How to take AWESOME night photos WITHOUT a tripod

Picture of How to take AWESOME night photos WITHOUT a tripod
This instructable will teach you how to use the normal digital camera you already own to take night photos that are not blurry, and without a tripod. Don't believe me? The photos on this page were shot just last week with my digital camera without a tripod. Read and learn, grasshopper! And press the "+" sign on this instructable so I can get closer to winning that dad-gum laser carver thingee.

(sample photo shot at ISO 400, 6/10 of a second, no tripod, of the downtown Omaha skyline)
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Step 1: Get a digital camera that lets you control it's basic settings

Picture of Get a digital camera that lets you control it's basic settings
By basic settings, I don't mean resolution, zoom lens, or movie mode. The only settings you will need to control are ISO, exposure time (shutter speed), aperture and shooting mode.

Relax, you don't have to run out and buy a new fancy-shmancy digital camera to do this. Most digital cameras that aren't the bottom-of-the-barrel or older than 3 years old will let you do this. Usually you just have to set the camera into "custom" or "manual" mode to accomplish this.

If you want to know how to set up these features on your digital camera, consult your owner's manual just like I had to do.

Also, while IS or VR (image stabilization or vibration reduction) can help, they are not necessary. All of the sample shots on this instructable were shot on a several-year old Canon A620 that lacks IS, and only goes up to ISO 400.

If you need to update your camera, and got some dough, I would recommend buying the Canon SD800 IS. If you don't got $300, but have $200, then I would get what I got, the Canon A620. If you only have $100, go on eBay and buy a used Canon A530. All 3 will enable you to do this instructable.

Here are a few guideline definitions that you can skip, but I am including them just so all the photographic "measurebators" don't have a hissy fit:

ISO = how sensitive your camera is to light. ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100. ISO 400 is twice as sensitive to ISO 200. The more sensitive (higher ISO) the shorter the exposure needs to be for a similar image. So why not jump to ISO 1600? Because in digital cameras, that will make for a very grainy photo unless you got an electronically cooled CCD like they use for photographing astronomy. Most "normal" digital cameras only go up to ISO 400, anyways. And yes, there is a bit of noise in these photos, but the end results are more than passable when printed on a high-quality printer.

Exposure (shutter speed) = how long your shutter will stay open, allowing light to collect on the image sensor. 1:15 is 1/15 of a second. 1:4 is 1/4 of a second. Remember, in shutter speeds less than a second, the LARGER the bottom number, the SHORTER the exposure (provided that a 1 is the numerator) 6/10 is more than twice as long as 1/4. Also, camera shake can cause blurry photos at settings longer than 1/15.

Aperture: F-stops are different settings allowing different amounts of light to enter your camera. This is different from exposure, in that the aperture is that funky iris/anus looking thing that is a series of connected sheets that either open or contract to make a hole get bigger or smaller. Think of the opening to the old James Bond movies where that aperture starts as a small dot and opens up to get bigger. If you watch the LCD on your camera and adjust the aperture, you will see which setting opens up the iris to allow more light in by watching your LCD become brighter or dimmer.

(UPDATE: No, these definitions aren't taken from Standard Photographic Definitions 9th Edition or New England Journal of Expert Photographic Advice and Medicine. These are thumbnail definitions, and I am not an expert. I am just trying to explain what I think is correct to people that don't know any better. If you know something I don't know, I'm not surprised. Post it in a comment below and show the world how wrong I am.)

(sample photo shot at ISO 200, exposure 1/5 of a second)
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Miguel Denyer2 months ago

I'd like to weigh in here... I do nature and wildlife photography on a professional level and I specialize in night photography... for starters if you are not using a tripod or other stabilizing device, even in daylight you are going to have a hard job preventing motion blur at exposures of greater than 1/100th of a second (some are able to remain pretty steady at 1/80th Sec but that's about as slow as you are going to be able to manage.
Next... getting decent night time images (without using flash or other bright light sources) without using a tripod or other stabilizing device just isn't going to happen and that is because you are going to need exposure times that are simply too long to get away with using your camera hand-held.

