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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Keeping Your Camera Steady

When you have to work fast to frame and focus, keeping your camera steady can be a challenge. Try these tips to keep the shots sharp.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Photographer Ralph Clevenger (with wife Mary Jane Headlee) shooting from the open sunroof of a Range Rover, using the tripod spread across the roof opening. He’s standing on a seat in the vehicle and has a great view of the surrounding terrain.
Anyone who has attended a George Lepp seminar knows that tripods are a favorite subject! And in the age of digital, where multiple composited images solve problems such as excessive contrast and limited depth of field, a tripod is a must. Still, if you’re really into field photography and reach your subjects by boat, plane, Rover or backpacking trip, you have to know a number of different ways to keep your lens steady when you’re on the move.

When You Have To Handhold
An image-stabilized lens will improve your chances of bringing back a sharp image, but with or without stabilization, the technique is the same. Bring your elbows into your body and press the camera against your face. Grip the camera firmly with your right hand, and be careful not to “torque” the camera as you apply pressure to the shutter button. Your left hand will control the zoom and manual-focusing functions of the lens while, at the same time, giving the lens support. It’s tricky to balance the forward weight of the lens at the same time you make these critical corrections to frame and focus. For flying birds and running animals, you have to be able to move steadily with the subject to take advantage of predictive autofocus. If there’s a lot of action, you’ll want to be able to execute these functions without conscious thought, so practice.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from using whatever is handy to substitute for that missing tripod. Rest your lens on a fence post or tree branch, a rock or a steady shoulder. If you’re sitting in a boat or kayak, make your upper body into a tripod by supporting your elbows on your knees. Keep the stabilization turned on in these postures because they’re not perfectly stable.

An example of extreme handholding (in the photographic sense) is shooting from a kayak. A time-tested Lepp technique is to sit low, bracing your elbows against your body, your knees or the gunnels of the craft. The problem with this is that your angle of view is narrow, toward the front of the boat, so you have to be adept at positioning the boat toward your subject. If you get low enough, you can prop a 600mm ƒ/4 between your knees, but then the angle of view is really small!

If you’re serious about aerial or boat photography, there’s another accessory from Kenyon Laboratories (www.ken-lab.com). They make several gyro systems that attach to the underside of the camera or lens mount and offer maximized stability, especially when coupled with image stabilization. You might think the two processes would work against one another, but in fact they operate on different principles that are remarkably compatible. The gyro’s effect is to anchor the camera and lens combination in one position, and it’s extremely difficult to move it. This facilitates slow, careful positioning of the camera when working from a boat or plane—even a helicopter with its extreme vibrations. The gyro/IS combo works so well that it can be used to take aerial panoramas. The gyro enables smooth transitions between images; the image stabilization helps achieve sharp captures by eliminating residual vibration. It’s not cheap, at $2,000-plus, but it works.

An example of results achieved when handholding a telephoto from a kayak. This great egret was photographed with 540mm (Canon 400mm ƒ/4L DO w/1.4x) at 1⁄500 sec. and ƒ/11. A Cape buffalo photographed with a 100-400mm telephoto from the top of the vehicle, using a tripod positioned across the sunroof to ensure a sharp image.

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