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11 Tips for Tack-Sharp Handheld Photography

Tips for amazing handheld photography

Are you frustrated by the inconvenience of a tripod and prefer shooting handheld? Handheld photography boasts plenty of benefits – it’s far more accessible than tripod photography, it offers added flexibility, and it’s cheaper, too – but if you’re not careful, you risk coming home with memory cards full of blurry files.

Fortunately, it is possible to get stunningly sharp images with careful handholding, even if you like to shoot in low light. You just have to understand a few basic camera stabilization techniques, and you also have to be ready to adapt to tricky scenarios as required.

As a frequent handholder myself, I’m well-placed to explain the ins and outs of the technique, and in this article, I share clear tips and tricks for perfect results, whether you shoot birds, street subjects, portraits, landscapes, and more.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Use a fast shutter speed

It’s a basic rule of photography: the faster your shutter speed, the more you reduce the chance of blur caused by subject motion and camera shake.

Therefore, if you can boost the shutter speed without sacrificing other core elements of your photo, do it. In general, handholding at 1/250s and above (if your lens is shorter than 250mm) is very doable, especially if you use the techniques I share throughout this article. So whenever possible, make sure that you’re shooting at 1/250s – and jumping to 1/500s, 1/1000s, and even faster isn’t a bad idea, either.

Handheld photography tips

Things get tricky, however, when the light is low. You may be unable to keep the shutter speed at 1/250s without boosting the ISO for an improved exposure, which can cause unpleasant noise to appear in your files. That’s when other handholding techniques become especially critical, such as:

2. Make sure your arms and hands are stable

Handheld photography tips

Next, let’s talk about body mechanics. Your stance can be a game-changer in getting those sharp images. No, you don’t have to stand like a soldier, but a few adjustments can make all the difference. Start by bending your knees slightly. This simple act can give you a more stable base, and believe it or not, it makes a difference in your shots.

Your arms and hands play a crucial role, too. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides. This provides added support and further reduces camera shake. Then, get a good grip on your camera. Your right hand should firmly grasp the body, and your left should cup the lens.

Your index finger plays a starring role here. It should rest comfortably on the shutter button. Pressing the button is an art in itself. A jab can jolt the camera, blurring the photo. So, think of it as a gentle roll rather than a jab; smoothly press the button to minimize any chance of camera shake.

And let’s not forget about breathing. Inhale, focus, and exhale as you take the shot. This age-old technique helps to minimize body movements and contributes to a steadier hand.

3. Photograph using your camera’s viewfinder

The digital screen on the back of your camera might feel comfortable, especially if you’re transitioning from smartphone photography. The downside? Holding your camera at arm’s length compromises stability. The further your camera is from your core, the harder it is to keep it steady.

So, what’s the solution? Use your camera’s viewfinder. By pressing the viewfinder to your eye, you essentially create another point of contact, providing additional stability. This is especially valuable when shooting at slower shutter speeds, as the added stability can make a marked difference in the sharpness of your image.

The viewfinder has another significant benefit: composition. When your eye is glued to that viewfinder, you can pay more attention to the finer details of your frame. You can make sure the horizon is level, or that there aren’t any distracting elements at the edges. It’s a more intimate way of engaging with your scene, which usually leads to better photographs.

One final point about viewfinders: they’re lifesavers in challenging light conditions. Ever tried shooting on a sunny day with your screen washed out by glare? A viewfinder can help you bypass that issue entirely.

4. Stabilize your body against an object

Carrying a tripod is inconvenient, but did you know that you can mimic the effect of a tripod by becoming a human tripod? I’m talking about stabilizing your body and arms against a sturdy object, such as a car, a tree, or the ground.

(The ground is my favorite stabilizing object, as it’s reliably present!)

Depending on the length of your shutter speed, this technique may not be necessary – if you’re shooting at 1/250s, for instance, you’ll probably be just fine using the approach I shared in the previous tip – but when shooting handheld around dawn or dusk, or when working in heavy shade, it can make a huge difference.

