Camera Shake: Not Just For Deleting Anymore :: Digital Photo Secrets

Camera Shake: Not Just For Deleting Anymore

by David Peterson 0 comments

Modern photographers love to push the envelope of all those old-school philosophies. Lens flare? Love it. Severe overexposure? Kind of cool. Camera shake? Awesome.

Wait, camera shake? Isn't that the reason why you bought that oh-so expensive but light, sturdy and portable tripod? So you could avoid camera shake?

Let me backtrack just a second. Camera shake is still mostly bad, most of the time. You don't want camera shake messing up your long-exposure landscape image or that fabulous photo of the spinning fairground ride. You don't want it to mess up the clarity of any image that you intended to be, well, clear. But there are certain instances where camera shake can be used for creative effect. Most of the time (but not all the time) this is an intentional decision on the part of you, the photographer. So when is camera shake actually a good thing?

[ Top image Dagens foto - 155: Street Life by Flickr user petertandlund]

Why on Earth?

I know, your photography 101 instructor told you to avoid camera shake at all costs. In fact he probably tsk tsked you when he was looking over your shoulder at what you'd initially thought was a pretty decent image: "Tsk, tsk, too bad about the camera shake." Even your mom probably told you that camera shake was bad. Now I'm going to tell you differently.

Camera shake in limited circumstances can add abstraction to your photos. Camera shake is what Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock would have used if they'd been photographers instead of painters (though I'm pretty sure they would have used the technique very differently).

During the day, deliberately shaking your camera during a long exposure will give your work an almost impressionist feeling, with soft edges and wobbly lines. At night, camera shake can turn bright lights into abstract streaks, mottled shapes and squiggly lines. Think of camera shake not as an accident of using a slow shutter speed but as a tool for creating forms and shapes that wouldn't have otherwise been in the photo, or enhancing the shapes that are already there.

  • Canon PowerShot G12
  • 400
  • f/5.6
  • 0.4
  • 10.8 mm

ICM - Intentional Camera Movement by Flickr user jacilluch

Your Subject

With intentional camera shake images, your subject can really be almost anything, depending on your goals for the photograph. But choose wisely because certain subjects do lend themselves to intentional camera shake, while others may work better with a different type of motion blur, such as panning or when there is motion in the scene itself (the sort of thing you get when your camera is steady and your subject or something else in his/her environment is moving).

Fast-moving subjects such as athletes and racecars, for example, may not make good candidates for camera shake, because your viewer tends to want to see at least part of these subjects in tack-sharp focus. (Of course this is entirely subjective, and you may find plenty of good examples of intentional camera shake that works with fast moving subjects, depending on your personal tastes and the choices the photographer made when he created the image.) Trees, on the other hand, and other more or less motionless objects can become wonderful abstractions with a little camera shake (try moving your camera up and down in front of a stand of birch trees and see what kind of results you get). Remember to work with lines and to think about color, since in very abstracted images this may be all that remains of your subject and setting.

  • Samsung NX10
  • 200
  • f/22.0
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 50 mm

magic trees at the lake by Flickr user enki22

How To Do It

Everyone knows how to create camera shake, because everyone has done it. By accident, of course. Intentional camera shake, though, is a different animal altogether. When you deliberately shake your camera you do so because you have a rough idea of how the motion is going to affect your final image. Notice how I said "rough idea" - that's because it's next to impossible to know for sure what your shaken image is going to look like.

  • Nikon Coolpix S50
  • 200
  • f/3.3
  • 0.167 sec (1/6)
  • 6.3 mm

Christmas lights - ICM by Flickr user SoulRider.222

To create an intentional camera shake, first take your camera off that tripod. Now set it to shutter priority, then select a shutter speed in the neighborhood of a half second to about a quarter second. Better still, take one shot at the slower speed, one at the higher speed, and one at each shutter speed in between.

Start by releasing the shutter just as you would normally and let your unsteady hands do what they naturally do. Of course, if you have freakishly steady hands you may not get a lot of noticeable camera shake this way, or if you do it may just look like an error. So much for creative genius. Check the screen after every exposure and then adjust your shutter speed as well as the way you create the camera shake. Use a slower shutter speed with some very deliberate shake for an enhanced effect. Use a faster shutter speed with some slight camera motion for a subdued effect.

Don't just settle for a literal interpretation of the word "shake," either. Try a lazy spin or a zig-zag motion. For inspiration look at one of the most extreme examples of camera shake, the "camera toss", when photographers literally throw their cameras into the air during an exposure to create geometric shapes out of light and form.

    Garden colour by Flickr user TassieEye


    Experimentation is of course the key to successfully pulling off deliberate camera shake. You're simply not going to get good results by trying this technique out once or twice, unless you get particularly lucky (OK, some accidental camera shake can be pretty cool, too). This is where your modern DSLR with that LCD screen comes in particularly handy - you can check your results and make changes until you finally hit on a result that works. In most cases just slight adjustments to exposure length or the way you move your camera can create wildly different effects.

    Don't overdo it - or do overdo it, occasionally, just to see what happens. Most of all, shoot a ton of frames - and I mean a ton of them. This is one case where burning memory cards really is necessary, because you just can't accurately predict what you're going to end up with. Lots of frames, of course, means you'll have lots to choose from and no doubt will find a gem amongst all those lumps of coal.

    Finally, don't forget that like all abstract art, not everyone is going to love your intentional camera shake photos, and that's OK. Not everyone likes Jackson Pollock, either.

    [Also see examples of outstanding images featuring camera shake]

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    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.