Greater flexibility, low-angled shots and, of course, less gear on your back… the advantages of shooting handheld are plenty, so how does wildlife photographer Lara Jackson work with her super-tele?
The new NIKKOR Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR is here! To celebrate the launch of our latest super-tele lens, we spoke to Nikon creator, conservation biologist, author, and wildlife photographer Lara Jackson to explore the benefits of shooting handheld.
What are the advantages of shooting handheld rather than using a monopod or tripod?
Flexibility is the main advantage, as you don’t have to carry around a monopod or tripod. You can also take lower angled shots. Of course, some tripods do lower to the ground, but most will have a little height where the camera is attached. If you’re handheld, you can lie on your side and you’re almost at eye level or below your subject.
As wildlife moves around so much, I don’t believe there’s any point in sitting and waiting with a tripod – I’d much rather be reacting to the animal and be able to move without having the restrictions of a tripod. When I’m filming I do use tripods, so I have a steady base. When shooting handheld with my NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR or NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S for example, I’ll always use my elbow and push it into my stomach to support myself with the lens. Or, if I’m sat down, I’ll pop a knee up and rest the lens on it.
What are your key settings when shooting handheld with a long lens?
Camera settings depend on the animal being photographed and the weather. I often have no set settings. I like to have my aperture wide open because I like quite minimalist shots where the subject is sharp, but the background is blurry. In terms of shutter speed, it depends on the subject but, when I shoot a puffin in flight, my shutter speed is high so it’s nice and sharp.
Puffins spread their wings when they’re perching, and their heads are completely still for about three seconds. In this case, I slow my shutter speed down because I want to have the head sharp, and the wings blurred.
Do you use teleconverters or do you like to crop?
I’ve never really used a teleconverter, I’m not against it, but I would hesitate to put another extra layer of glass in front of my lens because of image quality — I sell prints, so I need the quality to be razor-sharp. I prefer to crop in post-processing.
What body positions are you using when you shoot handheld?
I try to get as low as possible because that’s when you can create an image that’s different. I don’t take beanbags with me, as they’re an additional item to carry, but anything that I can use to my advantage to prop the camera up is great. If I’m shooting handheld with long lenses, I will crank up my shutter speed to try and compensate for any light shake.
How valuable is stabilisation?
It’s important. The more stable you are, the sharper, crisper and cleaner your shots are going to be. But I recognise it can’t always be stable when you are shooting from handheld even with the camera’s in-built stabilisation, which is why knowing tips such as increasing shutter speed to counterbalance any shake can help. Settings such as 20fps can help, too – although, unless I’m shooting a cheetah hunt, I will normally shoot only 4 or 5fps, but this can help if there is a gust of wind that moves the lens.
What is a good wildlife shot to you?
A good shot is impactful, it’s anything different. There are millions of images of puffins or lions and elephants on the internet so what I look for is anything that will create impact or provoke an emotive response. I like to photograph interesting behaviour in the animals.
I love to shoot puffins on Scotland's Treshnish Isles, off the Isle of Mull (where I live). In May, there was an abundance of these gorgeous pink sea thrift flowers, so I wanted to create bokeh in the foreground to frame the puffins. I’m constantly watching the animals, looking for any interesting behaviours, always thinking, ‘How can I make this different? How can I make this stand out?’