Mastering night photography without a tripod
My friend Jon asks “How can I take a night photo without a tripod?” When you’re travelling light, a tripod is one of the first things to go out the window. No one wants to lug around a full sized tripod on their vacation – unless you’re a crazy photographer like me… But you still want to do night photography right?
Luckily, there are heaps of options for taking a photo at night without a tripod. If you’re a more experienced photographer, you might just want to skip to section three, which contains details for manual camera settings.
1. Using Night mode
So you have a point and shoot or a basic DSLR? No problem. In most entry-level cameras (including phone cameras), there are night modes designed to help you out. The modes selection can be in a number of places – usually on the dial wheel of the camera or under the touchscreen menus. Often there are two modes – night landscape and night portrait.
Night landscape is for taking night shots that might include cities or celebrations. It is usually symbolised with a city and a moon above it. Night landscape will set your camera to use a slow shutter speed to get as much light in the lens as possible. It may still be necessary to stabilise your camera on something – see point two.
Night portrait has a similar symbol but with a person under a moon. This will use a slow shutter but also include a flash burst to illuminate your subject. Night portrait is incredibly fun to play with – you can get some cool effects that look straight out of a rock and roll magazine. It’s very helpful if you’re trying to take a photo at night of you and a friend outside the glowing Eiffel Tower without the image getting blown out.
2. Find a stable base
There are a few options for stable bases – the first is to find something in the area to rest your camera on. This photo of London at night was taken resting my camera on the rock barrier on the other side of the river. If you have a delay mode on your camera, it’s also useful to set the timer or use a remote shutter release as you would on a tripod to avoid camera shake.
Use a mini-tripod: Up until I bought my exceptionally heavy 24-70mm lens, I used a Gorillapod as my go-to travel tripod. They’re fantastic for point and shoot cameras and light DSLR cameras. I did use the SLR Zoom Gorillapod with my heavy lens with mixed results – sometimes the legs suffered from creep which would only be visible when I got the photos home. However it was fantastic to use with my 10-20mm lens, and I’ve taken many photos using the Gorillapod.
Use a bean bag: Yep, you read that right. A bean bag or a travel neck pillow can make a great alternative to a tripod.
3. Advanced manual DSLR settings
Taking good DSLR handheld photos at night is almost impossible without the right equipment and steady hands. If you’re often photographing night or low-light events, it’s worthwhile to invest in some fast, lightweight glass with an aperture of under f/2.8. Once I switched to these types of lenses, it made an incredible difference to the range of photography I was able to capture in low-light conditions. The results of these settings also depend on your camera body’s sensor and ISO capabilities.
- Set your camera on Manual mode
- Set the aperture as low as possible (f/2.8, f/1.8, f/1.4 etc). Note that at these apertures you need to watch out for your depth of focus as it’s easy for the focal point to fall in front or behind your subject.
- Set the shutter speed between 50-100/sec
- Take some sample shots and check the metadata – if your auto ISO is too high then you might want to slow the shutter speed. Note that anything below 40-50/sec you usually have to have the hands of a surgeon to hold your camera steady.
- Manually adjust your ISO if the images are not sensitive enough – the higher the ISO the more light is let into the image, but the greater risk of noise. Increasing the ISO allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds (around 800 upwards is often standard for night shots).
- Set your shutter release on rapid fire, if you have it. Taking several in a row can result in one that is sharper than the others.
- Try to use local light sources to your advantage – lanterns, fairy lights, street lights can all illuminate the subject in a creative way that allows you to get the shot. Like this photo of Christmas shopping in Korea, photographed through a string of lights.
If you’re shooting landscapes, then switch to shutter priority mode (I normally start at a 10″ exposure) and find a stable place to rest your camera.
Sometimes, it’s just too dark to take photos – light is a big issue if you don’t have professional lenses. Be aware that in extremely dark situations cameras struggle to focus and the images may be filled with noise (that fuzzy stuff that makes your pics look all spotty). And as much as you might want to, you can’t fix camera shake in Lightroom – so it pays to get it right in camera.
If you have a photography question that needs answering, let me know through my contact form or in the comments below.