This is a question I get asked almost on a daily basis and the solution is quite simple.
Firstly though, a quick recap on some basic principles, which will help us understand the situation better.
Photography is made up of many different aspects, but the three main ones to focus on are the following (using a light-coming-through-curtains comparison to help understanding):
Shutter Speed – This is a measurement of how long the shutter remains open as the picture is taken. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the exposure time, i.e. more light in your photograph.
Aperture – Also known as F-Stop. This is the opening within your lens which controls the amount of light that enters the lens and passes through to the sensor.
ISO – The sensor sensitivity to light is measured by ISO; the lower your ISO number, the less sensitive your sensor is to light, however setting ISO too high can cause grain or noise within your photograph so its best to keep your ISO as low as possible whilst still maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.
These three aspects mentioned above create what we call the Exposure Triangle, since they all work in conjunction with one another to correctly expose photographs. All of them pertain to light.
Now, the main reason photographs blur is because the shutter speed is too slow.
This usually occurs under low light conditions in which the camera is trying to compensate for the low light by keeping the shutter open longer, to allow more light in to correctly expose the image. However, if the shutter is open for long, it won’t freeze the action.
The slightest bit of movement under these conditions will blur your photograph, be it your subject or you physically moving the camera whilst shooting. The faster the shutter the more frozen the image will be.
So how would I know whether my shutter is fast or slow?
Your camera display will show your shutter speed: the number usually looks like this: 1/100. This is one hundredth of a second. Now that might seem fast, but when it comes to photography its actually slow.
If the light is really poor, the number might appear something like: 2″. That indicates 2 whole seconds in which the shutter is open, which if you are trying to freeze action, is quite frankly a disaster.
I often get asked what the right shutter speed should be. This all depends on where you are and what the lighting conditions are at the time but here are ways you can reduce blurry photos for future use.
Stability is key: try using something like a tripod when shooting with a slow shutter, this will reduce human error and camera shake, especially when using heavier lenses. A badger bag will also do the trick as a dead rest, particularly whilst on game drive when you need something adaptable and agile. Try and avoid taking photographs while the vehicle is moving. They will rarely come out well.
Increase your ISO. By making your camera sensor more sensitive to light, you will automatically enable a higher shutter speed. Yes, you may compromise by allowing extra grain into your photos, but rather a sharp grainy image than a non-grainy blurred one.
The best thing to do when you have a camera and have no idea how to use it, is to just use it. We are often intimidated by things we are unfamiliar with as well as their accompanying terminology, but once we understand what happens when we do what, it makes it much easier for us to use and we also start to achieve much better results.
I have linked one few of my favourite tutorials below that might help you out with getting the right settings or understanding your gear.
Keep practicing, keep experimenting with settings, and importantly, when out on safari, ask your ranger what he or she recommends in terms of settings. Their knowledge and experience are invaluable.