How to Properly Hold a DSLR Camera

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Introduction

My inbox is filled each morning with questions from students in my online photography classes asking various photography questions.  I’m glad to get the questions because it helps me to think of what I should write about here on Improve Photography.  You would be shocked to see how many of the questions are about sharpness and how to avoid blurry pictures.  Most of the time, the question goes something like this…

“Hey Jim. I love doing photography, but the pictures that I get from my current assortment of beginner lenses aren’t very clear. How can I get sharper and clearer pictures?”

This is a huge problem and it is nearly impossible to answer in an email which of the dozens of factors is contributing to the lack of sharpness; however, I also teach A LOT of in-person photography workshops, and I can comfortably say after watching hundreds of beginning and intermediate photographers that 99% of sharpness problems are caused by errors in the photographer’s form–and not by the lens.  There are certainly exceptions.  I met a few of those exceptions when testing out lenses for Tamron last month…. (more on that in another post).

So, 99% of the blurry pictures I see are not caused by problems with the lens.  Most of the time, the picture was not taken properly.  If you feel like sharpness is an issue, then you should first read this previous post with tips on getting sharper pictures.  Once you’ve done that, then it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty of how to hold a camera.

Why does it matter how I hold my DSLR?

Grab a flashlight or a laser light and shine it on the wall across the room.  No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to hold the light perfectly still.  That’s actually an accurate description of sharpness in photography.  Your camera is attempting to record light from an area away from the camera, yet the camera is moving.  Learning to hold your camera properly will hugely impact how slow of a shutter speed you can achieve while hand-holding.

It’s ironic to me that many photographers are willing to spend thousands of dollars on fast lenses or new cameras with better low-light performance, yet they don’t spend 10 minutes to think of the steadiest ways to hold the camera.

Fundamentals of holding the camera properly

The most important aspect of holding a DSLR properly is good contact points.  The problem with the photographer featured on this page is that her arms are not supported at all, so they cannot hold the camera steadily.  While standing up, you can usually achieve solid contact points by resting your elbows against your body.

When holding the camera while crouching, kneeling, or lying down, photographers make many mistakes.  In these positions, photographers often rest their elbows on hard surfaces.  For example, while kneeling, many photographers rest one elbow on the knee.  This position is not solid because the joint-to-joint contact allows for a lot of play.  By scooting the elbow back slightly so it rests on the meat of the leg rather than on the knee, the contact point is much more solid.  This is a tip used by rifle shooters to increase their stability while aiming, and it is just as applicable for photographers.

Holding the camera in landscape orientation (horizontal)

The most important aspect of holding a camera in landscape orientation is that the elbows are tucked in tightly against the body.  This may feel awkward at first, but it will pay off when shooting in low-light or when you need to use a slow shutter speed without a tripod.

Second, be sure to press the viewfinder firmly against your face.  When I hold my camera to my face, I turn my head slightly so that it contacts some of my cheek, which is an additional contact point.

Last, recognize that most people will be able to hold a heavier camera more steadily than a light camera.  The body has a tough time reducing jitters without something to push against.  While I have found this to be true for me, it may not be true for all people.  My wife hates shooting with my Nikon because it is so heavy that she can’t hold it still.

The picture below illustrates how to correctly hold a camera in landscape orientation.  Want an example of how NOT to hold a DSLR?  Look no further than the Improve Photography logo.  See how the elbows extend out from the body and form a right angle under the DSLR?  It’s bad news…

The Improve Photography logo placed next to a woman holding a DSLR the best way.

Now that I've realized that the Improve Photography logo is wrong, do you suppose its worth it to pay a designer $50 to fix it?

Holding the camera in portrait orientation (vertical)

The vertical position is one of the most difficult positions to hand-hold, because one elbow needs to be raised in the air and has no contact point with the body; however, there are a few things you can do to increase your stability when hand-holding the DSLR in the vertical position.

