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Holding Your Camera

You point your camera at something and press the shutter release to take a picture. So what's the best way to hold your camera while the image gets exposed?

To answer this question, the first thing to consider is why it matters how you hold your camera. One primary reason of course is shutter speed. For an image to register, it takes time. It might take only a short amount of time or it might be much longer, but exposure times aren't instantaneous. Under normal daylight conditions, a typical exposure time will likely be measured in terms of very brief fractions of a second, but no matter how bright the lighting conditions, exposure times are never zero. The shutter opens to allow light to reach the sensor and render an image. Once a sufficient amount has made its way there, the shutter closes. To get a truly sharp image, both camera and subject must remain sufficiently stationary. Any movement will show up as a blur in the resulting image. Dealing with a moving subject is a topic for a different article. Keeping your camera in one place is what I want to deal with here.

You may have noticed I said that your camera needs to remain "sufficiently" stationary, and this is where the difficulty in answering the question of how best to hold your camera lies. The longer the exposure time will be, the more difficult it will be to keep things from moving during the time the shutter remains open. At short enough exposure times, you can pretty much ignore the problem. As exposure times lengthen, this definitely won't be the case beyond some point.

There's a well-established rule of thumb that you can safely hand-hold your camera at shutter speeds down to the inverse of your focal length. As an example, when shooting at a focal length of 100mm, you can take one over one hundred and get a value of 1/100 second. Anything over that value and you risk having blurring from camera movement. A lot of people have wondered whether this same rule still holds true now that camera sensors vary so widely in size, but I feel this misses the point. It was never a real "rule" even back when everyone shot consistently sized 35mm film frames. Yes, there has always been a relationship between focal length and subject blur because there's always been a relationship between focal length and subject size. Wide angle lenses take in a much wider angle of view, rendering each given object much smaller in the frame in order to fit everything else in. If there is a small amount of movement during the exposure, it will obviously show up less if objects are smaller.

As anyone who's seen any random big budget Hollywood mega thriller knows though, a trained marksman with a high power rifle can hit targets the average person can't. As with sniper rifles so too with cameras. An experienced photographer can successfully hand hold a camera in situations under which the average photographer will invariably end up with blurred images. With the same lens and focal length, the same camera and sensor, experience and attention to detail will yield sharper images. Whether and how you factor in the crop factor for your sized sensor is up to you. If you want to be extra safe, use a tripod rather than hand hold. Yes, VR lenses can help too, but nothing beats a good tripod.

Personally, I prefer using a tripod for every shot I can. Why leave things up to chance? And using a tripod has advantages above and beyond sharpness anyway. Images should be more than just sharp; they should be well composed. Locking your camera down on a tripod can do wonders for your composition skills. With the camera immobilized, you can check that everything in the frame lines up exactly as you want it to. This just isn't possible no matter how good you are at hand holding.

A good tripod is one of the best investments you can make towards improving your photography. Consider it a long term investment. Even after you upgrade your camera, you can continue to use the same tripod. A well cared for quality tripod will last many years. Buy the best one you can afford, but do remember that you will need to carry it around with you if you are to gain the advantages from owning it.

Sometimes, a tripod simply isn't practical. Try taking one to a museum if you don't believe me. Such concerns don't often come up in the wide open spaces of the great outdoors, but there are constraints. One of the biggest such constraints is the ground we stand on. Most tripods have a hard time shooting at ground level. Even those that do leave you with the height of your tripod head preventing you from getting really, really low.

To get all the way to the ground, one option is to set your camera on the ground. Now, it can be a tad dirty on the ground, so what I usually do is place a plastic bag on the ground, and then set my camera on top of that. I've done this on more than one occasion, using available sticks to prop the camera up so the lens points where I want it to. It can be a tad difficult to compose the shot the way you want, but once you get it there, it should stay still for at least a few long exposures. If you touch things to check if you got the shot, be aware that you may need to find new sticks or at least readjust the ones you have. But it does work. In such situations though, I really love my Gorillapod. If you haven't yet discovered these amazingly bendable contraptions, you owe it to yourself to do so.

In any event though, you should give some thought as to how to hold your camera. There's no one perfect method, but don't discount the need to do so. No matter what kind of camera you have, it can't live up to its full potential without a stable platform. Even when that platform only has to remain stable for a fraction of a second. Even if you have to improvise that platform with sticks.

Date posted: April 24, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: Weren't We Supposed to Have Hovercraft by Now? Return to archives menu Next tip: On Being Present And Being Absent

Related articles:
More on Composing With a Tripod
Tripod Short Center Columns
My Quest for the Perfect Tripod Head
More on Factoring In the Crop Factor: Hand Holding
The Fine Art of Carrying a Tripod
Gorillapod: Searching for a Good, Small Outdoor Tripod
Joby Gorillapod Focus: The True Gorilla of Gorillapods

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