How to Handhold Slow Shutter Speeds

handhold

With practice, you can learn to handhold lenses at much slower shutter speeds. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Everyone has encountered this problem: you’re out shooting, working through a situation, when suddenly you find yourself confronted with a photo you want to shoot, but to do so you really should use a tripod, which is blocks away back in the trunk of your car (or better yet, back at home in the closet!). Your only other choice is to dramatically raise your ISO—or maybe you’ve already done that and now you’re left with only slower shutter speeds to make your exposure. What should you do?

The old maxim about shutter speed and focal length is still true: you should generally try to hand-hold only down to a shutter speed equal to the focal length of your lens. In other words, if you are shooting with a focal length of 200mm, you shouldn’t try to handhold this setup below 1/200th of a second shutter speed (50mm lens, the rule would be 1/50th of a second, etc.).  Below that and you are liable to introduce camera shake , which will look like motion blur or simply unsharpness in your photograph.  While this maxim is a good general rule of thumb, it’s one that you can successfully break on a routine basis if you follow my instructions below.

The old maxim about shutter speed and focal length is still true: you should generally try to hand-hold only down to a shutter speed equal to the focal length of your lens.

I have two basic techniques to teach you to extend your handheld shutter speed range. The first and most important has to do with how you actually shoot photographs. Anyone who has learned how to shoot a rifle will be familiar with these tips.

Before taking the photo, do the following:

  • Carefully focus on your subject.
  • Brace both elbows against your sides.
  • Take a deep breath, then let it out halfway.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax your upper body.
  • Fire the shutter by slowly squeezing your entire right hand, not just your index  finger.

I get great results using this technique and you will, too. It just takes practice!

It's critical that you squeeze with your whole hand, not just with your index finger. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

It's critical that you squeeze with your whole hand, not just with your index finger. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

The second technique is less well known and is really just a variation on the first. But it’s one that news photographers have been using for over 20 years with great results:

If after doing everything in the list above you find that you still don’t have a sharp image, give this a try: if your camera has a motor drive on it, and the motor drive noise won’t spoil the situation you’re shooting, when you carefully squeeze the shutter with your whole hand, go ahead and fire off a 3- or 4-shot burst. For some reason, you’ll frequently find that the second or third shot in the group will be sharper than the others.

Using a combination of these techniques, with practice you’ll find that you can hand-hold that telephoto lens at shutter speeds well below the age-old focal length/shutter speed rule. For me, with my 70-200 racked all the way out to 200mm, I routinely get sharp results at 1/60th second, sometimes even at 1/30th of a second. The same is true with wide angles: shooting that available light twilight shot with your 20mm lens at 1/10 of a second will be possible.

You’ll find that the main trick is in the whole-body approach of relaxation and squeezing your whole hand to shoot.

So go ahead.  Get out there and give this a try!

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog


Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

8 Comments on "How to Handhold Slow Shutter Speeds"

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  1. Excellent tips…thanks for writing these up.

    I’ve always found myself pushing the shutter button with the index finger not realizing that might be causing some shake/movement.

  2. Thanks Eric. Give this approach a try and I think you’ll be pleased with the results. Good luck!

  3. Kaeyla McGee says:

    Hi Andrew – I have just found your website and already have learned a number of things which will definitely help, the handheld-at-slow-shutter-speed tips particularly. Also liked the sepia trick. I convert many of my pics to sepia (love it!) and have been using the Channel Mixer mostly, but this looks easy and quick.
    Thanks. I look forward to more.

  4. Thanks Kaeyla for the kind words! Hope you enjoy the site!
    Andrew

  5. Julie says:

    Thanks for sharing such a nifty technique. I actually tried it … and it worked! Well, not really as great as I would have wanted, but I was able to significantly minimize camera shake. Practice, practice, practice! 🙂

  6. You’ll get better. This is one of those fantastic, little-understood tricks.

  7. Gregor says:

    Thank you for this guide! I’m just starting to take hold of my camera so this really is of great help!

  8. Heidi says:

    thanks! im just beginning photography school! what great this is for me to learn….

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