Handheld Landscape Photography: Shooting Landscapes Without a Tripod

landscape photography without a tripod

Have you ever found yourself in a great nature photography opportunity without a tripod to hand, having to consider handheld landscape photography? Perhaps you head out hiking and manage to fit your camera into your backpack but can’t fit your tripod?

handheld landscape
Working without a tripod will allow you to shoot at angles which would be difficult with a traditional tripod. This can be particularly relevant to macro photographers, who are often working low to the ground with smaller subjects.

There’s no need to panic; in this article, we’ll be looking at when and why you really do need a tripod, and how you can still take great nature photographs without one.

Choosing when to use a tripod

Many nature photographers will tell you that a tripod is an essential piece of photography equipment, and they aren’t wrong.

It’s a great tool and can give you lots of creative freedom with camera settings, increase the sharpness in your shots, allow for higher quality images (particularly in low-light situations), and allow you to execute popular photography techniques, such as long exposure to blur the movement of water in landscape photography.

handheld landscape photography
The use of a tripod was essential for this image to successfully use long exposure techniques.

Until recently, I too was a self-proclaimed tripod junkie. The mere thought of heading out for a day’s photography without taking my favorite three-legged friend left me in a cold sweat.

However, as much as I love using a tripod, I have recently started to appreciate the freedom of not always having to carry one with me – especially as modern-day technology continues to make using them far less essential than it was back in the days of film.

While I still love the restrictive nature of using a tripod (I am a great believer that restrictions in photography can be of great benefit to the learning process), there is no denying that there can be occasions when using a tripod simply isn’t practical.

handheld landscape photography
This photo was taken on a busy tourist beach in Thailand where theft has happened – using a tripod would have advertised to everyone that I was carrying expensive camera gear, so I went without in order to remain more inconspicuous in the crowds.

You may be walking or traveling long distances to get to your location and be unable to carry one. If you are visiting a busy tourist destination or a protected area in a national park, be sure to check guidance in these areas, as the use of tripods may be forbidden (and possibly a public liability issue).

landscape photography without a tripod
Handheld shooting allowed me to work this scene very quickly, which was essential as the snowstorm lasted for only 10 minutes.

Finally, you may also simply find yourself out and about one day and come across a wonderful photographic opportunity without a tripod to hand, so it makes good sense to learn how to work without one.

Read more: How to Choose the Right Tripod

How to hold your camera in handheld photography

There are technical things you can do to get the most out of your images without a tripod. The first thing to ask yourself is if you are holding your camera correctly.

handheld landscape photography
I captured this shot on a multi-day hike when carrying a tripod wasn’t a real option. I found myself climbing up a tree to get this viewpoint!

This may sound like an odd question, but the way you actually hold your camera can have a huge impact on its stability and subsequent motion blur (caused by your own movement) in your final images when shooting handheld. Some of the keys to good stability include:

  1. Ensuring that you use the viewfinder / EVF to compose your shot (keeping your camera to the eye whilst taking the photo).
  2. Using both of your hands to hold the camera (with your elbows tucked in close to your body). Effectively, by holding your camera like this, you are creating a three-point contact hold on your camera with your body almost becoming a tripod!
  3. It may also be beneficial to hold your breath when actually pressing the shutter release (the key here is to minimize all potential points of movement).

The best camera settings for photography without a tripod

Once you’ve practiced and are very comfortable with this position, the next thing you should do is to check your camera settings.

Stabilization: If your camera has IBIS (in-body image stabilization) or lens-based image stabilization, make sure that you have got it switched on.

Exposure Triangle: Next, you will need to consider the exposure triangle (ISO, shutter speed, and aperture) – the first thing I do is switch my camera to auto ISO and next set the camera to fully manual.

I then set the shutter speed to approximately match the maximum focal length of the lens I am using. For example, if I am using a 24-105mm lens, I set my shutter speed to 1/125.

Now all I need to do is adjust my aperture as normal (while keeping an eye on the ISO speed that the camera is selecting). If you feel it is creeping up too high, you can simply decrease the aperture to allow more light into the sensor, reducing the need for such a high ISO.

