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Low Light Photography: How to Shoot Without a Tripod

A tripod is my most valuable photo accessory. In fact, I view it as an essential item, and not an accessory. But sometimes using one is just not practical. Sometimes you get caught without it unexpectedly, and sometimes they even break. It’s good to know what to do in these situations so you don’t miss any photo opportunities.

Sunset in The Valley of Fire, Nevada by Anne McKinnell

While shooting in the Valley of Fire, Nevada, I broke my tripod. Of course, there was a spectacular sunset that night. I was able to make this photo by increasing my ISO to 2000 and using a wide aperture of f/5.0 (the widest aperture for the lens I was using) when normally I would have used a much small aperture for this scene.

If you don’t have your tripod with you, or you’re trying to make do without one, you still have some options for low-light photography.

1. Use a wide aperture

If you want to handhold your camera in low light, you’ll have to work with a wide aperture, a high ISO, or both. Often landscape photographers want to use a small aperture such as f/18 to get maximum depth of field, but that isn’t practical for low light situations. Instead, use your camera’s widest aperture (the smallest f number) and focus on the most important feature in the frame.

Most standard kit lenses don’t perform very well in the dark, so if you do a lot of this type of photography, consider picking up a simple 50mm f/1.8 lens; nearly every brand has a cheap one and they’re well worth it for their sharpness and low-light capability. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 is a full 3.5 stops (lets in 12x more light!) wider than a standard 18-55mm kit lens at the same focal length.

2. Use Image Stabilization

The rule of thumb for shutter speed is that if you want a sharp image, the shutter speed should be no slower than the same fraction as your focal length – that is, if you’re using a 50mm lens, set your shutter speed to 1/50 second. However, if your lens has image stabilization, the shutter value can be two or three stops slower than this. This leeway makes a big difference in low light situations.

3. Use proper camera holding techniques

In low light photography, learning the proper stance and camera holding technique can give you even more leeway when it comes to preventing camera shake. It’s all about stability – plant your feet firmly, about shoulder width apart. With your right hand on the shutter button, hold the lens with your left hand, to steady it. Tuck your elbows tightly into your chest and control your breathing, shooting after you exhale whenever possible. All these things will contribute to your own stillness, minimizing handshake blur.

New York New York, Las Vegas by Anne McKinnell

In Las Vegas, I wanted to make an image with a fairly long shutter speed to blur the motion of the cars. However, I was standing on a bridge that had a chain link fence, and it was also a narrow pedestrian bridge with lots of pedestrians. Using a tripod was not practical. Instead using ISO 1250 and proper camera holding techniques allowed me to hold it steady for half a second.

3. Use a high ISO setting

ISO refers to the level of light sensitivity of your camera. The higher the ISO the more sensitive the sensor is to light, therefore the less light is needed to make a good exposure. The downside is that the higher the ISO, the more “noise” you will find in your image. Noise is a grainy look as opposed to a smooth look. Some noise is okay and it can often be removed in post processing.

When photographing in low light, turn your ISO up as high as you can before the image quality gets too noisy. This setting is different on every camera and an acceptable amount of noise is different for every photographer.

I recommend that you do an exercise so you know the maximum ISO for your camera, that results in a noise level you think is acceptable. Take the same shot at a number of different ISO settings and when you view the photos on your computer later (view at 100% size or 1:1), you will see at what point image quality begins to deteriorate. With today’s cameras this point is probably higher than you might think. Often with ISO 800 or 1600 you will see some noise, but not so much that you can’t fix it in post processing. It’s a good idea to try this exercise both in good light, and low light situations.

Canada Geese at Sunset by Anne McKinnell

Photographing Canada Geese flying overhead at twilight meant that I needed a relatively fast shutter speed to stop the motion. Therefore, I had to use a high ISO and a wide aperture to enable the faster shutter speed. This image was made at ISO 1600, f/4.5 1/200 second.

Noise is not necessarily a bad thing and can be used for creative purposes. If you are using a very high ISO, try shooting in black and white – it removes the colour from the noise and instead gives your photos an old-school grainy look.

Some of the most beautiful landscape photographs are made in low light, so learning these techniques will help you take advantage of low light opportunities and get that great shot even when you don’t have a tripod.

Further reading on low-light photography:

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Anne McKinnell

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.