Handholding a long lens

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Not hav­ing to use a tri­pod is a tremen­dous bless­ing for the nature pho­tog­ra­ph­er, espe­cial­ly those who like me spe­cial­ize in B.I.F. (Birds in Flight). 
What, you say? Hand­hold a long tele­pho­to? Not pos­si­ble you say?

I am very hap­py to inform you that it is entire­ly pos­si­ble – and that I can teach you how to do it with very lit­tle prac­tice. (The exam­ples I use are Olym­pus lens­es, but don’t let that throw you, these tips work for any cam­era and any lens.)

One of the things that attract­ed me to the Olym­pus ZD 300 mm I use was that the first pho­tog­ra­ph­er Oly sent into the field to pho­to­graph the Le Mans casu­al­ly remarked that he was pleased to find that he had no trou­ble hand­hold­ing the ZD 300. I decid­ed that if he could I could.
It wasn’t easy at first but slow­ly I learned. Then I found out that many would not believe me. I recall post­ing sev­er­al images on a web forum and being called a liar for suggest­ing that I could. That does­n’t hap­pen any­more.

Not con­vinced that you don’t need a tri­pod? I was sit­ting with my cam­era in my lap, fac­ing west­ward, pho­tograph­ing a pair of White-tailed Kites. Out of the cor­ner of my eye I saw a move­ment and turned to see this Great Blue Heron approach­ing. I lift­ed the lens to my eye, swiveled my tor­so near­ly 90 degrees — and got the pho­to. There is no way I could have rotat­ed a lens on a tri­pod — I would have had to run around behind it to focus — and got­ten this pho­to.

Springtime RhapsodySpringtime Rhapsody

1. Sta­bi­liz­ing your low­er body
Sta­bil­i­ty starts, not with your cam­era, but with your feet and legs. As bipeds, we humans are inher­ent­ly unsta­ble, any move­ment of our arms and/or shoul­ders is imme­di­ate­ly com­pen­sat­ed for by a com­plex series of low­er body adjust­ments, all of which con­tribute to cam­era and lens move­ment. You can only be mod­er­ate­ly suc­cess­ful shoot­ing while stand­ing; when it is windy you might as well for­get it entire­ly.
The answer is to sit on a chair or on a stool with three legs. (No one wants to drag around a four-legged can­vas chair and they are not sta­ble on rough ter­rain.) There are a num­ber of three-legged stools avail­able but most are not suit­able. Rough ter­rain and the neces­si­ty of sup­port­ing a heavy body that will twist and lean to one side or the oth­er pre­cludes most of the light­weight camp­ing stools or mas­sage stools I have see adver­tised.
The solu­tion: For sev­er­al years, I have used a Swedish Walk-Stool, which is very strong, eas­i­ly col­lapsi­ble and com­fort­able. Made in Swe­den (with all the design exper­tise we expect in a Swedish prod­uct) it is avail­able all over the world in sev­er­al sizes; find a dis­trib­u­tor at www.walkstool.com. I call it my ‘Peo­ple Tri­pod.’
Now, with your low­er half sta­bi­lized you can eas­i­ly rotate your upper body from the waist and move your arms up and down while fol­low­ing the bird. But that’s not all there is to sta­bil­i­ty.

2. Merge your Cam­era with your body
You need to become one with your cam­era. You do this by lock­ing your cam­era to your fore­head or your cheek bone. If you are shoot­ing a cam­era with­out a rub­ber eye­piece you may have dif­fi­cul­ty. Some cam­eras come with­out eye­pieces, if you have one of these try eBay.  Rub­ber eye­cups are avail­able for many cam­eras. If not, you can get an Ori­on Rub­ber Eye­guard, avail­able on the web from a num­ber of tele­scope dis­trib­u­tors.
To merge I press my eye­brow to the rub­ber eye­cup and my cheek and nose to the body of the cam­era. This sup­ports my cam­era firm­ly and takes some of the load off my hand, which allows me to squeeze the shut­ter but­ton more freely. (Yes, this works with most eye­glass­es; I wear eye­glass­es all the time while pho­tograph­ing.) Tip: If you can’t get a good fit with the top of the eye­cup, tape a bit of foam rub­ber to the top with black vinyl tape.  Black vinyl tape is good for keep­ing the lit­tle pro­tec­tors on the hot shoe in place, also.

