"You should have shot that with a tripod."
Ah, those hated words. They're meant to be helpful, they really are. But it's advice that doesn't always mean anything, because sometimes you just can't shoot with a tripod. So what do you do? Here are 8 ways to steady your camera if you don't have a tripod handy.
Let's face it, tripods are awkward. There's just no way around it. They're big, they're fiddly to carry around and they get in your way even when folded up and stowed away. Let's not even talk about how in the way they are when you're actually using them. Many events and locations don't let you bring tripods for that very reason, photographers have a nasty habit of getting in everyone's way anyway, and with a tripod that's compounded.
So the words, "You should have shot that with a tripod" are meaningless if you didn't have a tripod at the time you took the photo, especially if you weren't allowed to have one or if you just didn't feel like carrying one around all day. More useful advice would be, "You should have used one of David's tips for steadying your camera without a tripod."
Know when your camera needs steadying
If you are anything but a raw beginner, you already know that your camera needs to be steadied at certain shutter speeds. You already know that if you're going to shoot at those slow shutter speeds, you either need to have a tripod and some form of remote release, or you need to find another way. But do you know where that line is between an exposure that can be made at normal, par for the course hand-holding and an exposure that requires a steady camera?
The formula is actually quite a simple one, and it has to do with the focal length of your lens. A very simple rule is this, the denominator of your shutter speed (that's the number below that 1/, in case fractions aren't your thing) needs to be equal to or greater than the focal length of your lens. For example, if you're shooting with a 50mm lens (learn what mm means), you should be fine to shoot as usual as long as you don't go below 1/50th of a second, anything less than that will require steadying. Conversely, if you are shooting with a 500mm lens, you won't be able to go below 1/500th of a second.
Why does lens focal length have anything to do with it? Well the first reason is simple, longer lenses are heavier and more ungainly than their shorter counterparts. They're just more difficult to keep steady. But the other reason is because as you magnify a scene, you are also magnifying the movement of your camera. So motion that is not apparent at shorter focal lengths becomes painfully apparent when you get to those longer focal lengths.
So, does that mean that you need to have a tripod handy whenever your shutter speed falls below that line? Not necessarily. There are other ways to keep your camera steady, and you should become intimately familiar with them so that when you do find yourself in the field tripod-free you can still capture a great image.
1) Lean into it
See that big tree over there? It's lovely, take a picture of it. Now walk over to it and use it as a leaning post. Sometimes simply leaning on something that is big and solid is enough to give you that extra advantage, allowing you to drop your shutter speed a little without creating visible camera shake. You can use anything that won't shift or move when you lean into it, a wall, for example, a post, a boulder or whatever. Be creative and opportunistic.
2) Strike a pose
The way you hold your camera and the way you stand have a lot to do with how steady you are. Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Keeping your elbows close to your body will reduce shake. Place one hand under your lens and use the other to brace the camera. Keep the camera close to your face, which means using the viewfinder, not the LCD. Don't hold your breath that will just make it worse, instead breathe deeply, exhale and then take the shot.
3) Crouch, sit or lay down
Some subjects are better from a lower perspective, so take advantage of this and shoot from a crouching or sitting position. You can brace your elbows on your legs from these positions, which can be a great help in keeping your camera steady. You can also try lying down on your belly, and propping your elbows on the ground. You can get pretty good stability this way, with the added benefit of allowing you to capture some unique shots from an unusual perspective.
4) Find a natural tripod
Look around, you may find a natural tripod somewhere in your environment. It doesn't have to be technically natural, of course, though the crook in a tree trunk is a great example. You can also use the top of a wall, a stack of books, the hood of your car, anything in your environment that is a solid, stable surface will do. Just a fair word of warning make sure that your camera is secure when you place it on that natural tripod, don't go precariously balancing it on something and then tell everyone "David said to" after it crashes to the ground and shatters. If you don't think your camera is safe on the surface you've placed it on, don't put it there... or at the very least, keep your camera's strap securely around your neck or hand so that you can prevent an expensive accident.
5) Use your camera strap
Sometimes just wrapping your camera strap tightly around your wrist can provide enough added stability to get a clear shot at a slower shutter speed.
6) Use a Gorilla Pod
I know, technically this is a tripod, but it's not the ungainly, hard to carry around sort of tripod. If you bring your camera bag with you whenever you go shooting, or if you have a large purse or other sort of bag that you carry around with you all the time, it's worth investing in one of these cool little gadgets. A Gorilla Pod is a flexible tripod that you can wrap securely around many different surfaces. Tree branches, fencing, the backs of chairs, there are a ton of different possibilities. Having a Gorilla Pod to hand may save you in situations where you have to use a slow shutter speed and you can't brace your camera in other ways.
7) Try making a string monopod
These devices are cheap and easy to make, and even more portable than the Gorilla Pod. A string monopod is just that, a piece of string or cord that is attached to your camera that hangs down to the ground. You secure it by stepping on it with your foot. The tension between the ground and the camera helps keep the camera steady.
Making one of these devices is simple, go to your local hardware store and purchase a threaded eyelet with a blunt end, one that fits into the tripod hole in your camera (you'll need to bring your camera along to the hardware store, of course, just to be sure). Then purchase a length of cord and tie it to the eyelet. Make sure the cord is long enough to reach the ground from the height you typically hold your camera at, with a little extra length to allow you to step on it. If you want, you can add a large washer to the bottom of the cord, which will give you something stable to step on.
To get the best results from your string monopod, combine it with tip number one above, lean into a solid surface. Don't overstep too much tension can be counter productive. Using a string monopod requires practice, and it may take you a few sessions before you figure out how much tension is ideal for this technique. Ideally, you want the monopod to produce enough tension to steady the camera without interfering with the way that you naturally hold it.
DIY String Monopod by Flickr user GonkDroid
8) Don't forget about your settings
I assume that you've already done all you can with your camera's settings but I'm going to mention it here anyway, just in case you neglected to turn up your ISO. Modern DSLRs have good, noise-free high ISO capabilities and if you're lucky enough to own one of these technological wonders, take advantage of that. Test your camera to see how much noise it produces at different ISOs, and then turn that ISO up as high as you're comfortable with when you're shooting in low light situations. And don't forget about your f-stop, either. Larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) will give you the ability to shoot at faster shutter speeds in low light.
Tripods are wonderful tools, and in an ideal world you'll always want to have one on hand whenever you know you're going to be shooting in a low-light situation. But let's face it, they're not always practical, and they're not always allowed. You have to have alternatives, and now you do.
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