In the first part of this Photography for Beginners series, we looked at your camera and the various settings available to you, enabling you to get the camera set up so you can take a decent photo. In this second part we will look at the different ways you can support a camera whilst taking a photograph.

Why is it important to know how to hold a camera properly?

Cameras are tools which allow us to document our environment and create art. As with most tools they are designed to be manipulated in certain ways. Cameras are built so that the right hand controls operations – such as the shutter mechanism and control dials – on the right hand side of the camera, and left hand controls the lens rings and any controls that exist on the left hand side. What you should aim to achieve relatively quickly is the ability to hold and operate your camera almost as though it were an extension of your arms – this allows you to concentrate on capturing your subject. Whilst it isn’t vastly complicated to point a camera and press the shutter button, there are a few things you need to know to help you get the shot you are after.

The many different ways a camera can be held.

To begin with, the goal you’re trying to achieve is a photograph that is in focus. A photograph that has your chosen subject clearly visible, to the point where you can make out small details. This will not always be the case but to make things simple this should be your first learning goal. To achieve this you need to know the main methods used to support and hold your camera correctly. These include:

  1. Handheld
  2. Tripod
  3. Monopod
  4. Object assisted
  5. Clamps

Handheld will be the main method you use to take a photograph and there are correct techniques that you should use to hold the camera properly to increase its stability. Holding a camera is no different than holding a gun (if you have ever had the opportunity – if not, it’s just like the movies). The aim is to support the weight of the lens with one hand, and use your other hand in a relaxed fashion to control the dials and shutter release.

The right and wrong ways to hold a camera

To get your upper body into a comfortable position start by letting your arms dangle freely by your side. Then bring your left hand up to head height, bring your hand close to your head, rotate your fingers inward & upwards and let your thumb relax outwards. This creates the perfect shape to rest the lens in. Now with your camera in your right hand, bring it up to head height and rest the lens in your left hand. If you look at your body shape in a mirror it should look something similar to the images below. If you find the lens you are using a little heavy then bring your left elbow closer to your body (or use one of the support systems mentioned below).

Try not to grip the camera body too hard with your right hand as this can cause your hand and the camera to shake, makes operating the controls harder and will cause some pain in your hand if you happen to be shooting for 8-12 hours. Bring your left elbow into your body as this will provide support and stop the shake created by straining shoulder muscles. Always try and position your body in the most stable way possible by remaining in balance (covered in the next section). Please remember to keep your shoulders relaxed. Having your shoulders tense for long periods of time will create tension in your neck, which will lead to some sort of pain and eventually cause you to put the camera down.

tokyomagic-photography-tutorials-lessons-hold-camera-correct

Mr Robbie Khan showing the correct way to hold your camera. You can either close your left eye to knock light and distractions, or you can keep the eye open to track a subject.

I have seen all too often the methods shown in the picture below and both of these are laughably bad.

The image on the left shows Rob gripping the camera body in two hands. This leaves the heaviest and most important part of the camera system unsupported and will create tension in your wrists, which can lead to tendinitis and strain issues long term. You also reduce your ability to control your camera effectively. If you are using a zoom lens or focusing manually, you will actually need to have a hand on the lens when you are shooting. If you have both hands on the camera body you will need to let go of the camera to zoom or focus, causing your camera to drop and odds on you will miss your shot.

The image on the right shows Rob gripping the top of the lens. Try this method at home and ask yourself if your right hand feels relaxed. Odds on it doesn’t; now imagine having that weighty ‘stress’ feeling there for a few hours. For future reference a lot of mid to top end lenses are usually full of heavy glass and metal, making your camera setup front-heavy; most modern camera bodies are designed to be relatively light making the camera/lens system front heavy. Supporting the lens on your left hands palm puts you in control when panning, titling and moving and stops your hands from getting tired. If you are using a small prime lens, support the camera by placing the underside of it on the palm of your left hand. This will take the weight of the camera system and allow you to manipulate the focus and (if you have one on your lens) the zoom ring.