The first tip is to consider purchasing a battery grip for your camera.  A battery grip is an extension to the bottom of the camera that holds an extra battery and provides a secondary shutter button so you don’t have to reach up and over the camera to reach the built-in shutter button.  This feature comes standard with high-end DSLRs, but battery grips are available for any model camera.  While the battery grip made by the manufacturer (Canon or Nikon, for instance) costs about $200, you can usually buy a cheap third-party battery grip for your camera for under $50.  Just head over to Amazon and search the name of your camera and the words “battery grip” and you’ll be sure to find it.

If you don’t own a battery grip for your camera, then pay special attention to the picture below.  The model on the left has no support under her elbows, so it will be impossible to hold the camera steadily.  The model on the right uses the support by her elbow to be much more steady.  This simple fix can allow you to shoot at much slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible.

Two models holding cameras--one correctly, and the other one holding it the wrong way.

The photographer on the left has no support for the elbows with the camera in the vertical position, but the photographer on the right has supported the camera properly.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    I shoot with both elbows out (more so than the girl in the first example)to protect my camera, my shot and myself. I started this while working at my first Newspaper job to “stake my claim” on any position I shot from since photographers would fight over every square inch. This habit carried over to the events I shoot now which many times involve a crowd of shoulder to shoulder people. Keeping my elbows out is a way to shield my face and camera from getting hit by random hands, arms etc.

  2. says

    I’ve never thought of getting a grip before reading the article and Jake Easley’s reply.
    And one more thing. Actually not just holding breath as Toto said. Exhale and shoot. Or with the air inside, the body tends to move.

  3. says

    A pro friend (shoots sports & weddings) suggested keeping your feet about shoulder width apart and taking a small step (about a foot) forward with one foot. The combination helps me a lot. (I don’t see any difference when I try Arthur’s suggestion.)

  4. says

    As for changing your logo, I really like it the way it is. After all, the name of your company is “improve” photography, so what’s wrong with having something in the graphic that needs improvement. Ha Ha. Some pros make take it more serious if the elbows were in, but if someone questioned it, you could always tell them you wanted to illustrate a beginner, who needs instruction. If your clientele is largely amateur then the branding is appropriate the way it is. :)

  5. says

    I had never known about a “Battery Grip” I am so excited and think it will help a lot. I have Multiple Sclerosis and Balance and tremors become issues that I have to always be creative and find extra ways to balance myself (so I don’t fall) for steadier pics. But it does bring on a Question for me. Due to the tremors I do use the multi burst option most times. I would love to have the extra battery for a few reasons (that I have read in a few of your readings). The “Battery Grip” I can buy Universal, which is much cheaper. What do you recommend on Buying Batteries For a Nikon? Do I buy from Nikon or can I go with Universal and save money?????

  6. says

    I have found that, when shooting portrait (vertical), holding the camera the opposite direction from what’s pictured (shutter button at the bottom) is much more stable. It also puts less stress on your grip and allows you to support the camera with your whole arm. I can get my support arm very close to my body, and use the hand supporting the lens to be more secondary. I’ve never understood why all instructions on how to hold a camera have it the opposite way. Can someone explain? Thanks!

  7. says

    In my firearms shooting experience/training (10 years worth with pistol and long guns) I have always been taught to shoot in the natural pause between breaths. If you pay attention to your own breathing pattern, there is a natural pause. That is the best time to pull the trigger as that is when you have the least amount of movement. If you hold your breath and you are unable to take the shot immediately, you will become antsy and uncomfortable because you need to breathe!

  8. says

    Regarding shooting vertical I’m goofy eyed. When I water ski I put my right foot in the back and everyone told me that I ski in a “goofy foot” position. Since I roll the camera from horizontal to vertical by rotating 90 degrees clockwise and still use my right eye. This allows me to tuck my right hand firmly under the camera and the elbow against my chest. My left arm is also firm under the lens and tight against my other arm. I found this to be a rock solid position that rivals Da Grip from Joe McNally.

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