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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.
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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 ( 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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Aerial composite panorama of Morro Bay, Calif., taken with a 28-135mm IS lens and a Kenyon Laboratories gyro. The vibrations of the helicopter were minimized by the gyro and the image stabilization.

A Leg To Stand On
Tripods have three legs and are bulky and need a lot of space. Your fellow passengers on a vehicle safari might resent your taking up an entire seat with your tripod legs splayed out in every direction. Further, people trip over them in crowds, and they can’t be moved out of the way fast enough to avoid a careening athlete. One answer (pun intended) is a monopod, which takes up less space in transport and in use and allows the photographer to maintain a steady base for the camera/lens combination. It eliminates any vertical movement, serves as a pivot point and keeps the camera in position without you having to bear the weight. Use it in vehicles off the floor to be at the ready for an extended period of time. In boats, the monopod’s pivot point counteracts movements caused by swells and wind and, compared to a tripod, transmits fewer vibrations from the engine. In a canoe or kayak, along with the pivoting advantage, a monopod can be set at its minimum height to support the camera at optimum position for a long period of time.

A group of white pelicans photographed with 540mm (Canon 400mm ƒ/4L DO w/1.4x) at 1⁄500 sec. and ƒ/11.

A situation in which a monopod can be extremely valuable is photographing in Antarctica, where typically you’ll do a lot of your photography from a cruise ship. The photographer, with a camera and an image-stabilized telephoto zoom lens supported by a monopod, can stand on the upper deck for a long period of time, shooting from side to side as opportunities present themselves. The support and ease of positioning the camera is a definite advantage over handholding. Maximizing the advantages of a monopod does require a special accessory, a lightweight one-axis head (Bogen 234). It’s a simple tilt head that offers a forward or backward tilt without angling the monopod.

Tripods On The Move
There’s still a place for tripods! These techniques work from moving vehicles when you have a lot of room to yourself. You can use your heaviest rig because the vehicle has to carry the freight. The problems are to minimize motion and vibration and, if you’re photographing wildlife with long, heavy lenses, to support and manipulate your camera/lens combination in sometimes constricted spaces.

You eliminate the vibration (and maximize the safety) by never shooting from a moving vehicle with a tripod. The vehicle is just your platform, and you use it to move into position. Then you shut it down. (As a side note, the most skilled guides for photographic expeditions in Africa are especially adept at positioning their Rovers optimally for photography, considering the angle of light, anticipating the movement of animal subjects and quickly maneuvering to the photographer’s advantage. Check out for a group that really pays attention to digital photographers’ needs.) We’ll use vehicles often encountered on African photo safaris as examples here, since they typically pose the most challenging conditions, but these techniques can guide you equally well in your own vehicle in refuges such as Bosque del Apache, in a snow coach in Yellowstone or on a bus in Denali National Park.

In every case, you need a tripod with good articulation so that you can accommodate it to various seat configurations and floor heights. I have both a Gitzo GT2530EX (with three-segmented legs) and a GT2540EX (with four segments), and both offer an infinite variety of positions.

steady steady
A photographer in a kayak using proper technique for handholding the camera/lens: elbows in and braced by a knee, camera tight to the face, left hand under the lens and right hand smoothly firing the camera shutter. A violet-breasted roller in Tanzania, Africa, surveys its territory from an acacia bush while being captured with a Canon 500mm ƒ/4L IS and a 1.4x tele-extender (700mm). The tripod on the top of the vehicle kept the extreme focal length steady for a sharp capture.

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George Lepp in Botswana, Africa, working from an open vehicle, switching between a tripod and a monopod with a Canon 500mm ƒ/4L IS lens.

Some African countries, including South Africa and Namibia, require that you work from enclosed vehicles in their national parks. The tripod-and-lens combination must enable you to photograph out a lowered window, which is restrictive to the angle of view. Set up your tripod between you and the window, with two legs on the floor and one shortened leg jammed into the space between the seat back and cushion. This isn’t perfectly steady, but it helps a lot. You won’t have the ability to move from one side of the vehicle to the other. This emphasizes the need for a driver/guide who knows how to get you into position for the best shot. Why bother with a tripod in these circumstances? It’s a big lens, and you have to keep it in position. It’s an expensive lens, and you don’t want it banging against the window frame. A far less effective, but more maneuverable option is a beanbag, and we’ve used that for smaller setups, including an HD video camera focused for a long time on one scene.

Tour vehicles in Tanzania often allow photography from large sunroofs. In this case, the photographer stands on the seat below and spans the sunroof with the articulated tripod. This platform is very stable and covers more than 180 degrees.

This leopard was digitally captured in Botswana, Africa, using a tripod in an open vehicle (500mm ƒ/4L IS lens and Gitzo Explorer tripod).

In Botswana and many other areas of Africa, you’re allowed to work from a completely open vehicle. Many have seats tiered upward from the front to back rows. The back row may have an advantage because of the improved view, but it’s the roughest ride, and it forces you to photograph down on animals near the vehicle. The row immediately behind the driver has the benefit of having no other photographers (and their rigs) in front of you, and you can converse with the driver/guide who often can predict an animal’s behavior. When you have a whole seat to yourself, you can use the tripod setup as in an enclosed vehicle, legs supported by both the floor and the seat. This limits your ability to move around, so for maximum maneuverability, put a quick release on your tripod and your monopod to quickly transfer from one support system to the other.

Come Back With Sharp Images
Far afield or close to home, you want the time, energy and money invested in your photography to yield good images. Keeping your camera steady in all kinds of environments requires extra thought and some specialized gear, but it’s worth it when your captures convey more about the subjects and less about the conditions you experienced on the go.