This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America's oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.


An inherent problem with many consumer-level digital cameras is time delay. Time delay is a combination of two factors, shutter lag and recycling time. Shutter lag is that annoying moment between the time you press the shutter and the actual point of exposure. Recycling time refers to the time necessary for the camera to process the digital information, store it, and get ready for the next shot. If you have ever used a point-and-shoot film camera, you've probably experienced shutter lag.

Because most affordable consumer level digital cameras are point-and-shoot models, they exhibit these tendencies too. Digital cameras must be able to process pixel information and that magnifies the problem. All is not lost however, if you learn to compensate for this digital "speed bump".

In order to compensate for the delay, two things must be accomplished:

  1. You must learn to anticipate action, so you can capture it with your camera.
  2. You must determine how your digital camera handles time delay.

Anticipating action can only come through experience. For example, if you are a sports photographer covering a baseball game, you'll want to be able to gauge when to click the shutter to capture the moment that the bat hits the ball. No small task when the pitch is a fastball traveling at 90 mph. Professional sports photographers will not only anticipate where to point their camera in order to best capture the action, but will also know the perfect moment to push the shutter button. They know this through experience with both their subject matter and their equipment. Photographic success and failure will help teach you when to make these critical exposures. Be conscious of your actions and you'll be able to repeat them.

The second issue relates directly to your equipment. Because every digital camera handles image capture a little differently it's a good idea to test your camera and see how it deals with time delay. Start by checking the recycle time on your camera. One way to do this is to photograph a clock with a sweep-second hand. Put your digital camera on a tripod, compose your image with the clock centered, filling the frame. It's a good idea to turn the flash off since reflections in the clock face might prevent you from reading it. Press the shutter halfway down to set exposure and focus, and then when the second hand hits 12, start shooting. Keep shooting as fast as the camera will allow. About seven or eight exposures will give you a pretty good idea of the delay between exposures. Now you can calculate your recycle time by listing the position of the second hand in each frame. The difference between any two consecutive frames represents the time your camera needs to recycle.

The second part of this exercise is to determine your camera's shutter lag delay. You can do this with the same clock, but this time you'll want to press the shutter fully at the point the sweep second hand hits noon. For this test, DO NOT press the shutter halfway down first, press it all the way down. This forces the camera to focus and determine exposure as quickly as the camera can. This scenario will simulate how your camera will react in a "grab shot" situation. Produce a series of exposures, each time as the second hand reaches 12. Be as consistent as possible. Of course, the frailties of the human brain are revealed here because the accuracy of the test is only as accurate as the photographer's eye-hand coordination. Your results may not be exactly the same each time. By producing a number of images you can compensate for these errors by averaging them. Averaging is accomplished by adding the test results together and dividing the total by the amount of exposures.

You don't need to know the exact amount of shutter lag delay that your camera has. After all, you won't be taking pictures with a stopwatch. However by getting a sense of your camera's shutter lag you can learn to compensate for it and capture the moment when you want, not when the camera does.

Digital Advisor Jim Barthman performed this test with a popular digital point-and-shoot and discovered a few things. For the recycle time test you can't continuously hold down the shutter; with this camera you must press the shutter fully, release it and do it again. Jim's recycle time tests showed that it took approximately three seconds between each exposure before the camera could capture the next shot. That time can be excruciating when you're trying to photograph a short-lived moment.

This test of recycle time shows an average of 3 seconds recycling between exposures. The shutter lag test showed an approximate 1 1/2 second delay for a spontaneous shot. That means that with this camera you'd want to click the shutter 1 1/2 seconds before the intended capture. Again, this sort of anticipation is not easy and in some instances may be impossible. If your intentions are to capture only spontaneous moments, then this particular camera may not be the best choice.

A test of this camera shows a consistent 1 1/2 second shutter lag.

Because of the instant feedback, a digital camera is perfect for this type of testing. The testing costs nothing but time and the resulting information will be very helpful the next time you want to capture action.

Give these tests a try. Once you know how much to allow for time delay, you'll be well on your way to capturing more timely exposures with your digital camera.

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