What is camera shake and why does it happen?

Camera shake
Camera shake is caused by camera movement during the exposure and is connected with the shutter speed. (Image credit: Future)

Camera shake is a term used to describe the involuntary blurring of a picture that occurs when the camera is moving at the time of exposure. It’s relatively easy to identify, as nothing in the picture will be fully sharp – all the defined edges in the frame will be streaking or indistinct. 

Sometimes, if you want to capture blur creatively, the effects of camera shake are a desirable outcome and something you want to achieve on purpose. 

This is a technique usually referred to as intentional camera movement (or ‘ICM’) but in most cases, camera shake something everyone wants to avoid.

Sometimes you might want to use blur as a creative effect; mostly, though, you want to prevent it. (Image credit: James Paterson / Digital Camera World)

Camera shake occurs because the camera’s shutter speed is not fast enough to ‘freeze’ any movement of the camera as the exposure is recorded.

An instant fix is to use a tripod because when it's on a firm platform, the camera can no longer move and cause the problem. But when handholding, it’s a different story, and it’s compounded by the focal length in use. When using a longer focal length (or a macro lens), any shake is exaggerated owing to the magnification of the subject you’re shooting.

'Safe' handheld shutter speeds

To combat shake when handholding, the general rule of thumb is to make sure that the shutter speed is at least as fast as the focal length in use. So if you’re using a 50mm lens, you need a shutter speed 1/50sec or faster, and if you’re using a 300mm lens, you need at least 1/300 sec to bag a shake-free shot. 

These speeds are a rough guide and assume you are holding the camera as still as possible but give you some idea of what’s required to avoid the dreaded shake. It’s worth noting that the figures are based on full-frame cameras, too, so if you’re using an APS-C format camera, then you’ll need to multiply the focal length by around 1.5x to get the corresponding shutter speed.

Image stabilization

Image stabilizers use gyroscopes and motors in the lens or camera body to counteract any camera movement during the exposure. (Image credit: Future)

With image stabilisation systems, a powered optical system in the lens or micro motors in the camera body serve to hold the camera still, and the shutter speed can be up to 3-6 stops slower than the rule-of-thumb 'safe' shutter speeds above. 

This means that with a handheld shot that would normally require a 1/500 shutter speed, you can often get a shake-free shot at just 1/60sec. 

Although the technology is amazing, remember that IS systems won’t do anything to freeze the motion of a subject, so if your subject is moving, using a shutter speed that’s too slow will result in motion blur in the subject, even though the shot may be free of camera shake!

Read more:

Best cameras to buy
Best cameras for low light
Best beginner cameras
Best tripods

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Andrew James

Andrew makes his living as a photographer, videographer and journalist. For 26 years he was a specialist magazine editor, the last 13 of which were on Practical Photography magazine. A long-time expert in photographic techniques across many disciplines, he's a self-confessed photo generalist, and a font of creative knowledge to capturing just about any subject, although he has a strong leaning to wildlife and travel photography. Andrew's wide-ranging photography experience means he authors the long-running Photo Answers section for Digital Camera Magazine. His work as a journalist, guide and educator dovetails neatly into his commitment to Foto-Buzz - an online subscription community he founded, where Andrew writes articles, films tutorials and records blogs on all manner of photo-related subjects and techniques for enthusiast photographers.