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)

Step 1: 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)

Step 2: Experiment With These Settings, and Conduct Principal Photography

Here is the philosophy:

It is true, that with exposures slower than 1/15 of a second, you will get more blurry photos. But, it is also true, that with exposures as slow as 6/10 of a second NOT ALL of your photos will be blurry.

(UPDATE: and by blurry I am referring to "naked-eye" blurriness when viewing it after it has been printed and from a reasonable viewing distance. If you look at the image pixel by pixel on your computer screen it will probably look blurry.)

So the philosophy I am preaching is this: take lots of photos at a few different settings, and you are DESTINED to have a few winners. Actually, many more winners than you think. And you won't have to take hundreds of photos every time you want to take a nice night picture. The following instructions are only to be used the first time you take night photos, in order to determine which setting for your camera gives you the best results. Then in the future all you have to do is set your camera to your preferred settings, and take 5-15 frames so you can be sure to have one that isn't blurry. It's a small price to pay to finally get to bury that g-d tripod and actually get to capture the cool night shots when you see them.

The first thing you have to do is make sure you have a large-capacity memory card for this. With my A620's 7 megapixel full-resolution size, I like to load a 1GB card. This will be fine.

Second, set your shooting mode to "continuous," meaning that as long as you are holding down the shutter button, your camera is taking pictures.

Next, experiment with these settings: ISO at 200 and 400, shutter speed from 1/15 of a second to 6/10 of a second (or whatever looks good on the LCD as you adjust settings), and aperture set to whichever setting allows the LCD to appear as bright as you want the photos to be. In otherwords, set ISO first, shutter speed second, and aperture to the brightest setting. Now, start taking pictures.

Hold down the shutter so you get 5-15 shots at each setting, experimenting with the variables. Take lots of pictures. Try to hold the camera as still as possible while doing this. Cheat if you have to. Lean against a parking meter, bus stop sign, railing, tree or wall. Sit on the bumper of your car or indian style on the curb. Get as still as you can, but whatever you do, don't lug a tripod with you when you take these shots.

Your first night photography session after reading this instructable should easily net you 200-300 pictures. If you don't have a large enough memory card, then lower your image resolution to the smallest setting just so you can take a shitload of pics. At this point, like the old lie goes, "size doesn't matter." This is an experiment just to see which settings your particular camera loves most for hand-held night photography.

Now, after taking a few hundred shots of your city's skyline at about 10pm, using continuous shutter mode at a variety of settings, go home and prepare to be amazed.

(UPDATE: Upon further reflection, I have reconsidered and logic tells me it actually might work better if you set your aperture (F-stop) to the widest setting first so that the most amount of light is entering to begin with. "So is that the large F-stop number or the small F-stop number?" I have no idea. It is whichever setting makes the LCD the brightest as you adjust it. After you got the F-stop opened up, then set the ISO, then the shutter speed or exposure or whatever it is called on your digital camera.)

(sample photo shot at ISO 200, at 1/4 of a second)

Step 3: Pick Your Ponies, and Brag to the Local Photo Developer

Load all the images into your computer, and start looking at them one at a time. If it is blurry, get rid of it. Throw it out NOW.

This alone should pare your 300 photos down to about 50-100 photos.

Next, go through the photos zoomed in a little (NOT zoomed in at pixel level though) and look for only "The Best" ones. In other words, if you don't say "wow!" when you look at the photo because it is still a tiny bit blurry, or it is too dark or something, then get rid of it.

This second culling by saving only the best photos will further reduce your pool to probably 20-50 photos.

Now, look at these remaining pictures one at a time, and pick your top few pics, throwing the others out.

After you do this, then look at the "info" part on each photo and rename the pictures to the settings for ISO and shutter speed, just like I have done with all the photos for this instructable.

Now, all that is left to do, is burn these pics to a disc and run around your neigborhood getting reprints made at any local photo counters and compare the results. I took my pics to a high-end camera store in my city that prints photos called Rockbrook Photo, Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens and made 8x10s of all 4 of my favorite photos. The prices ranged from $5.99 at the fancy camera shop to $2.50 at Walgreens. Results: #1 is Walgreens, a close #2 is Wal-Mart, and nobody believed me when I told them I shot the night pictures on a digital camera without a tripod.

