Fancy giving yourself a little more freedom and flexibility? Then why not leave your tripod at home and handhold for a change? This month’s top tips from Lee Frost will ensure that if you do, your shots will be pin-sharp and perfect
When did you last take a photograph handheld? If you’re a wildlife or sports photographer then you probably do it most of the time, but for the majority of us, shooting handheld is seen as a sin – a lazy option that results in images that are poorly composed and, quite often, unsharp.
Serious photographers use a tripod at all times – and the bigger and heavier, the better. Right? Well, no, not really. While there are undoubted benefits to mounting your camera on a tripod, there are also pitfalls. It may slow you down, make you think more and keep your camera steady, but that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes a tripod can slow you down too much, get in the way and cause you to miss shots altogether. Fast and flexible also has its place in creative photography, and that means ditching your three-legged friend in favour of your own hands. Don’t worry, it’s fine – you can trust them!
To a degree, the importance of using a tripod also pre-dates digital capture. Back in the good old days of film, if you wanted optimum image quality you needed to use the slowest film – Fuji Velvia (ISO 50), Kodachrome 25 (ISO 25) – which meant that in all but the brightest conditions, a tripod was required to keep the camera steady and cope with slow shutter speeds. That logic still applies today, but not to the same extent. The default ISO of most DSLRs is ISO 100 – for some it’s ISO 200. Better still, many of the latest models produce fantastic image quality at higher ISOs, which gives you more control over the shutter speeds you use and reduces the need for a tripod, even when shooting subjects that traditionally would demand one, such as landscape, architecture and still life.
So why not give handholding a try? You’ll be amazed by the freedom it provides. You’ll also be able to experiment with techniques that a tripod prevents. And we guarantee that far from lowering the quality of your images, you’ll see a definite improvement.
Tip 1. Which shutter speed?
The biggest risk from handholding is camera shake – you inadvertently move the camera fractionally while exposing and image sharpness is affected. The two main factors that influence this are how big/heavy the lens is and which shutter speed you use. The rule-of-thumb to avoid camera shake is to ensure your shutter speed at least matches the focal length of the lens – 1/60sec for 50mm, 1/125sec for 100mm, 1/250sec for 200mm, and so on. This doesn’t apply so much at smaller focal lengths (shooting with a zoom at 10mm doesn’t mean it’s safe to handhold at 1/10sec) but it’s a good rule for telezooms and telephoto lenses. The recommended shutter speeds also relate to the effective focal length, so for example, if you use a 24-70mm zoom at 70mm on
a DSLR with a crop factor of 1.5x, the effective focal length is 105mm so you need to use a shutter speed of 1/100sec or, even better, 1/125sec.
Obviously, we all differ as individuals – some are able to hold the camera rock steady at slower shutter speeds than others.
Tip 2. Adopt the right stance
The way you hold your camera can mean all the difference between a sharp image and a soft one! Ideally, stand with your feet slightly apart and your back straight. Cup the lens with your left hand, hold the camera with your right hand and tuck your elbows into your sides. Before shooting, exhale so your body is more relaxed and gently squeeze the shutter release instead of jabbing it.
Tip 3. Capture action
Shooting moving subjects is one of the toughest photographic disciplines, simply because everything happens so fast – blink and you’ll miss it! We’re talking long lenses, wide apertures (which means minimal depth-of-field so your focusing has to be spot on), fast shutter speeds and split-second timing to capture the ‘decisive moment’. Handholding keeps you fluid and is generally the best way to shoot action.
Tip 4. Practice makes perfect
The trickiest aspect of handholding is the fact that you can’t see your camera when it’s at eye level, so there’s a chance you’ll miss shots while changing settings. To overcome this all you need to do is practise. Get used to where the ISO, exposure compensation, and AF point adjustment buttons are so you can operate them without lowering the camera. Being able to do this can make a huge difference when you’re shooting moving subjects such as sport or wildlife and need quick reflexes.
Tip 5. Increase the ISO
If you’re forced to shoot handheld in low light and find that even with your lens at its widest aperture, the shutter speed is still too slow to avoid camera shake, all you need to do is increase the ISO. Every time you double the ISO, the shutter speed also doubles. For example, if your camera is set to ISO 100 and the fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/8sec, then at ISO 200 it would be 1/15sec, at ISO 400 it would be 1/30sec, at ISO 800 it would be 1/60sec, at ISO 1600 it would be 1/125sec and at ISO 3200 it would be 1/250sec. The latest DSLRs offer fantastic image quality at high ISOs – a sharp but slightly grainy image is much better than a soft but grain-free image.
