Rain and freezing rain are pummeling the Horicon Marsh. My driveway needs a zamboni. Since I can’t get outside, I’m working on my New Year’s goal to watch the “Fundamentals of Photography” DVD series from The Great Courses. Joel Sartore, a National Geographic Fellow, teaches the course. In his lecture on shutter speeds he says, “The faster your subject is moving and the closer it is to your camera, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to freeze the action.” A good rule of thumb is to “match shutter speed to lens length.” For instance, if I am using a 50 mm lens, I should use a 1/50 second shutter speed. If I am using a 300 mm lens, I should use a 1/300 second shutter speed. Some photographers suggest doubling that. John and Barbara Gerlach, in their book Digital Wildlife Photography, say that if I want to stop the action of a bird in flight, I should use at least 1/1000 second. If I am using a tripod or I purposely want to blur motion for an artistic effect, then I can go with lower shutter speeds.
I routinely used my 300 mm lens for photography on the Marsh and it takes excellent pictures. I had the exciting opportunity, along with several other photographers, to witness the hatching of 4 Black-necked Stilt chicks. When I got home and looked at the photos, the chicks were grainy fluff balls lacking detail. One of the photographers alerted me to a sale on the Sigma 150 mm – 600 mm contemporary lens at www.bhphotovideo.com. It was a deal I couldn’t pass up. It is wonderful to photograph wildlife and birds that are farther out on the marsh, but I am still frustrated with a lack of sharpness in the images. Now I know a possible reason. I need to make sure my shutter speed is 1/1000 or 1/1200 to stop the action of a bird when using this longer lens.
Another strategy for increasing sharpness in my photos, is to change the sharpness setting in the menu of the camera. Yes, I actually read my camera manual (well, some of it) and found this helpful nugget of information. In the Canon menu, choose Picture Style. There are 6 styles to choose from, depending on whether you are doing portraits, landscapes, or you like to do more post processing on your computer. I chose Standard which results in vivid, sharp images. Within the Standard picture style, there is a submenu that allows me to choose the level of sharpness, among other things. Here is the interesting thing: The default setting was 3 out of 7, with 7 being the sharpest. Why? I don’t know. But I increased the sharpness level to 7. I guess it pays to actually read the camera manual now and then. Nikon users may have different menu options. Pentax did not have this option in the menu.
I’m excited to get back out on the Marsh and try these 2 strategies to improve the sharpness of my images. Next time I want to capture an amazing photo of those cute little Stilt chicks.
By the way, those of you who live in warmer climates and don’t watch ice hockey, may not know that a zamboni is a machine that cleans and makes the surface of an ice rink smoother.
 John and Barbara Gerlach, Digital Nature Photography (Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2013), 51.