Sharpshooting for Shutterbugs —
Assuming the Positions
By Tamia Nelson
April 3, 2012
Want to take better pictures? Who doesn't? And good pictures start with how you hold your camera. The tiny tremors in our hands can grow to be a very big problem when we squeeze off a shot. Technology has some answers, but image stabilization and the digital darkroom can only do so much. They can't make a bad photo into a good one. What's the secret to getting good shots? The answer lies at your fingertips. And the goal? A sharp image with no trace of shake‑induced blur. It's that simple. Or that hard.
Last week I set out to tackle this all‑too‑familiar problem, and I found some much‑needed help in a most unlikely place — an old edition of the Guidebook for Marines. Here's how I made the connection:
I was flipping through the pages [of the Guidebook] 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.
The red‑letter text tells you where I'm headed today. In my last column I described ways to hold a camera in order to cut down on shake. This week, I'm going to look at how to hold your body. And the Corps can help. It turns out that the four fundamental shooting positions work just as well for photographers as they do for Marine riflemen. So let's get started, beginning with the most basic position of all:
Basic it may be, but stable it ain't. When you shoot from the standing position, everything works against you: gravity, muscle tremor, even the wind. The result? Your body sways — just a little, but that little is enough to spoil a shot. All you can do is make the best of a bad situation. Stand with your feet shoulder‑width apart. Hold the camera firmly (see the first "Sharpshooting for Shutterbugs" column if you want some pointers). And clamp your elbows snugly against your ribs. If you do all this, you'll look something like the photographer in the first sketch below:
Give it a go. (This is one column that you shouldn't read sitting down!) Do you still feel yourself swaying back and forth? Just a little? Probably. Now try leaning back a bit and tucking your chin tight against your chest, like the guy in the second sketch. Can you feel the difference? I'll bet you can. The swayback stance looks awkward — and it is. But it takes much of the wiggle out of the standing position, and you can still pivot easily to the left or right. In fact, if you swing to the left when you're shooting with a long lens, you may even be able to brace your left hand (that's the hand supporting the lens) against your shoulder.
How does the standing position stack up? Here's a summary:
- It's convenient. (You spend a lot of time on your feet, don't you?)
- It's easy to get into.
- It doesn't slow you down or stop you from moving around.
- You can quickly swing or pivot to engage subjects to your right or left.
- It's tremor‑prone.
- It makes for ho‑hum, been‑there‑done‑that, no‑surprises shots.
Bottom line? If you have to trade off stability against freedom of movement — and you do — the standing position is your best bet for snap shots and moving targets.
Tired of standing tall? Then do as I'm about to do, and drop down …
On One Knee
But if your knees have a lot of miles on them, think twice. You many not want to follow suit. It pays to look before you kneel, too. It's no fun to park your patella on a sharp pebble. Ready? Then just drop your right knee to the ground and settle your bum on your right foot. Now lean forward and brace your left triceps (that's the wad of muscle on the underside of your arm, opposite the biceps) against your left thigh. Do NOT balance your left elbow on your left knee. Instead, press your inner thigh against the outer surface of your upper arm. These two sketches will show you how it's done:
You can stay on your toes, so to speak, and rest your bum on your heel, as shown in Panel 4, or (if your ankle will cooperate) you can rotate your right foot inward and rest your weight on the instep. That's a more stable position than bum‑on‑heel, but many folks find it painful. In either case, be sure to lean well forward. You want your weight centered between hips and left foot.
Now it's your turn. What do you think? Some photographers find kneeling much more stable than standing, while others (a minority, I think, but a large minority, nonetheless) will see only a slight improvement. If it works for you, though, you'll likely agree with the following summary:
- It's (usually) less shaky than standing.
- It's almost as quick to get into as the standing position — if your knees cooperate, that is.
- It allows you to frame shots from a different perspective.
- Kneeling helps you keep a low profile when stealth is important (think wildlife photography here).
- It can be hard on the knees — impossibly so for some.
- It restricts your ability to swing your camera from side to side.
- It slows you down when you need to move quickly.
- Prolonged kneeling can leave you with tingly, numb feet.
Bottom line? It's good if it works for you; bad if it doesn't.
Luckily, there's an alternative that many will find both more stable and more comfortable than the kneeling position. Just …
Take a Seat
It's not hard. Sit down, place you feet flat on the ground before you, lean forward, and lock your elbows inside your knees. You'll find it helps to press your thighs together when you do this, like you'd do if you were straddling the saddle in a whitewater canoe (or riding a spirited horse). The left‑hand sketch puts you in the picture:
Of course, there's not always a boulder around when you want one — though you'll find that a canoe or kayak seat makes a good substitute when you're on the water. (Then again, a small boat in fast water is a pretty lively shooting platform, but you knew that already, didn't you?) Failing an elevated perch, simply sit on the ground. Try not to sit on a basking snake or in a patch of poison ivy, however, and make sure that no dog‑walker has visited your chosen sitting spot in the recent past. Some photographers find that they're happier crossing their legs at the ankles, rather than flat‑footing it (see Panel 6). If the idea appeals, try it and see if it works for you.
In fact, you should try both approaches. And once you've done that, see if you don't agree with this summary:
- It's more stable than either standing or kneeling.
- It's easy for most paddlers to get into (except in a swamp, perhaps).
- It offers a novel photographic perspective.
- It helps you keep a low profile.
- It's comfortable.
- A few folks have a hard time making it work for them.
- It limits your ability to pan from side to side.
