
If you don’t have image stabilization, the next easiest method to shoot at slower shutter speeds is to brace the camera and shoot a burst of photos. Even if you can’t guarantee that any one photo will be good, by shooting a burst you increase your odds of lucking out.
To brace your camera, hold it like you normally would but, instead of keeping it at arm’s length, tuck your elbows tight to your body. You should also spread your legs to take up a more stable stance.
Focus on your subject and shoot a burst of photos. How many depends on how slow you’re going. If your shutter speed is only a little slower than the reciprocal, two or three is probably okay. If you’re trying to use something like 1/10th of a second, shoot nine or ten shots.
Like with anything, the more you use this technique, the better you will get. Try it out at home before relying on it in a crucial situation.
When you shoot with flash it basically becomes the shutter speed for your subject. The general guideline is that the shutter speed determines how the background looks and the flash freezes the subject and determines how they look. This means that even if your shutter speed is super slow, your subject at least should look good (as long as you get the correct flash exposure, which is a different challenge).
The problem with using flashes—especially off-camera flashes which work best—is that there’s a lot of set up. The photo above needed five people to take: me on the camera, Will on skis, and three people holding flashes. I could have done it alone with light stands, but the setup time would have been ridiculous. You’re rarely going to be able to snap a good shot with flash casually.
We generally don’t advise using a slow shutter speed without a tripod because it creates a load of extra problems, but it is possible. Image stabilization, shooting bursts, and using a flash are the best way to do it.