What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

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What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

This shot was taken during my DPS Night Photography class using a bridge railing to stabilize the camera.

I suspect we’ve all been there. You are headed out on non-photography business, but you grab your camera on the way out the door – just in case. Well, wouldn’t you know it, “just in case” turned into a reality? A beautiful scene unfolds before your eyes. The trouble is that it is a low-light scene, and you didn’t grab your tripod. Uh oh. What do you do?

The worst option, of course, is to do nothing and miss the shot. Even if you try and fail you are no worse off than if you do nothing. So you might as well give it a go, even with no tripod.

There is no magic to a tripod

The main thing to remember is that a tripod is just a glorified shelf. That is, it is just a place to prop your camera. Granted, there are a lot of controls that make it a very convenient and easy to use support for your camera, but it is still just a shelf. With that in mind, look around for something else you might use.

Speaking of shelves, they work great and they often provide a nice high vantage point for your scene. If you are near civilization (not out in the woods somewhere), tables and chairs work great as make-shift tripods. Scoot one around to where you want to shoot and place your camera on it.

When placing your camera on something, you will find that the weight of your lens will cause the camera to tip forward. To remedy that, just place something under the front of the lens. If there is nothing available, dig through your bag and see what you can find. I have used lens hoods, filter cases, and even spare batteries. Is that the ideal situation? Not by a long shot. But they work in a pinch.

No tripod – no problem

Let me show you a recent example of this. This is a shot I took of a night scene in Oklahoma City.

What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

Shutter Speed: 30 seconds; Aperture: f/8; ISO 100 (with NO tripod).

I was visiting that city and staying in a hotel. My wife and I were sitting in the bar on the top floor and as it got dark I thought it was a nice scene that I would like to photograph. As I really had no prior plans to photograph, while I did have my camera, I had no tripod or remote shutter release.

This picture required a shutter speed of 30 seconds (I could have gone shorter, but I wanted the light trails on the road). Without a tripod, I had to muddle through. I pushed a cocktail table up to the edge of the balcony to get the angle I wanted. Then I used an ashtray that was laying around to prop up my lens.

That still leaves the issue of avoiding touching the camera during the shot. If you are without your tripod, odds are you will be without your remote shutter release as well.  You can still take shots without touching the camera by using the camera’s built-in timer.

For the shot above, I used the 2-second timer to get the image. Even if you have set the camera to take bracketed exposures, it will take all the shots in the bracket when the timer goes off (note: this only applies to some camera models). It is actually so handy that I find myself using a remote shutter release less and less.

Adding a touch of stabilization

Other times you don’t really need to set your camera down anywhere, you just need a little stabilization. How do you know if you need stabilization? Through something called the Reciprocal Rule. This rule says that your shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of your focal length.

To make it simple, it just means that if you are shooting at 50mm your shutter speed should be 1/50th or faster. If your focal length is 16mm your shutter speed should be 1/16th or faster. As you can see, the more wide-angle you shoot, the slower the shutter speed you can get away with.

Shoot wide

So that’s another tip. Shoot wide-angle in low light scenes where you don’t have a tripod. That won’t always work, of course, because sometimes your compositions just demand longer focal lengths. But as you are walking around without a tripod, think wide-angle.

What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

Sometimes you just go places where tripods are not allowed. I couldn’t even bring my tripod up to this location (Reunion Tower in Dallas). So I braced my camera on the perimeter fencing to stabilize it a bit. Shutter Speed: 1/8th second; Aperture f/8; ISO 800.

Lens stabilization

You might have image stabilization/vibration reduction in your lens as well. If so, this will buy you a few stops of light. What that means in this context is that you can set your shutter speed a few stops slower than you could otherwise.

For example, if you have 3-stops of image stabilization in your lens (different lenses are rated differently), and you are shooting with a focal length of 50mm, you might now be able to get away with a shutter speed of 1/6th of a second. (Remember that a stop is a doubling of light, so if you start at 1/50th of a second, then one stop is 1/25th, two stops go to 1/12th, and three stops takes you to 1/6th.

These numbers are EFL though (Effective Focal Length) so if you are shooting with a camera with a smaller sensor than full frame you will need to account for that.

Other forms of stabilization

When you run afoul of the Reciprocal Rule, you will need to stabilize your camera, often only a little bit. Let’s say for example that you are shooting at 24mm, and a proper exposure (using the ISO and aperture settings you want) requires a shutter speed of 1/10th second. What to do? Just stabilize the camera a bit by propping it against something.

Use a wall or a doorway if you are inside. Use a tree or a light post if you are outside. Those things are stable, and by propping the camera against them you are borrowing some of that stability. You will be less likely to move the camera during the exposure. If you cannot prop your camera against them, even leaning against these items while you shoot will help a little bit.

What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

For this shot, I was actually inside the Louvre (shooting through a window).  Therefore, I didn’t have a tripod. I used a door frame to stabilize my camera and took several shots in the hopes that one would be sharp. Shutter Speed: 1/8th second; Aperture f/4 (wide open on this lens); ISO 3200.

Shoot many frames

Don’t just take one picture though. Give yourself the opportunity to get a sharp one by taking several. Even if you think you got it right the first time, it is hard to tell on those little LCD screens (you can zoom in to check). There is nothing worse than getting home and discovering that a picture you thought was sharp is actually blurry. Remember that it is free to take pictures with digital, so make good use of that and take lots to be sure.

Finally, don’t be afraid to crank up the ISO. Doing so will allow you to use a much faster shutter speed. Of course, that also leads to an increase in digital noise, but don’t worry about that so much.

