Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tips for hand holding a camera with a lens like the Fuji 18-135mm and its 5-stop Vibration Reduction

The new Fuji 18-135mm lens with its purported 5-stops of vibration reduction raises the question: How much can we really depend upon the VR claims made for modern cameras and lenses?  A 5-stop VR means that 1/4 second shutter translates into a 1/125th second hand held. Sounds like this speed should work for most situations, but the practical reality sometimes proves otherwise. Over-reliance on VR numbers often leads to disappointing results. It is best to develop good, steady-shooting habits, which, when coupled with modern VR claims can result in blur free images.

I have been testing the Fuji 18-135mm lens at low shutter speeds to see how much I can depend upon its claims. While I could go down to 1/4 second, for the most part such a slow speed resulted in blurred shots with an occasional lucky one. This is what I expected and is the reason I have developed slow speed shooting techniques over the years.

Photographs will always be at their steadiest with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. That said, there are times when you just don't have a tripod with you in an opportune moment. In this blog post I am going to discuss a few techniques for holding a camera steady. These can be applied whether using a slow shutter speed or not. Sometimes,what we think of as a fast enough speed will still transmit some motion blur to the image.

This dusk shot was taken at 1/8th second with a 74mm focal length (112mm equivalent). Panning the camera with the ferry kept it sharp while there is lateral motion blur on the background. 

The slowest speed at which a camera can be safely hand held is 1 over the focal length. So a 50mm lens would require a shutter speed of around 1/60th second, while a 200mm lens would need 1/250 second to achieve the same degree of motion stopping power. On top of this, 1/60th second was considered the minimum speed required for vibration free shooting, and that was only while using steady shooting techniques. Modern VR lenses change all of this, but how much is the question.

Here are some shooting techniques I have developed over the years to produce steadier shots while holding a camera at lower speeds:

1. Use a shorter focal length. Keep in mind that in addition to magnifying the size of the subject long lenses also magnify motion. What might be sufficient to stop motion at 18mm is not going to work the same at 135mm. Re-composing a shot so it can be taken with a shorter lens will help reduce blur.

2. Shoot in bursts instead of single shots.  When you press the shutter button you apply a downward pressure on it that moves the entire camera and can contribute to motion blur. To avoid this put the camera on continuous shooting mode, press and hold the shutter for several exposures. The initial pressed shot will be the most susceptible to motion. The next shots will be steadier because you are avoiding the push on the shutter button.

Hand held at a focal length of 104mm (156mm equivalent) and shutter speed of 1/15th second. This speed is very low for such a long focal length. I "bracketed the shutter speed" by first steadying myself and then taking several bursts of 3-4 shots. Some were very soft, some were moderately acceptable, and a few were sharp. I took a total of 24 "safety" exposures, even though all I needed was one good one out of the bunch.  
3. Bracket your shutter:   Don't be lulled into reliance on the vibration reduction claims. In those situations where you really need it to work the light will generally be awful -- high contrast with deep, dark shadows and no detail, while lighted areas may be overly lit with incandescent spot lights. By "bracketing your shutter" I mean considerably over-shooting to guarantee that at least one shot will be sharp. In number 2 above, you should already be using a motor drive.  Keep it pressed for several exposures.

4. Brace yourself against something solid.  If you can lean yourself and the arm supporting the camera against a solid surface, you can stabilize yourself and minimize the movement of your body. Couple this with #7 below and you could have a very stable platform for shooting.

5. Develop good breathing technique: Breathing causes motion. Nervous, or anxious breathing, or out-of-breath breathing causes even more body motion. To counteract this breath in deeply to oxiginate and calm yourself, then breath out and pause for a moment. Click the shutter in this moment. Sounds like some sort of Zen ritual, but it is really just common sense and works well anytime you need to take aim at something.

6. Rely on bone rather than muscle to support the camera:  If you hold the camera with your elbows pointing out, you are using your arm muscles to try and hold it steady. Resting the camera in the palm of your hand while keeping your arm straight up and down with the elbows tucked into your body allows the camera to rest on top our your arm bone. Bone is solid making it less subjective to shaking.

On the left the elbows are away from the body where they are unstable, whereas on the right the elbows are tucked into the body and the camera rests on top of the left palm -- a much more stable position.

7. Don't grip the camera with your left hand:  Allow the camera to rest in the palm of your left hand without gripping it tightly. Gripping the camera too tightly requires the use of muscles and muscles can cause shake.

8. Use your strap to add stability: Place the strap under your elbow and twist it around your forearm so that it is taught and the camera rests solidly in the palm of the hand.  Pushing up with the left hand should add tension to the strap to stabilize the camera. Keep the elbow tucked into the body for even more stability.  You may need to add a slight adjustment to the length of your camera strap for to maintain the proper degree of tension.

This method is very quickly applied in the field. It is similar to the idea of pulling against a string attached to your belt and pulled taught to add tension .  The main difference is that the camera strap technique is handier because it is always with you, and works similarly, if not even better. 

The Fuji 18-135mm zoom hand-held at f/8 and 1/15th of a second and 37mm (55mm equivalent) focal length.  Theoretically, that shutter speed would be equivalent to shooting at 1/500th second, and sounds like it should be sufficient to stop any motion. Don't trust it. No matter how good the VR looks on paper, it does not translate to the expected steadiness the formula suggests. 
At first some of these suggestions might seem a bit awkward to implement, but it won't take much practice for steady shooting techniques to become a regular habit.

Develop a habit of always shooting with steady techniques regardless of the actual shutter speed. No matter how good you are with your hand-holding technique, you are a shaky bi-pod that will never beat a steady tripod at the job of holding a camera steady. A lens like the Fuji 18-135mm is a modern miracle of vibration reduction and particularly handy with its slower maximum apertures. Keeping the shutter speed down, while sometimes risking a blurred shot, helps me avoid going too much noise with a high ISO. Everything is a trade-off. Getting the proper balance between the elements is the trick, and a 5-stop VR helps.

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The Fujifilm XF 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   

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