Long Exposure Photography without a Tripod

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Long Exposure Photography Without a Tripod

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For me, as a travel photographer, the size and the weight of the photography equipment that I carry around is very important. Over the years, I learned how to carry only the items absolutely necessary for shooting in order to eliminate anything unessential.

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Long exposure photo shot without a tripod, using the Align+Blend technique.

I was able to replace some of the pieces of equipment with software. For example, I stopped using ND Graduated filters a few years ago. For me, it was easier to take bracketed shots and blend two images in Photoshop or simply use the graduated filter in Lightroom. Next, I left behind the remote trigger because I learned that using the two second delay function on the camera allowed me to achieve the same result without an extra piece of equipment.

A couple of months ago, I pulled the trigger on the biggest change in my photography universe when I switched from a Canon DSLR to a Sony Mirrorless (read my article here 5 Lessons Learned Switching from DSLR to Mirrorless for Travel Photography). That drastic switch resulted in cutting the weight and the size of the equipment I carry around by more than half.

During my latest photography trip to Hawaii and Northern California, I did quite a bit of hiking and realized that, after the switch to mirrorless, the biggest and by far the bulkiest, piece of equipment I carried was my tripod. I love my Feisol tripod because it is light, tall, and steady like a rock. But, sometimes it is just impossible to bring with me.

Even though I learned how to take bracketed shots handheld and merge them effectively to HDR in Photomatix and Photoshop HDR Pro (read Natural Looking HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom in 5 Easy Steps), without a tripod I still could not accomplish one of the most important types of photography, which is long exposure photography.

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Long exposure photo – shot with a tripod.

I use long exposure photography quite a bit, especially when shooting seascapes, and of course, I have plenty of seascapes in my portfolio. Longer shutter speed allows me to achieve beautiful, smooth and silky looking water plus, it works just as well for the sky.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a few techniques in an attempt to achieve the same long exposure effect in the water and the sky by shooting handheld without a tripod. After I started to produce predictable results on a consistent basis, I am now ready to share the technique with you.

Shooting

Below is the effect I achieved using my new technique that I call Align+Blend.

Normally, I shoot in bracketing mode, taking at least three exposures. In order to use the Align+Blend technique, I had to switch from bracketing mode (AEB) to the Single Shot Mode. I shot 10 consecutive shots of the scene, trying to be as steady as possible, without too many movements. I was shooting at an approximate speed of one shot per second and, it took me nine seconds to complete the series. In order to get the sharp images, I used a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.

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Single RAW image, unprocessed (1/200 sec).

That was it. The shooting part was done. The rest was accomplished in post-processing.

Processing

Step 1 Import

I imported the 10 RAW files into Lightroom.

Step 2 Process in LR

I applied one of my landscape presets to the entire set making sure that each image had an identical look (If you are interested you can download my free preset collection on my blog).

Step 3 Open as layers in Photoshop

I selected 10 images in Lightroom and opened them in Photoshop as layers in the same document (right/option click).

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Step 4 Align Layers

I used the Auto Align Layers feature in Photoshop to align all 10 layers with Projection set to AUTO. The Auto Align is a fairly sophisticated tool, and Photoshop had no issue aligning all of the 10 individual layers.

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Step 5 Convert to one Smart Object

I converted the 10 layers to one single Smart Object (right/option click).

Long Exposure Photography Without Tripod Photo 5

Step 6 Set Stack Mode

I used the following command to blend the 10 original layers inside of the Smart Object. Layer > Smart Object > Stack Mode > Mean. This resulted in a long exposure effect by moving elements of the scene (water, sky).

Long Exposure Photography Without Tripod Photo 6

Step 7 Fix any areas with issues using a layer mask

At the same time, the windy weather created some unwanted effects by moving tree branches and the grass in the foreground. To fix the blurry effects I placed one of the 10 original RAW images on top of the Smart Object layer and blended together two layers with the help of transparency (layer) masks. I used the area of the water and the sky from the smart object layer and, the rest of the scene from the single RAW layer.

Long Exposure Photography Without Tripod Photo 7

I managed to achieve the long exposure effect without a tripod and without sacrificing the quality of the final image.

This technique also works as the replacement for Neutral Density filters. In broad daylight, even when you have a tripod but the smallest aperture (f/22) is still not small enough to slow down the shutter speed, take multiple shots and blend them together later in Photoshop in a similar manner.

Here’s the final image again:

Long Exposure Photography Without Tripod Photo 2

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Viktor Elizarov is a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada. He travels around the world and shares his experiences on his popular travel photography blog. Visit Tutorials section of his blog for free tutorials (including original raw files) and free Lightroom presets.

  • Keith R. Starkey

    Definitely a good technique to know! Thanks.