Now because of this experiment I now know exactly what settings to use on my camera next time I see a great night shot. But REMEMBER: with these settings you still have to use continuous shutter mode and be sure to take a good 5-15 shots at this setting because most of them will be blurry, but not all of them.

Now go forth tonight, take pictures of your boring-old skyline, and then make the counter people drool at your local photomats when you tell them you shot those beautiful night shots with your normal digital camera without a tripod. AND, vote for this instructable so I can win the laser-carver thingee! AND AND, post your cool night-pics as a comment to this instructable so I can justify to my family that the time I am spending making instructables is making a difference in people's lives, albeit, unknown stranger-people that are also shunning their family.

(sample photo set at 400 ISO and 1/10 of a second, no tripod)

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    107 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Lots of critical comments here. I think you have to take into account the skill level of many beginners and realize if you use simple terms they can understand it can be very helpful. And, in this digital age, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking lots of pictures. You can learn from the various settings you use. Thank goodness were no longer are tied to film - one could easily go broke experimenting! Another thing, like it or not, tripods are not always available. Learning how to properly brace your camera and hold it steady is invaluable. This is a helpful article, a little dated, maybe, but still useful.


    3 years ago

    All you need is a camera and a starting point, which this article puts you in the general ball park. Get out and take pictures, practice, practice, practice. The good thing about Digital is you can take a bunch of pictures, chimp and adjustments. So, take a picture, then make some changes and see what it did.

    I am a Nightlife photographer and the challenges I face is taking good pictures in nightclubs, where I cant use a tripod, if I am lucky I can use a mono pod, but more often than not no tripod, no mono pod. So I take advantage of other things when I can, a sturdy table or such. I have become much more steady in holding my camera then when I first started. But, we all do. if you desire to take good pictures you will always be learning and tying to improve.

    There is a lot of information out there, a lot of free information, so there is no need to buy guides. check your area too, there may be photography groups that you can join. I belong to a couple in my area, and we welcome new photographers. I personally enjoy helping a new photography enthusiast as do many of the other professionals in the group.

    You will learn more by grabbing your camera and taking pictures then you will from any of the ebooks and guides out there. Because after you are done reading the darn thing, you will still have to get the camera and practice.

    another option, if you are serious about learning and have some time to invest, is to see about becoming an assistant to a professional photographer. I have three assistants that work with me, one who went through a credited photography school and is doing an intern, one who I met through one of the groups I belong to and the other is a very green, first time DSLR owner... She comes along with me when I am shooting an event to carry my extra equipment, she captures the info and such of the people I shoot and such. after I have captured all the photos I know I need, she grabs her camera and takes pictures as I help her.

    Take Care and Take pics


    3 years ago

    I think that most of the comments are a little harsh, yes; as a pro... There are many things to do differently when shooting at night. But, the average Joe who doesn't want to go to school for photography or buy a dslr or a tripod, the instructions given could help a laymen get a passable (average non pro) pictures without the knowledge or use of dslr and tripod.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    It is worth noting that these cheap Chinese tripods are easily broken down - should avoid such and choose always something better


    4 years ago on Introduction

    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

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Sure, in a perfect world, we would always have a tripod available so we could shoot with longer shutter speeds and lower ISOs. But we don't always have one with us, do we? When I took my photos posted above I was on a business trip (not photography-related), and my tripod was about 1,500 miles away. As camera sensor technology has improved over the years, you can still come out with quite usable photos at ISO 1600 and above if you have even a mirrorless ILC like I do...let alone a full-frame DSLR. Photography is a hobby for me and not a profession.


    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

    5 years ago on Introduction

    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
    2 replies

    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.


    4 years ago on Introduction

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


    6 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    6 years ago on Step 3

    i like how you write the instructables! it's in a language i can understand. good luck to me and the other readers :D

    Tom Trottier

    11 years ago on Introduction

    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
    2 replies

    yep ! …
    Drink less coffee is the best advice … I know many good pros, and I realize most of them a very quiet persons…


    11 years ago on Step 3

    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.

    1 reply

    9 years ago on Introduction

    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.