Equipment Outdoor

Shoot Sharp Images – Handheld Photography Techniques


The lens focuses the light onto the imaging sensor. If there is any debris—dust, hair, water spots—the light that should pass through the lens can’t at that spot, and the image loses a little color and sharpness. You should always keep the glass surfaces of the lens clean. When not using the lens and it is not attached to the camera, keep the front and rear protective caps on the lens. Covering a lens helps to keep dirt off the glass surfaces and protects the lens from scratches. When the lens is mounted on the camera and you are not shooting, put the front cap on the lens.

No matter how careful you might be there is often a bit of dust on the lens. When this happens, take the front and rear caps off, and blow the dust off both ends with a Giotto Rocket blower. If the lens looks clean, then mount the lens on the camera and install the lens hood to reduce flare problems and protect the lens. If blowing the debris off with the blower does not work, then gently rub the lens with a clean microfiber cloth to loosen the debris. Blow the lens off again. That usually works, but if it doesn’t, then put lens cleaning fluid on lens cleaning tissue paper and rub the lens again. Be gentle doing it. Begin in the middle of the lens and slowly move to the outer edge by rubbing in a circular motion. Then rub the lens with a microfiber cloth, and always blow off any debris that might remain with the blower. Following this procedure always works for us. If you get something truly sticky on the lens, then you might have to take it to a repair facility.

Making sure the glass surfaces of your lens—front and rear elements—are clean will produce better quality images. Lens cleaning equipment is inexpensive and simple to use. There is simply no excuse for shooting with dirty lenses. Make it a habit to keep the lenses clean at all times.


Barbara and I hope you want the highest quality images possible. These qualities include excellent light, effective composition, optimum exposure, and super image sharpness.

At the beginning of our photo careers, we were keenly aware we were competing against the best photographers in the world. We knew we could not cut quality corners and still succeed in such a competitive business. We never cut corners and hope you will not either.

We use a sturdy tripod for all images we shoot whenever it is feasible to use one. We shoot 95 percent of our images on a tripod, but there are certain instances when a tripod or even a monopod do not work. Photographing from a bobbing boat requires handheld shooting because you are better off using your body to absorb some of the rocking motion. That said, it is lazy to shoot handheld when it is easy to use a tripod. Too many photographers do that and, as a result, their images suffer. When you must shoot handheld, though, use these strategies to shoot sharp images. Although regular tripod use is crucial, there are situations where handheld shooting is necessary. Many places—butterfly houses, museums, and archeological sites—do not allow tripod use because it is a tripping hazard to other visitors or they think using a tripod means you are a professional photographer. Some places do not want you to sell images shot at their facility. Tripods are essentially not usable on boats that are either under sail or bobbing to and fro. There are times when a large boat is at anchor in quiet waters and a tripod could be usable, however. I have paddled my kayak into the mud to increase the stability and used a tripod effectively. Plenty of viewing platforms do not accommodate tripod use. Especially when shooting wide-angle lenses, it is challenging to get the tripod-mounted camera in a spot to exclude the railing, such as the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park from the brink viewpoint. When you must shoot handheld, though, use these strategies to shoot sharp images.


Some of us are naturally steadier than others. The very fact that your heart is beating means your body is never completely still. You wiggle, and this causes camera-shake anytime shooting handheld. This formula provides a widely used guideline (we are not at all fond of rules) that says, “the shutter speed should be equivalent to 1/Focal Length to ensure sharp images when handholding the camera.” Translated to a 15mm lens, it indicates a shutter speed of 1/15 second, a 100mm lens needs 1/100 of a second shutter speed, and a 300mm lens needs a shutter speed equal to 1/300 of a second. Longer focal length lenses require more shutter speed because they magnify the image still more, which also in turn magnifies camera-shake. The understanding is that as long as you keep the shutter speed up to the 1/focal length equivalent, camera-shake will not cause unsharp images.

Please keep in mind this guideline is meant for camera-shake problems only. It does not apply for arresting subject motion. Flying birds, galloping horses, racing cars and runners will all require shutter speeds much faster than this guideline suggests.

The viewing platform has limited space where the Lower Falls leaps off the cliff in Yellowstone National Park. It is nearly impossible to shoot straight down the falls with the camera mounted on a tripod. I shot handheld with my left hand on the fence. I used my right hand to hold the camera so it rested on my left hand to reduce camera-shake and to shoot a sharper image. Canon 1Ds Mark II, Canon 17–40mm f/4, ISO 200, f/8, 1/100 second, Cloudy WB, manual exposure and auto-focus using the back-button.


This guideline is often modified for cameras with a small sensor. If you have a 1.6x crop factor camera, a 100mm lens behaves more like a 160mm lens (1.6 x 100mm = 160mm). Then a shutter speed of 1/160 second is warranted. Crop factor cameras do not change the focal length, and they do not give you greater magnification. The smaller sensor merely crops in-camera what would have been captured with a full-frame sensor. The crop factor changes the angle of view of the lens but doesn’t actually magnify the subject. Nevertheless, you must adjust the effective focal length for small-sensor cameras when using the guideline.