When I’m shooting handheld, I often get down on the ground. I’ll lie on my stomach and press my elbows firmly against the soil – that way, I can feel fairly confident when taking my image that things will remain sharp, even if I’m shooting at 1/60s or below.

Handheld photography tips
I stabilized my elbows against the ground in order to photograph this aster.

If you don’t want to get down on your stomach, that’s okay. You have plenty of other options! As I mentioned above, you can lean against a car or a tree, and another option is to crouch down and put your elbows on your knees.

5. Make sure you focus correctly

It’s easy to blame shaky hands for a blurry photo. In reality, the culprit is often misfocusing. Now, misfocusing is particularly notorious if your subjects are on the move—think pets, wildlife, or athletes in action. In these situations, it’s effortless to focus either in front of or behind your subject, which inevitably leads to a blurry outcome.

So, what can you do? Familiarize yourself with your camera’s autofocus settings. Auto-focus is your friend, but like any friendship, you’ll have to invest time in understanding it. Different modes suit different scenarios. For instance, using a single focus point is great for still life, while a dynamic or tracking focus works better for moving subjects.

Don’t just stop at learning the settings; practice is the other half of the equation. Work on your subject-tracking skills to improve accuracy. If your subject is a sprinter, try to anticipate their motion and keep them within your chosen focus point as they dash toward the finish line.

It’s not just sports or wildlife photography where focus matters. An incorrectly focused portrait can land you with a sharp background and a blurry face, and nobody wants that. Make it a habit to double-check your focus before pressing that shutter button.

6. Use your lens’s (or camera’s) image stabilization

Does your lens or camera possess image stabilization technology? If so, switch it on!

Image stabilization technology – also referred to as vibration reduction, optical stabilization, vibration compensation, and optical steady shot – is built in by clever camera manufacturers. It reduces (or eliminates) camera shake in one of two ways:

If the IS technology is built into the camera, the sensor physically moves to counteract any camera shake that the camera experiences. If it’s built into the lens, an optical element inside the lens moves while the sensor remains in place.

Handheld photography tips
Without image stabilization, capturing this urban abstract would have been very difficult.

Note that different cameras and lenses offer different degrees of image stabilization effectiveness. If you plan to regularly handhold in low light, it can be a good idea to check different reviews to ensure you get the most effective model.

The downside of image stabilization technology is that it does add to the cost of your equipment. Only some cameras and some lenses possess it, and they tend to be on the pricier side of things. But for those who dislike shooting with a tripod, it’s a worthwhile investment.

7. Shoot with shorter lenses

An oft-cited rule in photography circles is this: You can handhold your lens at a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the focal length (that is, 1/focal length).

While this may sound complex, it’s actually pretty simple. To find an acceptably fast shutter speed, just take the focal length and make it into a fraction with a one on top.

For instance, if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, you can handhold at a shutter speed of 1/100s or faster. When you’re shooting with a 400mm lens, you can handhold at a shutter speed of 1/400s of a second or faster. Finally, if you’re shooting with a 25mm lens, you can handhold at a shutter speed of 1/25s or faster.

While I’ve already talked about the value of using a fast shutter speed, the reciprocal rule offers another key insight: The shorter your lens, the more you can drop your shutter speed and still come away with a sharp shot.

This is for a couple of reasons. First, long lenses tend to be bigger and heavier, which means they’re more difficult to keep steady. Second, longer lenses magnify camera shake, resulting in blurrier pictures.

Handheld photography tips
I used a wide-angle lens to capture this golden retriever in low light.

Therefore, if you don’t have a tripod to cut down on camera shake, try using a lens that is more forgiving. In other words: Use shorter focal lengths for more success!

8. Shoot in burst mode

If you’re photographing handheld, especially if you’re working in an unstable position, it can be a great idea to use your camera’s burst mode setting. This helps with handheld photography for two reasons.

First, if you jab the shutter button with your finger, it’ll generate camera shake. But when you use burst mode, you only press the shutter button at the beginning of your image sequence. Later photographs will be taken with very little camera shake because the shutter button won’t actually be pressed before the image is captured.

