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Living with Photography: The Hold Steady

By Norman Chan

Full control over shutter speed has made me appreciate the ability to hold a camera for a long exposure.

Below is one of my favorite photos I took last year. I shot it at New York's Museum of the Moving Image when we were in town last September. The exhibit was for the most recent Men in Black movie, with props and costumes from the film on display. It's a wonderfully detailed mask, which while I assume is made of latex, but looks much slimier than rubber. But the reason I like this photo so much is because of the conditions in which I was able to take it. Even though this mask was lit under a spotlight, the exhibit hall that housed it was extremely dark. Under automatic settings, I would expect a camera to bump the ISO up to at least 1600 for a scene like this. That's not for me. This photo was taken at 200 ISO (the lowest on my camera), and a full half second exposure. Completely handheld.

As I've stated before, I have obsession with capturing the best image possible from a camera. That means the least amount the grain while retaining a sharp image (ie. no blurring). Those two goals work against each other in adverse conditions like low light. Even with an APS-C sensor and a wide aperture lens, a camera can only grasp so much light for a clear image without having to lengthen the amount of time the shutter stays open. At the time I took that photo, I was still working the aperture priority mode, and at 25mm, my lens maxed out at f/4. These conditions demanded that I compromise by either bumping up the ISO or dropping the exposure compensation a full stop to get a really dark image. With no tripod available, I instead chose to just hold my camera still--really still. Click the photo to enlarge it--you won't see any blurring.

In fact, I pride myself with being able to take photos at relatively long exposures. That's one of the benefits of using a compact camera system: it's less tiring to hold up for long periods of time and in awkward poses. And when I take a photo that requires a longer than average (around 1/20th second) shutter, my body enters a state of hyper self-awareness; I become very conscious of every subtle tremble of my hands, my breathing, and even the beating of my heart. It's not unlike firing a rifle--posture and breathing can be optimized to increase steadiness. With elbows tucked in but not braced against my chest, taking the shot right after exhaling has given me the best results. At this point, I'm confident in a sharp photo at shutter speeds up to 1/6th second.

As you would expect, this technique completely breaks down with moving subjects, especially people. Portraits of subjects standing still and posing for photos is one thing, but snapshots of natural motion with no concern for the camera requires a different skillset. And without much practice taking photos of people in action, I experienced this firsthand when Adam was blitzing through his shop during his One Day Build. My role was to document the process without getting in the way, but here was a situation where there were so many factors out of my control. Even though the shop was well lit and I had lots of room to move around, I constantly felt the pressure of time bearing down on me to not miss important moments. Half a second is an eternity to wait for the shutter to close. Here, I had to compromise to shoot at up to 1/80th second and bumping up ISO a little.

In truth, bumping up ISO is not a bad compromise if it means the difference between capturing and losing an important shot. And in my quest for optimal image quality, this is where upgrading to a full-frame sensor and using wide aperture lenses is going to help a lot. But for now, I'll still take pride in being able to hold a camera perfectly still when the situation calls for it, even if it's for longer than a heartbeat.

(And yep, I should starting shooting in RAW too.)

Here's my favorite photo taken in the past week. Babies, unsurprisingly, are not subjects that typically hold still for cameras.

How do you evaluate your own ability to hold a camera steady? What tricks do you use to compensate for a long exposure?