Bracing The Camera

This week's learning topic is as important as it is simple.  Holding the camera.  How can something so simple be so misunderstood?

Bracing (holding) the camera correctly is the single most important thing you can do to get a nice sharp image.  No matter how great your camera, how advanced your image stabilization, or how fast your shutter speed, if you’re not holding the camera still you’ll never get a sharp photo.

First, lets talk about the two types of cameras that require different techniques.  A DSLR has an optical viewfinder that lets you hold the camera in close to your body, tuck your elbows into your chest area, and achieve a decent bracing technique.  Point and Shoot Compacts have a rear mounted LCD which requires you to hold the camera almost at arm's length which takes your arms away from your body taking away your ability to brace properly.  Is it any wonder that so many point and shoot compact pictures look so blurry?

The truth is, most point and shoot compact cameras are capable of critically sharp images.  It’s just that most people never hold the camera properly so the images from compacts look blurry or out of focus.  This needn’t be.

Let’s talk a bit about bracing a DSLR.  Bring the camera to your eye, but try (and practice) not actually touching the camera to your head.  If you touch the camera to your head/eye then your head will shake the camera.  There’s no way around this.  Large soft rubber accessory eye cups (Nikon makes some great ones while Canon does not) not only help block out the light so you can see better, but they’re an effective ‘buffer’ between your shaking head and your camera.  So bring the camera to your eye but don’t touch it to your head/eye.

Next, tuck your elbows in.  No flying chickens allowed!  Tuck them in solidly to your chest area effectively making a supporting triangle between your body and the camera.  Practice this.  It doesn’t feel natural at first, but soon it will feel perfect.

Now, take in a breath and let it halfway out.  Frame your subject, focus, and ‘squeeezzzeee’ that shutter release slowly.  Let it surprise you when it goes off.  Do this slowly a few hundred times, and then you can easily break this process into steps and speed things up until you’re shooting as fast as the guy standing next to you “poking” his/her shutter release and making blurry pictures.

You firearms shooters will instantly recognize this technique as very nearly the same as you’d use for a rifle or pistol.  It is.  The same techniques that allow to you hold a firearm on target and hit with a high degree of accuracy at a long distance, absolutely applies to holding a DSLR and achieving critical focus.

Firearms shooters shoot from basic positions.  Standing.  Prone.  Sitting.  Prone is the most stable, sitting (elbows braced by our knees) the next, and standing the least stable.  Like skeet and trap shooters standing allows you to track (pan) the target (subject) while holding steady.  With this technique you swivel your hips to pan a subject.  You don’t move your arms.  You keep your arms tucked and braced.  Practice these techniques and soon you’ll be able to shoot at shutter speeds you’ve never dreamed about before while achieving critically sharp images.

But what about point and shoot compacts?  I’m afraid there’s not a lot you can do here.  Bend your elbows in and try to hold it as close to your face as you can.  The closer you can get your arms in towards your chest the more stable the brace.

Techniques that work for both types of cameras would include leaning against a tree, pole, fence or other supporting structure.  Your legs are much less table than a permanent structure in the field.  Take advantage of everything you can.  Workshop students are sometimes surprised when I lean up against a wall, a car, or anything more stable than my two legs.  But once they try it they’re sold!

Do you carry a backpack?  Book bag?  A jacket or something you can roll up in a soft ball?  Place it on a table and put your camera in the center.  A car hood works well.  The top of a fence.  Nestle your camera down into the softer base and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to get sharp pictures.

And let's not forget other techniques like Mirror Lock-up, using an external shutter release, the internal timer, anything that gets your hands away from the camera at the moment of exposure.

Bracing your camera properly is a lot about common sense.  But this means you’ll need to think about it and have it on your mind each and every time you release the shutter.  If you make a conscious effort to think about bracing for 500-1000 images, soon you’ll develop habits you’ll follow without even thinking about it.  Give these methods a try and you’ll be surprised just how good that “defective” lens you’ve been cursing really is.  ;o)