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You've composed the perfect picture, you press the shutter button... and by the time the shutter finally finishes, the picture is gone. Shutter lag is an unfortunate, frustrating effect for many photographers.
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Causes of Shutter Lag
Shutter lag is the time between when you press down on the shutter button and when the picture finally gets taken. This can vary from almost nothing to the space of several seconds, depending on the particular conditions of the shot and the particular issues of the camera. Shutter lag generally consists of two different processes that goes on during this interval: the time it takes to autofocus, and the time for the shutter release. Reducing shutter lag, thus, revolves around minimizing the time of these two different events.
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Focus: Auto, Pre, Manual & Continuous, Oh My!
If you have your camera on any sort of automatic focus, it's going to take a bit longer to shoot because the camera has to puzzle out what focus to put it on. This is usually the biggest cause of excessive shutter lag.
The obvious solution is to simply go into manual focus mode—though adjusting the focus might take as much time as the shutter lag. If you're planning on taking multiple shots at about the same focus, or are particularly quick about adjusting, you might want to consider manually focusing the camera to reduce shutter lag.
If you still want to keep it in autofocus, try another trick: right before you actually want to take the shot, try depressing the shutter button about halfway. Doing this, your camera will focus itself, completely poised to take the shot as soon as you press the shutter button down the rest of the way. This is known as prefocus. More information and tips on this technique can be found here.
Some cameras have a sort of dynamic or continuous focus, a compromise between auto and manual. As with the previous, you half depress the shutter button—but the camera will continue to adjust the focus on whatever object you focused on, even when it's moving closer to or further away from the lens. This isn't a universal feature and will likely need to be enabled, so consult your camera user manual to see if this is available on your camera.
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The other half of the problem isn't so much shutter lag as processor lag—and there's only so much you can do when the problem is with the hardware. Slow transmission of image data through the camera circuitry is the primary suspect here. Here, expensive cameras tend to have less of a shutter lag than cheap cameras because they tend to feature the faster processor technology. A dinky little point & shoot you got for vacation photos is always going to have considerable shutter lag when compared to a five-figure DSLR.
However, cameras are getting less and less of this variety of shutter lag as technology advances, especially with speed, bandwidth and power consumption, so expect cameras to be getting progressively faster as the futures passes us by.
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Another factor that could be contributing to shutter lag might be one that is accidentally intentional: the exposure. When working with auto modes, exposures might be set longer than you might actually want. If you still would like to use an auto mode, try using one that is specifically intended for sports that will have a fast exposure. Otherwise, going into manual mode and setting the exposure yourself might help make that shutter click at the speed your desire. To adjust for these faster exposures, try adjusting ISO and f-stop accordingly.
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If you really feel like biting the bullet when it comes to shutter lag, reduce the resolution as far as you can stand. Do you really need that photo to be available as a 16-inch print? The lower the resolution of the image, the less shutter lag will be prevalent.
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Taking lots of photos won't hurt anyone either. Memory is virtually unlimited in the digital age, so if you're busily pressing that shutter button going for that prefect shot—well, it's not going to be doing anyone harm, even if you have a few more photos to sort through later. Check your camera for features like burst modes, which take multiple pictures in quick succession.
The best thing to do is simply to anticipate, to expect the shutter lag. Once you have a feel for how long the shutter lag actually is, try pressing down on the shutter slightly before you actually want the picture to be taken. This should result with the image you want—not the image immediately after the image you want.