How to Shoot Sharp Handheld Photos with Low Shutter Speeds

It's a cruel world sometimes.  The Reciprocal Rule clearly states that if you want to get a shot without motion blur that you need to shoot faster than 1/focal length, but the reality of it is that there are going to be times where a tripod isn't an option and you have to go handheld.  I know, I know, it's brutal and unfair, and you're tired of raising a fist to the sky cursing the sun for setting.  I totally get it.  So what then can you do?

Don't fret!  Stay the course! There's hope for a photo yet if you play your cards right!  Here are a few tips to help.


1. Focus on breathing techniques:

Just before you're going to shoot try to mentally relax yourself, and focus on your breathing.  Take two deep breaths in and slowly exhale them, then after your second breath is exhaled hold your breath for a couple seconds and shoot.  It's the same technique we use in the military to stabilize our rifles and keep them on target, and it really works well.

2. Use a wall to make yourself a tripod:

Much like a tripod functions you can rest your body against a solid object to stabilize yourself.  It may get awkward or uncomfortable though, so try to think on your feet and put a jacket or something soft between yourself and the object if you need to.  The shot you're looking for rarely cares how comfortable you are, so it's up to you to get the job done.

3. Rest your elbows:

Don't stand up with your elbows out if you can avoid it.  Rest your elbows on a table, against your side, or even the ground (lay down) and let your arms be a stable support.  The longer your shoulders have to bear the weight of your arms, camera, and lens, the more shaky they'll get.  Take shake out of the equation.

4. Don't fear the ISO:

Much like Blue Oyster Cult wouldn't fear the reaper, you shouldn't fear your ISO.  Yes, jacking that bad boy up will increase your noise, but you know what's worse?  Not getting any photos at all.  With a higher ISO you can boost your shutter speed and cut back a bit of that motion.  Also, programs like Lightroom and ON1 have great features that counter noise.

5. Shoot in continuous high:

This method is also called, "Spray and pray," where you set your camera to continuously fire in rapid succession, praying that one of the shots will be sharp.  You know what?  It totally works.  Admittedly I use it often in low light weddings when brides are walking down the aisle to be sure I have a frame where nobody is blinking, sneezing, or ugly crying.  Any shooter who doesn't is really taking an unnecessary risk. What's a few extra shots?  Buy a bigger memory card if you need to, but don't let those clients down!

6. Shoot your photos in RAW and purposefully underexpose:

Sometimes a long shutter speed simply isn't an option either.  So long as the exposure will be within a 2-3 stops of light underexposed you can safely shoot the shutter speed you need and just bump the exposure in post.  It's not ideal, but as mentioned in #4, there are a number of fantastic processing programs at fighting noise.


If those techniques don't work for you, then maybe it's time to give in and buy some equipment to counter the environment you're shooting in.  Tripods, monopods, flashes, or wide aperture lenses will all help you countering tough situations.  Don't forget that there's no substitute for practice, so get out and shoot!

 
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-Wes.