The Bastards Book of Photography

An open-source guide to working with light by Dan Nguyen

How to Hold Still

Tips on minimizing camera shake when your shutter speed is slow.

  • Exposure value: -1/3
  • Shutter speed: 1/25
  • F number: 2.8
  • Iso: 2000
  • Focal length: 24.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Oct 29, 2010 at 05:53 PM
Me taking a photo of a friend taking a photo on the Brooklyn Bridge. There's just enough ambient light, from the moon and artificial sources, to create a moody scene.

The Bastards Book comes out of a blog post idea I had to list tips on how to physically improve your photography. Part of that, especially for low-light photography, is knowing how to dampen your body’s movements when you don’t have a tripod.

Relax

I’ve experimented with clenching the camera against tightly against my chest and face. But I’ve found that this results in too many moving parts; even if this helps your hands keep still, the rest of your body might push back too hard or not enough or in an off-kilter direction, creating unintended movement. And this is before your muscles get tired.

It seems easier to just imagine your body as dead weight, only there to keep the camera from falling to the ground.

It’s in your legs

The action may seem to be in the hands, but tennis players, fencers, and rock climbers know that the secret is in how you use your legs. Every slight quiver in your legs and trunk is magnified throughout your body. So it’s critical to keep your legs still, whether it’s in a relaxed slight bend in the knees or bracing against a wall. Even better is to sit, when possible.

Deep breaths

The movement from your breathing is enough to cause blur. So, before you activate the shutter, and then, while it’s open, hold your breath comfortably.

I like taking a deep breath, then exhaling slowly and holding it at the halfway point. It seems easier to control the natural slumping of the body that comes from exhaling.

Improvise a tripod

This is pretty obvious when it’s possible. Find something to put your camera onto. A shelf, a ledge, a pile of rocks. Use your bag or crumple up your jacket as a base if you need extra height.

  • Exposure value: 0
  • Shutter speed: 3.2
  • F number: 8.0
  • Iso: 400
  • Focal length: 25.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Sep 6, 2010 at 07:54 PM
This photo of Columbus Circle is from one of the top floors of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The bottom part of the circle is out of frame because I only had a lumpy handbag to rest the camera on.

Be the tripod and/or ledge

The problem with resting your camera on an available surface is that it limits where you can point your camera. For example, it’s difficult to shoot downward into the streets if your camera is flat on the roof ledge.

So brace your legs and body against the ledge and use your elbows as the other two “legs” of a tripod. This will keep the camera from moving up and down, but you still have to be wary of side-to-side movement. I find it useful to brace the camera slightly against my face, especially if I’m shooting upwards.

  • Exposure value: 0
  • Shutter speed: 4
  • F number: 4.5
  • Iso: 250
  • Focal length: 16.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on Oct 6, 2011 at 09:21 PM
From a West Village roof.

If there’s no ledge, then try to use your body as a ledge by digging your elbows into your chest. Again, I find it easier to relax and push just enough to keep the camera up, rather than trying to leave elbow marks on your chest. And, of course, it’s even more important for your legs to be in a stable position.

Keep your hands under the camera

This is for people who have a habit of holding the camera underneath with one hand and adjusting the focus (or other settings) with the other hand over the camera. I don’t understand the point of this; maybe it’s a toilet-paper under/over thing?

For slow-shutter photography, the only thing that should be over the camera is your finger on top of the shutter button. Having both hands under the camera helps dampen that downward movement and positions your elbows to be braced against your body.

Activate the shutter with a timer

Most cameras have a timer-mode in which the photo is taken 2 or even 10 seconds after the shutter has been pressed. This is handy for when the photographer needs to set the photo up and then run over to be in the photo.

For very slow shutter shots, pressing the shutter button causes more than enough shake to ruin a photo, either from the downwards push of your trigger finger, or from your body’s counter-reaction to it.

Using the timer lets you press the button and get comfortable. This is a handy trick even if the camera is resting on a semi-stable surface, as you’ll sometimes accidentally move the entire camera with the button press.

  • Exposure value: -0.7
  • Shutter speed: 1/6
  • F number: 2.0
  • Iso: 1600
  • Focal length: 24.0 mm
  • Flash used: Off, Did not fire
View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 24mm F1.8 ZA on Jun 10, 2012 at 01:54 AM
The Brooklyn Bridge at night. I’m amazed that I could hold the camera this still and that the flag is relatively sharp, despite its flapping in the wind.

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