My Tips On Low-Light Photography Without a Tripod   September 17th, 2010

During one of my classes, the comment came up about needing a tripod to shoot images in low-light. I provided some tips on how to potentially avoid the use of the tripod that I thought I would share with a broader audience.

I should mention that I shoot a lot of low light imagery, and you’d be surprised what you can accomplish without a tripod.

Example of low-light photography without a tripod. 1/13th @ f/3.5, ISO800 with Sigma 18-250mm at 18mm on my Nikon D300s

Example of low-light photography without a tripod. 1/13th of a second @ f/3.5 and ISO800, with a Sigma 18-250mm lens at 18mm on my Nikon D300s. (Photo of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, on July 14, 2010).

My tips:

  1. Make your body the tripod. What I do to stabilize my images (I am right handed) is put the weight of the camera on my hand and then brace my let elbow against my torso. I also tuck my right elbow against my side. If you try and take a photo without your arms braced and stabilized, you’re asking for camera shake for longer exposures.
  2. In addition to minimizing your arm extensions, find something to lean against to provide you with even more stability. Your camera doesn’t have to rest on the wall, pole, ledge, etc. (although if you can get the picture you want by doing that, even better), as long as your body is kept more stable by the physical object. You’ll find after practicing this for a while that you’ll always be on the lookout for such assists.
  3. Control your breathing. Long, slow breaths are good. I find I will typically hold my breath a moment before I depress the shutter release.
  4. Be aware of your camera’s noise reduction features and how to set them properly as well as your camera’s and lens’ stability improvement capabilities. A Nikon VR lens, for example, can get you an extra stop because of its built in image stabilization (but it doesn’t always help). Noise reduction helps get rid of the speckling you see in your images if you zoom them up. Each camera model also has a different maximum sensitivity (expressed as ISO) before noise becomes noticeable in your shoots. For example, the older Nikon D200 I used to use for most of my image started getting noisy at ISO800. But I can shoot my D300s at ISO800 with no appreciable noise, and even at ISO1000 or slightly higher, but by ISO1600, noise is definitely visible if I look for it. Note that if you want a gritty feel to your image, you may want to pump the ISO way up to get that grainy look, of course.
  5. Try to get the brightest lens you can for the shoot you’re planning. That means a low “f” number on the lens. f/1.8 or f/2 is probably the lowest you’re going to see, and they are pricey. But every stop counts in low light photography, whether with a tripod or not.
  6. Make sure your camera is not in a multi-shot mode, so that when you take the image you can leave your finger pressing the shutter release until the image has been captured. The quick pressing and release of the shutter release is a major cause of low light image blur because it jostles the camera – minutely, but enough to cause problems.
  7. Avoid using a zoom on low-light shoots – the more zoomed in you are, the greater the potential shake during image taking. My father once told me that the magic rule for being able to always take shake free images was to use an exposure speed that was 1 over the focal length, and if possible to make it 1 over 2x the focal length you’re shooting at. So, if you’re using a 300mm effective lens, you’d want your exposure to be 1/300th – 1/600th of a second or faster. But for a 24mm effective, you’re down to 1/24th – 1/48th (or realistically 1/30th – 1/50th). Big difference. For low light you can’t always manage that of course, but it’s a goal.
  8. Play and practice, a lot. And use your camera’s playback function with zoom to look at how you did with your shake after you take a picture.

The above tips allow me to get focused shots down to as low as about 1/10th to 1/8th of a second with a 50mm focal length at f/4.5. And if I can brace the camera itself against a wall, telephone pole, headstone, mailbox, car, whatever, I can get stable multi-second exposures. All without having to carry a tripod around with me.


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