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Backcountry Photography

Sharpshooting for Shutterbugs —
Snapping In
Hands On

By Tamia Nelson

March 27, 2012

If you know anyone who passed through Marine Corps Recruit Training in the late '60s — you probably do; these were busy years for the Corps — and if you catch them in a reflective mood, you may hear mention of the days they spent "snapping in." This was Corps jargon for the dry‑firing exercises that preceded a week of live fire at the range, culminating in Qualification Day, an important rite of passage in a service in which every man (and woman) is a rifleman first and foremost. Why was snapping in memorable? Well, quiet time was, and presumably still is, a rare commodity during recruit training, but the interval devoted to snapping in was an oasis of relative calm. Recruits spent long hours learning how to hold their rifles steady, align the sights, and squeeeeze the trigger. And for much of that time, the loudest sound to be heard was the sharp snap of sears releasing hammers.

What does all this have to do with backcountry photography? Quite a lot, in fact. As I was reminded recently, when I pulled a copy of the Guidebook for Marines down from my bookshelf. (It's the 1981 14th edition, if you're interested, though Farwell tells me it retains a lot of material from the '60s and early '70s.) I was flipping through the pages on my way to the Land Navigation chapter when my eye fell on some illustrations in the Marksmanship section depicting the four fundamental shooting positions. Suddenly I saw these familiar scenes in a new light. They could be pictures of photographers, I thought. And so they could. After all, Marine rifleman and recreational photographers share a common need for keenness of eye and steadiness of hand. Each wants to hit the target.

The upshot of this serendipitous encounter? I never made it to the Land Navigation chapter. I was too busy considering the implications of marksmanship training, Marine Corps style, for paddling shutterbugs. Just last week I overheard a fellow photographer complaining about his pictures. He had a top‑of‑the‑line camera and top‑of‑the‑line lenses. But his shots were only so‑so. They weren't as sharp and crisp as they should be. The disappointed photographer knew how to clean up his act in the digital darkroom, but he was puzzled by the poor quality of his original images. Was his camera letting him down?

I think I know the answer to that one. I've studied some of his shots, and I've seen him in action. His lenses and camera are fine, but I'm sure he'd benefit from a little time spent snapping in. He simply needs to learn how to hold 'em and squeeze 'em. And he isn't alone. Judging from the mail I still get around earlier Backcountry Photography articles, unintentionally blurry photos are a common problem.

That being the case, then, let's see how we photographers can benefit from adopting …

A Few Corps Values

Movement is what blurs shots, and while many digital cameras now embody some sort of "shake reduction" or "image stabilization" technology, it's far better to kill the shake at source. In other words, the burden of responsibility lies with the man or woman behind the camera. "I must shoot straighter…" That comes from the Creed of the United States Marine, also known as "The Rifleman's Creed," but it could serve as a maxim for photographers, too. Don't get me wrong. I'm not pooh‑poohing image stabilization. Digital cameras are marvels of engineering. They've awakened the dormant artist in many a lapsed film photographer. And they've made passionate picture‑takers out of folks who'd only rarely snapped a shutter before. Nothing quite so revolutionary has happened since the Kodak Brownie made its debut early in the 20th century. But technology — even the astonishing technology embodied in the digital camera — can only do so much. The best camera in the world won't make its owner into another Ansel Adams. Only native talent can do that. Yet talent alone isn't enough. It must first be honed by discipline and shaped by practice. The Corps understands that.

Which is why any photographer who wants to do more than snap a few shots of the family around the Christmas tree to use on next year's cards has to go to school first. Not literally, of course. Photography is a very democratic art, and a very accessible one, into the bargain. You can teach yourself everything you need to know. The elements of light and composition are easy to master. And the darkroom manipulations that once demanded tedious trial‑and‑error sessions — not to mention hundreds of dollars worth of chemicals and equipment — can now be done with a click and a drag, using software that many makers provide free of charge to buyers of their cameras. But this is just the start. In the end, getting an image on the screen that matches the picture in your mind still demands that you hold 'em steady and squeeze 'em slow.


OK. Are you worried that you might be on shaky ground when shooting photos? Then let's get back to basics, starting with …

How to Hold Your Camera

First, you gotta get a grip. Even when you're trying to capture fast‑moving action or flying birds with panning shots — shots where you sweep your camera through an arc while squeezing the shutter release — you'll want to keep a firm hold on the camera. The only times when this isn't needed are those times when the camera is mounted on a tripod. But tripods are clumsy things to carry around. Few paddlers bother. They're also time‑consuming to set up, with the predictable result that they never seem to be ready when you want them. To be sure, there are many happy exceptions to this rule. Macrophotographers, archeologists, geologists, and art historians get good use out of their tripods, as do professional landscape photographers. Most of the rest of us don't, however. The upshot? Whether or not you own a tripod, you'll still need to get a grip. Here's how:

Getting a Grip

This is the basic grip. Each hand has a job to do. The right hand holds the camera body. The left hand supports the lens. That's pretty simple. But while a picture may really be worth a thousand words, the devil's still in the details, so let's spill some virtual ink to make sure nothing gets overlooked, beginning with the …

Right Hand.  Grasp the camera body firmly with your right hand. Firmly. Not white‑knuckle tight. Relax. The middle and ring fingers, assisted by the pinkie, do most of the heavy lifting here, leaving the forefinger free to operate the shutter release. Sometimes I hook my pinkie under the camera grip, where it serves in a supporting role, but this isn't compulsory.