Prac­tice sight­ing through the eye­piece of the cam­era while mov­ing your head, eye and camera/lens as a unit. Learn­ing to move your head and the cam­era as a sin­gle unit is the key to sta­bil­i­ty and it does not take that long to learn. But you do need to prac­tice.
Get out near a free­way and prac­tice shoot­ing cars as they whiz past. Take the pho­tos, blow them up on screen to check what you are doing.

3. Sup­port­ing a long lens
When start­ing out most peo­ple try to use two hands on the cam­era body to sup­port it. (We used to have to do this to turn the focus ring but aut­o­fo­cus put an end to that.) For the best sta­bil­i­ty you need to sup­port the front of the lens bar­rel with your left hand under­neath it. Put your left hand as far out as you can, and don’t hug your elbow to your side or try to sup­port it on your chest. This will impede your track­ing – your arm has to be free to fol­low your head.

Heavy lens? I rest the whole rig on my lap in between pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ties. You are sit­ting after all; you might as well relax between takes.

4. Breath­ing
Do not try to breathe in and hold your breath. With your arms, shoul­ders and head locked to the lens, there is not much chance of your breath inter­fer­ing. To tell the truth I don’t know how I breathe; but I do not con­scious­ly hold my breath. I know I can’t be hold­ing it long as I do not feel my heart­beat build up as it would when hold­ing my breath.
Sit, take a few moments for your heart­beat to slow down, relax and just breathe nat­u­ral­ly. Then you are ready to go.

5. Cloth­ing
You need to be able to move your arms freely. Be sure your shirt, jack­et, what­ev­er, has large arm­holes. Small arm-holes will  cause your arms to pull on the jack­et body, slow­ing you and pulling you off-track. When it is cold, wear one or more sleeve­less sweaters under your jack­et. Your arms must not be imped­ed.

6. Expo­sure Set­ting
For the ZD 300 mm and ZD 90 – 250 mm (both f2.8 lens­es) I rec­om­mend set­ting the shut­ter speed at 14000 with­out an exten­der, 13200 with the 1.4 exten­der and 1/2000 with the 2.0 exten­der. (How­ev­er, I don’t use either exten­der very much, it is too hard to track with them.) Set your ISO at 400 (400 – 800) and use a grain remover such as Define2 or Noise Nin­ja when pro­cess­ing. Don’t wor­ry about need­ing a high num­ber f stop to get greater depth of field. You are not con­cerned about the back­ground when shoot­ing birds in flight. All that needs to be sharp in a pho­to­graph of a bird in flight is the eye, beak and claws. Peo­ple expect a bit of blur espe­cial­ly at the wing tips. (But not much.)
Go back and look at the old­er pho­to books of birds. Most, of course, are black and white. Notice how blur­ry the wings look. Then look at cur­rent books, shot at high­er shut­ter speeds — which looks best?

7. Image Sta­bi­liza­tion
Oth­ers do but I don’t rec­om­mend IS with mov­ing birds. Image Sta­bi­liza­tion is intend­ed to cor­rect for slight cam­era body move­ment. How­ev­er, you are mak­ing major cam­era move­ments track­ing birds in flight and the IS will make oth­er move­ments to coun­ter­act your move­ments. Image Sta­bi­liza­tion can cause some weird feath­er pat­terns in pho­tos of birds in flight. I will use IS for some pho­tos. For exam­ple I recent­ly was pho­tograph­ing hum­ming­birds at a feed­er. These guys are hard to track, as you know if you have ever tried. Hold­ing your cam­era steady and shoot­ing when they come into view works well, when IS is on.  Here is an exam­ple:

female Anna's Hummingbird

8. Posi­tion your­self
Fig­ure out where the birds will be and posi­tion your­self so the sun will be rough­ly at your back when you are fac­ing the birds, or where you expect them to be. Try to posi­tion your­self so that the wind is com­ing from your right or left. Plan to shot when the birds are fly­ing into the wind. It is much eas­i­er to fol­low them and much eas­i­er for your cam­era to get the focus and expo­sure cor­rect.

9. Bird Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion
For­get it till lat­er. Shoot before you iden­ti­fy the bird. Often the bird will not be of inter­est and you will dis­card the image, but it costs you noth­ing. If you wait to dis­cov­er if it is a bird you want to pho­to­graph it will always be too late to get your cam­era up and ready to track it.    Shoot first, ask ques­tions lat­er.

