Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Tripod Hater’s Tips For Sharper Handheld Images

Spring blossoms captured with a telephoto lens. I used the 1/focal length rule and "anti shock" techniques for this one as well as choosing a high ISO and a wide aperture.
I am not a big fan of tripods. Not because they are not great. For the sharpest images, tripods can’t be beat. They aren’t perfect, you will still need to use good technique to obtain the sharpest shots from a tripod as it is possible to obtain fuzzy images on a tripod if you use improper technique. But under most circumstances you will obtain sharper shots with the tripod supported camera than with a handheld camera. But you can obtain acceptably sharp images with a handheld camera if care is taken.

I am not one for tripods because I don’t like carrying them. I also don’t like being locked down into one space for shooting, I often prefer the most freedom of movement. While most pros do prefer to use a tripod, many also feel the way I do. About the only time I really use a tripod is for my moonscapes. I’m not saying that there are not other times I could really use it, but that seems to be the only time I am motivated enough to use one. It is up to you to decide whether handheld shooting is for you or not. Or, sometimes it is really up to the place you are shooting, as some places do not allow tripods to be used. In this blog post I give you some helpful tips on obtaining acceptably sharp images while using a hand held camera.

First of all, what is acceptable sharpness you may be wondering. Acceptable sharpness is simply an image that looks acceptably sharp while on display to most viewers. It may not appear perfectly sharp upon inspecting in a magnified view, but on display it appears sharp to most people. If you print small images 11x17 or smaller, an image with some slight blur is likely to still look acceptably sharp on display. If you print larger images, you may find it a touch harder to achieve acceptably sharp images. Also, acceptably sharp is an objective term. Some people prefer razor sharp images with absolutely no softness. Others don’t mind a bit of softness.

Beauty Queen
I wanted the center of this cosmos flower
to be the sharpest part of the image. So I
choose a wide aperture and focused carefully
on the intricate center and let the rest of the
image soften. Careful handholding technique
rendered the center beautifully sharp.

Here are some of my favorite techniques to obtain the sharpest possible images while shooting handheld:

1. Support your camera as sturdily as you can. I try to keep both my arms pressed against my chest for the most stability. I have the right hand supporting the camera and the left hand under the lens as far out away from the camera body as the lens is for maximum stability. This position does not work well for all shooting situations, but it is the most stable one. I also press the camera against my face for additional support and have my legs has solid as possible.

 2. Remember the classic rule for handheld shooting that dictates that the lowest possible speed for sharp handheld shots is 1/focal length. For example, if shooting with a 300mm lens you should not go below 1/300 of a second shutter speed. It is a loose guide, some people can shoot at lower shutter speeds and other photographers may require a faster one but it is a good starting point to work with. Also keep in mind that the focal length you should use is the 35mm equivalent version. If you are using a digital camera with an cropped sensor, you will need to take that into account. For example, I shoot Olympus and a 300mm lens gives me a 600mm angle of view in standard 35mm equivalent. Thus ideally I should not go below 1/600 a second when shooting with that lens. Of course, I do go lower but I realize that when I do that I am taking a chance.

3. If your camera or lens has an image stabilization feature, use it if you are shooting at shutter speeds that are approaching speeds below the recommended shutter speeds using the above rule. You can usually then shoot at lower shutter speeds than typically considered safe. You can often go as much as 2 stops lower than the recommended safe handheld shooting speed with image stabilization.

4. The "rule" and image stabilization can only help you if your subject is a still one. If you are shooting a moving subject, the rules no longer apply and you are then working with a whole new set of rules. And windy days may cause some natural still subjects such as flowers and tree limbs to move.

I captured these beautiful Sopraono
Daisies with my Lensbaby for an image
in my signature soft style. But even when
I do choose to capture a dreamy image
such as this one, I still like at least one
sharp feature. The intricate center of the
foremost flower was my focal point.
5. Realize and accept that when handheld shooting you may need to make adjustments to your other settings to obtain the fastest possible shutter speed. You may need to use a higher ISO or a wider aperture. These changes can result in higher digital noise and shallower depth of field. If you like to shoot landscapes with deep focus and no noise, especially in low light, you may need to invest the money and effort into the tripod.

6. Shoot with a delay. This technique can be hit or miss, especially when shooting with shallow depth of field. But it is a useful one that helps occasionally. On my camera, the setting is called "anti shock." I set it to 1 second, and then after pushing the shutter button the viewfinder goes dark as the mirror moves out of the way (the "shock" that the setting attempts to offset) and then one second later the image is recorded. If shooting a shallow focus image, you risk moving after the button is pressed and your shot may not be in focus. This technique is not recommended for images with moving subjects for obvious reasons. When I use this technique with my shallow depth of field images, I usually shoot a few frames to make sure that I obtain at least one sharp image.

7. Which leads me to this tip: shoot a few frames. You can shoot them one by one, or you can even set your camera to sequential shooting to take a few shots in a row in quickly after pushing the shutter button only once. The first shot is likely to be the blurriest as the mirror may vibrate the camera as it moves out of the way for the first shot, and shots following are likely to be a bit sharper. Read your camera manual to find out about that setting.

8. Shoot only when ready. Once you have yourself completely steady and feel that you are rock solid, only then push the shutter button. I even take that one step further and often try to shoot in between my heartbeats. And don’t jab at the shutter button, that will shake the whole camera resulting in a less than sharp image. Gently squeeze the shutter button in a nice smooth motion.

9. And don’t forget your compositions. Just because you are shooting handheld doesn’t mean you should be a sloppy shooter. As part as the above tip, be sure to check the edges of your frame and backgrounds for unwanted distractions. Then steady yourself. Then shoot!

10. Look for improvisational tripods and supports. Sometimes a railing, table, or flat service can work as an tripod. Just make sure you don’t lose your camera by having it fall off an unsteady surface. Also you can use trees and walls to lean against to make your body sturdier and less shaky when shooting handheld. Just make sure that what you are leaning against is really sturdy and you leaning on it is not going to cause more problems than it solves.

So there you have it, the tripod hater’s tips for sharper handheld images. I hope some of these tips help you on your own tripod free adventures.
Foxglove flowers captured in a shady part of my garden.
Careful handholding technique while using my telephoto
lens was necessary to keep the image as sharp as I wanted
it to be. Most images in my blog are shot handheld using
the techniques outlined in this blog post.

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