And the last thing to notice is the position of Rob’s arm. They are wide and away from his body reducing his ability to control the camera for our desired in-focus, non-‘wobbly’ shot. Shooting like this over long periods of time will cause tension and strain in your shoulders, neck and back which long term can cause some quite serious medical problems with these areas.

tokyomagic-photography-tutorials-lessons-hold-camera-in-correct

Remember, if you look like an aeroplane you’re probably holding your camera incorrectly.

 

Ocular Dominance occurs when you use one eye more than the other. Just like you have a preferable hand to use for daily tasks, you also have a preferable eye. Most of the time you pick your camera up and use your dominant eye instinctually. For some of us its our left eye, for others its our right eye. If you want to find out which eye you use you can do a simply test called the Porta test. Extends one of your arm, then with both eyes open align your thumb with a distant object. Then alternate closing your eyes and determine which eye keeps the distant object in line with your thumb. This will be your dominant eye and the one you will find more comfortable to use when looking through the view finder. As you can see in the image above and below, Rob is dominant in his right eye. For me it is my left, and for those of you who are left eye dominant the following problem occurs. As your face is turned into the right side of the camera, you find that you jab yourself frequently with your right thumb, sometimes in the eye, but mostly in the nose when you are using any controls that sit on that side of the camera. This is something right eye dominant people do not have to deal with (not that it is a big thing, but it can be annoying). If you do find this overly annoying then simply try switching to your right eye and see how you get on.

STABLE AND UNSTABLE POSITIONS

It’s not just holding the camera correctly which is important, but also how you’re standing (or crouched) when you are taking your photo. There are so many different body positions you can end up in and most of the time what you are doing will dictate what gymnastic pose you will pull to capture that marvellous photo you are after. But, having a good base posture to use in the majority of situations will help with keeping you relaxed, the camera still, and, most importantly, prevent postural imbalances from building up leading to long term health problems.

tokyomagic-photography-tutorials-lessons-posture

You can’t always get into a good position but when you can, it will allow you to remain relaxed.

The above image shows two correct techniques on the left, and two incorrect techniques on the right. The very left technique is good for crouching low and involves resting your right knee on the ground and sitting your bum back on one heel. Try and tuck your left foot in close to raise your knee up, resting your left elbow on your knee for stability. The next standing pose is the one you should ideally use. Notice that the feet are about shoulder width apart and the right foot is about half a pace behind the left, turned outward slightly. This creates a nice stable bridge in the lower body that allows you to move backwards and forwards between both feet if needed. It also allows your abdominals to remain relaxed for panning. A relaxed posture starts from the feet and moves up the body.

The two poses on the right are both unstable. If you stand with your feet in line you are likely to wobble and stiffen up a bit. If you need to move forwards and backwards, you will either have to lean or step forward, causing shake in the camera and increasing the chance of a shaky shot. Sometimes a shaky shot is cool, most of the time they end up in the trash. If you are bent over, as the right stance shows, you will be putting a lot of strain in the middle of your body, especially your lower and mid back. This will cause your muscles to stiffen and will effect how you take your photo. Long term you could do yourself some damage if you use stances that do not put you in balance.

Rhythmic breathing is also a very important to help keep you relaxed. In many mediation-based disciplines, breathing out relaxes the body, and you can apply this to taking photographs. Always try and take a photo when you are breathing out as this is when you will be most relaxed.

tokyomagic-random-photography-stances

A couple of the wonderful positions we find ourselves in whilst taking photographs.

BUT! despite all this sometimes you just won’t be able to get into a comfortable position to take your photograph. The occasion might arise when you have to go beyond the point of normality to get a shot. During my time as a photographer I have balanced on top of walls, leant over the edge of tall buildings and wedged myself into the corner of various climbing gyms (sometimes on a rope) to get the shots that I needed.

tokyomagic-photography-tutorials-lessons-tripods

My old and battered tripod setup. Velborn legs with the cheap-as-hell Manfrotto head.