10. Auto focus?
Of course but remem­ber that auto focus­ing mech­a­nisms need con­trast in order to focus. Eas­i­est to focus on are white birds in flight against a clear sky, with the sun at your back. The worst are dark or black birds against a dim, dark jum­bled back­ground. On a dark day, or back­lit.

11. Prac­tice
Prac­tice, prac­tice, prac­tice. Prac­tice on pigeons, auto­mo­biles speed­ing past, bicy­clists, what­ev­er is mov­ing.

An Extra Tip.
Since you can’t use a neck strap very well with a long tele­pho­to lens and need a way to car­ry it more safe­ly than dan­gling it by the cam­era body, make use of your tri­pod mount. Rotate it 180°and con­vert it into a very secure han­dle. I car­ry mine with the lens point­ing to the rear and place my thumb on what is now the front of the mount to secure it. This works for the ZD 300 mm, the ZD 90 – 250 mm and the ZD 150 mm.

That’s it. Grab your cam­era and go get ’em!

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23 Responses to Handholding a long lens

  1. Jeff Kazules says:

    Great arti­cle. I wish I could afford to buy your equip­ment! I have the E‑620 and a 70 – 300mm with gets me by.

    Regard­ing the tip for car­ry­ing the equip­ment, I thought I’d men­tion that I bought the Tam­ron Back­pack straps. It takes all the weight off of my neck and has been my pre­ferred method of hik­ing with my cam­era ever since. Here is a link to the prod­uct page: http://www.tamrac.com/g_camerastraps.htm . I use the N11 straps.

  2. Dale Mead says:

    Thanks for the great advice. I met you last night at your Berke­ley Cam­era Club pre­sen­ta­tion. I’m now look­ing for the jaw-drop­ping sequence of two birds exchang­ing a mouse in flight. (Don’t remem­ber what kind of birds, though.)

    I can’t quite pic­ture your final sug­ges­tion, for adjust­ing the tri­pod mount as a han­dle, from your text. Can you add a pho­to so I can see what it should look like?

    Keep up the good work!

    • admin says:

      Glad you found me. All (as far as I know) long and heavy lens­es have their own cam­era mount because if they mount on the body, the rig will tilt down . That mount­ing ring can be loos­ened and rotat­ed. I rotate mine 180 degrees to use it as a car­ry­ing han­dle.

      • Dale Mead says:

        Thanks for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion. I’m shop­ping for a an eye­piece and a three-legged stool (hope­ful­ly at an afford­able price).

  3. Miphi Hall says:

    I’m very grate­ful to the friend who sug­gest­ed I look at your blog — your pho­tographs are splen­did and your advice is to the point and gen­er­ous. Thank you!

    I use a Nikon D70S and (usu­al­ly for birds) a Nikkor 80 – 400mm lens. It’s heavy! I’ve resist­ed advice to use a tri­pod for the rea­son you men­tioned in describ­ing the great blue shot above, but I have craved some bet­ter way to sta­bi­lize the cam­era — now I have your great tips! I’m excit­ed to get a “peo­ple tri­pod” and an eye cup. Your advice about merg­ing the cam­era with your body makes such good sense; I used that tech­nique to ride hors­es and found I could be more sta­ble and more respon­sive, so I’m look­ing for­ward to try­ing it with my cam­era.

    Thank you so much — I’ve just sub­scribed to your feed and look for­ward to being a ben­e­fi­cia­ry of your tal­ent and wis­dom in the future!

    • admin says:

      Thanks very much for your com­ments.
      I have added your address to my week­ly Bird pho­to list. Hope you enjoy them,

  4. Donna says:

    Hi Richard: Just love your pic­tures — makes my heart soar — so beau­ti­ful, clear and pre­cise. Thank you so much for shar­ing your much loved tal­ents.

  5. Grant Quist says:

    Hi Richard,

    I love the shot of the Great Blue Heron, its fan­tas­tic, thank you for the advice giv­en. What is the advan­tage of using cen­tre weight­ed focus over matrix meter­ing? Please can you put me onto your week­ly bird pho­tog­ra­phy email list.



    • admin says:

      Hi Grant,
      When I shoot birds (which is most of the time) or por­traits, I am only inter­est­ed in the bird or per­son being in focus, a sharp back­ground is dis­tract­ing so I don’t want it in focus. If I am shoot­ing a land­scape, or group of people/objects then I would use matrix meter­ing.

      I’ll add you to my week­ly email list.


