Look Ma No Tripod, Get That Low Light Shot Anyway

Night and low light photography without a tripod falls into two categories:

  1. Using some type of tripod alternative camera stabilization device.
  2. Camera settings that maximize light gathering capability for a minimum shutter speed that can be hand held.

Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks. Using a small tripod alternative device offers the camera stabilization and long exposure advantages of a tripod. But unlike a tripod, these devices are limited to surfaces and support objects in the environment that can accommodate them. For a further discussion tripod free photography click here.

Use Supports If Available

Depending on how they are used or attached, the availability of supports may be limited. Bean bags and mini-tripods need a more or less flat, level surface at the desired height. Clamps, Velcro straps and bendable minipod legs only attach to supports of a minimum size. Suction cups need a smooth surface like window glass or a car body. All have limited applications and lack the versatility of a sturdy tripod. But they also avoid the weight and bulk of a tripod.

Long Exposure

Long ten second exposure with camera mounted on HandlePod that was held on a rail.

The photo above was exposed for ten seconds at f16 and an ISO of 200. Notice the lack of noise or grain. Another benefit of the smaller aperture is an increased depth of field and the star effect around the lights. Of course such a long exposure could never be hand held. In this case the camera was mounted on a HandlePod that was held on the railing surrounding the pier.

Hand Held Is Possible

Adjusting the camera to allow a hand held exposure is possible with some sacrifice in quality. The photo below is a comparison of hand held and stabilized images. The image on the left is a segment of a similar shot hand held at 1/40 second at f4.5 and an ISO of 12,800. Notice the grain and lack of star effect compared to the image on the right which is a segment of the stabilized exposure.

Hand held vs stabilized in low light.

Hand held on left compared to stabilized long exposure on right.

Using or not using a tripod in low light is not an all or nothing situation. There are alternatives as we have seen. A light weight tripod alternative like HandlePod provides the long exposure capability of a tripod without the weight and bulk. It offers noise-free low ISO and the increased depth of field of a narrow aperture. The drawback is you must find support objects that you can hold it against or attach it to. But there are usually plenty available.

Shoot at Night Without a Tripod

Where tripod alternatives or support objects are not available, it is possible to crank up the ISO and open the aperture to allow hand holding in just about any light. This will work if the increased noise is acceptable. It is a less than ideal solution, but will get the low light shot when hand held is the only choice.

In the absence of a tripod the best solution is to use one technique or the other—stabilized long exposures using an alternative like HandlePod on a solid support, or high ISO, wide aperture camera settings that allow hand-holdable shutter speeds. The light and situation will determine the choice but using one or the other will save the shot when a tripod is just not in the works.

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