As far as ISO settings on a point-and-shoot camera are concerned I can't really speak for them as I no longer have one but I used to have a Canon PowerShot SX10 IS which is an advanced digital (also called a "bridging camera" because it bridges the gap between point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs) and that did have ISO settings where one could select between ISO 100 and 3200 - but that is not the same as a regular point-and-shoot. That said, I now own a mid range Canon DSLR and I use Sigma lenses and for night photography, the ONLY time I go lower than 800 ISO is when I am shooting star trails - but that's because I use the BULB setting, an ISO of 100 and exposure times of up to one hour+

The fact is that without using a mid-high ISO (800-3200), at night you simply are not going to get decent images - also, if you don't use the right combination of ISO, aperture size and exposure times, you are going to get very noisy, blurry or under exposed images.

Now, I am not going to tell y'all how to do night photography in here because I sell a tutorial on night photography as part of my livelihood - I'm not going to try to sell you a copy either because this is not the venue for that... but I am going to add a photo or two of my own for you to see what I can do...

If you do wish to contact me away from this site... email me a miguel (at) igwp (dot) org

Porkies Sky - 00003 - small.jpgMoon - 00006.JPGMilky Way over Lake Michigan - 0002.JPG
ddougan11 months ago

I think lens choice is huge here. I could never take a usable night shot without a tripod with my camera's kit lens. But fortunately I have a fast prime lens (f1.4). If I dial up the ISO high enough (say 1600) then I can walk around at night without a tripod and get some great stuff. The image sensors are starting to get good enough that you can use higher ISO settings without too much compromise.

Camera: Olympus PEN E-PL1 (micro 4/3)

Lens: Panasonic Leica Summilux 25mm (50mm full frame equivalent focal length)

Aperture: f1.4

ISO: 1600

Shutter speed...I can't quite remember right now.

Fluorescent Painter.jpgShoreline.jpgFerris Wheel.jpg

I'm sorry but the photos you uploaded aren't better than the guys one. I'm not saying I'm better either. The thing is I'm trying to find a way of not taking blurry photos at night with much light and I can't-.-

It's kind of hard to convey this with small, low-resolution photos. But I assure you -- if you're pixel peeping with high-resolution files or making prints, you'll find that the image quality in my photos are leaps and bounds ahead of what the original author could get from his or her camera.

That's not a slight against the original author's skills -- I'm actually quite impressed that the author got results that good with such a humble camera. The Canon PowerShot A620 is a 7.1-megapixel point-and-shoot camera from late 2005. The original author must have had super stable handheld technique because the shutter speed was very slow -- 0.6 seconds. Most people, including most pro photographers, could never keep a camera steady for that long. I wonder how many dud images there were before getting that good one. ISO 400 was the maximum available sensitivity on that camera, and I suspect f5.0 was the widest aperture available to the author at that focal length. I'm sure at ISO 400 if viewed full size, the original author's photos would look very grainy.

But my photos were taken with a whole other class of equipment. The Olympus E-PL1 I used was a 12-megapixel mirrorless interchangeable lens camera from 2010 that maxed out at ISO 6400 -- and I've since replaced that one with an E-PL5 from late 2012 that maxes out at ISO 25600. I shot these photos at ISO 1600, and a wider aperture of f1.4, which enabled me to use a MUCH faster shutter speed so I didn't have to work quite so hard to keep the camera steady. Unfortunately I didn't keep track of the shutter speeds...but I know they were significantly faster than the original author's. That enabled me to minimize image blur.

These newer cameras with larger sensors have so much more ISO latitude than older digital cameras, and packing on a pricey f1.4 prime lens really gave me a lot of opportunities for handheld night shooting that this author never had. ISO 1600 on the E-PL1 (and even more so on my newer E-PL5) is significantly less noisy than ISO 400 on the original author's Canon PowerShot A620.