- It hampers quick movement.
- It's not a lot of fun on wet or fouled ground.
Bottom line? The sitting position has a lot going for it. It's simple, stable, and comfortable (for most paddlers, at any rate). It's not much use for shooting on the move, however.
We're agreed, I hope. Shake is bad. Stability is good. And the sitting position is the champ. So far. But the champ is about to meet his match. It's time to get your …
How low can you go? That depends. You can prop your elbows on the ground and hold your camera in much the same way as you would when sitting. Call this the high prone position. Or you can slump down and rest your camera's lens on your forearm, as shown in sketch above. (NB Be careful that the focusing ring doesn't rest against your arm. If your camera is set to Autofocus, you'll strain the motor, and if it's on Manual, the friction will likely throw the adjustment off.) Or you can go really, really low and rest the barrel of the lens on the palm or back of your extended hand, your hat (be sure to remove it first), or the soft ground itself. Call this low prone, if you want.
Be sure to give all the variants from high to low a try before you need them. Have I exaggerated their virtues? I don't think so. Here's how I'd strike the balance:
- There's no position more stable — if you could stop your heart beating for a few seconds, your camera would be as steady as if you were carved from stone. So the prone position is ideal for macrophotography, and it's also tops for long telephoto shots.
- It brings you close to unusual subjects: fungi, insects, and small flowers.
- You become part of the landscape. That's good if you don't want to be seen.
- It's comfortable. You might even fall asleep.
- Getting down can be difficult for some, and getting up can be even harder.
- Panning shots? In your dreams!
- You aren't going anywhere fast. Better hope your subject stays put.
- You're stretched out on the ground. Something might step on you.
Bottom line? Short of using a tripod, this is as steady as it gets.
Now you know the four basic shooting positions, but there's nothing to say you can't improvise variations on these themes to suit conditions. In particular, a shaky stance can often be bettered if you …
We all need propping up every now and then. Sometimes we can find what we need very close to home, like the sitting photographer who braces her elbows against her knees, or the half‑standing, half‑squatting guy in Panel 10 below, who's using the same method to steady his camera while he composes a picture of a flower. More often, though, we have to look outside ourselves when we need support. Here are some of the many possibilities:
Trees Though it sometimes seems that we're determined to fell the last one as quickly as possible, perhaps to make room for one more freeway interchange or the world's largest Whoppermart Megamall, there are still a few trees left standing, most of them in places frequented by paddlers. So use them now, before you lose them. The shutterbug who's captured in mid‑shot in Panel 8 below shows you one way. But you can also stand and brace your left hand against a stout branch while resting the barrel of your lens in your palm. Or you can sit down with your back against a tree trunk. Or kneel with your left arm braced against the friendly bark. You can even drop down on your belly and prop the barrel of your lens on a projecting root (pad the lens with something, though, and make sure the focusing ring can turn freely). Then, unless a strong breeze is making your chosen tree sway, you'll get all the help you need.
But make the most of the opportunity. The tree that supported you today may be gone tomorrow. So you'd better take a picture of it while you can. You'll want something to remember it by.
Boats and Buddies Turn your (beached) boat upside down and pretend it's a boulder. Don't sit on it unless you're sure it can take the weight, though. Many boats can't. Instead, use the upturned boat as a rest for your arm or camera as you kneel, sit, or stretch out on your belly. (This trick works with coolers, dry boxes, and hard camera cases, too.) You can also lean against one of your companions, as illustrated in Panel 9, or you can use his shoulder as a brace. This won't work if he's just put down a heavy canoe after a long portage, of course. He'll be breathing too hard. But in many other situations a buddy makes a workable tripod substitute. And this is one tripod you don't have to carry around between shots.
Boulders and Rock Outcrops Your buddy may be as hard as a rock, but there's no substitute for the genuine article — an honest‑to‑goodness boulder, say — when you need a really solid support. Sit on it, lean back against it, rest your arms across it (see Panel 11)… Whatever you do, and however long it takes you to frame a shot, a boulder won't complain about a crick in its neck. And it won't jerk away to slap a mosquito just as you're about to squeeze the shutter, either. It's not usually a good idea to rest the barrel of a lens directly on rock, however. Place something (your hat or your hand, for instance) underneath it.
I could go on in this vein for some time, but I'm sure I don't have to. Your imagination can work a lot faster than my fingers can type. That being the case, it's time to …
Bring It All Together
Snapshots are just that — shots you snap in a hurry. But if you're shooting for something better, you'll want to take a little time to compose and frame your pictures. And you'll need to do everything in your power to eliminate shake‑induced blur. In this article (and the one which preceded it, as well) I've suggested a few ways to do just that. Now it's your turn. To echo a line from a peerless sportsman, the best way to get good results is to shoot lots. Luckily, digital photography has made this both easy and cheap. All you have to do is hold 'em steady and squeeze 'em slow.
No paddler is born a great photographer. But all of us can shoot great shots, even though we may need a little help to get started. Last week, with the assistance of the Guidebook for Marines, I tackled the fundamentals: how to hold a camera. This time around, I once again tap the Corps' collective wisdom, exploring the many different ways you can hold your body. Do you want sharp, clear pictures? Then practice assuming the positions. Everything else follows from that.
Related Articles from In the Same Boat and elsewhere:
- "Backcountry Photography"
- "Backcountry Photography: Sharpshooting for Shutterbugs, Part 1"
- "Can't Shake the Shakes? Then Use a Strap to Steady Your Camera"
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