July 21, 2010

LumoLabs: Shutter-induced blur with an SLR camera

A recent observation made by us and others was that shake reduction efficiency for the Pentax K-7 camera seemed to have a weak spot around about 1/100s and less. Something nobody could really understand and not everybody was able to confirm.

Therefore, we decided to try to answer an old and fundamental question for SLR photography: To which extent does the mechanical focal plane shutter and the mirror slap negatively influence image sharpness? Especially in the digital age with its theoretically rather high image resolution. We, this means two friends (Henning and Rüdiger) and myself (Falk). And of course, we decided to focus our study to the Pentax K-7 SLR camera in order to provde an answer to the observation mentioned above.

The short story is that we managed to find the answers. All our findings are written down in detail in a LumoLabs White paper:


Please refer to this document to actually understand the work we have done. In the following, we will summarize our findings without explaining how we got there. However, note that 4 different camera bodies, data from 4 testers, 8 lenses and two firmware versions have been used. More than thousand test shots and several thousand accurate blur data measurements have been aggregated. High speed video, acoustic recording and acceleration measurements complement the data. So, we assure that the result describe the general behaviour of a Pentax K-7 SLR camera. Pentax has obtained a copy of the paper to be used at their discretion.

We will make no statement about how the results relate to other SLR cameras. Except for a quantitative comparison with one Pentax K20D SLR camera.


  1. The mechanical focal plane shutter indirectly can increase the blur in an image. The exact amount of additional blur depends on the direction in the image. It is zero at a vertical contrast edge (aka yaw blur, blur due to yaw movement). And it is up to 11 µm (on average) at a horizontal contrast edge (aka nick blur, blur due to nick movement).

    The exact amount of average blur is shown in the opening figure of this article. It has its maximum for shutter speeds of about 1/100s to 1/80s. It is less than 5 µm for 1/25s and slower. Or 1/250s and faster.

    Note that any single image can be affected more or less. Add or subtract +/-50% to get an idea of variation from image to image.

    Note that one pixel is 5 µm large and the blur effect is only visible if all other sources of blur are very well under control (sharpening, defocus, shake, subject blur, lens abberation, noise etc.). Normally, these other sources mask the effect. Nevertheless, if you want tack sharp images then you need to understand the shutter blur effect.
  2. The effect for the Pentax K-7 is larger than for the Pentax K20D. About 2 - 3x larger.
  3. Mirror slap or shake reduction have no negative or positive impact on the effect. Shake reduction works as advertized but cannot counteract the perturbation from the focal plane shutter as it is too fast really. Mirror slap is very well dampened in the K-7 camera and has no negative impact on image resolution except on a weak tripod.

    There is a delay of about 10 ms between end of mirror slap and begin of shutter operation which suffices to keep the mirror slap perturbation out of the image.
  4. The blur effect is an indirect one:

    First, the moving masses of the shutter (curtain etc.) make the body move (with surprising speed and acceleration of its stiff body!).

    Second, the body movements cause a classical blur effect lasting as long as the shutter works. The K-7 shutter is faster and stronger than that of the K20D probably increasing the effect by some 60% or so.

    Third, the body accelerations cause additional vibrations in the imaging sensor which last a bit longer than the first shutter curtain operates and which magnify the effect by another 60% or so.

    Preventing the first from happening (which requires a heavy and sturdy tripod) will kill the effect. There is no "loose" magnetically held imaging sensor and no negative direct impact from shutter curtain or mirror slap causing air flow in the mirror box or whatever.
  5. In practice, you'll only see any effect with wide angle lenses.

    At about 1/100s you would normally have blur due to free-hand shake (we can ignore the case of a tripod as only weak tripods would cause any trouble with the shutter). At 50 mm and longer, the shutter blur will be masked and at 30 mm it will have comparable magnitude. It is at 10-20 mm that the effect will be noticeable most.

    In these cases, we highly recommend to shoot at 1/25s (or slower) and to enable shake reduction as it is highly efficient at such exposure speeds. The images will be sharper than at 1/100s!
  6. Early efficiency tests of the K-7 shake reduction suggested that it may be ineffective at fast shutter speeds as required for long focal lengths. This was a preliminary conclusion we proved to be wrong.

    The Pentax shake reduction is effective even at 1/500s! It just cannot prevent the shutter blur at about 1/100s. We may soon publish an update to our SR guide reflecting this.

So, here you have it in a nutshell. Please, refer to the full paper before asking questions. The paper is available as HTML and PDF (linked from the top of the paper). It is recommended to download and read the White Paper on "Understanding Image Sharpness" first.

UPDATE (2010 July, 28):

We checked if the new firmware release released earlier today brought an improvement. The answer is NO.

We've run a number of measurements and within the limits of our very good measurement accuracy (about 0.10 to 0.15 pixels error margins) we cannot see an improvement.

[end of update]

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Did you study the K-x, do you know if it has a similar effect?
A: No. But anybody is invited to replicate our study for the Penatx K-x :)

Q: Is the shutter blur in the Pentax K-7 a defect?
A: No, any SLR shutter for any make causes blur to some degree. We just wished for the Pentax K-7 that it would be as small as it is for the K20D. We publish this partly to remind all camera makers that we watch their work ;)

Q: Does switching off shake reduction lead to sharper images?
A: No.

Q: Does mirror lookup work around shutter blur?
A: No.

Q: Does a tripod work around shutter blur?
A: Sometimes. If it is rock solid. A normal tripod most likely won't help much.

Q: Why does a longer exposure time work around shutter blur?
A: Because during the majority of the exposure, the shutter won't move and what you get is an average blur.

Q: Why does a shorter exposure time work around shutter blur?
A: Partly, because there simply is less time for anything to blur. Partly, because stimulated vibrations cause no harm after the shutter already closed.

Q: May I ask questions without reading the White paper?
A: No.

Q: But I don't understand the White paper!
A: How do you know without reading it? ;)

Q: Will you win a Nobel price for this crazy shit of work?
A: No. Alfred Nobel forgot photographers ;)

Further reading:

Enjoy the read ;)

July 14, 2010

Philipp Lahm Wedding

Philipp Lahm is team captain of German national FIFA football team, who just scored third place at the FIFA world championship in South Africa.

First thing he did when he came back to Munich was to marry his bride, Claudia Schattenberg. And as luck would have it he selected the St. Emmeran church of Kleinhelfendorf to do so. Just some of hundred meters away from where my studio is located.

So, I decided to play paparazzo and see what I could grab as a photo.

No question that about hundred true paparazzi were blocking my sight and -- as the number of them exceeded the population of Kleinhelfendorf ;) -- theirs as well. I can only say:

Bring your own ladder!

I am glad I don't have to earn my money this way. As soon as the bride entered the church, they started to run each other over in an attempt to be first to upload the photo. Of course, the 3G/UMTS infrastructure of Kleinhelfendorf wasn't really meant for this use case. To see scores of paparazzi left in frustration is a priceless experience :)

Also, chatting with some of the photographers, TV teams and moderators was interesting. I now have a better idea of the amount of money changing hands on events like this. Needless to say that the right to officially take photos was sold exclusively upfront.

Despite the competition for sight, I tried my luck and here is what I managed to achieve. Enjoy :)

(Click on the images to enlarge. All photos © 2010 Falk Lumo. No reprint or linking without permission. All and more photos available in high resolution.)

Just a closing remark after you have seen the images... I used my mountain bike to be ahead of the horse drawn wedding carriage on its path thru small and rural roads. After a few kilometers only I've seen no more paparazzi photographers. They don't try as hard as one would imagine... ;)