Tip 6. Which lenses are best for handholding?
The size or weight or a lens influences how practical it is to handhold. Prime (fixed focal length) lenses are generally smaller and lighter than zooms as they contain fewer elements. The maximum aperture of that lens is also important because it determines the fastest shutter speed you can use in any situation. One of the best lenses you can get for handholding is the 50mm prime ‘standard’ lens as it’s small and light and has a very ‘fast’ maximum aperture. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 only weighs 290g, for example, whereas the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 weighs 805g. The 50mm f/1.4 is also two full stops faster than the 24-70mm f/2.8, so in a situation where you were taking pin-sharp handheld shots with the 50mm wide open at f/1.4 and 1/60sec, you’d be struggling with the 24-70mm wide open at f/2.8 because the fastest shutter speed you could manage in the same conditions would be 1/15sec, for a lens weighing almost three times as much!
Tip 8. Find extra support
For added stability when handholding, kneel down on your right knee and rest your left elbow on your left knee. Leaning against a wall, fence or post can also make a big difference to stability. Alternatively, create a makeshift support for your lens by placing a camera bag or jacket on a wall or post to provide a cushion then resting your lens on top.
Tip 7. Face facts
Portraiture lends itself to handheld shooting. Not only can you work much faster, but as you’ll usually be shooting at a wide aperture such as f/4, or f/2.8, to blur the background, the shutter speed will be fairly fast if light levels are reasonable, so you don’t have to worry about camera shake. The main rule with portraiture is: always focus on the eyes – they need to be sharp.
Tip 9. Candid camera
Candid photography is great fun, but the key to success is remaining discreet so your subjects don’t spot you. If your camera’s mounted on a tripod there’s no way you’re going to blend in, plus you’ll be too slow, but by handholding you can move around, keep yourself partly hidden from view and act quickly when an opportunity presents itself.
Tip 10. Intentional camera movement (ICM)
This is a relatively new technique to emerge and though rather hit and miss, it’s worth a try! All you do is move the camera while shooting with a slow shutter speed. It’s a bit like panning, except you can move the camera in any direction and your subject doesn’t have to be moving – it can be static. Experiment with shutter speeds from 1/30sec down to one second or longer and see what happens!
Tip 11. Panning the camera
A great handheld technique is panning. This involves shooting at a slow shutter speed while tracking the subject with your camera, so you keep your subject more or less sharp, while blurring the background to capture a sense of motion. To begin with, use the following shutter speeds as a guide, then slow them down as your skills improve.
Motorsport racing: 1/250 or 1/500sec
Horse-racing, cycling: 1/60 or 1/30sec
Joggers, kids on bicycles: 1/30 or 1/15sec
To take a panned shot, pick up your subject in the viewfinder as it approaches, using Servo AF to keep it in focus, track it until it’s opposite you, then trip the shutter – but keep panning as you do this, for a smooth effect. Good panning is a tricky technique so practise, and don’t worry if your first attempts are a little bit blurred and jerky – you can produce great panning shots even when your subject is blurred as well as the background.
Tip 12. Use image stabilisation
Many zoom lenses have some form of image stabilisation these days that uses gyroscopic sensors and a floating lens element to detect and counter movement so camera shake is eliminated. In practice, it means you can use slower shutter speeds than recommended in Tip 1 while handholding, and still end up with sharp images. Canon lenses use IS (Image Stabilisation) while Nikon lenses use VR (Vibration Reduction). The degree of correction varies but is usually up to four stops. That means if you needed to shoot at 1/250sec without image stabilisation to get a sharp handheld image, with IS you could shoot at just 1/15sec and achieve the same level of sharpness. If you have lenses with IS, conduct some tests to see how effective the stabilisation is – it can make handholding much more reliable, even in low light when shutter speeds start to get really slow.
Tip 13. Street life
Reportage, photojournalism, street photography – whatever you prefer to call it, capturing spontaneous images on the move requires you to be able to respond to photo opportunities quickly and decisively, which rules out a tripod. In fact it rules out pretty much everything, so leave the backpack behind and head out with just a camera body and single lens.