How To Hold a Camera

Digital photography has enabled many fine photographs, but many of the techniques that formed the basic repertoire of professional photographers have been lost in the film-to-digital shuffle. Primary among these are steady hands and smooth motion panning.

Steady Hands

Today, low-light photography is made easy by adjusting the camera ISO, allowing faster shutter speeds.

In the days of film, ISO (ASA) was fixed, and longer exposures were necessary for low-available-light shots. Then as now, tripods were preferred to steady the camera, but there are many situations where a tripod is inconvenient and possibly unavailable. For instance, wedding photographers doing candle-lit portraits would handhold exposures of 1/8 or 1/15 second.

Today more and more photographers are losing good shots to camera motion at shutter speeds of 1/25 sec and faster because they can’t hold a camera steady. Learning to do so requires practice. Don’t rely on Image Stabilization. Every camera manual I have seen has a Basic Shooting section that explains how to hold the camera. I have yet to find a new photographer who can admit they read that part of the manual.

First, hold the camera body firmly in your right hand, keeping your index finger free to reach the shutter button. Cradle the camera and/or lens in the palm of your left hand so your fingers can adjust the focus or zoom. Then bring the camera to your eye, tuck your arms and elbows against your chest, and, using both hands, hold the camera firmly against your face while you look through the viewfinder. Now breathe.

As you watch through the viewfinder remember to keep both eyes open. Train your viewfinder eye to be dominant. Now try holding one of the AF or AE marks against a fixed point in the view (not easy!), and move yourself into a comfortable and stable stance. Acceptable stances you will find are:

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while standing.


Left foot forward

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while kneeling on one knee.


On one knee

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while kneeling on both knees.


On both knees, sitting on heels

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while seated on a bench.


on a chair or other raised surface with feet spread

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while seated on the ground.


On the ground

If you sit on the ground, spread your feet and bend your knees so you can lean forward and brace your elbows against your knees.

Photo showing stance to hold camera steady while lying prone on the ground.


For a prone position, brace your elbows on the ground and make yourself your tripod. (Practice them all.)


You will find as you inhale, the camera will tend to drift up. As you gently exhale, it becomes easier to hold the camera steady. If you try to hold your breath, you will probably see the camera bounce in time with your heartbeat.

Now as you hold the camera, take two or three deep breaths, and then concentrate on holding it steady as you exhale. Inhale again, and repeat the exercise as you exhale. Get the feel of when the camera is steadiest. Know your sweet spot.

Steady Practice

Now you are ready to try taking some pictures. Set your camera to full manual (M) or shutter priority (Tz) and set the shutter speed to 1/8 sec. Try this indoors or in low light.

The other source of camera movement is a jerky shutter release. Get your scene focused, Find a sharp point, or a couple of sharp edges (horizontal and vertical).  As you enter the sweet spot in your breathing, smoothly press the shutter button to take the picture. Don’t punch it. Think more about simply moving it into your right hand as you hold the camera.

Then preview the image you have just taken, magnifying it to check for camera motion. Keep doing this until you can be sure just from the feel that ‘that was a steady shot’.

Make this feeling a part of your photography, no matter what shutter speed you are using. Even for rapid-fire continuous shooting, it pays to have steady hands. You will notice the difference.

Smooth Panning

Panning is the art of following motion with a camera.

At high shutter speeds, a good panning technique will allow you to maintain your composition with a moving subject. If necessary, you will be able to take a series of photographs with the subject positioned at a fixed point in all the frames. At slow shutter speeds, it will allow you to properly expose a moving subject, keeping it sharp, while allowing the background to blur with the camera motion. Learning to pan also requires practice.

Panning requires steady hands. If your hands are not steady, go back to the first section and keep practicing. You need to be steady and smooth. You are following a scene that disappears when the mirror flips up. You cannot see while the photograph is being taken.

example test image from practice horizontal pan.

As an initial exercise, move your camera from right to left during the exposure, using a shutter speed of 1/2 sec. Make sure the streaks are smooth and horizontal. Try the same from left to right. Are you keeping the camera pointed at the same level or is it climbing or dropping?

Then find a practice subject.

In reduced light like a rainy day, or in the late evening around sundown, set up beside a road and start photographing passing cars with your shutter set to 1/10 sec.

Photo showing horizontal pan following moving automobile.

It’s easy when you have practiced. Not so easy if you have never done it before.

When an image presents itself, you seldom have the opportunity to grab a tripod. Learning to keep your hand-held camera steady is critical!