  • I’m not sure I understand how you accomplished long exposure photography without a tripod? Your technique is really just HDR time-lapse. Were you able to “achieve beautiful, smooth and silky looking water ” with this technique? How many exposures would you have to stack to do that?

  • it is all there: ” I shot 10 consecutive shots of the scene, trying to be as steady as possible, without too many movements. I was shooting at an approximate speed of one shot per second and, it took me nine seconds to complete the series”.

    There is no HDR here, it is basically 9 sec exposure made of 10 shots.

  • Nina

    Thank you, you just made my day! I love long exposure shots, but hate using a tripod, so this is brilliant!

  • You are welcome. I am glad you liked it.

  • Derek

    I wish I had known this a few weeks ago, I spent a week lugging my tripod around panama. Thank you for your post, although it was informative and will be extremely helpful in the future, I was cursing in my head the entire time I was reading it.

  • Scott Gribben

    Wouldn’t a stack mode of “Summation” be more like a true long exposure? I get that you’re mostly trying to get after the smoothing effect so “Mean” might make sense for your purposes, but I’m curious if you’ve ever tried stacking a set of underexposed images and using “Summation”.

  • Scott,

    for long exposure effect I use MEAN and MEDIAN modes. MEDIAN modes produces more subtle effect. In 90% of cases I use MEAN.

  • Nice color selection & idea. i am also be a photographer like you. i am use http://j.mp/LearnPhotoEditingPhotography plz suggest me something about photography

  • Hi Viktor. Thanks for this. This is a great tutorial. I tried it today and I’m with you until Step 7 – and then I’m lost. I’m assuming that these are actually multiple steps. Could you elaborate? I loaded an extra DNG into Photoshop, then moved the background of that as a layer into the file with the smart object and while I found Layer – Layer mask – Transparency, I’m clearly not understanding something about that last step. Thanks!

  • Great idea! I’m trying to ween myself off the tripod for an upcoming long-distance hike and am working on techniques to make it work. I’ll definitely try this, thanks!

  • Johnny

    Amazing idea!… just a clarification question, so you took 10 photos using the same settings (Shutter speed and Aperture) and nothing change except the time lap of one second per shot?
    Thanks Victor for sharing

  • qateel

    Very nice technique, thanks for sharing, but my concern about this beautiful punchy colored composition which showing final result so how to enhanced colors at final image but original image is not so colorful.
    Thanks

  • Gi Ku

    Nice tutorial, but seem not working for me… using ps cs6… In step 6, smart objects – stack mode is not appearing somehow… so im stuck… any suggestions why?

  • bv

    excellent article, things to try, although I almost always try to carry my light DolicaPro tripod……I have Lightroom but not Photoshop, I will have to look for an alternative to doing the same thing with Lightroom-exported JPEGS or My CPP software.

  • rellicgin

    Judging from the screen caps I think that’s what happened in Step 2 where he applied his presets.

  • Andrew Thomas

    Personally I don’t find there is that much differences in the water texture between the original and the final image. I would like to see this technique applied to an image similar to your excellent Niagara Falls image….do you think it would work as well for that sort of image?
    Many thanks for the article!

  • Ashley Scott

    Adobe do a great offer called the photography pack, which is Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC for $9.99 (USD)

  • bv

    I don’t want to trust my photos to software reliant on the cloud to operate. I’ve had it in the past and cannot stand the way it ties up computer resources. The constant updater was a hassle to me, things always running in the background whether I was working on photos or not. And the nag messages when I decided to stop using it…..

    I can get the same effects exporting my Lightroom changes as JPEG’s and using readily available software to make the occasional HDR image.

  • This is one of the best pieces on being a photographer I have read in a very long time! Thank you!

  • Andrew,

    I just returned from the trip to Utah, Arizona and California where I used this technique a lot. I will be posting more examples on my blog.

  • I remember paying close to $1000 for Photoshop only. $9.99 subscription for LR+PS is the game changer.

  • Gi,

    Stack Mode only available in Photoshop Extended and Photoshop CC. I am not sure what version you have.

  • If you are interested in Lightroom processing technique I used to achieve the final look, you can always download my free Lightroom presets from my blog and learn how to achieve the final punchy look.

  • you are absolutely right, instead of 10 sec exposure I use 10 single images and blend them together in Photoshop.

  • Timoluege,

    the final step is optional, you need it only if you have moving objects in your composition (tree branches in my case). You can skip it and still achieve long exposure effect.

  • Michael D Skelton

    sounds like a bunch of trouble if you ask me

  • Yuval Elias

    I’ve been searching for a method of achieving long exposure effect on the sky without a tripod for so long now!Thank you for this awesome tutorial! I’m so going to use it. brilliant. thank you thank you thank you

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