“How to capture sharp photographs” is one of the top ten phrases entered into search engines that lands people here on PhotolisticLife. I’ve written articles on how to create sharper images before but have never really focused on mirror lock-up. If you shoot with a mirror-less camera this does not apply to you (though you should read on in the off-chance you find yourself with a mirror endowed DSLR in the future).
What is Mirror Lock-Up?
For those of you that aren’t familiar with this don’t fret, it’s a tradition that all the professional photographers in the world do. Before going out to take really sharp photographs photographers who believe in superstition will lock a small mirror in a safe for good luck, hence the name mirror-lock… Or it’s a feature on cameras that locks the mirror up and out of the way before the shutter opens and then drops the mirror back in place after the shutter shuts in an effort to eliminate vibrations caused by the mirror smacking the top of the mirror box in your camera.
When Is Mirror Lock-Up Needed?
Mirror lock-up is primarily used when shooting macro or photographing still objects (landscapes, still life, etc.) from a tripod. Using mirror lock-up without a tripod in an attempt to obtain absolute sharpness is ill-advised, holding the camera will introduce minor shake that the mirror lock-up would have eliminated.
With all that being said, I rarely notice a difference between using mirror lock-up and not but I also believe the quality of camera and tripod make a huge difference. If I were using a beginner camera and/or cheap tripod I would most definitely use MLU (mirror lock-up). Cameras have come a long way from film days and they have focused on reducing any vibration the mirror may cause when flopping around.
Cheaper tripods that don’t firmly secure your camera will amplify any movement the mirror may introduce while the higher quality, more expensive, tripods will firmly hold your camera reducing any movement that may happen when the mirror moves.
Fun Fact: In the past there were lenses that actually required the mirror to be locked up in order to affix them to your camera. The lenses themselves extended into the mirror box when mounted.
Mirror Lock-Up or Live View
Shooting in Live View mode can sometimes be the same as Mirror Lock-Up. Note that some cameras also incorporate mirror lock-up into the self-timer feature. I don’t know about every manufacturer out there but I know some Canon cameras lock the mirror up in live view mode and therefore negate the need to dive into the settings to find MLU. Most if not all Nikon cameras require you to use the MLU mode if you’d like to lock up the mirror, in live view mode the mirror drops back down before flipping back up and opening the shutter then dropping back down again possibly introducing vibrations.
I recommend you check your cameras manual or the manufacturer’s website to see if, when using live view mode, the mirror flips back down before the shutter opens. If the mirror does flip back down before the shutter opens then you will need to use MLU if you find that it increases your images sharpness.
Cameras that implement MLU when using live view have the advantage of allowing you lay a grid over the scene to assist you in composing the scene or ensure your horizon is level, closely zoom in when manually focusing, overlay a histogram (on some cameras), and check the depth of field.
Is Mirror Lock-Up Effective
It depends. I’ve been all around the internet and have seen all the different YouTube videos and blog posts showing how MLU shows little to no difference and I’ve seen situations where it’s had dramatic results. I believe your mileage will vary depending on three things: Camera, Lens, and Tripod.
The quality of camera, lens, and tripod all correlate with one another when it comes to image sharpness. If you’ve got the best camera in the world paired with the best lens in the world on a high quality professional tripod you’ll likely end up with very sharp photographs with or without MLU. Pair the same “best” camera and lens with a cheap (weak) tripod and all the mirror lock-up in the world won’t reduce vibrations from the tripods inability to hold the camera firmly.
Things to Remember
There are a few things you should do to assure your images are as sharp as possible before MLU would even matter.
- Vibration reduction or whatever it’s called on your manufacturers lens/camera should typically be turned off when using a tripod otherwise the lenses attempt to stabilize any vibration can actually introduce vibration in and of itself. Some camera/lens combinations supposedly “sense” when the camera is on the tripod and turn off vibration control but I would not trust it when shooting something important.
- Make an attempt to be a human shield for your camera if you’re photographing in windy conditions. If you’re to the point where you’re using MLU but the wind is blowing so hard it’s shaking your camera then all the MLU in the world is useless.
- Use a high quality tripod… Probably not the one that came with your camera in a bargain package.
- Invest in a quality lens, the glass you in front of your cameras sensor will directly impact your image quality.
Mirror lock-up is an effective way to reduce vibration and create sharper images if you’ve tried everything else but you’re still not satisfied. All cameras are not created equally so arguing that it doesn’t make a difference because your camera says so is not a good argument for anyone who does not have your camera. Whether you own the latest and greatest camera or not you should always test your own camera at multiple shutter speeds with and without MLU to determine if it makes a difference for you.
If you are shooting with larger, heavier, lenses that require you to use a collar that affixes to the tripod I would highly recommend using MLU when shooting landscapes and macro. The camera is less secured when securing it to the tripod from the lens as opposed to the camera body.
When shooting landscapes in distant places, places I may not revisit in my lifetime, I use mirror lock-up. It doesn’t hurt to go that extra mile to ensure your images are as sharp as possible the first time around. Some cameras allow you to assign MLU to a button if it’s buried in the menu someplace.
Feel free to share your thoughts on MLU in the comments below. If you’d like to show the results of testing your own camera with and without MLU you can do so by submitting them on the Submit an Article page.