Low Light Photography: How to Shoot Without a Tripod

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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 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.

  • steve simmer

    I just took a similar street shot in Las Vegas last week, also at 1/2 second. But I used a tripod. Darn good hand-holding technique to get a 1/2 second shot that sharp. Nice!

  • Bernie Gellman

    While visiting family, I did not have a tripod and the ISO went to 52100

  • Simon

    Some cameras have a useful “handheld night shooting” feature where it takes half a dozen shots in succession (each with a fast shutter speed), and merges them before storing as a single photo. Not perfect, but it’s a useful option for shooting a mostly-static scene when you don’t have a tripod or a suitable surface to balance the camera.

  • Spoonie

    Other techniques that will help are:

    1. Put your camera in continuous shot mode and fire a sequence of shots,
    pressing and releasing the shutter actually moves your camera in your hand, you will usually find one of the middle sequence shots is steadier. if you have a mittor lock up function, try that too.

    2. Try holding your breath and leaning against something (a wall a tree) if you
    can.

    3. Use the timer or a remote shutter release, similar to tip one.

    4. Find something to put your camera on, a rock, a fence, the top of your car,
    the ground if you have to and you can put an article of clothing underneath to
    enable positioning of your camera at different angles or prop it up, then use
    the timer or a remote release.

    5. Remember if you have a crop sensor camera the 1/focal length shutter rule needs to be adjusted by the crop factor. You can go lower than this with practice and using the continuous shot setting on your camera.

  • ccting

    Great article.

  • ccting

    put your camera on natural “tripod” ;). I never have a tripod.

  • Michael Owens

    Image is too small ccting!

  • Michael Owens

    Not bad for 52100 ISO. Not too much noise there! Well, on the small view anyway, zoom in its apparent. That’s the ONLY problem. You can’t really print high ISO images any bigger than 640×480 lol

  • Michael Owens

    Experience eh! But, that’s why I don’t leave the house without a MINI tripod in my pocket too. Especially when I know the areas I am visiting are constricted with people!

  • Eliseo Valdebenito

    Have you tried to print them in B/W, in larger formats, to make the noise less ‘visible’???

  • ELLIOT STERN

    Have at least two tripods. One heavy duty Induro carbon fiber 324 or 4 and and travel tripod like a Mefoto A1350 which is a very light weight tripod that can also become a monopod by unscrewing the padded leg. The little Mefoto can come in real handy.

  • Elrey

    Visiting a darkened church in Trujillo, Peru. I saw what was about to happen. Positioned myself out of sight behind pillar. She never saw me. Best of 2 shots. 45mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/200

  • Edmund

    I recommend a Gorillapod when you don’t want to take the full tripod. Because my camera is small (Micro 4/3) I can get away with one that will (just) fit in a coat pocket. It has never let me down but I don’t trust it like a normal tripod and always keep the camera strap around my neck just in case. On the other hand, it has provided really sharp images with no movement the same as my full size carbon fiber tripod but wrapped around a tree or a railing.

  • Joseph Bates

    I push exposure compensation to the left, especially if there is to much contrast in lighting. This also increases my shutter speed. Of course use the largest possible aperture.

  • April Doner

    Can anyone point me to good “post processing” functions? I know photoshop quite well and also have Lightroom (but haven’t yet learned to use it)

  • Michael Owens

    Yes, the only time I do that – when shooting in low light, and printing the image, is when I WANT that grainy look.

    Old school Noir imagery for instance.

  • JohnRThompsonPhotography

    April, dump the PS for photo post processing today. I held out for too long because I was comfortable is PS. Now I use nothing but LR. I look at my images before LR and wonder when im going to have time to go back and redo them. Adobe had an amazing library of LR tutorials on their site.
    NOTE: LR5 takes a lot of CPU cycles to stay quick when you start using multiple brushes so much so that I built a new machine to improve render times. I had LR3 before and it was way easier on the CPU…to be honest the end results between LR3 & 5 are negligible.
    JohnRThompsonPhotography.com

  • Patrik Podhrázský

    Here is my photo.
    1/200 sec., F2.8, ISO 100, 50 mm, objective E 50mm F1.8 OSS, camera Sony NEX 7.
    No stative. Only from my hand.
    http://galerie.world77.com/default.aspx?moid=292

  • Peter Holloway

    Some great advice Anne, the only other thing I’d like to add is, find something flat to rest your camera on. I managed to do this on my first trip to NYC when I couldn’t pack a tripod.

    http://www.daytripphoto.com/index.php/no-tripod-no-problem/

  • Thanks for to lovely tutorial. Learning more about photogrphy always helps.

