How to survive when you don't have your tripod
We all know the value of using tripods: Regardless of the situation, they will keep your camera more still than any other standard photography tool.
But sometimes you may not have your tripod handy. After all, if you're just out for an afternoon errand, you may carry a camera with you, but not a 10-pound tripod. Or maybe your tripod broke. Or perhaps you just can't access your tripod before a fleeting photographic moment is over. Whatever the situation, there are alternative methods for holding your camera more stable than you could with just your hands.
Use a monopod
They're more portable and quicker to set up than a tripod, but they'll still keep your camera relatively still. In fact, it will add about two stops to the 1/lens-focal-length rule for hand-holding a camera. For example, it you're using a 60mm lens, you may feel comfortable hand-holding your camera for a shutter speed as low as 1/60; in that case, figure a monopod will let you use as slow as a 1/15 shutter speed and give the same results.
You can make a monopod even more stable by leaning against an immobile object, such as a wall or a tree (see Figure 1). This effectively gives you a pseudo-tripod: One leg is the monopod, the second leg is the wall, and the third leg is the friction between the wall and the camera body that will keep the camera from moving forward or backward. You can bolster that "third leg" friction by gently pushing the camera into the wall.
(For more on monopods, see the article "Monopods: The next best thing to a tripod.")
Keep an 8- to 12-foot piece of rope with you. If you need a makeshift camera support, tie the ends of the rope together to form a loop. Hang the rope over your lens near where it mounts to the camera body, and let the rest of the rope fall. Next, place each foot along the rope on the ground, so that you can pull up with the camera to make the rope tight (Figure 2).
The upward tension you apply to the rope should be enough so you can shoot with some stability.
Put your camera down
Find a firm surface that's at the same level you want to shoot at. You can use a table, a rock, the ground, etc. If the surface is dirty, put something on it to protect your camera, such as a jacket or a magazine. Now rest your camera on the surface and frame your shot. You'll almost always find that you need to adjust the height of the lens or the camera body; for that you can use almost anything, such as a wallet, or a small book.
If you must hand-hold the camera, find something immobile that you can lean against. Again, a wall or a tree will do. Hold the camera against the wall to create some friction that will help the camera stay still.
Use your body
If none of the other options are available, position your body to give yourself a lower center of gravity, thereby making your stature more stable. If you need to stand, spread your legs to shoulder-width and shoot sideways; your stance will give you a wider base, and your shoulder joints are less vertically mobile in that position (Figure 4).
An even better option, if you can work from a low angle, is to put one knee on the ground, put your elbow on the other knee with your arm sticking straight up, and use your hand on that arm to support the camera (Figure 5). This will give you more support because you won't be using your muscles to hold the camera up, only to keep it from moving from side to side with your other hand.
Whatever you do to give your camera more support, take other measures, too. Use a cable release to avoid the minor shake caused by pushing the shutter release. If you don't have a cable release, use the camera's self-timer set at a couple seconds; by the time the shutter opens, any shake caused by pushing the release will have stopped. Also, fire off a few frames at a time using continuous-frame mode; one of the frames is likely to show less motion than the others.
* All photos by Malcolm A. Nicholson.
© 2002 - 2008 Chris Nicholson