How to Improve Results When Hand-Holding a Long, Heavy Lens

Ojai Meadow-8139

I think this is a black crowned night heron, but my brain is a sieve for that sort of information…

While waiting for my wife and her students to arrive at the Ojai Meadows Preserve, where I would answer their questions about bird photography, I spied this small heron on the far shore of a large pond. There were a lot of reeds in the pond between the bird and I. With the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 racked out to 500mm I looked for breaks in the reeds and waited for the heron’s eye to enter those gaps.

Now I’ve gotta tell you: It was no small task to keep the autofocus sensor on the bird’s eye. These are tightly cropped images; in the original frame, the bird is barely bigger than an autofocus sensor. You can look up the details on the weight of this lens, but just trust me that you can round up to one ton. Of course, most others in this focal range are closer to two tons, so many of us love the 200-500 because we can hand-hold it in the field.

Plenty of contrast to fool the autofocus sensor. To get the eye sharp requires a steady hand.

Grackle. Plenty of contrast to fool the autofocus sensor. To get the eye sharp requires a steady hand.

I’m the first to tell you that tripod mounted shots are almost always technically superior to hand-held shots, but since hand-holding a long lens is sometimes the ONLY way to get the shot at all, here’s a tip for getting better results: practice every day.

I'm blessed with a backyard aflutter and abuzz with beautiful creatures.

I’m blessed with a backyard aflutter and abuzz with beautiful creatures. Also challenging focusing situations.

Yes, there are many non-tripod ways to brace a long lens (monopods, sandbags, tree stumps, walls, etc.), and we should use them when we can, but there are many photographic benefits to improving our upper body strength too. I take my 200-500 into the backyard every day, secretly improving ergonomics and muscle memory in the most pleasurable way possible: Making photographs.

backyard hummingbird rain-8227

Matilija Poppy. I practice EVERYTHING with the 200-500, not just wildlife.

backyard hummingbird rain-8250

Photographing hummingbirds every day reveals a dark side. Those beaks are not just for nectar retrieval.