Pre-Focus to Combat Shutter Lag

Pre-Focus to Combat Shutter Lag

My first foray into digital photography was with a small Canon point and shoot camera. I immediately fell in love with the medium due to being able to take large amounts of shots at no cost, being able to see shots immediately after taking them and the ease at which I could use the images in different ways.

However there was one one aspect of digital photography that I immediately began to hate – shutter lag.

In the first few shots that I took with my new point and shoot I realized that pressing down the shutter release didn’t mean that the scene that I was looking at would be captured just the way I saw it – there was at least a 1 second delay before the shot was taken.

Most modern day digital cameras have cut down the annoying shutter delay/lag problems significantly. In fact the only camera that I’ve tested with any significant lag has been my new camera phone (the Nokia N95 – which has a 5 megapixel camera in it – but which is annoyingly slow to use). Most point and shoot cameras these days will not have a noticeable shutter lag, however I still get asked about it a lot.

One of the reasons that I suspect many still think they suffer from shutter lag is that they don’t allow the camera time to focus. I realized this earlier in the week when out with a point and shoot user and watching their technique. They would see a scene – lift the camera to their eye and immediately hit the shutter in one jerking movement – expecting an instantaneous result.

Of course the camera needed a moment to focus and the resulting small delay while it did so was labeled ‘shutter lag’ by my friend.

If you’re wanting to capture a moment in timed to the smallest delay possible it’s worth pre-focussing your camera on the scene – before you want to take the shot.

The way to do this is to frame the scene and then push your shutter release down half way. Once you’ve done this – continue to hold down the shutter release half way down until the moment you want to capture the scene – when you’ll press the shutter the rest of the way.

I showed my friend this simple technique and he was amazed at how exact he could get the timing on his point and shoot camera. His ‘shutter lag’ was gone – all he needed to do was learn about pre-focussing.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Dilip March 6, 2013 12:38 pm

    The article is very informative. When you see something and wish to take a quick shot of it, these prep[erations and waiting may not work; still if you have some time to spare this is the best option. Thanks.

  • Rachel January 27, 2012 03:55 am

    Thank you - my big frustration has been my camera "failing" to focus, but what you describe will probably help. One question - are you describing focus lock or is this something else? Are you assuming that the camera is set to autofocus when the shutter is depressed halfway?

  • katie January 15, 2012 07:22 pm

    hi i am new to photography and i can not find the answer im looking for so im hoping someone can help me i need to know what is the PAUSE called when u push the shutter release button down when u take a picture as in i push the shutter and it takes a second for the photo to capture whats that called is that shutter lag or shutter delay also what is the camera doing in this shutter lag time ?? any help would be great thanks heaps

  • Cole February 4, 2011 09:59 am

    Too bad that this doesn't work on most camera phones

  • kath February 12, 2010 11:42 pm

    I do what Paul & English Teacher, above, do too. Works like a charm...(only on DLSR's though) I don't have a point and shoot, but I am looking for one so I don't need to lug the DSLR around for when doing point and shoot activities. This is what I find frustrating about reading reviews online about cameras - you don't know if the person reviewing actually knows anything about cameras! Shutter lag does seem to be described by people who don't understand what shutter lag actually is.

    It's amazing how many people do not do the "half way down" button technique. This is why I HATE getting strangers to take my photo for me. You explain it, but so few people actually understand it = blurry photos, every time.

    This article gives me hope that I might actually be able to appreciate a point and shoot and not get horribly frustrated :)

  • Vincent April 26, 2008 09:48 pm

    Sure this is useful. I have been using it since I started using dogital camera. However, there is one lag you can not avoid not matter what. It's the half-pressed to full-pressed. It's usually not a problem but when taking fast moving subject, I have to anticipate the movement before I can take a shot.

  • Jo February 12, 2008 06:04 am

    i think this is a really good tip :)

  • Pascal June 27, 2007 07:43 pm

    It's funny how sometimes something can seem so obvious, you think everyone knows.

    When I read this, I though: "no way are they going to just mention holding the button half-way down as a tip". I've just done this since I got my first camera. It just seemed obvious. I was really surprised to see how many people this has helped. I guess you can never just assume things, lol!

  • shroticg June 16, 2007 01:03 am

    in movement photography, it is the most difficult, particular where light is low. i was photographing badminton tournament. it was a horrible experience since the camera was unable to focus fast on the player in tube lighting light. then in daytime slowly i came to catch the problem-first focus then squeeze the shutter release- the problem become less.

