No Tripod? No Problem
Let's take some long exposure...
but first, what is a long exposure?
Long exposure is the process of shooting with a slow shutter speed to either blur motion or maintain image quality in a low light setting. To achieve blurred motion the shutter is opened for a longer period of time exposing the scene to the sensor for longer, capturing the scene from the moment the shutter is opened until it is closed.
The ISO setting is the sensitivity setting of the sensor/film which will display more image noise in an image as the sensitivity is increased. This may be a look you are after, but generally, a noisy image looks messy. A reduced shutter speed will see more of the available ambient light exposed to the recording medium over a longer period, so much a lower ISO setting can be selected so reducing potential image noise.
A long exposure makes for striking and creative images, but it does come at a cost. When shooting at a longer exposure it is imperative that anything static in the frame remains crisp sharp, but with the slightest movement of the camera unwanted blurring will occur; this is referred to as camera shake. The solution to this? Fix your camera to a sturdy tripod and shoot with a remote shutter so that the camera remains perfectly still. But what if you do not have a tripod or a remote shutter?
Photography is just like anything else, the better you prepare the better you will perform. On my most recent trip, I thought I had prepared enough, my camera equipment was all clean and present, I worked out shooting locations routes and times for the right shooting conditions and had my tripod packed. What I had failed to notice in my final preparations was the nubbin, a small threaded yolk that connects the camera to the tripod was missing from the gimble (the swivly bit). Without this the tripod is useless and I had carried it all the way to another country for no reason. Brilliant.
For this particular trip, I had high hopes of doing a lot of night time photography so it was initially the cause of immense frustration when I realized the nubbin was missing. Typically, all the local photography shops were closed for the whole weekend, except for the Leica store who wanted 800 Euro for a tripod with a real value closer to £250, so that was out of the question. I was thus faced with two options, don't shoot or improvise. The former was out of the question so it was time to get creative. Here I'll share with you my...
6 Tips to Shooting Long Without A Tripod
1 - Use Your Head
Sounds a little corny and a total cliche, I know, but this is important. And no, I don't mean try and balance the camera on your head, that's going to get you nothing but a busted camera.
When you come to take a shot that requires a long exposure and don't have the proper equipment stop and think about how you might take it. For instance, could you get away with a slightly faster shutter speed to achieve the right amount of blur and therefore still shoot handheld? An example of this might be shooting fast-moving traffic where you should be able to get away with a shutter speed of around 1/15th, or 1/20th of a second.
Another question to ask yourself would be 'could I get away with using something else as a tripod?'; I'll cover some examples of this in the next few points.
What is most important is that you remain calm, and slow yourself down and really think about what you are trying to achieve. An extra couple of minutes or even seconds will not hurt, especially if it's a static subject, and with lots of practice, you will be able to react quicker. I know it's not easier shooting under pressure, but the more you do it the better you will be. Simple!
2 - Keep it Tight
AS the title suggests, this technique is all about making yourself as static as possible to take the shot and reduce unwanted camera shake. With practice this method is suitable for shutter speeds down to around 1/10th of a second, maybe slower if you are a steady individual. Remember the objective is to keep the camera as still as possible.
The first step is to hold the camera to your eye whilst pulling your elbows tight into your sides and press hard to your body. This provides stable support for the camera body by fixing your arms into solid columns with as little movement as possible. For extra stability, lean against a wall, pillar or any other solid vertical surface.
The next step is the shutter press; first, compose the shot then take a deep breath, controlling your breathing is very important for this method as irregular breathing will cause unnecessary movement. When you are satisfied with your composition slowly exhale whilst at the same time gently squeezing the shutter in a smooth motion avoiding all temptation to stab at the button. These smooth actions coupled with the supporting of the camera will significantly reduce unwanted camera shake.
Be aware that this method may not yield the anticipated results when shooting at longer focal lengths. Because of the extended range, any movement's are amplified, and so the necessity for stability is far greater. You should be good up to focal lengths of around 100mm, but again this is wholly dependant on how steady you can make yourself.
3 - Use the Ground
For slower shutter speeds that require the camera to be absolutely still, it must be placed on a static surface. Although the earth is spinning at approximately 1,000 miles per hour, chances are that static elements of your scene will be also so where better than to put your camera.
By placing your camera on the floor you will avoid any risk of it falling and, assuming you are in the same plane as your subject they should remain level to each other. If you have a flip out screen this is a perfect opportunity to use it to avoid having to lay flat down on the floor to compose through the viewfinder.
