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Living with Photography: Getting a Grip

By Norman Chan

Some practical tips for holding a DSLR as steady as possible.

It's difficult not to be self-conscious when it comes to DSLR photography. Walking around public spaces carrying a big camera and lens draws more attention than just taking out a smartphone and tapping a touchscreen. It always feels like people walking by can't help but try to see what you're taking a photo of, and maybe what gear you're using. But while I don't mind any attention from passersby when taking photos in public, there's one audience that I do get self-conscious about, and that's other photographers. That's because I do the very same thing when I see photographers in public. Some things just jump out at me: what lens the photographer is using, how they're positioning themselves with the given lighting, and most recently, how they're physically holding their cameras.

The ergonomics of holding a camera will differ between camera models and what accessories you use, but there is good reason to seriously think about them when you're using a DSLR. DSLRs are not only heavier than point and shoots and compact mirrorless cameras, they're physically larger as well. Good prime and zoom lenses add to that bulk, complicating the overall weight distribution of the camera when hand held. And while the standard DSLR body design is suited for a two-handed grip in the landscape orientation, turning the camera on its side for portrait photography is awkward, to say the least. Do you rotate the body so the shutter is on the top of the camera, or on the bottom? To be honest, I first started getting self-conscious about the way I was holding my camera when one of you guys pointed out that I was holding it "wrong" in the portrait position.

So I've done a little bit of thinking about how I hold my own cameras, and after reading up on some other photographers' recommendations, have come up with some best practices that I've etched in my brain--another subconscious checklist to run down every time I put a camera up to my eye.

The first thing I thought about was the goal of good camera gripping ergonomics. What's the point of holding a camera in one way over another? You can choose your camera grip for different priorities: physical comfort, ease of access to settings, finer control over the lens rings. My top priority is reducing camera shake. I wanted to get a grip on my camera that would give me the most stable shot at the slowest shutter speed possible, eliminating as best I could the unavoidable judder effects of pushing down on the shutter button.

In some ways, that means thinking of your body as a tripod for the camera, which means having a firm and balance stance on the ground. I typically put one foot forward when shooting, planting my feet firmly on the ground and leaning my upper body slightly and slowly forward or back to adjust for minimum focus distance.

But tripods, monopods, and any other fixed camera mount have a secure way to attach to cameras: a 1/4-inch screw thread on the bottom of the camera. You body, unfortunately, doesn't have a 1/4-inch screw. So your hands have to make up for that. But the advantage you have over a tripod is that you don't just have one contact point with the camera--you have at least two. You have both your hands to grip the lens and camera body, and you also have your face. When I look through the viewfinder of a DSLR, I'm jamming the camera right up to my glasses and even cheek, using my face as another point of contact to stabilize the camera. Yes, that can leave some sweat on the camera's LCD display, but that's a small price to pay to reduce the risk of a blurry photo.

Your primary contact points are going to be your hands, so the goal is to keep them as steady as possible. There are three joints connecting your upper body to your hands--shoulder, elbow, wrist--and all of them are potential sources of shakiness. Especially the elbows. The most agreed-upon tip I've read to reduce shakiness is tucking your elbows into your body, so much so that your upper arm is braced against your chest. Some photographers even recommend jabbing your elbow into your ribcage as a stabilizer, but I think that's a bit extreme. The point is that by stabilizing one part of your arm against a firm surface, you reduce the number of variables that can affect the steadiness of your hands and fingers. Arm, forearm, and hand are all connected, and when one shakes, the others do as well.

When your elbows are tucked in, one thing you'll notice is that the steadiness of your arms now are affected by yet another variable--your breathing. This is why professional photographers recommend holding your breath when taking a photo. That doesn't mean taking a breath of air and holding it in while you snap photos, but exhaling and not breathing in when you hit the shutter. If that sounds like a familiar technique for holding your hands steady, that's because breath control is also important for another type of shooting: riflery. In fact, there are many lessons from steady rifle shooting that can apply to shooting a camera; both tasks share similar goals.

The next tip I've learned comes straight from riflery, and actually contradicts what some other photographers have recommended. It's good practice to get on one knee to take photos, especially as an alternative to leaning forward or squatting down. Taking a knee, even if it gets your pants dirty, is far more stable than crouching, and gives you the added opportunity to rest an elbow on that knee for increased stability. The mistake that some people make is where to rest that elbow. It might sound reasonable to put your elbow right on your kneecap, as that's the most solid surface, but that joint-to-joint contact is actually really unsteady--it's like trying to balance two cones by connecting them at their tips. The preferred technique--something that rifle shooters practice--is placing your elbow further up on your thigh.

So now we get to the challenges of shooting in portrait orientation. If you rotate the camera so the shutter button is at the top, your right hand has to curve around the top of the camera to reach the shutter. And to do that comfortably, your right elbow has to prop out away from your body, almost pointing in the air. Trying to keep the elbow tucked in to your body is almost impossible in this position. If you flip the camera around so the shutter button is on the bottom, both your elbows can still be tucked in, steady and secure.

But what I've found is that your elbows aren't the most important when shooting in portrait, and that actually, you can shoot accurately and steadily with shutter button pointed either up or down (and yes, without a battery grip). The trick is choosing where you're going to put the weight of the camera, and which hand is responsible for holding it. When shooting in portrait orientation, almost all of the weight of the camera sits on my left hand--my off hand. I'm holding the camera with that hand between the lens and the body, which is close to the entire unit's center of balance. And then, while the camera is pressed against my face, my right hand--with the finger used for shutter--only serves as a contact point to increase steadiness and hit the shutter. This is the important part: the hand with my trigger finger doesn't bear any of the actual weight of the camera. The camera is held up and the shot is framed using just my left hand, while my right thumb and index finger brace the body to squeeze the shutter without shaking the camera.

It goes without saying that everyone's going to have a slightly different technique for holding their camera. I would really like to hear about what works for you and what you put in your subconscious as a checklist every time you take a photo.