Get A Grip
Camera Comfort Is Not Just A Luxury

An example of a "finger hold" type of accessory grip; a less pronounced version is a popular add-on to Olympus OM-series cameras and M-series Leicas.
Photos © 2001, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

Most novices buying their first "serious" SLR tend to pay too much attention to the number of features, but too little to camera "ergonomics" (how a camera fits your hands and face while looking through the viewfinder).

Today's top of the line, "pro" SLRs feature rubbery, molded contours designed to help support and balance the bulky, heavy beasts. By fitting your hand as if you had grasped the camera while it was in a pliable state, you gain secure control, rather than having to maintain a constant death-grip just to avoid dropping it. The less effort your hands have to expend on hanging on to the camera, the more sensitivity and feel is available to achieve effective and intuitive operation of the controls.

This "molded" approach can be great, but only if your hands are close in size and character to the ones that served as models for the camera's design. If yours are significantly larger or smaller, or if your fingers are longer, shorter, thinner, or thicker, the camera can be less comfortable in use than a camera body with simple, "flat" contours. My fingers, for instance, are longish, and my fingertips frequently "bottom-out" uncomfortably against the body when wrapped around the typical right-hand integral grip. Another problem with some cameras with this style of grip, both 35mm and medium format, is insufficient space between the grip and the lens/mirror box housing. If you have thick fingers, or wear gloves for cold weather photography, it can be difficult or impossible to jam your fingertips into this narrow, inflexible slot.

The Linhof grip is one of the earliest (and best) ergonomic designs; it houses a thumb-operated cable release.

Grip Evolution
Further grip evolution with several of the current "super 35s" includes accessory "vertical" grips, featuring a shutter release button positioned for comfortable use when shooting in portrait format. Eliminating wrist contortions can take a lot of the physical wear and tear out of long shooting sessions involving a preponderance of vertical compositions, such as weddings, portraits, and fashion work. Some dedicated accessory grips from the camera manufacturers also feature added battery capacity, either for extended shoots or to achieve a camera's highest drive rates.

Grip Classics
OK, that's all well and fine for contemporary cameras, but how about your "pre-molded" era classic? Not to worry, you have more options than you probably realize.

Before the current spate of integral, body-molded grips, the word "grip" relative to cameras would most likely bring to mind a pistol grip. This type of grip has been around for a half century or more. Nearly all pistol grips provide a secure hand hold, usually with a wrist strap as a safety net, and some means of releasing the shutter via a trigger or cable release, either mechanical or electric. Factors in their favor include very reasonable cost, plus easy adaptability to varying hand sizes, at least with the minimally ergonomic models.

How well a pistol grip balances the camera load depends on the length/weight of the lens in use, as well as the camera's eyepiece location and whether you are left-eyed or right-eyed. If buying a generic grip, make sure your camera has a centered tripod socket; a socket located at the extreme left or right of the camera's bottom plate results in a very off-balance load that is hard to hold steady, and could result in camera damage when coupled with heavy lenses. Some such cameras can be fitted with an accessory bottom plate adapter that provides a centered socket, usually touted as being for copy stand use.

Any add-on side grip must allow access to camera controls; this adapted, right-hand Linhof grip, with thumb-operated electric release, has a custom bracket that lets the grip slide back for access to control switch and darkslide.

The super-ergonomically designed pistol grip for my Rollei TLR is one of the three best grips I've ever experienced (the other two are the Linhof grip and the left-side Hasselblad grip). It is both rotated to the left and canted to the right, meeting your right hand perfectly when held close-in to your body. Long lens balance in conjunction with a pistol grip can often benefit from the addition of a shoulder brace.

Some still cameras employ a hand strap (not to be confused with a wrist strap) as a gripping aid, serving to keep your hand solidly positioned over the controls, as well as offering security benefits. Hand straps are common components of camcorders. Advantages include minimal cost, with near zero weight and bulk penalties.

Another simple grip is what I call a "finger hold" or "fingertip assist" grip. Some current, mid-range cameras feature these integrally on the right-front edge (as seen from the back) of the body. Olympus has a good accessory grip of this type for some of their OM-series SLRs, as does Leica for their M-series rangefinders. I find these grips to be somewhat irrelevant with the camera held in horizontal format, but quite helpful for verticals, if the camera's eyepiece location and your camera eye (left or right) result in you shooting verticals with that (right) end of the camera held upward.

The side grip for the Rollei SL66 permits simultaneous focusing and shutter release; an accessory shoe on top accommodates a shoe-mount flash. Hasselblad has a similar, extremely robust grip.

