Friday Foto Talk: Shooting without a Tripod   19 comments

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota

Along the Little Missouri River, North Dakota.  Shot hand-held, 29 mm., 1/125 sec. @ f/11, ISO 250.


It’s Friday, yippee!  That means it’s time for Friday Foto Talk.  I’ve been out camping a lot lately so have been skipping weeks here and there.  This is the conclusion to my little series on tripod use (or non-use).    Check out the other three posts in the series.

Do you find yourself without a tripod and wish you had brought one?  Well, that’s what this post is about.  The idea of a tripod is to stabilize the camera (I know, Captain Obvious strikes again).  A good solid tripod is just the best way to stabilize a camera; it’s not the only way.

In dim light, and without a tripod (or flash), you essentially have just two choices (three if you count not shooting at all).  First, you can raise the ISO high enough that your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold the camera.  Or second, you can find some other way to stabilize the camera, keeping the ISO low and allowing you to blur motion (for example water).  The rest of the post is about how to put these two options into practice.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington.  Hand-held 100 mm., 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

A baby grouse in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Only had my 100 mm. macro lens, hand-held: 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 400, cropped.

The first plan works pretty well in many situations, depending on the type of camera you have.  Of course, anytime you raise ISO, you need to think about noise.  Next post I’ll do a follow-up that goes into the issue of noise, ISO and you.

So you’re raising ISO and shooting unencumbered by a tripod.  This is the time to practice your hand-holding technique.  No, not that hand-holding technique.  I’m assuming you can decide on your own whether to link fingers with your girl or go with the standard palm grasp.

  • Elbows braced against the body, relaxed upright body, with legs slightly spread forming 2/3 of a tripod.  Even better, if possible make it a full tripod by bracing your hips and upper body against a tree or fence.
  • If you’re thinking of shooting from a low point of view, why not go all the way and lay on your belly with elbows forming a natural tripod.  There’s a reason marksmen choose this position for very long shots.
  • Relaxed but firm grip on the camera, other hand cradling the lens palms up.
  • Slow easy breathing, and a gentle squeeze of the shutter.  Some sort of roll the index finger across the shutter button.  Just don’t jab at it.
A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA.  Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

A bluebell, Olympic Mtns., WA. Hand-held, 200 mm. w/Canon 500D close-up filter, 1/320 sec. @ f/9, ISO 200.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie!  Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Foggy Hurricane Ridge, Washington, this is a selfie! Tripod, 100 mm., 1/13 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100.

Say you don’t want to raise ISO and want to go with the second option.  For example, you’re after a smooth-blur waterfall, with sharp rocks and trees, and you don’t have a tripod.  Or you’re in the city and you want to blur the scurrying about of pedestrians or car tail-lights and keep all the surroundings sharp.

Here’s the basic procedure:

  • Set the camera up just as if it was on a tripod: shutter delay, mirror lockup, low ISO, maybe even a polarizer or neutral density filter.
  • Find a flat place to place the camera: a log, a rock, railing, or just the ground.  How high does the camera need to be?  Prop the lens up with a scarf, hat, stone or stick, anything you can find.

Be careful!  If it’s an elevated platform – rock outcrop over a river, stone wall over pavement, or a railing on a bridge – keep the strap around your neck.  Remember your camera is NOT secure when you’re doing this.

  • Either set the camera directly on your chosen pedestal or lay something in between as a cushion (see below).
  • It’s hard to keep the pedestal out of your shot (especially a wide-angle), so you may need to do some finagling to get clearance beneath and beside the lens.  I use LiveView in these situations, checking for out of focus blobs in the very-near foreground, adjusting as necessary.
  • I usually set the camera on my pack or on soft clothing, but a small bean bag is perfect for this.  You can buy them at camera outlets.  They actually have plastic pellets not beans (which absorb water), and so are light and easy to throw in your pack.
  • Finally, you’re ready to shoot as long an exposure as light will allow, with no tripod!
Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA.  Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

Barred owl, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic N.P., WA. Tripod, 200 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200.

If you practice the above techniques, you won’t allow the lack of a tripod lead to blurry photos.  You’ll move closer to becoming a complete photographer (who is, after all, a problem solver).  I’m not saying you should sell your tripod.  Just let each situation dictate whether you use a tripod or not.

Get out shooting this weekend, and, for at least one day, forget your tripod.  Practice your hand-held technique.  For each lens (and focal length) you use, find the minimum shutter speed required for a sharp picture, and in dim conditions practice raising ISO to various levels.  Find interesting places to place the camera, keeping ISO low and shooting long exposures without a tripod.  Happy shooting!

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington.  Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.

Sunset at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in SW Washington. Hand-held, 30 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/11, ISO 400.