  • April Doner

    Thank you so much John!
    It’s more and more on the top of my list, the more serious photographers I talk to.
    In LR, are there any “standard” functions you tend to use? I plan to do a comprehensive tutorial but am curious as well if there are a few things I could start playing with right away. (For instance, reducing noise in color photos…)

    Thanks again!
    -A

  • itsyodaddy

    fuck yo swag

  • pussydestroyer69

    why yo fart be smelling like yo dads dick

  • V N KALE

    NICE ARTICLE FOR USE OF ISO FUNCTION
    I TASTED THE SAME , RESULTS GREAT

    V N KALE

  • eldeane

    I use a Sony camera and they have two features for this purpose which a lot of people don’t know about.
    1. Hand Held Twilight – this is used for exactly what it states. Handheld low light shooting.
    2. Anti motion blur – a very similar feature to eliminate blur from hand movement.
    Both features use the same premise. Instead of using a slow shutter speed which introduces the problem of steadiness and blurry images, or increase the ISO which introduces noise, the camera will take six very fast shots and combine them into one image in camera.
    Therefore instead of a 1 sec shutter speed, the camera will take six shots within 1 sec align the images pixel by pixel, eliminate any overlap that looks like blur, aluminate any random noise and flatten the layered image into a crisp blur free, noise free image.
    I love these modes and use them a lot. My Cybr-shot RX100, NEX-6 and SLT-A99 have these features!~

  • Just curious Bernie, what were your other settings? Aperture and shutter speed?

  • Bernie Gellman

    Pentax K5, Tamron (18/250 mm) 18mm, f3.5, 1/100 sec.

  • stilltrying

    Tried my luck at an open air mall here in Manila, Philippines. Didn’t put on a high ISO (it’s at 400 in this photo). Shot with a Fuji SL1000 (fixed lens, so there’s nothing I can do about it), aperture’s 2.9, length at 4mm, 1/6 seconds.

  • getout

    shut the fuck up bitch.

  • pussydestroyer69

    bitch shut you ass up losing babies and shit we should call you miss carriage

  • adsv

    cunt shut your abortion ass up. what is your 4th abortion free bitch gotta love those punch cards right

  • our apologies for these comments – they will all be deleted shortly and the users banned from commenting on this site

  • yup that’ll do it

  • Dave

    Poor man’s tripod: 6 ft length of light chain with standard 1/4 inch bolt at one end. Screw bolt into bottom of camera, step on other end of chain, pull up, shoot. Compacts into 2 inch ball in baggie in my jacket pocket.

  • Cinnara

    What about automatic ISO? No one mentions it. Wouldn’t that do in difficult situations? You would have to set minium speed to whatever you setting you are comfortable with.

  • Nate Cochrane

    Learn to breathe and block your body against something rigid (in effect, becoming a living but not breathing tripod). Carry a small beanbag to put your camera on (or use your camera bag). Rest the camera on a bin, bollard, railing or something else stable. Don’t fight it; use intentional camera movement for a scintillating effect (especially when using flash to still people’s motions).

  • Amin Mukhtar

    I use higher iso 12800 to keep my shuttle speed freeze on people around and use large apeture f2.8 without using a tripod. i’m doing some processing noise reduction on lightroom.

  • Jeremy1123

    Teluk Intan, my hometown =D

  • Rye

    BGC!
    nice

  • Lemuel Ayudtud

    LR and PS can now be “leased” for 9.99/month from Adobe. Excellent price for what you get, in my view. Hope this helps. :-).

  • lfl

    I must agree with John. Once you learn LR, you will never go back! I was lucky enough to sit in on an Art Wolfe webinar and the one piece of advice that I am now using on almost all my images is to start with bumping saturation up to around 25 and clarity and vibrance up to around 5. Of course this will vary from pic to pic but his point is that RAW format (which I hope you’re able to shoot in) makes for a pretty flat image. DPS has had a number of great articles on LR recently. I highly recommend you taking the plunge. If you’re sticking with PS, do a search on polarizing filter. There’s a few ways you can mimic this in PS and it can help a lot.

  • Tom Klinefelter

    Underexpose by a couple stops, which increases your shutter speed. Then, if you’re shooting raw, you can push it back up in post. Neat trick.

  • kgelner

    Another trick I use often is to use a shutter speed that is normally a little too slow for the light you have, but putting the camera in drive mode and taking several shots in a row – usually one shot in a burst will be sharp after you stop moving from pressing the shutter.

    Or of course use a lightpost/railing/rock or anything like those for stability, or to place the camera on.

  • Insufficient Fare

    Damn.

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