Laying the lens straight maybe exactly the perspective you are looking for, but if you need to incline upwards slightly place a flat soft object underneath the lens to provide a more desired perspective. Many tutorials teach the use of bean bags, but this will add unnecessary weight to your kit bag and take up valuable space. I use my filter pouch or my wallet either folded flat or doubled over depending on the level of incline I require.
4 - Find a Surface
Shooting on the ground is ok, but will not be appropriate for every shooting situation; sometimes you just need a little more height. Look around and see if there is something you can use to prop your camera on or relocate to act as a surface like a tripod. Wheely bins are a perfect example of a portable surface as I found out on my last trip.
The techniques employed in points 2 and 3 can come in handy here also. If your surface is not quite giving you the perspective you require then you can use a packer to elevate the lens slightly as in point 3. If you cannot find a surface to support the whole camera and lens, think about perching the camera body on the top of a railing or wall and using the squeeze technique discussed in point 2. By pushing the camera body tight to the surface on which it is resting and squeezing, movement shall be vastly reduced when compared to shooting hand held.
5 - Use Your Camera Bag
Points 3 and 4 do not lend themselves to shooting in the portrait orientation because most camera bodies have apertures on the side of the body to attach a neck or wrist strap and prevent the camera from sitting level on its side. This is further accompanied by the weight of an extended lens which would also need to be supported, becoming a bit of a balancing act.
This method provides a little elevation off of the ground, and with a bit of engineering is useful for both portrait and landscape shooting. Not all bags are the same, but my day bag of choice, the Billingham L2, provides ideal support in both orientations. I either nestle the camera into the soft fold of the bag flap for landscape; for portrait shooting, I can rest the body of the camera within the body of the bag utilizing my lens wallet and other lenses and the bag structure itself, whilst the lens is supported on the side wall of the bag.
This technique does come across a little amateur and dodgy, but I can confirm that it works absolutely fine and I have produced some great results using it. It wouldn't be a go-to technique if I were shooting client work, but for my own street work, it's absolutely fine.
Take a look at your own bag and try different positions. I only discovered this method when I was forced to find an alternative, but by being already armed with the knowledge of how to make this work before you go out and shoot will save you a lot of time.
6 - Use Your Camera's Timer
You wouldn't want to have gone through all the effort of stabilizing your camera using one of the methods above, only to rock your devices by pressing the shutter button. This is where you would benefit from a remote shutter button that allows you to operate the shutter without touching the camera. When I first started taking photography seriously I did buy a cheap remote shutter which has since failed (lesson, don't buy cheap) but found that the only time I would use it was if I wanted to use the cameras bulb mode (unlimited shutter time). I can't remember the last time I used bulb mode and instead opt for the options available in camera.
Most modern camera's come with the option to set a timer for 2, 5, or 10 seconds so that when you have pressed the shutter button the camera counts down before operating the shutter automatically. This will ensure the camera has settled and stabilized before the all-important click.
I can't speak for other camera brands or models, but my Sony A7iii has an awesome feature which will take a sequence of shots at the dialed in settings. This is ideal for when shooting light trails as it is always tricky to get it right the first time, but with a sequence of 3 or 5 shots, you have a greater chance of getting the shot in the first attempt.
When shooting low, try and leave yourself plenty of headroom in the shot as you will be able to correct the perspective in post if desired. This is particularly useful for architectural photography as buildings will tend to lean and force converging lines due to the curved optic of the lens.
By leaving the headroom the crop caused by adjusting the perspective will be dead space and will not impact your subject.
Additionally, when using your bag or a surface you may not always to get your levels perfect so use leveling and cropping in post also to correct for this.
These are my top tips which have got me out of some tricky situations when faced with the prospect of shooting without a tripod. Having fully adopted these techniques I now opt for these instead of lugging my tripod around and think harder about when I may actually need to use it rather than carry it around all day for no reason. These techniques do not fully alleviate the need for a sturdy, good quality tripod, but when you are in a tight spot or trying to keep your gear light these tips may just help you out.
I hope you have learned something here and would love to hear any tips you might have for shooting long without the use of a tripod. Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
I should add that the above tips are based on my experiences and are advisory only. You should never leave your camera in a precarious location without first assuring yourself that it is safe from damage from falling or otherwise. I do not take any responsibility for reckless use of these techniques.