Saturday, April 21, 2007

Quick Tip #3: Learn To Hold Your Camera

The image above probably doesn't look very remarkable, but it is. Let me explain...

On Wednesday I chaperoned my son on a field trip to Coyote Point Museum in San Mateo. In addition to touring the museum and zoo, we were treated to a Birds of Prey class by Carl M. Oosterman, Director of Education. After hearing about the traits of birds of prey, such as their sharp claws and beaks designed for tearing, Carl went behind a curtain to get one of their injured birds to show the class.

Five minutes went by as we heard Carl coaxing the bird out of its cage. Of course, at this point, the children's eyes were as big as saucers, expecting to see a large bird with dangerous claws. Instead, Carl came out behind the curtain with a tiny little owl about four inches high!

I usually use field trips as excuses to take lots of pictures and practice with the camera (in addition to documenting what my son and his friends see and do). So, of course, I wanted to get a picture of this little owl, but it would have been rude to stand in front of the children to get close enough to get a good picture. So I decided to switch to my long lens (Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6) and see if I could get a shot from where I sat, 10 feet away. And the best of my shutter releases resulted in the image at the start of this entry.

Why is a boring, slightly fuzzy picture of a tiny owl remarkable? Let me list the EXIF stats (if you don't know what they mean, see the Glossary):

  • Camera: Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D)
  • Lens: Tamron AF 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di LD 1:2 Macro
  • Focal Length: 271mm (equivalent to 440mm on 35mm)
  • ISO: 1600 (film speed equivalent)
  • Shutter Speed: 1/25s
  • Aperture: f/5.6
Really, I was banging into the limits of the camera and lens. I was at the highest (noisiest) ISO, almost the maximum focal length, and the widest aperture. There was nothing else I could do to get more light to the sensor, I had to use a 1/25 second shutter speed, and I didn't have a tripod.

The general rule of thumb for getting clear images when hand-holding your camera is to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the 35mm equivalent focal length -- in this case, I should have had a shutter speed of 1/400s or better. Note this doesn't guarantee a sharp image, but a decent photographer can get a good image most of the time. Human hands just shake too much to have a decent chance at getting good images at a slower speed.

There was nothing I could do, so I made my own tripod: right hand on the camera grip, left hand braced under the lens palm up, both elbows resting on my knees as I sat on the floor. I fired off 4-5 shots and hoped I got a decent one. Remember, taking pictures at slow shutter speed is a matter of probability. After I took the shots, I realized that Carl's arm was wobbling as he held the owl, so I didn't expect much. Later, when I reviewed the images, I was pleasantly surprised by the above shotwhich accurately depicts what my son saw and is worthy of passing on to his teacher.

The point is, learn how to steady your camera when you hold it. There will be times when you need to get a shot quickly, without the use of a tripod, and good camera-hold mechanics are critical. The best way to do it is with practice, just like any sport. The more you hold your camera, the more it becomes a part of you and the better your pictures will come out, on average.

There's an easy exercise to get a steadier shooting hand: pick a small object, long lens, and slow shutter speed, and practice different techniques of holding the camera and releasing the shutter. Just like target shooting, much of the technique is based on squeezing the shutter release instead of pushing it. I guarantee that you'll improve a lot with only 15 minutes of practice!

Good luck, may all your shots be steady!

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