When it comes to handholding telephoto lenses, the generally recognized rule is that you should never handhold any lens at a shutter speed slower than the equivalent focal length of the lens. In other words, you shouldn’t handhold a 50mm lens at a shutter speed slower than 1/50-second, a 300mm lens at a shutter speed slower than 1/300-second, a 500mm lens at shutter speeds slower than 1/500-second, etc. That’s assuming you have a steady hand to begin with, and haven’t been slurping a Starbucks within an hour or so of using your camera.
Now this doesn’t mean you can’t handhold a lens at shutter speeds slower than the equivalent focal length, it simply means there’s a good chance your pictures won’t be tack sharp, and maybe even blurry if you do. Truth is, I’ve successfully handheld 500mm lenses at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30-second with good results, but that’s with the camera set to continuous high speed at about eight frames per second. And even in this case, only two or three exposures out of about two dozen were on the money; the rest were trashed.
I mention these parameters because of the number of point-and-shoot and bridge-style cameras that have come to market sporting zoom lenses in the 20x to 42x range, which in layman’s terms, translates into telephoto zooms the equivalent of anywhere from 500 to 1000mm. Needless to say, these super zooms can prove to be hairy in the steadiest hands. The good news is that by taking advantage of one or more of the features that are standard on almost every camera we’re talking about—and a gadget or two (pocket-size of course!)—you can easily capture sharp photos regardless of how closely you zoom in on your subject.
Over the past few years we’ve witnessed a steady increase in top-end ISO sensitivity levels. (Who ever thought ISO 6400 would be considered ho-hum?) Although the more extreme ISO ranges should be reserved for extreme lighting scenarios, sometimes you have to view a bit of noise and grain as the price of snagging a sharp (and still quite usable) image file. If you keep your ISO set to Auto, chances are your camera is already on the case and has bumped your ISO sensitivity to a level that, based on the ambient light levels and focal-length setting, already meets the needs of the moment. If not, now’s the time to goose the ISO to a higher number, which depending on your camera, will be close to if not at the highest possible setting. Time and subject permitting, you might want to capture the scene at several ISO settings to see how far you truly need to set the ISO and still maintain an acceptable degree of sharpness.
If you’re using a digital camera manufactured in the current century, it likely contains two to five built-in image stabilization modes. Branded under a gaggle of trademarked names and abbreviations including IS (Image Stabilization), VR (Vibration Reduction), Anti-Shake, SWD (Supersonic Wave Drive), O.I.S (Optical Image Stabilization) and VC (Vibration Control), each of these systems is designed to ensure that your stills and videos will be sharp when the ambient lighting conditions are less than optimal.
There are two main types of image stabilization (or for the sake of brevity, IS): optical and digital. Optical IS, in which blur is neutralized by rapidly shifting the rear element(s) of the lens simultaneously in equal but opposite directions of the camera movements, is the preferred method for minimizing the effects of camera shake. The advantage of optical IS is that because the lens absorbs or neutralizes camera movement before the image is recorded by the camera’s imaging sensor, the end results are typically sharper compared to what you would see with digital image stabilization.
Digital IS, in which the image is de-blurred electronically using a number of real time or post capture processing methods, is more commonly used in camcorders. It is not as efficient at tidying up blurry photos, and depending on a number of factors, usually results in pictures that are never quite as sharp as their optically stabilized counterparts.
Depending on the make and model of your particular camera, the IS system is most likely a hybrid that incorporates optical and digital IS technology, combined with an automatic boost in ISO sensitivity as needed. For the details of how your particular camera handles image stabilization issues, refer to your camera’s manual or the manufacturer’s website. But do take advantage of image stabilization technology (regardless of what your camera’s manufacturer calls it) when photographing at the far end of your camera’s zoom range.
Depending on the make and model of your camera, you may or may not want to turn off the camera’s IS system when working with a tripod. Many cameras (and IS-enabled optics) feature an IS tripod mode, but not all do, in which case you might end up with less than desirable, blurry results. If in doubt, please refer to your camera’s manual.
One of the downers of most longer range point-and-shoot zoom lenses is that they’re slow, meaning they only open up to f/2.8 or f/3.5 at best, and that’s at the wide end of the zoom range. Once you start zooming in, the numbers get progressively worse (usually in the neighborhood of f/6.3 or slower), and that’s before you stop the lens down. Depending on their level of sophistication, most Program modes automatically defer to wider lens apertures as you zoom into the longer focal ranges. Contingent to how your camera is set up, it may automatically bump up the ISO sensitivity as you zoom toward the outer reaches of the zoom range. Here too, check your camera manual for the details.
