Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How a DSLR could help to take better handheld photos

I got a canon digital Rebel XTi back in 2007, mainly to take family photos. It wasn't a coincidence that it happened to be the year my daughter was born. More recently however I've started to take more interest in the subject of photography. It's a great hobby for all the graphics programmers out there to build up their rendering intuition since there's no faking it - this is how light actually works!

In common with graphics programming, much of photography is an optimization problem. Most of the time we don't have as much light hitting the sensor as we'd like, so the problem becomes how do we optimize the ISO, shutter speed, and f-number settings to give the best quality image free of camera shake. It may be that the Rebel XTi being a low end camera doesn't have all the wizbang features that the latest and greatest have, but I find the procedure of setting up the optimal combination of these 3 settings kind of haphazard to say the least. How many times has what could have been a great shot turned out to be a little too "soft"? There a powerful computer inside of the DSLR in my hands, why can't it better help me determine the optimal settings, much in the same spirit that it can auto-focus for us. I could use manual focus myself all the time but it's usually faster and more accurate.

I've been thinking a bit about how the situation could be improved lately and here is one idea. There are many photographic scenarios, but the one I find myself in the most is the case where I'm shooting handheld and light isn't abundant. The most common example would be taking indoor pictures. I try not to use the flash to avoid the harsh look it gives. So the question is then, given that I don't have all the light I would like, and am shooting handheld, what are the optimal combination of those 3 settings (namely, ISO, shutter speed and f-number)?

What I do currently for indoor handheld photos is set the ISO to something like 400 and the camera mode to Av (aperture priority). This allows me to set the focal length and aperture based on how I want to compose the image, which fully dictates the f-number the camera uses. The only variable left is the shutter speed which the camera picks based on how much light it meters in the scene. This is quite an in-optimal arrangement. It'll happily pick relatively long shutter speeds leaving me with blurry images which are only fit for the trash. A much more preferable scheme would be a new "handheld" mode. It might work like this:

  1. I tell the camera I'm shooting handheld (using a new setting on the mode dial).
  2. I setup a focal length and aperture based on my composition desires. This will result in a f-number which is usable by the camera.
  3. The camera computes a "smart" shutter speed which will keep the image sharp for the average handheld user. 

But what is a good value for this "smart" shutter speed? A typical heuristic for handheld shutter speeds is 1 / focal length. For example, if shooting at 100mm, then the shutter speed should be 1/100 seconds. This is generally regarded at a higher bound on the shutter speed, meaning that we should really pick a value where the shutter is open for slightly less time. The heuristic also assumes a full frame sensor so we need to take the crop factor of the camera into consideration. So, in this example, we'd need less than 1/160 second for a rebel (since it has a crop factor of 1.6). Also if we are using a lens with image stabilization or vibration reduction, then that should be taken into account here also (let's see how IS really measures up to the 3 to 4 stop manufacturer claims.)

Once a shutter speed is chosen that will stack the odds in our favor against camera shake, then the camera picks an ISO - this fills in the last remaining parameter. The settings menu should allow the user to set the maximum permissible ISO and if the camera needs to pick an ISO higher than allowed, it just won't take the picture (much like it doesn't take a picture when it can't focus). So why have ISO be the final parameter as opposed to the first (as with Av mode). Well, there are two reasons which spring to mind:

  1. I can do more with a photo with high noise levels than a blurry photo. In both cases we're missing information and can't fully recover the original source data. But algorithmically, we can do a better job removing a certain amount of noise from an image than we can by trying to make blurry image sharp, which in most cases is a lost cause.
  2. Higher-end, more expensive DSLRs respond much better at high ISO settings than cheaper ones. A blurry photo is a blurry photo on any camera, but a noisy photo on a cheap camera may be a clean photo on an expensive one.

So how would this work in practice? Wikipedia has a good page on exposure value here. When a camera meters a scene it effectively comes up with a single exposure value (EV), which is a number the 3 camera settings of interest must combine to produce. Plotted logarithmically in 2D, with time on one axis, and the f-number on the other, we get diagonal lines of constant exposure value as seen here.

If we extended this concept into 3D by adding an extra dimension for ISO (which is probably what cameras are doing anyway I'd guess?), we'd get planes of constant exposure instead. A given DSLR computed EV value would naturally dictate the plane we need to use. This together with an f-number from the user would allow the camera to compute a "smart" shutter speed, set the resultant ISO and voila.

Sports photography, where we want to freeze motion, could also benefit from a variation on this mode. Instead of computing an appropriate handheld shutter speed, the camera would use a speed suitable for whats being shot - say 1/1000th second for a football game. The final step would remain the same and an appropriate ISO value would be computed.

This is a relatively new subject to me, do cameras already do this perhaps?

[Edit: it's been pointed out that factors such as handheld skill, fatigue, and environment are also factors affecting optimal shutter speed. I think these would best fit into a single shutter speed compensation setting (in much the same spirit as cameras currently have an EV compensation setting).]


  1. Starting with the XSi there is an auto-ISO setting that will do something like that and just pick ISO for you. I've got an ancient Rebel XT (got mine right before my daughter was born too :)) and I tend to just put it on ISO1600 and stick to prime lenses if I'm at home. Supposedly Nikon has a better implementation of the auto-ISO thing than Canon (allows pushing to higher ISO's and is a bit more configurable).

    The ISO abilities of the newer point and shoots are starting to get really good (I hear), but it's pretty hard to match the combo of high-iso, instant-on and instant shutter of the DSLR in a point and shoot, even still.

  2. Right you are. A search for "auto iso" returned some very similar sounding ideas. It seems Nikon is leading the way on this, they even have the configurable max ISO limit. Thanks for the info.