How to Properly Hold a DSLR Camera

In Photo Basics by Jim Harmer41 Comments

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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.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. Thank you! This is something I will need to remember to do correctly until it becomes a habbit! Good stuff! Stacey

  2. The kneeling position tip is good. You can also rest the portion between the tricep and elbow against the knee for added stability. I use this technique when shooting my rifle and transitioned this to my camera shooting while kneeling. Works great!

  3. I’ve tried a few of these methods and they work quite good!

    Also I’ve noticed that, when using a ‘heavy’ zoom lens,you get a tremendous amount of stability by using your left elbow as support and placing your left hand on your right elbow. It looks kinda weird, but it’s the best support I’ve got without any solid surface.

  4. As I’ve gotten older, even these tips have proven less effective than I need for a steadier camera. In-lens stabilization and a ball-head monopod now round out the necessary tools for the sharpness desired when not using a tripod.

  5. Great tips. But nobody ever mentions a battery grip? A battery grip serves more purposes than just longer batter life.

    1.It helps balance your camera. The weight of a heavy lens and can be (partially) combated with the weight of a batter grip.

    2.Grip. For tiny hands, not quite as important. But for those with medium to large hands, the battery grip provides additional support.

    3.Vertical Stability. The graphic above is great. But with the addition of a battery grip, you can continue to keep your elbows in close. Many people are not aware that battery grips also provide a shutter button and basic controls.

    If you have never tried a battery grip, give it a shot.

  6. This is all nonsense. The only way to steady a hand-held DSLR (or any other camera) is to put your arm through the strap which brings it behind your back with its length adjusted so that when you pull it forward it has tension on it when it rests against your forehead. It then becomes rock-steady and you can shoot with extremely slow shutter speeds. Most pros know this trick and use it when shooting in low light conditions requiring slow shutter speeds or with telephoto lens settings.

  7. By observing a friend shoot, I can add “do not chew gum while shooting”
    and from previews long range rifle shooting i got used to hold my breath juste before I hit the shutter button.

  8. I have a mini tripod (fotopro, hongkong)
    that opens up and, with the strap, acts as a body-mounted brace
    If you find the add online, it shows how!
    (they take paypal was £60 delivered) also usful as a travel tripod, extends to 500mm with the supplied ballhead

  9. Great Tips!!
    Also, it helps to hold the lens with the left hand using the palm from below and not only the fingertips as I have seen too many times

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.)

  13. Oh, and (1) good article and (2) I think that the logo of someone holding the camera incorrectly is a perfect logo for improving photography!

  14. I agree with Jake about the battery grip and if you have that then you have your shutter on the other side. Balanced!

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