Traveling with Explorer of Light George Lepp Part 1: Shooting from Unstable Platforms

March 29, 2011

Traveling with Explorer of Light George Lepp Part 1: Shooting from Unstable Platforms
With boats, cutting the motor is important, but that’s not going to solve all your problems, and in many cases it’s not an option.

This is the first part of a three-part series on shooting techniques, written for the Canon Digital Learning Center by George Lepp:

  1. Shooting from Unstable Platforms
  2. Panoramas – Going to Great Lengths (click to read)
  3. Using ISO as a Tool (click to read)

If you’ve attended one of my seminars or workshops or read my “Tech Tips” column in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, you know I’m a big fan of sturdy, high-quality tripods. They’re a critical factor (alongside the camera and lens) in capturing consistently sharp and well-composed images. And the tripod is even more important in situations that demand multiple, identically framed captures for post-processing to expand exposure range and/or depth of field. It’s a great answer for macro, wildlife and landscape work on good solid ground, but what if you’re on the move?

Most photographers who work outside the controlled conditions of the studio will occasionally find themselves in challenging environments. Sharp shooting from unstable platforms—boats, airplanes, and vehicles of all types—requires careful positioning of the photographer and smart handling of the equipment, along with photographic techniques that maximize the benefits of new camera and lens technologies. These advancements are revolutionizing the way nature/outdoor photographers approach difficult photographic situations and changing the way we evaluate photographic production. There are no excuses for technically deficient images, even when conditions are imperfect. The photographer who masters the challenge of the unstable platform will bring home the prize-winning shots.

Shoot Sharp

You’ll want to use every sharpness tool and technique in your bag in unsteady, challenging conditions. Image stabilization, fast lenses, and expanded ISO capability are essential elements in the quest for sharp images.

Image stabilization

One of the most innovative boons to sharpness, image stabilization is well represented throughout Canon’s line of fine lenses, from 17mm through 800mm (look for the IS designation on the lens). Image stabilization allows us to choose a shutter speed from two to four stops slower than we might have used with a conventional, unstabilized lens. In situations where the light levels are extremely low, hand-holding is required, and depth of field is needed, the extra two to four shutter speeds/stops can be the difference between useful and throw-away images.

Image stabilization also is notably effective when shooting high-definition video with the new Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Because the camera uses the full range of Canon’s lenses while capturing video, you can take advantage of image stabilization to get steady, controlled video capture even while working from a moving boat.

Fast Shutter Speeds

When shooting from unstable platforms, aside from keeping yourself and your gear as steady as possible, any photographic decision you make should be directed towards achieving the shutter speed needed to stop camera or subject movement while preserving image quality and depth of field. The faster your capture, the less opportunity there is for movement to be recorded by the camera. Bright sunlight helps! So does artificial lighting from on- or off-camera flashes. But even when shooting without flash from a bobbing small boat in the shade, you can achieve crisp, sharp images with adept utilization of the newest big advance in digital imaging: expanded ISO.

What does digital ISO mean in terms of sharpness? If you’ve ever tried to work with high-speed films, you know they’re not conducive to sharpness; to the contrary, there are real compromises to the clarity and color of the image on slide films of 200 ISO or more. But Canon’s digital camera line includes several DSLRs that offer greatly increased ISO capability: the EOS-1D Mark III at maximum 6400, the EOS 50D at 12,800, and the EOS 5D Mark II at 25,600. In my work in the shadowy marble caves, the EOS 5D Mark II’s full-frame digital sensor and DIGIC 4 processing maintained excellent image quality at ISOs of 800 or more. This new technology means that you can regularly use higher ISOs to increase shutter speeds when you’re working in unstable conditions. As you move the ISO number higher, the sensitivity of the sensor effectively increases, allowing you to capture at higher shutter speeds even if a smaller f/stop is needed for more depth of field. It’s a great advantage!

In situations where you don’t need much depth of field, choose from among the Canon lenses with greater light-gathering potential, from the fastest EF 50mm f/1.2L to zooms and telephotos with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. We call these “fast” lenses because they enable fast captures in low-light conditions. If your goal is to minimize movement (both photographer and subject), these optics can aid in your choice of faster shutter speeds.

Support your camera and lens

Every photographer is an unstable platform. When you can’t use a tripod, think of the ways you can configure your own body to provide a steady base for your camera/lens combination. Use proper hand-holding techniques: one hand grips the camera firmly, positioned for ready access to controls, and the other cradles the lens at a good balance point, also mindful of the location of focusing and zooming controls. Using autofocus allows you to concentrate more on stabilizing than focusing your lens. A battery grip accessory for cameras such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the EOS 50D, and the EOS 40D provides an additional shutter release button positioned to make vertical photography steadier.

Hold your arms tightly to your body, elbows in. Press the camera firmly to your forehead as you look through the viewfinder. Use a smooth motion to press the shutter button so that your trigger finger doesn’t torque the camera at the critical moment. You may have to smoothly pan with a fast-moving subject.

If you’re seated, as in a canoe or kayak, put your elbows on your knees and straighten your back. If you’re standing, try to find a sturdy structure to lean against, straighten your legs and balance yourself. When practical, consider using a monopod or bean bag to give your equipment more support.

