A pro's look at holding your camera
There is an old song that goes something like this: "Hold on loosely, but don't let go.
If you cling too tightly, you're gonna lose control." (38 Special's 1981 Wild-Eyed Southern Boys album, written by D. Barnes, J. Carlisi and J. Peterik). The song isn't about camera work, but it should have been. There are a lot of different ways to support your camera while shooting, many of which don't need the death grip in order to achieve a steady shot. In fact, gripping a camera tightly not only fatigues your arms and eventually leads to the shakes, but it also transfers a lot of vibration from your body directly to the lens.
I used to work with a Russian camera operator friend who was very stable when he shot. He always would say (and you have to use your best Russian accent), "My body is tripod!" The truth is, what he meant to say was that his body was "like Steadi-cam." He constantly adjusted parts of himself to absorb the shock, shifting his weight, slowing his breathing and changing his grip position. But the first spot the absorption took place was his hands. So let's start there.
Be the Triangle
When it comes to holding them, there are really two main types of cameras: those with straps and those without. If you have a strap, be thankful. A strap allows you to relax your hand while still shooting. This allows you to touch controls gently and not drop the camera. If you use it properly, your strap even sets your body up to go into what we at Videomaker like to call the Marx position. This is a three-point holding position so named because it resembles the way Groucho Marx used to waddle as he'd comic-strut across the stage, cigar in hand. If you hold the camera body in your right hand and the lens in your left, then tuck your elbows against your body, you have created a triangle or pyramid, which coincidentally is one of the strongest shapes in the world. This position is based upon the contacting of three points.
Remember this: Always try to brace yourself with three or more points. You can do this by leaning your body against a wall or a tree, by positioning the camera on your knee while sitting cross-legged or by using a professional shoulder mount. Keeping contact is the key. Even if you don't have a strap, always try to keep two hands on the camera. Using the viewfinder instead of the flip-out screen adds another point of contact. The more contact, the more stability.
Cradling is another way to hold your camera. This is sometimes used for lower-angle shots. With your left hand under the camera and your right hand either holding the handle or slipped downward into the strap (controlling the zoom with your thumb), you create a more solid, albeit floating, hand grip. I find that this position is my backup position for when my arms get tired. It is not suitable for standing interviews, because you are not at eye level, but it works well for seated subjects or long hauls of shooting B roll. Again, remember: when your arms get tired, your shot gets shaky. So don't wear yourself out. Change grips and positions before you start to feel weak. Changing muscles will make you last a lot longer. Don't wait too long, or it will be too late.
Somewhere along the line, you will just plain wear out, and that is when you move to the third way of holding the camera: placing the camera. Remember, though, that placing is a stationary position for a static shot. Moving the camera is not an option. Look for anything solid, the bigger and heavier, the better. Getting the right height for your needs is key. Don't put the camera on the ground if you need to shoot a person's face. Likewise, don't set your camera on a car hood if you need to see someone's feet. My favorite thing to use for adjusting the camera while placing is my wallet. I find that, by wedging my wallet under my camera and either taking stuff out of it or unfolding it, I can raise or lower the angle to the shot I need. Small bags of sand or wooden wedges work well too, but you have to carry them all the time. If you need a lift, just look around - there is always something nearby. I sometimes carry a small ziplock bag. Just fill it up with dirt or grass and voilà: instant sandbag. Just be sure it is as wide as the camera, tightly sealed and not too crushable, or your shot will change before you're through.
Sit on It
If you are tired but need camera movement in your shot (i.e., panning and tilting), try kneeling or sitting. Be sure to find a solid position, though. Crouching forces you to balance on the balls of your feet and is too wobbly. Use both knees on the ground, and comfortably hold the camera at your waist. Sitting cross-legged can work well too. Place your elbows on your knees and cradle your camera, or use the viewfinder to add extra support. Shooting these different ways allows full control of the camera and the framing, yet still maintains the most relaxed non-tripod position.
Use Your Zen
Regardless of how you hold your camera, a very advanced thing to learn to help stabilize your shot is breathing. While most people feel that holding their breath makes for a steady shot, they don't realize that it makes the body tense. Relaxing is the key to holding your camera still. Smooth, slow breaths slow your heart rate and calm your muscles. Concentrate on finding a pace that is comfortable, even and steady. Once you have the Zen, you too will be able to say, " My body is tripod."
Michael Reff is a Senior Photographer for Turner Broadcasting.