I can hand hold that picture

Well, no, you probably can’t.  As much as wildlife photographers want to believe they have rock solid biceps and a shooting stance that anchors them with a firm foundation, long lenses and physics render this belief moot.  A long lens shakes and because it magnifies things (why else would you use a long lens, right?) every little shake gets magnified as well.  So you end up with blurred images.  And usually just when you don’t want them.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

Sucks, doesn’t it?  Just when the eagle does something interesting I’m trying to hand hold my longest lens at an aperture that at least gives me some depth of field but at a lousy 1/125 sec. when I should be at least using 1/600 sec or faster (see below for why).  Why would I do this?  Because I wasn’t ready and thought a snap shot would work.  Hey, my camera has in body stabilization – that should count for something, right?  No, not really.  The stabilization is meant to give you more latitude on aperture or shutter speed selection, not counteract the wrong decision.

Rule of thumb – shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length.  In my case, a 300mm lens on a Four-Thirds camera, meaning a 600mm equivalent.  I thought I could just stand by my car, lean on the door, and let technology handle my bad judgement.  And I missed a good image opportunity.

Use a tripod.  Use a monopod.  Rest your camera on a really solid object.  Do something to eliminate those little jerks and shifts your hands and arms make when holding something.  Actually, use a tripod and be done with it.

How much difference does it make?  I continued to use poor judgement for at least half the images during the shoot so here’s a comparison.  These two shots were taken within a minute of each other.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 - tripod

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 – tripod

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 - hand held

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/160 sec., f/11 – hand held

Even on the computer screen the difference is very noticeable.  Bird images must be sharp – our eyes are too used to seeing details in feathers, eyes, beaks and claws.  When I use a tripod with this lens, use the mirror lock-up (to reduce vibration even more) and apply just a little post-processing sharpening, a correctly made image just works.

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

ISO 100, 300mm, 1/125 sec., f/11

Some photographers claim to never use a tripod – great, they have better muscle control than I do.  But I bet they don’t photograph wildlife.  You can get away with hand held images with short lenses, bright flashes (they freeze action), incredibly fast shutter speeds (1/1000 sec or faster) or an artistic decision that all your images will be blurred.  But to present reality as people are used to seeing it, many times a sharp image is important, by which I mean not blurred.  Long lenses are great tools but you have to use them correctly and respect their limitations.  Get a solid tripod and use it.  Hang your camera bag from it to stabilize it more.  Learn how to lock up your mirror and do so (except for you high-end Sony users with the semi-transparent mirror!).  Overcome your feeble, shaky hands with rock solid technique and produce the images that amaze viewers.


12 thoughts on “I can hand hold that picture

  1. It’s hard to argue with the photos. You’ve made a clear and convincing case for using a tripod. The guys with the 500 and 600mm lenses always have tripods, but I’ve been lulled into thinking that they weren’t really that necessary for lenses in the 300mm category. Thanks for sharing the photos (and the lesson).


  2. I am now adding birds to my list of photo-challenges. I think i’ll be shooting around 5.6 ISO400 1/1000+ w/300mm because I am still saving up for a manfrotto tripod and joystick-style ball head. I argue that technology (High performance/low noise ISO) can somewhat compensate for us. Also, my biceps ARE awesome 🙂
    Have a good day Mel


    • Unfortunately photography is apparently like golf – more gear means more opportunity to play on the margin. And more frustration. Which leads to more gear. There’s probably a 12 step program for photographers somewhere…


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