Sharp, hand-held photos: in your grasp!

In a perfect world, a full cinematic tripod would drop out from inside your camera whenever extra stability is needed and slide back into the ether afterwards. Unfortunately, tripods in the real world can be bulky, and sometimes we have to leave them behind when out and about shooting. That doesn’t mean your shots are all doomed to be blurry, however, even in lower light. Here are a few tips that will help you get sharper photos without having to carry any extra stabilization equipment!

Hold your camera correctly

As the groan-worthy pun in the title of this article suggests, holding your camera in the way that provides the most natural stability is perhaps the most significant thing you can do. It’s an easy habit to get into, and it will provide a lot of benefit over time.

A good, stable grip!

First, wrap your right hand fully around whatever camera grip you have. Then, cup your left hand around the bottom of your lens and/or camera body, as close to its center of mass as possible. Depending on the size of your camera as well as that of your hands, your hands may or may not touch one another. Either way is fine, so long as the weight of the camera is positioned to settle into your grip. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera or camera phone, there may not be much to hold onto, but I promise you that your stability will improve if you follow the basic principle: grip with one hand, support with the other.

Whatever you do, just don’t do this!

Use your Image Stabilization system

Many modern cameras and lenses have some sort of image stabilization system built in, usually given some sort of proper noun (look for IS, OSS, IBIS, VC, etc.). There are two primary kinds:

  • Optical stabilization, which generally is accomplished by counteracting camera shake by shifting the rear element of the lens.
  • Sensor-based stabilization, which moves the imaging sensor in response to detected camera motion. This one is not typically quite as effective as optical stabilization, but can be exploited by other camera features (e.g. the ultra-high resolution mode some cameras have now, which produces enormous images by combining a burst of images shot with the sensor in slightly different positions).

Some of these systems provide an impressive amount of stability correction, but a word of caution: follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for use. Leaving image stabilization on all of the time can burn out the motors prematurely, and sometimes IS and tripods interact poorly.

Crank up the ISO

Traditionally, a good rule of thumb for photographers was to avoid hand-holding a photo at a speed slower than the inverse of their focal length. That is, when using a 50mm lens, use a tripod for anything slower than 1/50″; when using a 200mm lens, use a tripod for anything slower than 1/200″; and so on. Understandably, many photographers are instinctively leery of breaking this rule, but in a world where new consumer cameras offer ISO sensitivities pushing half a million, it may be a rule worth rethinking. Do some experiments with your own camera to determine what level of noise is acceptable to you, as it’s ultimately a personal decision, but many people are finding they can get perfectly acceptable images (at least up to 8″ x 10″ or so) with ISOs at 6400 or even higher.

As a real-world example, the image at the top of the article was shot on a high-end point and shoot at ISO 3200, completely handheld. Despite shooting at the 35mm equivalent focal distance of 83.7mm, I got away with a 1/30″ shutter speed. It’s a bit on the noisy side, but it’s darn sharp!

Use your environment (including your own body)

While you’ll rarely find a rock-solid tripod just lying around, a little creativity will usually reveal some part of the environment that can help you.

Note the correct way to hold a camera for a vertical picture in the image on the left: hold the lens on the bottom, so that you can support its weight with your hand. Rotating your camera the same direction every time gives you the added bonus of not having images rotated different directions willy-nilly on your computer later.

In the image on the right, note that a flip-out screen can make using improvised stabilization devices much easier, as you don’t have to contort yourself to frame your photo.

Nothing around that will safely hold your camera? Return to the strict definition of “hand-held” and use your own body as a brace. I find that clenching my arms in and leaning into my stomach really helps me, though your mileage may vary. Crouching or sitting down will let you use your legs as “stands” for your arms as well.

Turn on burst mode

Burst mode isn’t just for fast subjects, it’s good for slow shutters as well. Letting off five or ten shots greatly increasing your odds of getting one good one. It’s simple probability!

Shoot after you exhale

This one will be familiar to anyone who’s practiced target shooting. Regulating your breathing is very important in photography; you may not often consciously notice it, but your breathing moves your body around a great deal. When you inhale, your diaphragm is flexing, meaning that the muscle is much more likely to tremor (even if it’s just a little bit). When you’re playing human tripod, watch your breath; let it out slowly, then—a small beat after the end of your exhale—squeeze the shutter button. That’s when your body is least likely to introduce shaking to your image.

Oh yeah—and squeeze, don’t press

Many new photographers make the mistake of bringing their shutter finger down from the air into a full shutter depression, all as a single motion. This is a guaranteed way to shove your camera around in mid-air. Leave your finger on the shutter button, and when you’re ready to commit to a picture, gently tighten your finger muscles so that you squeeze the button into a full press.

Good luck with your hand-held photography! With a little practice, you’ll have crisp, print-worthy snaps from your impromptu sessions in no time.

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