How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens
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Most photography books and camera user manuals begin with a quick tutorial on the correct ways to hold a camera. They usually tell you to bring your elbows to your side, and use your left hand to support the weight of the camera by cradling the lens from below. This is good advice in general, and works with most lenses. With this method, the slowest hand-holdable shutter speed is considered to be the reciprocal of the 35mm equivalent focal length of the lens you are using. That means 1/60th second for a 60mm equivalent lens, 1/100th for a 100mm, and so on, although your mileage may vary slightly.
The problem is that once you start using really long lenses, you'll find the slowest shutter hand-holdable shutter speeds to be in the region of 1/500th second or faster, which may force you to use a high ISO setting in anything but broad daylight - and put up with the increased amounts of noise this entails. The other option is of course to mount the camera on a tripod, preferably via the tripod collar of the lens if it has one, but tripods can take too long to set up, are not always at hand, not to mention they are disallowed in a number of places.
Fortunately, lenses with a long focal length tend to be physically long as well, and you can exploit this for your own good. The solution is called the 'sniper' position.
Here's what you can do: with camera in your right hand, bring your left hand across your chest and put it on your right shoulder. This causes your elbow to stick out forward. Now position your camera so that the lens barrel rests on the crook of your left arm. This also means that the left side of your camera will rest against your left bicep, whereas the right side with your right hand clutching the camera's grip gets support from your left forearm. Now raise your left arm, with the left hand still on your right shoulder and the camera sitting on top, until the camera is at eye level. Frame the shot, auto-focus and shoot!
I know this sound like gymnastics, but it's really simple once you get the hang of it. Consult the following illustrations:
To show you how much of an improvement this position can bring about, we've shot the same subject with a 450mm equivalent lens at 1/100 second two times – once with camera held the traditional way, and once in the 'sniper' position. The pictures below are 100% crops from these two shots.
The improvement is rather dramatic, with the shot taken in the 'sniper' position being more than acceptably sharp even at this pixel-level view. Depending on the print size you are aiming for, you can go down further still, maybe to 1/60th second. Not bad for a hand-held shot at 450mm equivalent, is it?
There are certain limitations you need to be aware of. Neither zooming nor manual focusing is possible in this position, so you will have to either pre-focus or use auto-focus, and if using a zoom lens, you will have to set the lens to the required zoom position beforehand. But this is still a lot faster than setting up a tripod or monopod, and as the illustrations show, the improvement you can expect is significant.
Finally, it's worth adding that this solution can work in synergy with image stabilisation, if your lens (or camera body) has this feature, meaning you can go down to almost “silly” shutter speeds and still get usable results.
All images in this article © Zoltan Arva-Toth