  • Jordan Meeter June 15, 2007 03:13 pm

    I've known about this for a while, but I'm sure a lot of people will find this little tip very helpful. Thanks! :D

  • English Teacher June 15, 2007 01:16 pm

    Hey! We DSLR guys do the same thing too. Even though our super fast cameras work well, long lenses do take time to focus. I have stood for several minutes holding the shutter release half down waiting for the "perfect moment" ... and sometimes it never comes or passed while wishing for something better. Oh well ....

  • Steve Z June 15, 2007 10:14 am

    Sometimes in life it is the simple things that make life that much easier...

  • Cici June 15, 2007 08:14 am

    I learned to use this on the Nikon point and shoot i use. I'm a big fan of action shots and have been known among my friends to be the best at getting them, and they always wonder how i get such shots! :)

  • klew June 15, 2007 06:57 am

    I learned this years ago taking my old Sony on a research cruise. When trying to take pictures of dolphins leaping out of the water along wide your boat, you can't tell when they will jump, so you always have to be ready at the first trigger stop.

  • Dr. Tan June 15, 2007 06:44 am

    Yeah did this last time, but now I'm wondering.

    Why do those film PnS focus so fast compared to the digital PnS-es? Anyone has an idea?

  • Andrew Ferguson June 15, 2007 05:10 am

    I pre-focus all the time, even with my SLR.

    Half-press to focus on the subject, reframe the shot, finish pressing the shutter to take the photo.

    Once I started doing that instead of all at once, the quality of my photos took a noticeable upturn.

  • Mary June 15, 2007 05:09 am

    Good information! Can you also capture your shot by panning along with a moving object? For instance, an action shot. I have to plan ahead to get the right shot at the right time, and even though I've tried panning, it doesn't seem to work out. Thanks

  • Puplet June 15, 2007 04:41 am

    Recently, I discovered *manually* focussing on my digicam, and then saving the focus in one of the pre-set custom modes. Combine that with a reasonably low aperture, and, hey presto, you've got a digicam set at hyperfocal distance which doesn't need focusing at all!

  • Eric June 15, 2007 03:43 am

    Great tip. I have a N95 and I use the same strategy to combat the huge shutter lag. However most of the time I still end up missing those "Kodak-moment" type shots since those there's no prep time with those pictures. :(

  • Teewinot June 15, 2007 01:31 am

    Good tip. I used this at a graduation 2 weeks ago and it made the difference between capturing my subject in the exact place I wanted him and completely missing the opportunity altogether (those graduates walk too fast during the recessional)!

  • Graeme Smith June 15, 2007 12:47 am

    Also, if you pressing the shutter all the way down without stopping after autofocusing you don't have a chance to see if the camera focused correctly (chose the correct AF point).

  • Paul June 14, 2007 11:59 pm

    Another technique, if your camera supports it, is to pre-focus and then set it to manual mode. This will hold all settings in place until you change to another setting and refocus. I use a Fujifilm S5000 and it has all the different settings. Whenever I am going to make multiple shots of the same scene (such as racers crossing a finish line) I preset everything and then put it on a manual mode so nothing changes each time I press the shutter button.

  • Raj June 14, 2007 11:56 pm

    Most people are unaware or forget this technique, in the excitement of taking the picture. But it always helps to take a breath and remember to pre-focus before "clicking."

    I have learned to do this by constant practice and now it's something I do automatically.

    Thanks for the friendly reminder.

  • mdwsta4 June 14, 2007 11:05 pm

    I would think this would be common sense. Good tips for those that I suppose don't know it.

  • AC June 14, 2007 10:58 pm

    This is something I use a lot - especially for action/dynamic snaps when the trajectory of the subject can be understood quite accurately.

    Great tip.

  • Barry S June 14, 2007 10:11 pm

    You know, I've never considered this. I feel a little dumb, you see I've been complaining about my new little Canon's shutter lag but now you mention this I realized that it was just a 'focus lag' problem and now that I know it I've been taking shots all afternoon and the camera responds much quicker and a much greater percentage of my shots are in focus! Thanks - You saved me from trading in a camera that I thought was bad!

  • deuts June 14, 2007 09:06 pm

    I read about this in the manual of my Sony DSC-S60, and I always pressed the shutter button halfway first before taking the shot. I didn't realize, until recently, that the same applies to all cameras. I thought it was unique to my camera then only.

  • thekevinmonster June 14, 2007 08:37 pm

    I don't think I've taken a single picture in about a year without pre-focusing first. I always give the camera time to focus.

    My DSLR will sometimes fail to focus, so just pushing the shutter down can be fruitless as it won't release while not focused....

  • Marky Lily June 14, 2007 08:01 pm

    Sounds simple enough but a great tip none the less. Cheers!