Here's my best advice for handheld night shooting:

1) Get the camera with the biggest sensor and fastest lens that you can reasonably afford. Low-light photography is one area where equipment makes a big difference. And that goes double for low-light action shooting like sporting events indoors or at night under the stadium lights. If you have something really important to photograph, and you don't think your equipment will cut it, then look into renting equipment.

2) On that camera, turn up the ISO as high as you can without a significant noise penalty. Even the newer point-and-shoot cameras can take good photos at ISO 800 and usable photos at small sizes at ISO 1600. You should have had enough practice and experience with your camera beforehand to know its limits in terms of ISO and noise. Remember, though, a noisy photo is better than a blurry photo unless you are deliberately trying to blur the image. You probably need a faster shutter speed than you think you need.

Note: If you're using a tripod, you won't need to dial up the ISO so much because you can keep the shutter speed as slow as you want to without shaking the camera. Tripods are always preferable for night shooting since they enable you to slow down the shutter speed and thus dial down the ISO to minimize noise -- but sometimes it's not practical to have a tripod.

3) Set the camera to aperture priority mode if you have one (Av), and open the aperture as wide as you can. The more light you can let in, the better.

4) Brace your camera by putting your elbows next to your torso. This is where using a viewfinder (if your camera has one) as opposed to the LCD screen can really come in handy.

5) Frame your shot, and press the shutter button halfway down before shooting. This does two things: a) it prefocuses your lens, and b) it sends realistic feedback to your camera's light meter. If you've already set the ISO and aperture, the light meter will then figure out the right shutter speed. That is, unless you want to get creative with blurring, etc.

5) Fire the shutter, and enjoy.
JoshP54 months ago

I love your description of how the aperture looks like an anus

sfriedt6 months ago

If it has as much noise as I am seeing in this picture regardless of the subject matter its a crappy photo. Low iso and long shutter times of a minute or more makes for the best photos. Iso 1600 will ruin your photos. Adjust shutter times and exposure and f stop only. Do not shoot with high isos unless the hulk shows up and you are looking for subject matter and not quality. Use a tripod. You can't take shortcuts

Sassah1222 years ago
i do not like your style of writing.
tekkiekmo2 years ago
Your last suggestion of using as wide open f-stop needs a disclaimer about how it affects depth of field. Remember that the wider the aperture (lower f-stop), the shallower the depth of field: Objects you focus on will be in focus, but objects closer to or further from the camera may fall out of focus. To get as much of the frame in focus as possible, you should use as high an f-stop (smaller aperture) as possible to get the correct exposure.
mariacarm2 years ago
i like how you write the instructables! it's in a language i can understand. good luck to me and the other readers :D
Tripods are nice because you can point your camera anywhere. But you can stabilise the the camera many ways. A cable release or remote will avoid hand vibrations, but you can use the self-timer to do this too. Stabilisation helps at night, but it also helps during the day when you are taking telephoto shots.

Ways to stablilise:
  • use any non-vibrating surface - car top (turn engine off), planter, fence, ...
  • use a beanbag - any bag filled with seeds or granules. Put it down somewhere and put the camera on it. It gives you some aiming possibilities
  • attach a 6' rope or chain to the tripod screw or camera. Step on the other end. Pull up on camera, aim & shoot.
  • hiking staffs often have a tripod screw under the top knob.
  • buy & carry a "pocket tripod" or ultrapod. Put these short tripods on the ground, or on other objects to choose your point of view, or strap them to a tree or post with velcro.
  • get a 5"length of foam pipe insulation, the kind with the slit down one side. Put this over a partly-open car window and rest the camera on it.
If you are holding the camera, you can minimise vibrations by taking a breath, letting it out & relaxing, then squeezing the shutter release. Don't stab at the release - use a gentle squeeze. Drink less coffee...

tOM Trottier
yep ! …
Drink less coffee is the best advice … I know many good pros, and I realize most of them a very quiet persons…
maybe make an instructable so more people can benefit from your knowledege
thesparine (author) 7 years ago
Hi, here is a quick follow up... I went to China and took a few night photos using this technique. The first two pictures are without a tripod, and the third one is with a tripod, and to me they look the same, especially when printed out.
advantages to tripod: you can leave your shutter open as long as you like... just sayin! 
filmnuts4 years ago
I know this is an old instructable, but I fail to see what the aversion to using a tripod is.  There are some very small tripods these days (Gorillapod and the like), so I don't see size being an issue.  Nor do I see cost as an issue either; a usable tripod can be had for $30, which is nothing if you've already spent $200+ on a camera.