A safer option is to set your camera to Aperture Priority and shoot at (or not far from) the lens’s widest aperture, which automatically keeps your shutter speeds at their highest setting, based on the ambient light levels.
You can also set your camera to Shutter Priority, but if you’re shooting in low light, you run the risk of underexposing your pictures if the lens can’t open wide enough to compensate for your selected shutter speed.
How you hold your camera is a big factor in determining how sharp your stills and video turn out, and the first thing you want to do when shooting at longer focal lengths is avoid composing and shooting distant landscapes using your camera’s LCD held at arm’s length—and that’s with or without your camera’s image stabilization system turned on. Instead you should rely on your camera’s optical finder (OVF) or electronic viewfinder (EVF), depending on your choice of camera.
Click image for illustration
OVFs and EVFs are available in cameras with zooms as modest as 5x and 10x, and become increasingly common as the zoom range increases. By the time you get to the bridge-style cameras in the 30x-plus range, EVFs are standard viewing options across the board.
The reason LCDs are squirrelly when shooting at longer focal lengths is because holding anything out in front of you at arm’s length becomes fatiguing in a short measure of time, and fatigued arms aren’t conducive to capturing sharp pictures at modest focal lengths, let alone at extreme focal lengths. Add the challenge of fending off reflections and glare while you’re trying to hold the camera steady and you can start appreciating how difficult something as basic as taking a sharp picture can become suddenly.
By using your camera’s OVF or EVF, you now have the advantage of three-point contact with your camera; the brow of your eye when you peer through the finder and your two hands, which can be further steadied by bracing your elbows against your rib cage.
If your camera has a swivel or tiltable LCD, you can alternatively tilt the LCD perpendicular to the camera body—screen side up—and hold your camera against your midsection like a twin-lens reflex. This style of shooting is less fatiguing than holding the camera at eye level and offers a great deal of stability, especially if you tuck your arms and elbows tightly against your body. Shooting in this manner also makes blocking stray light easier, if not eliminating it altogether, depending on where the sun is in relation to where you are aiming your camera.
When handholding a camera with a long telephoto lens, once your grip is secure and everything is tucked and braced, it’s a good idea to exhale just before you press the shutter button. Exhaling tends to relax your body, compared to inhaling, which causes your body to tense up, resulting in a higher probability of shakiness. The same tip can be applied when using a table tripod as a chest support as described in the section on pocket-sized camera supports, below.
One last tip before moving on has to do with the way you hold your camera. The most stable, and coincidently the most comfortable way to hold your camera, is to grip it in the usual manner with your right hand around the camera’s grip with your finger within easy reach of the zoom control and shutter release and your left hand under the lens barrel as if you’re cradling it. By palming the lens you maintain solid control of the lens (as well as the lens controls) with far less fatigue.
The best way to capture sharp stills and video using extreme telephotos is to mount the camera on a large, sturdy tripod. However, the reason you bought your palm-sized (or smaller) super-zoom digital camera in the first place is because you don’t want to schlep additional gear—especially large and heavy gear—whenever you go out photographing.
As a practical (and pocketable) alternative to hauling around a Series-4 Gitzo tripod, we suggest looking into an inexpensive tabletop tripod, almost all of which fold up quite small and tightly for easy stowage and pocketability. And they are inexpensive, with a number of them costing under $25.00. If your budget allows, you can also spring for ten times that amount for Leica’s all-but-indestructible Tabletop Tripod and Ball & Socket Head combo.
The advantage of tabletop tripods is that they enable you to use almost any hard surface, be it the roof of a car, a large rock, or any other hard surface that won’t roll away when you lean on it for camera support. You can also use tabletop tripods as chest pods, in which the tripod's legs are positioned on your chest while you peer into the camera’s OVF or EVF, which together offers you a greater degree of stability than handholding the camera.
In addition to traditional three-legged minipods, other easily portable camera supports include Gorillapods, Looxcie Table Top Tripods, and the Flip-Video Flexible Mini Tripod, each of which features flexible legs that enable you to stabilize your camera when working on irregular surfaces. Last but not least, you can also invest in one of the many inexpensive bean bag camera supports we carry, any of which will serve to steady the longest super-zoom cameras for sharp results at any focal length.