A couple of caveats: My camera is a Pentax K200d. If you have something else — and it's likely that you do — you'll have to make adjustments. Each camera model has its control buttons in a different place, though the shutter release is in the same general location on all the cameras I've seen. And speaking of the shutter release… It's located where it's most convenient for right‑handers. If you're a southpaw, you've got a problem. Like all but a few sporting rifles, cameras are set up for righties. The solution? Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Now let's move on…

As I noted above, the right index finger controls the shutter release button — the photographer's trigger, if you will. It also operates the main switch and EV compensation button, while the right thumb manipulates the exposure dial. When I'm in standby mode, waiting for targets of opportunity, I position my right index finger just ahead of the shutter release so I don't squeeze off a shot by mistake. If you're more comfortable leaving your finger resting lightly on the release, however, go ahead. Unlike Marine riflemen, photographers needn't fear the consequences of accidental discharges. (Don't carry this habit over to the range, though!)

That pretty much takes care of the right hand. But there's also your …

Left Hand.   What's that been getting up to? Well, as my sketch makes clear, its primary job is supporting the lens (in this case, a telephoto zoom). Just let the lens settle down onto your palm and wrap your thumb around the lens barrel, while you curl your remaining fingers loosely around the other side, forming a sort of cradle for the lens body. You could also stiffen these four fingers and point them toward the front element of the lens, creating a platform support, but then you'd lose the ability to work the focusing ring quickly (it's indicated by the red arrows in the first sketch). The platform support grip also requires that you contort your wrist somewhat, and this can lead to fatigue, which increases the likelihood that your hand will start to shake. The choice is yours. Whichever grip you favor, however, shorter lenses will require that you "choke up," moving your left hand back toward the camera body. In extreme cases, your left palm will be supporting the camera itself, not the lens. Be careful here. You don't want your fingers waving around in front of the lens, do you? Of course not.

Most photographers probably adopt one of these two alternatives, but some folks find both the cradle and platform grips tiring, and they soon develop a tremor. If you're in this camp, the solution to the problem is straightforward: Rest the barrel of your lens on the thumb of your left hand, with the remaining fingers curled over the top of the lens or angled forward. I call this the "C‑grip," and there's a picture of it below:

O! Say Can You C?

A little experimentation with the C‑grip will teach you how to work the focus ring with your forefinger, middle finger, or pinkie. Grip the barrel as snugly as is necessary to keep the camera steady. Don't be surprised if heavy lenses leave your thumb feeling strained and sore, though. It's carrying the load, after all.

So much for where (and how) to put your hands. Now you're ready for a little …

Face Time.  Riflemen speak of the "spot weld" between right cheek and stock. For photographers, there are two spot welds between camera body and face. I focus with my left eye, resting the upper edge of the rubber eyecup against the bony brow ridge above the eye socket (spot weld #1, known to anatomists as the "supraorbital ridge"). I also press the LCD monitor snugly against my left cheek (spot weld #2). Some left‑eye dominant shutterbugs find that their noses get in the way. I don't, but I have a smallish nose. And right‑eye dominants don't even know there's a problem. How do you tell when you've got the camera in the proper position? Easy. You'll have an unobstructed sight picture straight down the center of the viewfinder, with a clear view of all the information displayed therein.

This assumes that your camera has an optical viewfinder, of course. All digital SLRs do, and so do many point‑and‑shoot cameras. If your camera doesn't, however, you'll have to adopt the arm's‑length position familiar to users of cell‑phone cameras. But in that case shake will be the least of your worries.


And now that we've been reminded of the main subject of this column, I'll say a few words about ensuring that there's …

NOT a Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On

Once you've got a grip, established your spot welds, and located your subject in the frame, what's left to do? Well, you've held 'em. Now it's time to squeeze 'em. The final steps in minimizing camera shake are breath control and a smooth shutter release. Maintain your sight picture while you concentrate on taking easy, shallow breaths. Then, when you're ready to shoot, let your breath out slowly and… Hold it. Now press down gently on the shutter release. Easy does it. You want to squeeeeze the shutter, not snap it. (In advocating this leisurely approach, I'm assuming that your subject will hold still. If it won't, you'll have to snap away just as soon as you acquire the target in your viewfinder. But try to snap smoothly, even then.) If you get everything just right, the click of the shutter and the slap of the mirror — this last is of concern only to owners of SLRs — will come as something of a surprise, long before you begin to feel the first signs of air hunger. Even now, though, with your picture in the bag, so to speak, it pays to avoid jerky moves. You may want to take a second shot. So don't yank your finger away from the shutter release. Instead, ease the pressure gently while maintaining your sight picture. And keep the camera at your eye and your breathing under control till you're sure you're ready to move on.


That's enough description and explanation. It's time to give these Corps principles a try and see how they work for you. Don't expect everything to go right the first time, however. Or the tenth. Snapping in is a learning process. But sooner or later — more likely sooner than later — you'll realize that the art of holding and squeezing has become second nature. And blurred shots will then be a thing of the past.


Unlikely Partners


The United States Marine Corps teaches men and women to hit the target, first time and every time. The Corps has been doing this for quite a while now, and recreational photographers can learn a lot from its methods. No one is born a great photographer, of course. But every paddler can learn to shoot great shots, without so much as a hint of shake‑induced blur. It's just a matter of learning to hold em' and squeeze 'em. Once you've done that, every shot should be "in the black." What are you waiting for? Start snapping in today!

And be sure to come back next week, when we'll finish up what we've begun here by taking a close look at some basic shooting positions. Then it will be time to head off to the great outdoors. Qualification Day awaits.



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