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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How slow can you handhold your camera?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to carry my tripod wherever I go. It sits over my shoulders a la Robin Hood arrow quiver, held there by a strap.

But I realise that for many of you the idea of carrying a tripod around would be akin to having your fingernails pulled out one by one!

So how slow can you handhold your camera before you will start getting blurry photos?

The photo here was handheld. But there were three things in my favour. One - it's the entertainment district of a major Japanese city and is wall-to-wall neon. It's nearly as bright as day. Two - I'm lying down on the ground with my elbows resting on the footpath. And three - it was taken with my widest wide-angle lens. The shorter the lens the easier it is to hand hold. This was taken at ISO 100 and my shutter speed was 1/15th second with a 10-22mm lens.

The general rule for hand holding your camera is not to go below 1 over the focal length of your lens. So if you have a 28-80mm zoom you would stick to 1/30th second at the wide end and 1/125th second at the long end (because there isn't such a thing as a 1/28th second or 1/80th second shutter speed so you go to the next fastest one).

But that was how it worked with film. If you have a crop digital camera (any of them except the top of the line in each camera brand) then you need to multiply the focal length of your camera by about 1.5. So on a digital your 28-80mm zoom becomes a 42-120mm zoom. So your hand holdable shutter speeds are actually 1/60th second at the wide end and still 1/125th second at the long end.

So you can see that the longer your lens the faster a shutter speed you're going to need to hand hold your camera. In order to give yourself faster shutter speeds you can also up the ISO on your camera. Every jump from say 100 to 200, 200 to 400 and so on will give you an extra stop of shutter speed. So if you had 1/15th second at ISO 100, swapping to ISO 200 will give you 1/30ths second. 1/60th second at ISO 400 and so on. The only trade-off is that the higher your ISO the noisier the picture and that's not always something you're willing to trade-off.

So assuming we want to keep our ISO as low as possible but our shutter speeds are really slow, there are ways you can get around these limitations. But they all involve you getting flexible! Look for things to lean against. Walls, trees, cars, the ground. If you can give yourself a bit more stability you'll be able to hold your camera a bit more steady. Barring that try resting your camera on something steady. Use a little pebble or something to prop up the front of the lens. When you use this technique you want to use the self-timer so you don't get camera shake from pushing the shutter button.

A little table-top tripod can really help stabilise your camera. Apart from its obvious use you can also use it while hand holding your camera. With the little tripod attached to your camera dig all three legs into your chest so your camera has somewhere to rest. You'll find you can get an extra stop or so of shutter speed.

And if none of those options are available? Head to the gym more and be prepared to carry your tripod!

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