Good technique, for any photographer is important, but for a press photographer it is paramount, and it should be drilled and rehearsed until it is second nature, whether it is practicing panning with cars for doing car shots through the window, or rehearsing quick lens changes or swapping one camera body for another, it makes sense to be entirely comfortable with what you are doing. The principle advantage is that if you know what you can know, then you can plan for the things that you don’t know, and things that are known unknowns and the things that unknown unknowns, Oi Rumsfeld move along please nothing to see here.
So here is a brief tutorial on technique, from the very basics, you will be surprised how many keen amateurs get it very, very wrong, from how to hold your camera, with a short lens, medium and long lens, using a monopod, panning, the lot. If there is anything that I have left off please feel free to let me know, because then they will be known unknowns rather than unknown unknowns, and we all no how much, much easier life is without the unknowns.
Many keen photographers will ask if you are right eye dominant or left eye dominant, because that will dictate which eye you use at the back of the camera. I say, it does not matter; train yourself to be able to use either eye. There will be occasions when to get the shot that you want, you can’t get your favoured eye behind the camera, this maybe for a number of reasons, usually for me it when I am working out of the car, when I need to shoot through the sweet spot of the front windscreen, or out of left-hand rear quarter-light, means that I have to use my left eye.
Equally important as being able to use both eyes, is always keep both eyes open, always.
Why? Well primarily, it reduces eyestrain and secondly you cannot see anything out of a closed eye. Now that maybe fine if you are in the middle of a deserted field, and not likely to get knocked down by a car, bus or hit by a football, or worse a cricket or golf ball. Keeping both eyes open means that you can use your peripheral vision to see what is going on around you, even behind you if you use a digital SLR and keep the preview screen clean. Another reason is that it will help you keep a sense of perspective. Not in the same way as the “total perspective vortex”, even with a fresh cup of tea and fairy cake…I was covering the International Truck Challenge a while back, and two photographers (one either side of me) kept stepping backwards as the trucks came towards us, which made me feel uncomfortable, as I had both eyes open, and I knew where the trucks were, the reason for it was, they were concentrating on what was happening through the lens only, and as I told one of them to stop, he replied, “the truck was getting big on me”. If he had both eyes open he would have realised that the trucks were still 40 metres away, and would change direction whilst still 20 metres away.
Well every mainstream 35mm camera for the last 40 years has had the shutter release on the right hand side of the camera, strangely, conveniently placed for the right hand. Unless you have a physical impairment that prevents the use of the right hand (being cack-handed doesn’t count) the right hand should never stray from the camera, that is why most modern cameras have an ergonomically designed grip there, so that you can hold the weight of the camera, lens, flashgun etc in one hand (the right) and make any adjustments with the left.
So having decided that the right hand does the hard work, what does the left hand do? Well that depends on the camera/lens combination that you are using, but principally it should be for providing support at the time of taking the photograph, it may also be doing other things at the same time, focusing, zooming etc, but it should be supporting the camera/lens combination.
If you are shooting with the camera in landscape mode then the right hand should hold the camera so that the base is parallel to the ground (unless you are deliberately going for the wonky horizon approach) with the heel of the left hand under the camera, and the thumb and forefinger either side of the lens to control the zoom, focus or aperture ring (as appropriate for the camera, lens combination being used).
If shooting in portrait format, rotate the camera so that your right hand is on top (if you don’t have a separate vertical shutter release). by turning the camera so that your right hand is underneath, you place additional strains on the wrist joint, which makes it more difficult to release the shutter gently, also after a short while you will find it becomes very uncomfortable. With the right hand below the camera (especially when shooting with a short lens) there is limited room for the left hand to provide support to the camera body/lens. With the right hand on top, it will prevent additional pressure on the wrist and reduce to the tendency to stab the shutter release. The left hand should again be underneath the camera, providing additional support as well as enabling the adjustment of the aperture, zoom and focus.
The longer the lens you are using the more important having a good technique is, to enable successful shooting with long lenses (my definition of long may be different to yours, but we’ll assume that a 200mm lens is a long lens). If you are shooting with a long lens, then not only will your grip be important but also your stance will have an impact also.
Before we get on to some guidelines on how to stand, kneel or lie to take photographs, a few words on where to stand, kneel or lie. Depending upon the event that you are covering, there will be some hard and fast rules, many of which are commonsense. Firstly do not put yourself in un-necessary danger, secondly do not endanger somebody else through your actions, and finally be aware that other togs maybe covering the event, and that placing yourself in front of them may get you better pictures, it may also result in a slap and at future events you may find you need some assistance, and if you have already annoyed your fellow togs, they may not be as helpful as usual.
Whenever you are covering an event, especially something potentially dangerous such as motor sports, or a protest march, or some civil disobedience, always plan your escape route, make that it is free from obstructions, and that you are not blocking any one else’s escape route. At a motor sports event it may be as simple as knowing where the nearest bit of Armco is that you can step behind if it all goes wrong. It maybe knowing the nearest fire escape, and how to open it or it could be simply knowing where the nearest police serial is if you need to retreat. These things should be regularly checked during the progress of an event, so that you are sure that the escape route is always available, and if it is not, think about a contingency plan.
