How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens

April 16, 2009 | Zoltan Arva-Toth | Photography Techniques | 46 Comments | |
How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens Image

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:

How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens

How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens

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.

How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens

How to Hand-hold a Telephoto Lens

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

Entry Tags

lens, telephoto, how to, sharp, hold, hand-hold

Your Comments

46 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Diyan

Nice tip, i’d like to try

5:19 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

#2 jason

Hmmm. I think that would leave too much weight out there being supported by your shoulder and tricep muscles. I’ll try it, but I think I’ll go back to the biathlon/rifle style with the hand acting like a chest-pod and the forearm coming to rest on your ribs.

6:04 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

#3 George

Maybe this works for small lenses - certainly not for my 200 1.8 canon lens.

6:39 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

#4 Scotch

Thanks for the advice - definitely worth trying in situations where one can’t use a beanbag or other form of support. Main drawback is not having a spare hand to change focal length when using a zoom lens. Also, if the front of the lens rotates when focusing, you’ll have to ensure that part of the lens is not resting on the elbow.

11:16 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

#5 Costas

This absolutely DOES NOT work!

Besides being a professional photographer, I am also a competitive target shooter, shooting at both pistol and rifle competitions for many years.

If you want to copy what works for world class rifle shooters, then you tuck your elbow against your ribcage, exhale and shoot while holding your breath. If this works for olympic class shooters, it should work for photographers!

11:18 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

#6 Costas

Also, it would be an insult to snipers to call this “old movie” position the “sniper position”!!!

This position is absolutely useless because it relies on muscle, when all stable shooting positions rely on bone supporting the weight of the gun.

If you read the best book on the matter, “The Ultimate Sniper” by Maj. John Plaster, you will NOT find anything like this!!
You could also read the bible of rifle shooting, “The Art of the Rifle” by John Cooper

A few links

11:28 pm - Thursday, April 16, 2009

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3:16 pm - Friday, April 17, 2009

#9 Your Neighbor

Stop shooting my window!

12:28 pm - Monday, April 20, 2009

#10 dingenus

well, I have tested your way against my own (classic manner)with 600mm eq. on a Oly. E3 with stabiliser on at 1/25 sec. One out three is really pin sharp. That is my own limit. I can’t do that with your manner. Not one is sharp.

1:40 pm - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#11 peter k.

It sounds interesting. Next Sabath I’m gonna try this tip with a 400mm lens.

5:05 pm - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#12 David Brear

I’ve been using this technique for years. It’s very convenient when shooting wildlife (usually dragonflies in my case) - you can follow the target better with better support. I still use a tripod when I can, though.

5:51 pm - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

#13 neonzu

Nice tip,I use it sometimes.My guess it’s always good to have an arsenal of support methods to suit circumstances.
*I find shooting left-eye-to-the-viewfinder allows me to comfortably assume a stable “boxer” stance i.e. left foot forward,left elbow in to my left side where there’s less movement from breathing, and hand on the zoom ring when appropriate (especially when panning on a subject that’s moving closer or farther).
*I’ll just as comfortably switch to my right eye on the viewfinder when I need my left eye open to sight a target that’s tricky to follow through the finder.
*Check out Jo McNally’s “Da Grip” video for another way of holding a camera & moderate sized lens.

8:09 am - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

#14 David

The responders who offer the rifle marksmanship examples are exactly right.  There is a reason the Army (I’m retired Army) teaches you to support your elbow with your ribcage - it’s far more stable.  Try them both and you’ll see what we mean.

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4:46 pm - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

#17 Char

I wonder how many of the people who excoriated you for this tip actually tried it first. I did, and it works for me! I’m a little old lady with a long heavy lens (300 mm plus extender = 420 mm) but I’ll be darned if I’m going to be tied to a tripod when I’m out shooting birds and bees. This tip has been very helpful! My other technique depending on subject of course is to squat down and balance with my arms on knees. So now I have two methods to use in the field that I really like. Thanks!

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Thanks for the tip. I will try this out.

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#22 Bryce G

Very. Interesting. And creative. Honestly I just find something to rest on or against, and set my elbow against that. That normally works, I can see this being useful in very special situations though. Where no one else is watching :)

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I photograph also and tried shooting sniper positions of myself and your technique worked for me. You can see the picture of me shooting at the top of this website main header:


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