Minimize vibrations

One of the biggest obstacles to sharp images on the move is engine vibration transfers through the floors and sides of the boat, plane, or vehicle right to you and your camera. When possible, it’s best to turn off engines before you photograph. In that event, a car or other vehicle can become a stable platform for you and your camera; use a doorframe, the hood, or even the roof, as a base.

On Safari

Consider the problems posed by an African photo safari. You’re usually in a vehicle—typically a Land Rover or other hardy four-wheeler—with other photographers. If there are roads, they’re rutted with washboards and potholes, crossed by streams and obliterated by seasonal ponds. The job of the vehicle and its driver/guide is to get you in position for photography and keep you safe from your subjects. Once you’re there, your job is to keep yourself and your gear stable, follow the action, and bring home the great shots! Here’s where the photographer with great long-lens hand-holding technique is king. A monopod or bean bag support can be very helpful.

Some safari vehicles have open roofs, which can be an excellent position when the vehicle is totally still and the engine is turned off. You can stand, put your head and arms through the openings, and use the roof (or a tripod on the roof) for support of your camera and lens. In a totally open vehicle you can also use a tripod if it has articulated legs. Put two tripod legs on the floor, and one on the seat beside you, wedged between the seat cushion and back for stability.

Your driver/guide will need to be adept at positioning the vehicle (your moveable blind) so that your subjects are in the best possible light and you are able to work from behind the tripod-mounted camera. While the image stabilization on many lenses must be turned off when mounted on a tripod, you should leave it on with some Canon pro telephotos, so check the specifications on your lens. The guide should turn the Rover’s engine off while you are photographing. If he starts it and moves in a hurry, focus your camera on the elephant that is charging the vehicle, and keep shooting until your buffer is full!

It’s a plane!

Aircraft pose different challenges. I’ve shot photographs I really love from the windows of airliners. If all goes well, the engine vibration never stops, so image stabilization is a plus. The best place to sit is forward, where the wing and engine don’t intrude into your photograph. If you are sitting behind an engine, the heat plume will degrade your image. Shoot when the sun is not shining into your window, and position your lens as close to the window as possible (without touching it) to reduce reflections. Stop the lens down a couple of stops to optimize image quality, then shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible. This is a great time to experiment with a digital infrared camera, which cuts through haze and gives very crisp renditions of clouds and ground features.

You’ll need a skilled pilot and a small plane to get you safely into position to accomplish serious aerial photography. I never attempt it without using either a gyro or image stabilization, and sometimes both, to counter the vibrations from the plane’s engines and the buffeting of air pockets. Don’t touch the aircraft with your upper body, an instinctive, stabilizing move you’ll be tempted to make—especially when you’re shooting out an open door! Keep the camera out of the air stream, and coordinate with the pilot to fly as slowly as safely possible and to raise the wing on cue to keep it out of your image. Helicopters eliminate the wing obstructions and are easier to position. Be certain all your gear is secured all the time when shooting from an open helicopter, however, because the smallest debris from your camera bag can bring the craft down if it hits the rear rotor.

One of the reasons for shooting aerial landscapes is to capture the fine detail below from an unusual perspective. You’ll want to choose a camera with high resolution capabilities; the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III or EOS 5D Mark II would be optimal choices because of their full-frame 21 mp sensors. To maximize the capability of your lens, set it at f/8 to f/11, not wide open. (Remember, at your lens’s smallest apertures, like f/22 or f/32, you often lose some sharpness from diffraction.) Stay with the lowest possible ISO to give you top quality, and be sure the resulting shutter speed is fast enough to minimize movement, such as 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second. It’s a balancing act.

What if by sea?

With boats, cutting the motor is important, but that’s not going to solve all your problems, and in many cases it’s not an option. Water movement, from gentle swells to jarring wave action, will keep you and your camera in constant motion. In that case, stay loose. Give your camera and yourself a steady, consistent support by getting balanced or staying seated. Try to go with, rather than resist, the gentle shifting of the craft, in the same way good riders become one with their horses.

If you’re standing, your legs counter the movements of the craft, and your upper body becomes a kind of gyro, absorbing vibrations and movement without transferring them to the camera and image-stabilized lens you are holding. When possible in shallow water, have another passenger steady the boat’s position with a well-planted paddle or by holding onto a nearby rock or tree.

No excuses!

Wherever outdoor and nature photographers pursue their passion, they will be challenged by the need to stay steady. But now we have more tools than ever to help us to realize our finest photographic vision, even under pressure and in the face of serious obstacles.

With the evolution of digital photography over the last few years, we have at hand the solutions to some of the most persistent problems that have thwarted the efforts of nature photographers in the past. By definition, outdoor/nature photography means uncertain conditions, unstable platforms, and unpredictable subjects. But in the digital era, careful planning and technique, coupled with advanced technologies such as image stabilization, expanded ISO, and fast lenses mean that you, too, can get the shot you want anytime, anywhere—and no excuses!


Written by George D. Lepp. George Lepp, one of North America’s best-known outdoor and nature photographers, is a Canon Explorer of Light, and a popular lecturer and teacher. He is also the author of many published books and articles and the field editor of both PC Photo and Outdoor Photographer magazines, where his “Tech Tips” column is widely read. Learn more about George at the Canon Explorers of Light Gallery and at

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright George Lepp

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