Tripods have been around for a long time and have improved with advancements in technology and materials. Modern tripods are usual reasonably light, strong and stable but with all things in life, you get what you pay for. “What would I use a tripod for?” I imagine you, the budding new photographer, is saying. Tripods are used to stabilise the camera in the following situations:

  1. where you need to have the shutter open for a long period of time (night shots, landscapes, interiors).
  2. if you are being excessively precise about your composition (interiors and architecture).
  3. if you are using it to support a heavy lens or nodal system (sports or virtual images).
  4. if you are shooting for composite work and you need to replicate camera position across multiple shoots.

Along with the tripod you also have the tripod head, which takes many different shapes and forms. The two more popular heads include the three-axis head and the ball head and both have their pros and cons. Try to stay away from the cheaper tripods that have linked legs as they will probably break faster and will also restrict what you can use your tripod for. The more ‘pro’ orientated tripod allows different positioning of the legs which can help greatly with awkward placement. Examples of cheaper pro level tripods include the Velbon Ultra Rexi L Travel Tripod and the 7 Day Shop travel-pro tripod. Both of these options are compact when folded down and lightweight.

Monopods are used primarily to support the longer focal length zoom lenses (200mm and above) and to provide added stability in lower light conditions. Monopods are the popular choice with wildlife and sports photographers. Odds on to begin with you won’t have a need for one but as you progress you might find you will end up requiring one.

tokyomagic-photography-tutorials-lessons-clamp-object-hold

(left) The Calumet Studio Clamp can give you access to shots that would otherwise be imposable to get. (right) Sometimes anything will do as long as it keeps your camera still during the exposure.

Object Assisted is fairly straight forward: you use what ever is in your vicinity to support your camera. Whilst we all love our gear and think we will have everything we need with us at all times, sometimes you will be caught short and will have to forge a solution from whatever is near-by. It’s not pro, but as long as it does the job, nothing else really matters. You can use a concrete post, the floor, a lens cap, a chair or anything else that will allow you to keep your camera still should the situation arise. Door frames and walls are also other viable options as well when you need to support the camera by wedging it at the join between the lens and camera bottom or if you need to increase your own stability.

In the past I have also used a studio clamp to position my camera in places where none of the above have been viable options to use (see photo above). This method is very specific and does not apply to all situations but, again, knowing it is an option will help you should the situation occur.

Other Ways to Support Your Camera…

There are of course other methods used to support a camera and these include gorilla pods, camera dollies, time lapse devices and sliders, drones for aerial photography and very, very tall posts used for virtual aerial panorama and real estate work. All of these items are very job specific and you will not need to own or use them to begin with. The equipment you buy will be dependent on the task at hand – where ever your photography takes you.


So, hopefully you now have a solid understanding of how to hold your camera and the different methods available to support it when you are not shooting handheld. When you are starting out, it’s worth buying a tripod and learning the basics of where and when you should use it. It will also open up areas of photography that would otherwise be impractical without a tripod.

Remember: it is important to get yourself into the right body position, ensuring you don’t do yourself any long term physical damage. Make sure the camera is correctly supported to reduce shaky and blurry photographs and relax yourself mentally so you can concentrate on taking a great shot. In the next Photography for Beginners article we will start to look at what your subject might be and some of the basic principles of photography.

A NOTE ON HOW MUCH EQUIPMENT YOU SHOULD CARRY

I recently had a conversation with another photographer, who had to go into Hospital to have an operation on his back, correcting damage caused by carrying lots of heavy gear in a backpack whilst doing wondrous photograph- type things. This is a worse case scenario but can very easily happen if you keep carrying heavy bags for prolonged periods of time.

If you find picking up your bag difficult because of its weight then it is too heavy. Odds on you are probably doing what I did in the picture below, and packing for every eventuality. Forward plan what you are going to shoot and if you need to pack lots of gear then consider using two bags: one main gear bag and one bag for carrying another lens and flash gun, along with all of your batteries and memory cards.

tokyomagic-photography-clmbing-up-a-mountain

The photo below from Mike Deere’s Blog post on prime lenses shows me scrambling up Mount Snowdon carrying an extremely heavy backpack full of a lot of heavy gear. In hindsight…not a wise choice!