There are times when we simply can't use a tripod. In the next post of this series, I will talk about other accessories such as bean bags and monopods. This time I want to look at handholding for sharpness. There are times when you just have to handhold, including when you have to travel really light, when you need to work quickly, and when tripods are not allowed. The cholla above were shot handheld.
The key to handholding sharpness is stability. You need to hold that camera and lens as still as possible while the shutter is doing its job. This requires you to hold the camera right and choose the appropriate shutter speed.
All standard digital cameras are held the same way to get the most stability. This does not matter if you are right or left handed, right or left eyed, cameras are made to be held in one way. Place your left hand with the palm facing UP, not down, then place the camera and lens onto the palm. Grip the right side of the camera with your right hand.
Now pull in your elbows so they are against your chest. Flapping elbows will only ensure less sharpness. Be sure your feet are slightly apart. Bring the camera to your face. If you are using the viewfinder, bring it all the way to your face. If you are using Live View, hold the camera a comfortable distance in front of your face (tilting LCDs can be very helpful here).
That's the start. Shutter speed is also important. You need to use a shutter speed that restricts camera movement during exposure. In working with a lot of photographers and students over the years, I have found that most of them overestimate how slow a shutter speed they can use and still get sharp photos. I will offer some guidelines, but you can test this by setting up a detailed target that is easy to interpret (such as a newspaper on a wall) and shooting it at one focal length and different shutter speeds. Then enlarge the image to see the text and compare. You have to do this separately for any large change in focal length.
There is an old formula that says you cannot shoot slower than a shutter speed equal to 1/focal length. That would mean 1/100 for a 100mm lens, 1/30 for a 28mm lens or 1/200 for a 200mm lens. Lenses change not only the magnification of the subject, but also the "magnification" of any camera movement during exposure. This is why telephotos are so sensitive to camera movement, and why many photographers find that their zoom is "less sharp" at the telephoto settings compared to the wider settings. The zoom probably isn't less sharp at all at the telephoto settings, just a lot more sensitive to camera movement.
Three qualifications for that formula. First, it applies only to 35mm-full-frame. Second, close-ups and macro magnify camera movement, so that rule is out for them. Third, not everyone is equal. While many photographers will do fine with that rule, I have found that a lot of photographers cannot get optimally sharp photos unless they use the next full step faster shutter speed.
So what about APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. You need to apply the "magnification factor" to the focal length before using the formula. That means, for example, that you would need 1/150 second or faster (1/200 is probably better) if you were using a 100mm lens on an APS-C camera (1/1.5x100) and 1/200 or faster if you were using the same lens on Micro Four Thirds (1/2x100).
An example with a 70-200mm zoom lens: at 70mm you would need 1/70 or faster with 35mm-full-frame, and at 200mm, 1/200 or faster; with APS-C, that would be 1/100 or faster at 70mm and 1/300 or faster at 200mm; and with MFT, that would be 1/140 or faster at 70mm and 1/400 or faster at 200mm. You can see the challenge of the telephoto focal lengths and handheld sharpness.
Sharpness is important, more important than trying to use too slow an ISO or too small an f-stop. Cameras today handle high ISOs extremely well, so use those high ISOs to get a faster shutter speed when you need it. And while a small f-stop might give you depth of field that you feel you need, it may result in a shutter speed that cannot give you sharpness handheld.
Image stabilization (in its various incarnations and names) is a definite benefit for shooting handheld. It will NOT eliminate camera movement during exposure or replace a tripod, but it will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds and still get sharp images. How slow depends on the size of the camera, your handholding technique and conditions (e.g., a wind can be a problem), but usually you can expect 2-3 steps of shutter speed so that you can shoot with a slower shutter speed.
Some of you might be wondering about the little piece of sky at the top left in the cholla photo. In general, you really have to be careful of bright areas at the edges and especially the top of the image because they will attract the viewer's eye. However, I learned this from study of Eliot Porter's work. He often put a sliver of sky at the top of the frame, and he explained this as helping give depth to the image. The eye is attracted, then, into the distance, which works well as long as this is not a large area. Just cover that bright area with your hand and notice how much the composition flattens out.