  6. George says:

    This is by far the most use­ful arti­cle about a pho­to­graph­ic prob­lem that I have ever read! You should sub­mit it to some of the mag­a­zines who print arti­cle after use­less acti­cle on how to pro­duce the lat­est cliché with the most expen­sive gear. It would cer­tain­ly be a refresh­ing change. But thanks for shar­ing your wis­dom with us, what­ev­er the medi­um.

  7. Wally says:

    Mr. Pavek, I love your pho­tographs and have been watch­ing The Sun­day Bird Vol­ume for years. Thank you for shar­ing them, it’s what got me hooked on this hob­by. I got an E‑30 cam­era and a Sig­ma Big­ma with which I’ve got­ten some decent sta­t­ic bird shots, but I’d like to be able to shoot birds in flight and it’s slow going. With regard to this, I won­der if you would­n’t mind shar­ing a cou­ple more set­tings that are com­mon with­in your suc­cess­ful BIF shots. Do you use sin­gle point aut­o­fo­cus or anoth­er type? C‑AF or S‑AF? Which meter­ing mode? Thank you for any assis­tance.

    • admin says:

      Hi Wal­ly,
      I use sin­gle point focus and C‑AF which works sur­pris­ing­ly well. Meter­ing is cen­ter weight­ed.
      If you are focused on a perched bird, hop­ing to catch it when it flies, the image of the bird should not be much larg­er that the out­er cen­ter weight ring. If it is, when the bird extends its wings they will reach past the frame.
      When shoot­ing BIF, it is best to not let them fill the screen, you will nev­er be able to keep them in the cen­ter when track­ing them
      I am adding you to my Sat­ur­day week­ly bird email list. The pho­tos that appear there are not always on DPRe­view.
      Let me know how if this cov­ers what you need. I will be inter­est­ed in see­ing the results of your efforts.

      • Wally says:

        Thank you, I had a cou­ple of things dif­fer­ent. I’m sure that one can get good at play­ing a piano with their feet, but I’m hap­py for the ear­ly sug­ges­tion to use my hands. (Not to say that I won’t try it again with my feet some­time.)

  8. Annette Hugen says:

    I love look­ing at the Sun­day Bird every week. Your pic­tures are fan­tas­tic. I love to pho­to­graph birds also and can not hold the 70 – 300 steady so I look for­ward to try­ing your techique. It is dif­fi­cult to pho­to­graph birds using a tri­pod but that is the only way I get sharp pics. I have the E‑620. Do I use the eye­piece that came with the cam­era or am I sup­pose to buy some­thing dif­fer­ent? I look for­ward to hear­ing from you.

    • admin says:

      I have the E‑3 and I think the eye­pieces are the same. Find a way to fit the 620 so that it rests against your eye­brow or cheek bone. If that is dif­fi­cult roll up a piece of foam and tape it to the cam­era either where it will meet your eye­brow or cheek­bone and pro­vide a steady point. If you find a good fit then tape it on secure­ly. I would use black vinyl elec­tri­cian’s tape. From any hard­ware store. If that does­n’t work, l;et me know and I will try to think of some­thing else,

  9. Billy says:

    Great arti­cle Richard. I’ve always like your bird pho­tog­ra­phy since the first time I saw it. Great infor­ma­tion and espe­cial­ly good rec­om­men­da­tion on the walk stool, I’m going to have to get me one.

    I saw an Olym­pus rep this week­end and held the 90 – 250 in my hand with an E30 so I cer­tain­ly believe hand hold­ing these lens­es is pos­si­ble, it was actu­al­ly lighter than I thought it would be.

  10. Patty Spinks says:

    Do you every use a tri­pod?

    • admin says:

      Yes, but usu­al­ly only when I am using a very long shut­ter speed. Or a land­scape, or mul­ti­ple expo­sures at dif­fer­ent set­tings for HD pho­tog­ra­phy (But then I am not pho­tograph­ing birds).

  11. Patty Spinks says:

    Thanks for this infor­ma­tion… I won­dered how you got these amaz­ing shots… I’ll def­i­nite­ly try this and prac­tice… I always won­dered how those eye cups came in handy, now I will pick one up!

  12. Pat Futoran says:

    Thank you for shar­ing your “Long Lens” knowl­edge. It made sense and I plan to prac­tice, practice,practice!!!! 1st stop buy a rub­ber eye piece.

    • admin says:

      Don’t prac­tice only on birds. Get a block away from a free­way and track/shoot mov­ing trucks. Trucks are best because you can tell from the let­ter­ing if you are tru­ly in focus and not shaky.

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