The father of three active daughters aged four to nine, Rob Wilson has found one aspect of digital photography quite frustrating. "I can't seem to get a good candid family picture indoors," he told me. "I see a great photo opportunity, but by the time the camera actually takes the shot, the girls have turned away and the moment is lost."
This is a common problem and it's caused by shutter lag: the delay while the camera sets focus and makes all the necessary settings.
Photo caption: While posed portraits are fine, it's also great to be able to take candid photos, capturing just the right moment. That can be frustrating especially in low light, since the camera may not respond instantly, but there is a simple solution. Photo: Peter K. Burian
Especially in a dark location, the time required to set focus can be quite long, a second or more. Some newer digicams are much faster than others to focus. Even so, the camera may not respond instantly to a touch of the shutter button in low light, especially when using a long zoom setting.
Here's the best method I have found to prevent the problem. Anticipate a photo opp. Frame your intended subjects, depress the shutter button partway, and allow the camera to set focus and make its settings. Then simply wait, with slight pressure on the button. When you notice some interaction or a fleeting gesture, take the picture. With this technique, the delay will be shorter and you'll capture more spontaneous moments.
Hint: Even with the recommended technique, you may be frustrated if the camera's flash fires a couple of times before actually taking a picture. Often, the subject will blink or turn away during that time. The extra bursts of flash occur because most cameras are pre-set to automatically use Red-Eye Reduction when flash is being used. The bursts of light are intended to cause the pupils of the eye to close down a bit, revealing less of the blood vessels. This can minimize red-eye, though it's not always successful.
While Red-Eye Reduction Flash can be useful, it creates a delay that can lead to some missed photo opps. If you decide turn this feature off in the Flash Mode sub-menu, be sure to check your image-editing software (or your camera's Menu in Playback mode) for a tool that will let you fix red-eye. Photo: Peter K. Burian
If you're willing to give up the Red-Eye Reduction Flash feature, the camera will be quicker to take a shot. Usually, you can turn it off by pressing a button labelled with a lightning bolt and rotating a dial. Or check your owner's manual's Flash Modes section to learn how to disengage Red-Eye Reduction.
Fortunately, many image-editing programs include a tool that can eliminate the problem with one click. And an increasing number of cameras offer a similar feature as a Menu item in Playback mode. If you're willing to do a bit of extra work, I do recommend fixing red-eye after shooting. It's not only more effective than the flash feature, but it also makes it easier to capture just the right instant when you're taking pictures.