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Hand Held Macro Photography

Many people have asked if you can shoot macro hand held. Yes you can. There are times when shooting this way is far preferable to using a tripod. Insects, reptiles and other animals will require you to be able to shoot without a tripod as will working from a ladder with tall subjects. There are two ways to shoot hand held. The first is with available light, which is what this article will focus on. The second is to use a flash, which will be part two of this series.

There are several factors that determine if your image will be soft (out of focus), including hand shaking, slow shutter speed and breathing. Each of these factors can be overcome with a little practice. Many lenses have image stabilizers built into them and they can help but only with certain problems under certain conditions. We will look at these issues more a little later.

Shutter speed influences the sharpness of your image. With slow shutter speeds while hand holding a camera your natural hand shaking and movements will cause the image to be soft. We all have some natural shaking even if we can’t always see it. Hold your hands out in front of you with nothing under them for a minute and you will see it. I would recommend at least a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, and if you are photographing moving subjects you will need to have it higher.

handheld macro bee

Try using the plants insect are on to create different compositions and dynamics.

Stabilize the camera as much as possible when you are holding it. If you are standing keep your elbows in against your body. Have your left hand under the lens, where it will be bearing the weight of the camera. Your right hand is on the camera and guiding its movement. You can lay on you stomach with your elbows on the ground and your hands in the same position. When lying on your side have one elbow on the ground bearing the weight of the camera. When you are sitting you can keep your elbows in against your body as in the standing position or you can sit with your knees up and put elbows or forearms on them.

With any of these positions the idea is to make yourself as solid and steady a platform as you can for the camera. Think of your body as being the tripod. You want to steady yourself. When holding the camera, do not grip it tightly. Hold it so the camera is sitting comfortably in your hands. The tighter you grip it the more your hands will shake.

hand held macro insect

When shooting hand held without a flash you don’t have to worry about shadows on your subject from foreground elements.

Your breathing can affect your movement. When you are ready to take the shot, let your breath out and then release the shutter. By doing this you have taken the movement associated with breathing out of the equation. You do not need to hold your breath. Just exhale and shoot. If you are going to be taking a series of shots try taking a few shots, breathe take a few shots and so on. In the beginning it is something you will be thinking about a lot and will seem burdensome. With a little practice it will become second nature and you will do it without even thinking.

macro bee covered in pollen

Get down to the same level as your subject. Find a position where you are stable and ready to take the photo.

Some lenses have built in optical stabilizers or vibration reduction; they are both the same thing. They can be useful tools but we need to understand how they work and what they can and can’t do. They will only help with hand shaking and will not do anything to stop blur from a moving subject while using a slow shutter speed. I have found them only to help with shutter speeds lower than 1/60 of a second. If your shutter speed is higher than say 1/125 of a second it does not affect sharpness.

macro bee

When working with insects give yourself as much mobility as possible. Shooting hand held will provide this.

Here is a list of things to remember when shooting hand held macro:

  • Make sure your shutter speed is high enough to account for natural hand shaking.
  • Take your shots after exhaling your breath.
  • Keep your elbows in against your body when standing.
  • Keep your elbow on your knees when sitting or in against your sides.
  • Put your elbows on the ground when lying on your stomach or side.
  • Do not hold the camera tightly. It will cause more hand shaking and increase the effect.

Don’t be afraid to look at the back of the camera in the beginning to see if you are getting sharp images. There is a learning curve with what works and what doesn’t. Experiment to find out what works well for you and use the images on the back of the camera to get feedback in the field as you go. I hope you will come to enjoy this style of shooting as much as I do.

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Discussion

  • Lisa Fitzinger

    Nice pics… great bokeh.

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