No matter how good of a photographer you are, if you can’t hold the camera steady your images will turn out like crap. Image stabilization is one of the most important aspects of photography. If you have a great picture opportunity make the most of it and be sure you will be holding that camera steady.
This article will explore a lot of different tools that you can use to hold your camera steady and reduce the dreaded camera shake. I will also give my opinions on brands. So here is my disclaimer: I do not have any corporate sponsors, I pay retail for all my equipment and I give ya the good and bad opinions for brands of things I try.
First, lets examine the best ways you can hold your camera to be steady on your own without extra mechanical aids. Really, who wants to carry extra crap if you don’t have to, right? The basic rule for years has been anything slower than 1/60th of a second you can’t hand hold. That rule still applies and you also have to remember that it was designed for use with a 50mm lens. A more accurate rule is that you can’t hand hold anything lower than the “length of your lens”. For example 200mm you need 1/200th, 600mm you need 1/600th. There will always be people out there that have big egos and like to compete about who can hand hold 1 second exposures, but they are usually young and have a lot less years on their body than I do, ha ha.
There are a few techniques you can use to help hold steady. The way you hold your camera is a big consideration. Keep your elbows in and hold the camera to your face to help stabilize it. Also, hold your breath as you press the shutter. Leaning against something like a tree or a building can help you a lot as well, or sitting. If you are in a car, that car window is a great support for your camera.
After you are done with your best ability of your body there are many mechanical aids out there that will make your life easier. Some are bigger and bulkier than others; basically you sacrifice comfort for greater stability.
Tripods. Tripods are the best means of stabilization. Basically the bigger, stronger, heavier they are the more stable they will be. I started out many years ago using a Slik aluminum tripod. I still have it and my kids use it all the time. It is actually nice and steady and lightweight. The head is useless but the kids are just happy to have something big and professional looking, ha ha. Slik still makes tripods and I haven’t tried one out, but I’d say they are worth a look since they have always been low cost. Plus if they are still in business they must be doing something right after all these years.
Today I use Gitzo carbon fiber tripods. I honestly can’t say anything bad about them except for the price, ouch. But they open and close easily, they are strong and the quality is worth the price. I do have one Benro tripod. It is the travel one that folds up backwards to make it very small and compact. Unfortunately I really can’t say much good about it except for the small size. The included ball head does not let me feel comfortable with a professional camera and medium size lens. I’m afraid it will fall off or wobble around. The biggest complaint I have with it is the legs do not stay locked. Now, let me explain; often when I’m walking through the woods I use the tripod to help me steady myself. I extend one leg and use it like a walking stick or support when I’m climbing over a log or large rock. With the Benro tripod it will almost always collapse inside itself. I have never had it collapse when I’m using it with a camera thank goodness, but it is a big complaint I have. Upon examination I discovered that they use a very fine thread pattern to tighten and loosen the twist clamps for the leg. I think the fine thread is the problem because obviously it doesn’t allow you to tighten it enough. Also, for some weird reason they do not use the “righty tightly , lefty loosen” method to tighten and loosen the legs; it’s backwards. So enough bashing them, just buy the gitzo version and you’ll be happier.
Now, if you can’t afford the best tripod out there you can add some stability to the one you have. Firstly, try not to extend the tripod out all the way. The shorter it is the more stable it will be for you. Try not to extend the center column either, that will take away some of your stability. If you do have to have all the legs extended, hang something heavy from your center column. This will help it stay down and make it a bit stronger.
Ball heads are the next important part of a tripod. I personally haven’t found one that I’m overjoyed about. I suggest that you go out and try a few at your local store if possible. Look for a heavy one that has big knobs which you don’t have to turn much to tighten or loosen for adjustments. If you are using at larger lens like a 300mm 2.8 or larger then you need to use a gimbal head. Wimberley makes an awesome one. There are a lot of knock off versions of their older model. Some are good, some are not. Their newer model is spectacular and I figure if you spend thousands on that big lens then spend another $500 and get a real Wimberley head. They are a small company and it feels good to support them. Plus they have the best customer service that I have ever delt with from any camera equipment manufacturer. Period! Call them, I’d love to be sponsored by them, I think they really deserve our money.
Moving down the road we come to monopods. Monopods are awesome if you only need to get a little bit of stabilization or if you need to be portable. I often use a monopod on my 600mm with fantastic results. The best way I’ve found is sitting with it extended a small amount to get the least amount of wobble with that big lens. They are great tools where you are in a rush to get the shot or you just don’t want to carry that big bulky tripod all over the woods with you trying to find those bears.
Beanbags are wonderful for all sizes of lenses. A beanbag can completely immobilize a camera on a car window, a rock ledge, almost anywhere. The biggest complaint I hear about beanbags is that they are big and bulky and take up a lot of space, well that’s easy to fix. I don’t own an actual beanbag, I have an empty zip lock bag and I fill it with dirt, sand, or whatever is laying around the area. It works, it’s free, and it doesn’t take up any space in my bag.
Recently I’ve discovered a new product called a Steadepod. It basically screws into your tripod socket on your camera, then a wire comes out of it and you step on the end of the wire. Then you pull up and it adds tension and support. I know you have no idea what I mean so check out their website www.steadepod.com they can explain it better than I can. I haven’t tested it enough to say one way or another if I like it yet, but for $25 it’s worth a try I figure.
Nobody likes to carry a tripod and set it up and then carry it back to the car, it’s a pain in the ass. Unfortunately it’s often a necessity until we can figure out how to make the assistant become frozen.