With a background in competitive rifle shooting where steadiness is crucial, I am probably more steady than most—as long as I have not just consumed three cups of coffee. I have tested this 1/focal length shutter speed guideline and find it indeed works quite well for me. Nevertheless, for my quality needs and to err on the side of sharp images, I increase my shutter speed at least one stop faster than the guideline suggests. When handholding a 30mm focal length, for instance, I use at least 1/60 second. If using a faster shutter speed for small-sensor cameras truly does matter, this modified guideline takes care of it.


If you are using the 1/focal length guideline, be careful when using a zoom lens. Be aware that when you have a 28–200mm zoom, for example, a shutter speed of 1/28 second works at the 28mm setting, but you need 1/100 second at 100mm and 1/200 second at 200mm.


Miner’s Castle is the most photographed rock in Michigan. From the elevated viewing platform, the rock makes a pleasing image when isolated against the dark gray stormy waters of Lake Superior. An exceptional 24mm image is easy to capture by handholding the camera and composing the shoreline to lead up to Miner’s Castle with a vertical composition. What amazes us is the percentage of photographers who shoot handheld and lean over the railing a little to compose the shot. We agree you can’t use a tripod because it is nearly impossible to set it up on the platform in the required position. But wait! There is a convenient railing to rest your hand on. Then stabilize the camera by resting it on your hand and shoot the image. Using your hand as a convenient and always available “beanbag” eliminates nearly all of the camera-shake! When handholding, always use a fixed solid object to stabilize the camera whenever possible!

Using a wide-angle lens is a popular way to compose the Lake Superior shoreline with Miner’s Castle—the most photographed rock in Michigan—at the top left of the image. To make this composition, you must use the railing to steady the camera and shoot handheld, because it is not possible to get a tripod-mounted camera into the optimum position. Most shutterbugs merely lean over the railing a little and shoot handheld without steadying their camera and therefore their images are not nearly as sharp as they should be. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 16–35mm f/2.8 lens at 18mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/25 second, Shade WB, manual exposure and autofocus using back-button control and polarizer to reduce glare on the water.


Be willing to use a little higher ISO, perhaps ISO 400, and don’t stop the lens down quite as much to allow the use of a faster shutter speed when handholding. Image sharpness will noticeably improve.


Many wildlife species are easily photographed from a boat because they don’t fear danger coming from the water. If you ever visit the Galapagos or Antarctica, you will surely need to photograph from small Zodiacs at times. For these and similar situations where handheld photography is necessary, using lenses or cameras that have built-in image-stabilization can be incredibly helpful. Depending on the system, most stabilize the lens by moving glass elements in the lens to counteract camera shake. Others use a different method in which the sensor moves to reduce camera-shake. We regularly use Canon and Nikon lenses that offer image-stabilization (IS) when handholding. It is excellent new technology that continues to improve. Makers claim that their image-stabilization equipment allows the use of two to four stops lower shutter speeds. If they claim four stops, it suggests you can use a shutter speed of 1/25 second with a 400mm lens. Here’s the math. A 400mm shutter speed, when reduced four stops becomes, 400 – 200 – 100 – 50 – 25. Because equipment makers tend to be optimistic, please do not believe these claims. Believe me though, image-stabilization does work and it helps considerably. With my Canon image-stabilized lenses, I routinely use 1/24 second with my image-stabilized 24–105mm lens when zoomed to 24mm. In other words, with IS, I feel confident of literally using the 1/focal length guideline. And remember, image-stabilization is similar to the 1/ focal length guideline in that it only applies to camera-shake. It does nothing to arrest subject motion when only faster shutter speeds or short flash durations help the situation.


Wide-angle lenses reduce magnification, which allows the use of slower shutter speeds while handholding. A favorite winter subject are the “ghost trees” on Two Top Mountain near West Yellowstone, Montana. In late January and early February, these trees are entirely encased in snow and ice. It is an awesome sight and a spectacular photo subject. The Canon 24–105mm zoom lens with image-stabilization is ideal for photographing these trees handheld. A tripod could be used in the soft snow by packing it down, but why bother? On a favorable morning, it is likely to be below zero and tripods get cold and are slow to use in deep soft snow. The morning sun is bright, so there is plenty of shutter speed to even use f/16 for depth of field. A few years ago, I tested and compared shooting on a tripod and shooting handheld and could find no difference in image sharpness. When shooting at f/16 with a shutter speed of 1/250 second and an image-stabilized lens at 24mm, it is pointless to use a tripod to obtain sharpness. Of course, if you are shooting multiple images for a panorama, focus stacking, or HDR, then using a tripod is best.

The entire forest on Two Top Mountain near West Yellowstone, Montana, becomes encased in ice and snow by late January. These trees photograph best with short lenses against a bright blue sky. Since the sun is shining and the lenses are short, there is no need to use a tripod because the shutter speed needed is quite fast. Nikon D4, Nikon 14–24mm lens at 20mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/400 second, Sun WB, manual exposure and autofocusing using back-button control.

Excerpt from Digital Nature Photography: The Art and the Science, 2nd Edition by John & Barbara Gerlach © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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