Side-Mount Options
Side-mount grips come in the greatest variety of permutations. With 35mm SLRs, they appear most commonly as an integral component of flash brackets (another whole story in itself). Medium format users, though, will be well familiar with this class of grip. Most medium format SLRs are boxy contraptions, and some auxiliary means of hanging on to them is by no means a luxury.

The most basic models are simply handles with some means of triggering the shutter release. Bronica (and, more recently, others) developed the Speed Grip for their 6x4.5cm ETR-series cameras, featuring a 35mm-style thumb-wind lever for advancing the film in lieu of the usual cranking operation. Most medium format SLR makers now offer either cameras with built-in grips that house film drive motors and/or batteries, or add-on accessory grips that upgrade a model to the same state. An accessory hot shoe resides atop several of these units. The majority of these grips are most comfortable in conjunction with either waist-level finders or 30 or 45 angled prism finders; eye-level, 90 prisms work better with pistol grips.

Large Format Grips?
Few large format cameras have a grip listed among their accessories, but Linhof is a notable exception. Their ana-tomical grip was introduced many decades ago for the Technika series of cameras. Its design has needed no improvement since; an electric solenoid release version was added to the classic, mechanical cable release model, but that's all. At one time, left- and right-hand models were offered (the Aero Technika featured both, for a secure grip in open aircraft), the latter now discontinued. This grip's form-fitting perfection went a long way toward taming these heavy cameras in handheld use; they have subsequently been custom adapted to numerous other cameras.

Pistol grips are perhaps the most common type; a modular bracket system allowed this Rollei grip to also be mounted on either the left or right side of the camera.

Gripping Tales
I hope the foregoing will encourage you to explore the various comfort-increasing possibilities that a grip can provide for your particular camera, new or old. A grip can also help increase the "steady factor" of the new stabilized lenses even further. You may think that your camera feels just fine as-is, and its unadorned configuration may indeed be best for you; but the point is, you'll never know for sure unless you investigate the available options. If you own (or are thinking of buying) a current high-end SLR, check the camera maker's catalogs for any dedicated grips that may be offered. If your camera is recent but discontinued, check your instruction manual and brochures to see if a grip was offered. Depending on how long the camera has been out of production, you can either check with the large photo supply houses to see if they still have a particular grip in stock, or call the camera's US distributor, who might have one languishing in their warehouse. Failing that, you can probably find one through the many used photo gear dealers that advertise in Shutterbug, at camera flea markets, or via the Internet.

For earlier cameras, you should have no problem finding a variety of after-market grips. Most large camera stores will carry at least a few grips; those with a substantial pro clientele will also likely stock a variety of grip/flash bracket units, many of which allow flipping the flash position back and forth between horizontal and vertical compositions.

A shoulder brace, in conjunction with a side grip, offers great stability with long lenses.

But whatever grip strikes your fancy, be sure to try before you buy. As I indicated earlier, size matters, and it's imperative that your hand mates comfortably with the grip. With generic after-market units, you need to also make sure that the grip's size and design are appropriate for your particular camera; some elaborate side grips, for instance, can be a case of overpowering overkill when paired with a compact 35mm SLR. If all else fails, a machine shop can help you adapt a grip, as I did with the Linhof grip on my Rollei 3003. But if you take your time and do your homework thoroughly, you'll eventually find that perfect grip that feels so good that you'll wonder how you ever got along without it!

Camera Grip Pointers

  • Try before you buy; the size of your hand has a lot to do with whether or not a particular grip feels comfortable or not.
  • If the grip has a shutter release (electric button or cable release plunger), does it fall comfortably beneath your "trigger" finger?
  • If the grip uses a mechanical cable release, is the release action smooth, or does it bind?
  • Does the grip work well for both horizontal and vertical compositions?
  • Will the grip permit comfortable use with low-angle shots with a waist-level or elbow finder?
  • How is camera/lens balance with long lenses?
  • How quickly can the grip be removed for tripod use, if necessary, or can the grip be tripod mounted?
  • If an after-market grip, especially a side grip, will it interfere with access to any of the camera controls?
  • Will it hinder or aid the use of a flash unit?

The Rollei 3003's hand strap allows secure grip without the bulk of a pistol or side grip (shutter release is via a button on top of the camera); this arrangement is quite common on camcorders.

The custom-adapted Linhof grip swivels for convenient use with waist-level finder.

Rollei's pistol grip for their TLRs is wonderfully ergonomic, being both rotated to the left and canted to the right, allowing totally natural hand positioning.

Above hand strap in use.

Above Linhof grip in use with waist-level finder.

Rollei TLR grip in use.