Frankly, if you want to take long exposure images, night or otherwise, the only correct way to do it is with a tripod or other camera stabilization.  Any other method is just a variation on "be snap-happy and hope you get lucky;" a method which marginalizes the skill and artistry that it takes to make a really great photograph, let alone to be able to do it consistently.
nick2224 years ago
This is an old instructable, but very useful!! ... Most of us are used to just click and shoot and don't stop to understand all of what our cameras can do... great instructable, easy to follow and understand!
robonav4 years ago
 cool i live in omaha too
jesusali7 years ago
This "instructable" is pretty poor and shamelessly padded.

It basically says, "set your camera to be as sensitive to light as possible, stand as still as possible, and take as many shots as possible, hoping that one is in focus."

Setting the ISO is the only thing presented here that is isn't utterly common knowledge. But the vast majority of consumer grade digital cameras don't have selectable ISO, which makes this tip even less useful.
I can totally agree. Most camera don't have settings as advanced as that. And if you do... that mean's you've bought a camera with more than basic settings, meaning you probably know a bit about cameras, meaning this intructable is pointless... and padded... But I'm just referring to the majority.
thesparine (author)  Troubleshooter7 years ago
Padded? WTF does that mean? And yes, in USA, most consumer digital cameras DO have selectable ISO, shutter speed, & F-stop. Most consumers just don't know how to use them. Also, please tell me you are NOT one of those lurkers on here that only offer expert advice on other people's instructables, instead of creating your own...
"Padded" means you stuffed it full of superfluous text to fill more pages. Which you did. You KNOW you did. I just summarized your entire Instructable in ONE SENTENCE. Have you ever heard of HYPER TEXT? Have you ever made a link? That's what the world wide web is for. You needlessly paraphrased/plagiarized information which you could have simply linked to, in order to fill space. That's what "padding" means. But I'm pretty sure you all ready knew that.

And what do you mean, "in the USA"?! Does my name make you think I'm not in the USA? Now you're a hack and a bigot.

And the fact is, you're wrong. Most consumer level cameras DO NOT have ISO settings. They are for consumers, at most they have "Night Mode" settings. (A fact to which your Instructable seems to be completely ignorant.) In fact, you go out of your way to suggest only TWO particular Canon brand cameras that people should use in order to follow your guide!!!

As far as lurking goes, you better be thankful for it. You'd have absolutely NO POINTS if it wasn't for uninformed lurkers not recognizing the uselessness of this tip.
thesparine (author)  jesusali7 years ago
In USA was simply clarifying that I am speaking from my experiences in the USA. I was at Best Buy yesterday and it is hard to find a digital camera that does NOT let you choose the ISO. My friend, your contention that I would have no points if blah blah blah... is wrong. I would have no points if: A) I made a crappy instructable ( which this is not) or B) made NO instructable... remind you of anyone? : -)
Go to Target or Walmart and find ISO settings.

Troubleshooter made the point best. It is better to make nothing than to make useless junk only for the sake of making junk (or for the sake of a laser cutter, in this case).