As with golf, your set-up is important, holding the camera correctly will help, but if you don’t have a stable stance, you’ll suffer from camera shake even at high at shutter speeds. There are several key words that you should have in mind when thinking about your stance, balance, stability and mobility. Firstly stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other, I prefer to have the left foot about a foot further forward than the right, with the right foot turned out about 45°, this gives you a reasonably solid base, with the knees very slightly bent, to act as shock absorbers. What shocks you may ask, do they have to absorb? It can be anything from gusts of wind, to being jostled by members of the public (or the press pack).Having the knees bent; rather than locked out, also means that you can easily track subject movement through an arc of around 120° without moving your feet.
The right arm should be held with the elbow reasonably close to the body try not to fall victim of the flying elbow (elbow level with the shoulder as it will piss anyone standing next to you right off and you are likely to get a nudge when it really matters), and the left arm slightly forward to support the camera and lens. To provide additional support to the camera, you can also use the camera strap, the same way as a marksman will use the webbing on his rifle, by winding it around your wrist, (or if long enough) hooking it around your right elbow. The left arm should be tucked into the stomach, where it will provide some additional support. Any serious gun shooters here will recognise similarities to the traditional weaver stance, however I consider it to be slightly closer in a number of ways to a boxing stance, but not with the legs quite so widely spaced.
Sometimes you need to get a different view point, either by kneeling or lying prone, especially when photographing children. When kneeling, there several points to remember, they are largely the same as when constructing your usual stance, that is balance,
stability and mobility
are essential. Kneel so the full weight of the body rests exactly on the three-point position “left foot – right knee – right foot” and is balanced evenly. With your buttock resting on the heel of the right foot, and the left ankle directly below the left knee. The easiest way to drop to the kneeling position is to face at 45° to the right of your target, and with your feet shoulder width apart your left foot facing the subject, simply bend the right knee forwards and down to the ground, and then as your drop you will find your body automatically faces your intended subject. The angle between your thighs should be around 80°.
If you have to pan from this position you will find that you will have to pivot from the waist, and you will probably be limited in the range you can achieve. There is a very good reason for sitting on your right heel and not your left, that is because if you are shooting in low light and you need some additional support you will find that your left elbow maybe rested on the femur of the left leg. Do not try reversing this if you happen to be left handed, if you sit on your left heel, you will have nowhere comfortable to rest your left arm, which is supporting the camera; see there is a reason for everything.
Kneeling for any period of time can be uncomfortable, you will need to practice to get used to it. If you are wearing walking boots you will probably have to loosen your right bootlace if you are to remain comfortable for any amount of time. If you regularly find that you adopt this position you may find that a rolled up jumper or a beanbag under the right ankle can relieve some discomfort.
The disadvantage of kneeling (on both knees) is that you are then stuck if you have to vacate the area quickly. If you kneel correctly, you will simply push with your right leg, you will find your standing with very little effort and ready to move.
Shooting prone is one of the most demanding, physically, if you are not very flexible, you will not be able to get into position easily, firstly getting down is easier if you put your equipment down first, firstly laying down, lift your upper body and support with your left elbow, at a suitable angle, bearing in mind that your left hand will be supporting the lens (on a long lens) or on the camera body and lens if you are shooting on a short, your arm should be out from the body at about 20°, the right elbow should rest where it feels most comfortable. You may find this position is made more comfortable by having the left foot turned out to the left and the left knee slightly bent. It will also be beneficial to keep the spine and the right leg in a straight line, this will help to relieve any tension at the base of the spine. To take pictures in this position will require practice however it provides a little used viewpoint, which can add dramatic impact to pictures. However lying prone is not advisable in some circumstances, as you have no mobility, you will not be able to evacuate the area quickly from this position.
The use of a monopod can greatly increase the range of shutter speeds that you can shoot with a long lens (using a monopod I have shot at 1/15sec on a 400mmF2.8 lens and can do so with some degree of reliability), but again it depends on having good technique, again build around the stance suggested earlier, and regard the monopod as an purely as something to take the weight off of your left hand, and use the left hand to provide additional mass to the lens, you will rarely find me or many professional photographers using the grip on the monopod, always grip the lens itself. If you set up with the monopod with the foot just to the left of your left foot you will find that you can additionally brace it against your left knee.
Depending on the monopod that you use, you may also wish to attach a short strap to the base of the monopod, if you stand on this when shooting it will provide a little extra stability.
Panning with a monopod can be a real pain in the ass, especially if you are using a very long lens, as it is almost impossible to pan through more than 100° without shifting your feet, this is because the camera is pivoting around a fixed point, that is not at the same place as the centre of your body mass. If you are planning on doing a lot of panning with a monopod and long lens you are probably best to purchase a belt with a pocket and use the monopod in that, which means that when you turn, the camera/lens turns with you. (you know what I mean, the sort of thing that flag carriers use).
If you are shooting, and running out of light, and you don’t have a monopod or tripod available, make use of any available support, that combined with your stable stance and experience can be used to provide extra support, a bean bag is always a useful accessory to have in the gadget bag, as it means almost anything can be used as a stable platform from brick walls, car wing mirrors, fence posts, even someone else’s shoulder will do at a push.