Second, when you shoot in burst mode, the mirror won’t cause extra vibrations. DSLRs have mirrors in front of the sensor, and when the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up, briefly exposing the sensor to light (to capture the image).

This mirror is an essential part of DSLR operation, but the flip can cause small vibrations throughout the camera (which is another form of camera shake). Yet when you activate burst mode, the mirror only flips up only at the beginning of the burst. The later shots aren’t affected by the vibrations caused by the mirror, and as a consequence, they’re sharper.

(This last point doesn’t apply to mirrorless cameras; as the name suggests, they lack a mirror entirely.)

To activate burst mode, simply set your camera to high-speed drive mode and hold down the shutter button. You should hear the rapid-fire sound of images being taken.

Handheld photography tips
Burst mode was essential for getting this early-morning egret image!

9. Consider using a monopod

Yes, this article is about handheld photography, but monopods deserve a mention. Tripods can be cumbersome and pricey, but monopods offer a middle ground. They’re one-legged supports that can offer a significant advantage when shooting at slow shutter speeds.

Monopods fold up neatly, fitting into a backpack’s side pocket with ease. This convenience allows for more mobility compared to lugging around a bulky tripod. You can effortlessly move from one shooting location to another without the need to disassemble a complex setup.

Lightweight is another keyword here. A monopod won’t break your back or your bank. They’re pretty affordable, making them accessible even if you’re on a budget. While they don’t provide the level of stability a tripod does, they’re more than sufficient for most handheld shooting scenarios.

Here’s a bonus: monopods can be a real arm-saver. Holding a heavy camera for extended periods is strenuous. A monopod can take some of that weight off your arms, allowing you to shoot longer and more comfortably.

So, if you love the idea of support but dread the thought of hauling a tripod, give monopods a shot. They might just be the perfect middle ground you never knew you needed.

10. Photograph in bright light

Good lighting conditions are crucial for sharp handheld photos. When you have more light, you can use a faster shutter speed. This minimizes the chance of blur in your photos. But bright light doesn’t mean any light will do. Midday sun may be bright, but it often produces harsh shadows.

That’s where the golden hour comes in. Early morning and late afternoon light are softer. You get the dual benefits of strong yet flattering light. If you can, aim for these times to take your photos.

If you’re in a shaded area, be cautious. Less light means you’ll have to lower the shutter speed. This increases the chance of camera shake. Whenever possible, stay in well-lit areas to maintain a fast shutter speed.

The point is to be aware of your light sources. Sometimes you have to work with strong midday light to get the sharpness you want. Balancing quality and quantity of light can be key in handheld photography.

11. Use the self-timer

Here’s my final tip for shooting handheld: If you’re in a pinch and you need to prevent even the slightest vibration, don’t be afraid to use your camera’s self-timer.

The self-timer allows you to press the shutter button without actually firing the camera; instead, you’ll need to wait for a specified number of seconds (generally two) before the image is taken.

Handheld photography tips
I love using the self-timer when photographing flowers.

This is useful for the same reason cited in the previous section: It prevents any camera shake generated when you press the shutter button.

So, next time you’re out in the field and you’re struggling to get sharp images without a tripod, try using the self-timer to reduce your camera shake! At first, it might make you frustrated – after all, who wants to wait two seconds for every photo? – but over time, you’ll learn to appreciate its value.

Handheld photography tips

Handheld photography: final words

Many photographers think that tripods are essential, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s completely possible to capture tack-sharp images while handholding – in fact, it’s often an essential skill.

Don’t forget the importance of practice. Even the most straightforward advice needs application to make a real difference. Make it a point to go out and test these techniques. You’ll find that handheld photography doesn’t have to be limiting. In fact, it offers a level of freedom and spontaneity that’s hard to achieve with other methods.

In closing, handheld photography has its own set of rules, but they’re not set in stone. Feel free to experiment and find your unique style. Whether it’s embracing the convenience of a monopod or mastering the art of stance and grip, each contributes to making you a better photographer.

So remember the tips I’ve shared today, and start practicing your handheld technique. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert!

Now over to you:

Have any more tips for photographing without a tripod? Share them in the comments below.

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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