Wow. This could have been two negative, yet thoughtful comments, but now you made it a whole long flame war. It seems you do have useful skills to share! You should post an instructable on how to flame honest critics like whiney baby!
acidus jesusali6 years ago
dear jesusanus, please leave. this was helpful to me. there are plenty of "pro" photo sites where people like you can go jack each other off or smell each others farts or whatever. this article is for the rest of us who don't feel like wading through all the self-righteous jargon to learn something that should, by all rights, be a simple task. you really should try and find something better to do. i've never voted for anything on there, but i'm voting for this article just because you're such an anus. love, acidus
yeah it's true most cameras have iso settin and most people doesn't know about it. but those people does not care anyway. this is not helpful for a beginner who is serious about photoraphy.
You sound very bitter hearing negative criticism. You should be thankful you got on an email. The reason I haven't made an instructable yet is because I'd rather not make an instructable for the sake of it (I hate to say this, but I could have made this instructable), I'd rather make one that shares rare knowledge. Yeah, padded is what this article is. It is an antonym of concise.
I have to agree here. This instructable(sic) is primarily common sense, even for an amateur.
thesparine (author)  jesusali7 years ago
yet another piece of expert advice from someone that hasn't written a single (let alone "helpful") instructable.
hey doof:

No, it's not an Instructable (it's an enhanced podcast), but it's hella helpful to fellow photographers; ask everyone I continually help at

Aside from that, it's a complete non-sequitur (look it up) on your part to infer that just because I haven't posted an Instructable (and don't beg votes), that I can't spot garbage when I see it.

I know the hard work that goes into a decent how-to and Instructable. And you haven't displayed that hard work or utility here. So drop the attitude and quit fronting like I'm the bad guy.
thesparine (author)  jesusali7 years ago
I have thick skin, don't worry, i am not bitter. It is just that instructables is such a great site with so many cool instructables that to take the time to write "this instructable is poor and padded" is pretty freaking lame. If you don't like an instructable, go read a different one! If you can make a better one with more "helpful" info, then by all means contribute to this great site. Didn't yo mama ever tell you that if you can't say anything nice... I wrote this instructable because I am not a pro photographer, and I thought these tips might help some people get some better night shots with their digital camera. Judging by the overwhelmingly positive feedback, I consider this a success.
You are straight up pathological. Now you're insisting that only compliments should be left in the Comments field! Give me a break. If you had a "thick skin" you would have let my original comment stand, unacknowledged. But I think it must've hit a nerve...
thesparine (author)  jesusali7 years ago
I am not insisting anything my friend... I am just suggesting that... ahh nevermind... if you keep posting negative comments time and time again when instructables clearly states they have a "be nice" policy, asking to post only positive and constructive comments, I don't think you will listen to anything more that I have to say. Take care dudes!
swklee6 years ago
Thanks..this is great.I'm using a canon A400 for making reports,and since I'm having it all alone,might as well learn to make full use of it.There's so much setting and for me I can't understand much of it. This sure brightens up my nights haha..
Nice tutorial of the various tricks to use when shooting at night. At the beginning of the summer, I went to New York and Canada for my last year of High School Band Tour. We took tons of pictures, but out of all 400-some pics, my favorite is the one I took of Niagara Falls lit up at night. I had to stabilize the camera on the rail and use a second or more exposure, repeated the shot like 20 times, but sure enough, one of them came out quite clear. I have a PowerShot A520, and I'm definitely going to get a Canon for my next camera whenever I upgrade, as they have tons of features and great quality optics.
excellent stuff.
Also, many image editing programs have a "sharpen" command, and an "undo". Try sharpening until it looks funny, then undo a notch or two. tOM Trottier
rcalmeida7 years ago
Dude thank you so much for this Instructable! As photohontis said, the "real talk" just worked great. I hope you win that laser thing!
fruitcake7 years ago
thank you... that really helped.....
chesler7 years ago
"Take lots of pictures" isn't bad advice for those of us raised on film. I'd add "Use the self-timer!" I wish these digitals came with a cable release or remote, but on or off tripod (and what's so bad about a tripod? I've got minis that I bought for a dollar, a C-clamp style, and a light-weight full-size) I get a lot less jitter if I use the Custom drive mode to take one shot after one second. Any sort of bracing, especially nearer my hands, helps a lot.
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