Sharper When Handheld

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Today’s Question: Why are my photos taken on a tripod with either a remote control or a 2-second delay never sharp? When I take the photos with the same camera “in hand” the photos are sharp. My camera is a Canon 5D mark 4.

Tim’s Quick Answer: Assuming the exposure settings in both cases include an adequately fast shutter speed, and that the tripod is sturdy and positioned on a stable surface, I suspect the issue here is that stabilization has been enabled when the camera is on a tripod. For relatively stationary subjects when using a tripod it is generally best to disable stabilization.

More Detail: In this case the sample photo provided by the photographer who posed the question was of a group of people posing. In other words, the example is a relatively straightforward scenario, which helps streamline the troubleshooting process.

The first thing to check here would be that in both cases appropriate exposure settings were being used. For example, if you were being more cautious about the shutter speed when shooting handheld, that could be the issue with the tripod-based photos. When using a tripod you might be a little more relaxed about the shutter speed. That would be perfectly fine for a truly stationary subject. But when a group of people standing in front of the camera, even a moderately slow shutter speed can cause a bit of blur due to the people moving slightly. Even on a tripod I would aim for a shutter speed of around 1/125th of a second or faster when photographing people. For small children an even faster shutter speed might be necessary!

Assuming that the same appropriate exposure settings are being used, naturally you would reasonably expect that photos captured with the use of a tripod would be sharper (or perhaps equal to) photos that are captured hand-held. There are unique situations, such as using a tripod on the deck of a ship, where those vibrations could actually cause the tripod-based photos to be less sharp than hand-held captures.

In this particular case, however, I suspect the use of image stabilization explains the unexpected results. Stabilization is intended to compensate for movement of the camera. When the camera is handheld, the stabilization will help compensate for slight movement to ensure a sharper capture.

When the camera is on a tripod, it is possible for that stabilization to actually reduce sharpness. Put simply, the stabilization may still attempt to compensate for movement that isn’t there, causing a degree of blurring.

There are stabilization options available that can still be used when the camera is mounted on a tripod. In particular, there are single-axis stabilization modes that are intended to be used when you are panning with a subject while the camera is mounted on a tripod. You’ll therefore want to be sure that you understand the specific stabilization options that are available to you. As a general rule, however, I recommend turning off stabilization when photographing a relatively static subject from a sturdy tripod.