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Friday, May 11, 2007

We Have a Discrepancy

My first digicam, purchased for $700+ and now worth nothing, was an Olympus C-3040z. Its shutter lag from a standing start—autofocusing machinations included—was about four seconds. Okay, I exaggerate. It wasn't four seconds. I might have told you this story before: once I was downtown sitting in a pub by the Milwaukee River, and I took a full-press shot of a boat going by. It wasn't some speedboat, either. It was one of those low-wake river-tour boats. I pressed the shutter when the boat was in the middle of the viewfinder. This is what the shutter lag felt like:

[Shutter press]

Camera: Whoa, what? You want me to take a picture? Sure, sure, just let me do a coupla things first...gotta focus...measure the ol' exposure...'kay...almost got it...hang on...workin' on it...ready! Here we go!


I got a shot that was half boat ass and half empty river.

But that wasn't the way I used the camera. The shutter lag when I prefocused with a half-press of the shutter button was pretty good—I have a poor memory for numbers, but I want to say a tenth of a second, maybe? 100 ms? Does that sound right? I can't remember how long I actually used that camera—eighteen months, maybe—but I always prefocused. It was just the way I used the camera. After a month or two it got to be habit. So shutter lag didn't bother me.

A reader named Yishon pointed out that's shutter lag figures are nowhere close to Imaging-Resource's figures, in some cases at least. So who's right? I have no clue, although my prejudice would favor I-R. But maybe it's not critical. As with many things that appear to be a straight case of compare-the-numbers, sometimes it's best to try before you buy and go with your gut. There are two ways to get a camera to do what you want it to: follow it or fool it. Maybe a camera that scored a good number doesn't feel responsive to you, or maybe you can take a camera with a bad number and make it do what you want it to. Anyone who's never used workarounds in this business probably hasn't done much work.

Even the EOS RT, which had the shortest shutter lag I've ever heard of, 8 milliseconds, had a special mode you could switch it to that would change the shutter lag to 60 ms. Why? Because Canon's top pro camera at the time had a 60 ms shutter lag. The best pros had learned to anticipate the action by 60 ms, and Canon didn't want the faster RT to throw their top guys' timing off.



Blogger Terry Moore said...

I bought the camera prior the Oly C3030 ($1000). And you captured the "feel" of shooting with that camera perfectly.

In it's defense it did take GREAT pix! If the subject or photographer didn't move.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Hans VR said...

Sorry but what you wrote about the EOS RT is not entirely correct. The 8ms "RT" mode is actually the special mode. Standard mode is 60ms. When switched to the special "RT" mode the aperture blades already close when the shutter is half pressed, this way only the shutter needs to open and close when you press the button (no mirror to move (there is none) & no more aperture to close).

6:35 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

This pre-focusing thing - think it's a manual-focus film-user thing? The first camera I ever used was my mother's Nikon FM2. You focused, set the exposure, re-framed and took the shot. How else are you supposed to to do this?

7:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I don't think it's a manual focus film user thing... I prefocus my digital SLR almost all the time, too. It's part of the process--more so that just making sure it's focusing on the right thing, too. Sorta, hmm, maybe how I brace my own body for the imminent release in addition to the cameras? ~g

8:16 PM  
Blogger Jan Moren said...

I usually prefocus my K10D as well; in fact, I have focus set to the "AF" button on the back so a shutter half-press won't activate focusing. I started doing this for low-light use (when AF systems tend to be unreliable) but it quickly got to be a constant habit.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Another spec that we should have available is delay from preflash to flash. I find it surprising that multi-page spec sheets don't have it.

3:05 AM  
Blogger Nils Jorgensen said...

I remember way back in the days before you could read anything about shutter lag on the web, going into a camera shop and lining up a dozen different 'point and shoot' cameras on the table. All were selected regardless of manufacturer or price. The only thing I was interested in was shutter lag (and lens sharpness). I started off by firing all the top contenders, but eventually found that the humble Minolta Riva had the shortest delay of all, so I bought it. Before buying any camera in those days, it was also a habit of mine to check the lens by putting half a roll of film through it, in the shop. The lens checked out sharp. The camera was a bit plasticy, but was fast and sharp, and turned out very nice to use. It eventually stopped working, as they all do, but by then digital was in full swing and I had different problems to solve. I can't say my testing was scientific, or even guarantee the results, but it was the best I could come up with.

4:17 AM  
Blogger Brambor said...

Making a 'soccer mom' to prefocus a P&S is probably as effective as [INSERT SOMETHING RIDICULOUS HERE]

I wonder what the shutter lag will be on Sigma's DP1? I'm planning on getting one but I won't buy it if it has a 'shameful shutter lag'.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

My first digital P&S was a 2 megapixel Casio. What I remember most is the rate at which it would go through batteries...
After I loaded the 4 penlights and the whopping 8Mb memorycard that came with the camera it actually managed to deplete the batteries before the card was full!

1:32 PM  
Blogger randolph said...

The other number I hardly ever see mentioned for digital cameras is dynamic range; I mind me one I had a few years ago that I estimated at three stops. The big review sites never seem to mention dynamic range, and I rather suspect this is due to pressure from the camera manufacturers, or perhaps just shame.

2:55 PM  
Blogger hugh crawford said...

My brother-in-law worked for George Lucas one of the first non-linear film editing systems, called the EditDroid in the early 80s. Although the system was completely computer controlled, it had some knobs that mimicked traditional flatbed film editing machines. Apparently film editors that tried it complained that there was too much lag and that it was un-responsive. The more the engineers worked to get rid of the lag the more the editors complained. Finally they brought in a Steinbeck flatbed and measured how much time elapsed between operating the various knobs and levers and the the desired action. It turned out that the flatbed machine was much slower. Once they programed the same delays into the computer, the editors they invited to test the new machine were much happier and congratulated them on "speeding it up" so that was as "fast" as the old machine.

4:55 PM  
Blogger BlankPhotog said...

My first digicam of the type you're talking about was the C4040, and I still use it although I have a 5D now. The 4040 has features I like, but mostly it's about the quality of the image, especially in b/w mode. It's the creamiest. If it had RAW capability and less shutter lag, I'd probably use it way more than I do but currently I think it's a better backup camera than the D300.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


The above mentioned DPReview does dynamic range measurements on all their current dSLR reviews.

A few sites will do them for digicams too, I recently came across a DCI review with dynamic range estimates for the Panny FZ8.

The thing is for P&S cameras there's still just not much point, IMO. While dSLR dynamic range has gotten very good, because of the small size of the sensors, the dynamic range in most P&S cameras hasn't improved much if at all. You can still generally expect only about 5-6 stops (similar to slides). Those are under ideal conditions; there are of course various caveats, e.g. many P&S cameras have contrasty tone curves by default to deliver "punchy" JPEGs but this usually comes at the expense of blown highlights and blocked up shadows. Also, it is often the case that dynamic range (and saturation) drops, sometimes dramatically, as the ISO is increased. Finally, with digital the whole issue seems a bit subjective. As long as you haven't blown the highlights with your initial capture, it often seems that the dynamic range is more a question of the quality and amount of noise you're willing to tolerate in the shadows of a particular image.


11:06 AM  

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