19 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Shooting without a Tripod

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  1. Great tips! I don’t like to raise the ISO though but in certain situation like you had mentioned, it is really necessary to do so..gosh, I wish there is a very very light tripod for any purposes that I can carry everywhere 🙂
    And beautiful images!

    • Thanks Indah! The only way to go lighter on the tripod is to go lighter on the camera gear. Many are switching to mirrorless like Sony’s line of A7 cameras. But the higher the resolution the camera the more stable the camera must be, and the newest Sony is twice the resolution of my DSLR!

  2. Awesome photos and info. Question. What about using a monopod? I’d appreciate your perspective.

    • Annette a monopod is only really helpful when you either have (1) heavy long lenses and are shooting quick, like with sports, or (2) are in a place where tripods are not allowed (museums, etc.). I bought one with my long lens, but have only used it on hikes where I thought light was going to be good and I was going to be shooting wildlife. With most wildlife, you have to go with faster shutter speeds anyway, and are mostly shooting longer focal lengths, so a monopod makes sense. For real camera stability and longer shutter speeds, like with landscapes, they don’t compare to tripods.

  3. Stunning photos Mike! Thanks so much for these posts. Now I’m getting out there for some practice! 🙂

  4. One evening without a tripod I hand held and used the delayed shutter- which on Canon has an audible 10 second count down. On 7 or 8 I held my breath and after the shutter release, breathed again. It worked more than 50% of the time!

    Emilio Pasquale
    • Holding your breath can work for some people. Most don’t recommend that though, because a lot of people tense up when holding their breath. Shooting between heartbeats is an even more specialized technique. Basically all of that stuff is borrowed from real shooting, of guns.

  5. Wonderful tips again Michael, thank you! I know I’m going to give some of them a try on my next trip to the Drakensberg!

  6. Great tips for shaky handed folks! Stunning images too.

    Melissa Shaw-Smith
  7. The purple of that flower is exquisite.

  8. Stunning shots! Make me go all green with envy.
    I appreciate this tutorial very much, Michael. Thank you! Hand-held is not always that easy, especially with the Nikon 70-200mm which is quite heavy itself. I was more than struggling on a boat the other day. So what would your advice be to get razorsharp images when you are on the water; a small boat or a big ferry, there’s always a fine motion from the machines or the seas, so leaning against something or resting upon something doesn’t really help. As i found out. 😦
    Best regards, Dina

    • Thanks Dina! I have gotten a few good pictures from boats, but it requires a different mindset than when hand-holding on land. You really need to raise shutter speed when there’s motion like that. Image stabilization helps too, as does putting the camera on burst mode (a tip I forgot to include). If your 70-200 has image stabilization, for example, you should be able to get sharp pictures at 1/60 sec. to 1/100 sec. or faster on land, whereas on the water I would shoot at 1/250 to 1/400 sec. or faster, depending on the degree of motion. If the motion is subtle I.S. will be more able to take care of it. Just raise your ISO to shoot at the aperture you need, and remember if all of your subject is pretty far away you can open up your aperture to f/8 or f/5.6.

      • This information makes my heart jump with joy, thank you so much, dear Michael! I have put your advice into my little book of “clever tipps to become a better photographer”. 🙂
        I wish I’d known this before we made the sail to Sweden, but at least I’m much better prepared for the next time.
        What exactly do you mean by burst mode? The 70-200 has image stabilization and thank you so much for explaining the aperture when the subject is far away. I mostly tend to keep the aperture at 9 or 11 or above when I make a shot of the landscape/seascape to get everything sharp.
        May I ask one more question, please:
        If you go into a Zodiak on a bleak day and the sea is choppy, which lens would you use to capture the scenery? Would you go for P? Or raise your ISO and try to shoot one handed, if necessary?
        Best regards from Norway, Dina

    • Thanks a bunch Dina!! Burst mode means you make the camera shoot a series of shots, continuously as long as you hold the shutter (until it runs out of memory for that). With Canon you adjust the “drive” button, the same as when you make it shoot delayed shutter. As long as it shoots about 5/sec. or greater, it allows you to increase your chances of getting a sharp picture when you have movement (of either you or the subject). You’re right to keep the shutter at f/11 for landscapes, unless you know everything is the same distance, then you can go to the sharpest aperture (which is usually around f/8 but for very fast lenses can be f/5.6 or so). When you have very close foreground the rules change a bit, everything depending on the particular lens. On a zodiac in choppy seas I’d go with a couple lenses, probably zooms to capture everything between 24 and 200 mm. and raise ISO. The wide-angle is for those shots you want that include your fellow passengers, which then you may be able to get away with lower ISO and open up your aperture to slightly blur backgrounds. Remember shorter focal lengths always have greater depth of field than longer ones like 200 mm. Shooting one-handed I don’t recommend unless you absolutely have to; it’s less stable. Hope you don’t get seasick as easy as I do!

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