Look, Ma, No Tripod!

Washington National Cathedral grounds.
[ISO 1600, 1 sec. @ f/2.8]

I’m showing you these pictures not because I think they have any special aesthetic merit, but because they exist at all. They were all shot at night, hand held, and are presented with minimal post-processing. Yes, they may suffer from a lack of critical sharpness and noise. But go back and read sentence #1 of this paragraph.

Flying Buttress, Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 100, 1.6 sec @ f/5]

The point is: THEY EXIST.

You will inevitably find yourself in a situation where you want to take a photograph at night, or in an impossibly underlit situation. You will NOT have your tripod with you. Or even if you do, you may not have time to set it up properly. All is not lost. You may be able to get a usable image anyway.

Rear of the Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 400, 6 sec @ f/5]

You can take long exposure photographs without a tripod, and while most of them will not rise to the level of technical merit required for a big print, they can be successful in their own right. Here are the things you need to know:

  1. A high ISO is going to bring a lot of noise, but so is a long exposure in low light (that’s just how CMOS sensors roll, nothin’ to be done about it). So experiment, if you have the leisure, to find the sweet spot.
  2. Brace your camera against something that doesn’t move (buildings and lampposts and big trees are good). Then wedge your hands around the camera in a way that makes it hard for you to cause camera wobble.
  3. If there’s no way to brace the camera against an immovable object, use your head. Literally. Press the camera against your forehead, with your elbows close by your side, or stand comfortably centered and put it on top of your head and pull downward evenly on both sides to anchor it. Breath out and pause, then release the shutter; do not inhale and hold your breath, it’s harder to keep still. (The tower picture was taken with this method.)
  4. If you’re lucky enough to find a conveniently-placed stable surface that you can safely sit the camera on, use the timed shutter-release. That eliminates one more cause of camera movement.
  5. Do not even try an action shot unless blurred motion is what you want.
  6. Focus the camera manually if you can, or set the scene mode appropriately. Autofocus sensors do not work well in low-light situations.
  7. Take a whole bunch of exposures. Inevitably, one will be sharper than the rest. It’s a digital camera, the extra frames are free, so shoot without worrying about how many of them will be crap.

South Tower, Washington National Cathedral
[ISO 1600, 1/13 sec. @ f/2.8]

Nighttime photography without a tripod is liberating, in a weird limited way. It’s like writing a haiku, you gotta love working with the constraints. Don’t let the limitations don’t stop you from producing something beautiful and memorable, let them challenge and inspire you instead.

5 Responses to Look, Ma, No Tripod!
  1. Rakewell
    July 27, 2010 | 7:11 pm

    Interestingly, you have just described the technique for making high-accuracy shots with a firearm. Well, except for the ISO stuff. And the part about using your head as a brace. Bad idea, what with the recoil and all.

    But I’m thinking we might make a marksman out of you yet. :-)

  2. Patrick
    July 27, 2010 | 7:32 pm

    Six seconds. Wow. With the last one, I am impressed by the lack of noise with the ISO. Boy, do I need a better camera…

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  4. Jean Ruaud
    July 30, 2010 | 4:15 pm

    6 seconds at ISO 400 without a tripod and that’s wonderful! I’m impressed.

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