Read more: The Best Settings for Landscape Photography

The benefits of photography without a tripod

Once your camera is properly set up, you can start to enjoy the benefits of not using a tripod – including the most obvious one of having less camera equipment to carry!

handheld landscape photography
This shot was one of many taken during a brief period of passing light on an otherwise grey day. If I had been using a tripod, I may have missed this moment.

By leaving your tripod at home, you may find that you can cover more distance/reach new photography locations, react to changing light more quickly, explore new compositions with fewer restrictions, and generally work with far more creative freedom.

However, while this newfound freedom may sound liberating for your photography, it does not mean that you can totally ignore the benefits of using a tripod, especially when the light levels begin to drop.

Read more: How to Find and Use Light in Landscape Photography

Low light photography without a tripod

We all know that the best light for nature photography is generally towards the start and end of the day, which means that the light levels will be lower than if shooting under the mid-day sun.

Here is the first major problem with ditching your tripod: low light levels may mean increasing the ISO sensitivity of your camera to compensate (while keeping the shutter speed suitable and high enough for handheld photography).

All is not lost, however; you just need to get creative with how you support your camera!

handheld landscape photography

Truthfully, in low-light situations, you have two options – increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed.

Increasing the ISO may introduce digital noise to your final image, which you may need to clean up in post. Luckily, there are several amazing software options available now which can remove digital noise effortlessly with great results.

However, I personally still prefer to minimize the time I spend post-processing to maximize my time spent behind the camera, so I tend to take the old school approach of finding alternative tripods.

To decrease the shutter speed, you’ll probably find that even holding your breath handheld isn’t going to cut it. There will be tiny micro-movements in your hands and body that you simply won’t be able to control, and your camera will pick this up at lower shutter speeds.

Creating a makeshift or alternative tripod 

What do I mean by alternative tripods?

If you need more support than you can manage with your hands, you can look around in your environment for any suitable stationary object which is sturdy enough to support your camera, and would be safe to rest it upon.

Some good examples of these would be fence posts, large rocks, or tree stumps.

handheld landscape photography

If nothing is suitable in your working environment, you may even consider using your backpack or coat (using my woolly hat is another favorite of mine, especially during the winter months).

Using a beanbag on a car window is a classic example of another alternative tripod, which is much easier to carry with you (and often favored by wildlife photographers).

handheld landscape photography

Once you have found a suitable resting place for your camera, you can start to experiment with slower shutter speeds. There is no golden rule to what will work here as it depends on what is supporting your camera.

Top Tip: If the surface is large enough to completely hold the camera, you may well find that using the self-timer function on your camera is a good idea as it will help eradicate camera shake from you pressing the shutter release.

One final thing to remember is that whatever your preferred method for not using a tripod is, when the light levels drop, your images will be far more susceptible to camera shake.

handheld landscape photography
If you plan on exploring mountains at high elevation, taking a tripod may not be an option however that doesn’t mean you should stop taking photos! You never know when an incredible opportunity or shift in the light will happen. Being tripod-free will allow you to take advantage of the fleeting nature of mountain weather.

To help avoid disappointment, I recommend that you religiously review your images at maximum magnification (I personally always look at the image on the EVF of my camera but obviously, this only works if you are using a mirrorless system).

Do your best to make sure you have something that you’re happy with while you’re out in the field.

In conclusion

Ultimately, learning (and practicing) how to take photographs without a tripod can be a liberating experience for your photography.

At first, it may seem that not using a tripod can be more restrictive, but keep the faith and keep practising, as it can actually be the total opposite, allowing you the freedom to react to the light far quicker than using a tripod.

Challenge yourself to head out every now and then on purpose without it, to improve your skillset and bring something fresh and new to your perspective.

Personally, I am still on the road to recovery. I do still frequently use my tripod, but I wouldn’t call it an addiction anymore!

Visit Jason's website

Based in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, Jason Friend is a professional travel and landscape photographer. For Jason, photography is more than a job: it is an opportunity to inspire. National Geographic, British Airways and Rough Guides represent some of the many high-profile clients Jason has inspired and worked with along his journey. Recently, Jason founded ‘The Legacy Project’, a fascinating not-for-profit endeavor to capture the mystifying stone remains of prehistoric sites scattered across the British Isles.

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