The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes

Da Grip: Holding a Camera Steady

Adapted from The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes (New Riders)

By Joe McNally

Dateline: April 29, 2009

"You must become the camera, grasshopper! Seriously!"

Anybody who knows me knows I am somewhat manic about holding my cameras steady, and I have a method. I cannot lay claim to this or take credit for it—it was shown to me by a real good press shooter named Keith Torrie many years ago at the New York Daily News.

One of the reasons this method works for me is that I am, somewhat strangely, left-eyed. Right-handed but left-eyed. Dunno why. Ever since I picked up a camera I always put it to my left eye. Little did I know that would create an advantage for me when I started to shoot motor-driven, professional cameras.

The extended base of the motor is ideal for tucking into that depression right between your shoulder and your collarbone. There is no pulse or heartbeat there, and no lungs heaving up and down. It forms a perfect support for your camera, if you just swing your shoulder in a little bit. Again, here is the process of literally “becoming the camera.” Your body is bracing the camera while your brain and hands command it.

This is me, coming to you as a visual aid, which I apologize for. What I am doing here is showing you a classic way of how not to hold a camera and a lens. Notice how I am stooped over? Where is the center of gravity? It is hovering out there in front of my nose somewhere, floating in space. In this posture, with this grip, there is no way that you will get consistently sharp results and no camera shake or movement. The camera, especially motor-driven cameras, have a fair amount of weight. As a test, try to mimic this posture with your camera, and hold it for a while, like more than a minute or so. The camera’s getting heavy, is it not? Your arms are getting tired, are they not?

This type of camera treatment makes for a long day in the field. Not only will you get results that are unsatisfactory, you will, plain and simple, just be exhausted.

Folks occasionally look at their unsharp pictures and curse the autofocus system of the camera. Oftentimes, it ain’t the camera. It is a question of operator steadiness. Old-fashioned camera shake, rattle, and roll. It will kill your picture every time out.

So try this.

Where is my weight? Over my legs, the strongest and longest muscles in the body. Where is the camera? Close to my face—jammed against it, really. Where is my support for the camera? Again, as straight up and down as I can make it, over the center of gravity. Where is my elbow of my support (left) arm? Tucked into my stomach, tight against me. All of this is simply the body supporting the camera. You must become the camera, grasshopper! Seriously! Your body has to coalesce around the camera, and this mechanical piece of glass, metal, and plastic must become an extension of your physical being, the same way your picture becomes an extension of your head, your heart, and your imagination.

Now, of course, there’s a lot of technology being brought to bear in transferring your imagination and emotions to pixels. The cameras nowadays do just about everything for you except cook your breakfast. In days gone by, there was a lot of frenetic activity orbiting around the camera and lens. For instance, you had to manually focus, and manually change f-stops. You had to figure out exposure externally because the in-camera meter was so crude. You had to change your shutter speeds manually. Now you have to do none of that, so all those fingers flying around have gone away. Gone away to the extent that you don’t really need your second hand involved (at least all the time) in the manual operation of the camera. Hence, why not... do this!

Do this and squeeze the shutter with your finger. Don’t hit the shutter button. Just like they tell you in sharpshooter school, just exhale and squeeze. Remember, too, that your first frame, the one you made when you literally punched the shutter button silly ‘cause you were so damn excited, may have a tendency to be your least sharp frame. After you make that first frenetic, kinetic input to the camera, though, ’round about your third or fourth frame, when you are not jabbing the shutter but working it in a smooth, collected way—nice and easy—those frames may be your sharpest.

Also, slow shutter speed anxiety is the reason the photo gods gave us consecutive high. Burst the camera. Somewhere in that burst, Jupiter will align with Mars and your pictures will get sharper.

Or, if you are not inclined to keep your left hand clasped over your right, it should not be... here!

Try not to use an overhand grip for your lens. That focusing hand, or zoom hand, should be tucked under the barrel of the lens, not resting on top of it. You are not supporting the lens this way, you are simply adding to the weight of it and increasing your chances of shake. Your hand should be tucked firmly under the lens, supporting the weight of it, kind of like… this!

You’re reading this and saying, “Okay, numnuts, while it might be fine to wrap yourself like a pretzel around the camera and lens, and chant to the Buddha for the peace of mind, body, and heart that will enable you to shoot sharp at 1/15th of a second or less, whaddya do when you gotta hold a flash, too?”

Assistants are handy, but they ain’t gonna be there with you all the time. In this day of light-and-fast, less-is-more, and cheap-is-good, all shooters increasingly find themselves on their own when it comes to field time. Which means most of the time you pretty much gotta hold your own stuff, especially when you are moving and shooting in journalistic, day-in-the-life mode, and not setting up a portrait in a controllable space.

No worries when the flash is hot shoed. Camera is still one unit. But what if you want the benefit of redirecting the light—pulling it off the camera and to the side, overhead, underneath, someplace, anyplace that’s not right smack dab at the eyeball of the lens? Ya gotta hold it. In your left hand, ‘cause all the cameras have right-hand grips. So now you’ve got a light out at the end of your left arm and a heavy digital camera gripped in your right, and no point of tether or support for either. You feel like a one-armed paper hanger. So few limbs, so much to do.

Grab the flash. But don’t go back into the traditional off-the-camera shooting mode, the one where your left arm is extended all the way and looks like you know the answer and you are desperately trying to signal the teacher. Instead, loop your arm around to the other side, allowing your left shoulder to remain the tabletop upon which the motor-driven camera rests. On the opposite side of your body, your left arm can still maneuver the flash up, down, and sideways. Your right-hand grip of the camera is hugely assisted by that left shoulder support group. Your camera remains at your eye, and you can shoot off-camera flash in a fluid, supported manner.

Apologies to right-eyed shooters. You’re screwed.

Kidding. There are a bunch of elements here that can be applied, no matter if you are left-eyed, right-eyed, or a Cyclops. The main thing is to be comfortable and collected around the camera. Remember to hold it firmly, like the formidable machine that it is, and not delicately or daintily, like it’s a Fabergé egg.

This is a tough business. Grab that camera and hang on tight.

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Excerpted from The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally. Copyright © 2009. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders. All rights reserved.