First of all, cameras keep getting better and better at handling digital noise, and it isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be. In any case, it can usually be fixed in post-processing pretty easily and without much loss of detail in your picture. Remember it is easy to fix digital noise, but very hard or impossible to fix blur (from a slow shutter speed).

What to Do When You Forget Your Tripod (or You Don’t Have One)

I ran into this staircase while on a business trip and was able to use my exposure settings to ensure a sharp shot. I raised the ISO to 1600 and opened the aperture all the way (to f/4). That allowed me to use a shutter speed of 1/25th second. Since I was using a focal length of 19mm, I complied with the Reciprocal Rule and I could expect the shot to be reasonably sharp.

Putting it into practice

None of this is to say that you don’t need a tripod or that you shouldn’t carry one with you. If you do landscapes, city scenes, or other types of outdoor photography, having and using a tripod is super important.

But when you find yourself without one, all is not lost. You might be able to get the shot anyway.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his book Getting Started with Photography.

  • I am using 20 buck tripod, it’s working fine.

  • I will second using tables, chairs, etc when a tripod is not available or allowed. I have gotten some nice pics doing this where I was not allowed to use a tripod where they are not allowed. What I also have done is to take a pic at a high ISO and shoot using the high speed continuous mode. I got some nice pics in 1 World Observatory in New York doing this. Yes a few throwaways but worth it. Question: I used the image stabilization last year with a tripod and some pics came out blurred because of it. If I use image stabilization taking a long exposure with no tripod what has been the experience of you and your readers?

  • Doug Sundseth

    IME, image stabilization gets you 2-3 stops at most. If you can usually hold (say) 1/60 sec., that would mean that you could go to 1/8 – 1/15 sec. Depending on what you mean by “long exposure”, that might qualify, but it’s not what _I’d_ call long exposure.

    For anything in the 1/2 sec. range or longer, you really need some sort of extra stabilization if you’re anything like me.

    That said, the last time I went to Carlsbad caverns, I used a collapsed monopod held against my body with my left arm to get about a 40% sharp rate on 1/2 second shots (with a VR lens). By shooting in batches (and throwing away many, many photos), I got some fairly nice stuff.

  • Pep Samu

    You can buy photographic beanbags, or make your own from anything that isn’t so full that it’s rigid. For example, you can use an old sock half-filled with rice, lentils, beans, chickpeas…. You can also take an empty sock on a hike and fill it with sand or gravel before use. That way you don’t have to carry the filling around. I use a sock with rice.

  • Jim Hamel

    Good idea! Thanks.

  • Jim Hamel

    Yes, my experience is that if you use image stabilization with a tripod, it will add significant blur. I had heard this over the years but didn’t really believe it. I test it a year or two ago and was amazed at how much blur there was when I compared the two pictures (one with the image stabilization on, and one with it off) side-by-side.

  • Charles G. Haacker

    “…used the image stabilization last year with a tripod and some pics came out blurred because of it. If I use image stabilization taking a long exposure with no tripod what has been the experience of you and your readers?”

    As Doug S. said above, to an extent it depends on what is defined as “long” exposure. My experience is that it also depends to an extent on the particular image stabilization, but very generally I try to remember always to turn it off whenever the camera is not handheld. One of mine, a Sony RX-10, seems hypersensitive to not being handheld and will smear relatively short shutters, too long to handhold (1/20, 1/15 and down) if the camera is supported (beanbag, ashtray, railing, or even actual tripod). Conversely with some other cameras I’ve gotten away with it (and I do tend to forget to turn it off).

    Doug, it’s interesting you should mention Carlsbad because the last time I was in there I was successful with a “stringpod.” For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a literal string or cord attached to the camera (I use a 1/4 x 20 ringbolt in the tripod socket but in a real pinch you can just loop an end around the body or lens). The string needs to be long enough to step on it. Some folks get very elaborate but I find that if the string slips I can tie some knots in the free end. When I step on it the knots keep it from slipping out from under my shoe. You pull up on the camera to make the string taut. It only keeps the camera from moving up or down, but with other good technique, elbows pressed into ribs, breathing, and squeezing, often that’s enough with your stabilization turned on, and I have used it in countless places where tripods or even monopods are forbidden. The most that’s ever happened is a curious guard wanders over to find out what it is. Not one has ever asked me to put it away.

  • Albin

    Most prosumer cameras these days have 20mpx plus sensors, providing a lot of crop factor for shooting wide-angle. Since RAW is also a norm for low-light, compositional zooming can be done in post.

  • Avacreates

    Awesome! Thanks heaps

  • Avacreates

    I use a piece of strong string instead of a tripod. It works better than I thought it would

  • Jim Hamel

    Good call! I actually carry a piece of twine in my backpack for this purpose. I always forget to use it though (just like I forgot to mention it in this article).

  • Avacreates

    This idea of yours will work great with macro photography. I’ve used a reverse ring for many years and have a hard time doing so lol but this idea is going to really help me out. Again Thank you for sharing

  • Avacreates

    I got a weird scifi shots of the moon – 1 blue moon and 1 white moon. I was a beginner and happy I was clueless because I really liked the effect.

    I also as a beginner have a shot of a fire twirler – again scifi looking. His image was spiit into two forms. Again happy I was clueless.

  • Avacreates

    Thank for your reply Jim. I actually keep my string tied to the bottom of my camera. I wrap it around the lens when not using my camera. It looks weird to some but that’s okay by me. Im a volunteer photographer for an organisation that helps the homeless and my job is to take a lot of indoor portraits and action shots in small confined low light areas which I’ve been struggling with until I started using the piece of string method. My images have improved which means less stress these days.

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