How to shoot HDR photos without a tripod.



I confess that I’m not a “tripod guy”.  Not that I don’t recognize the advantages of using one; those are clear to me, and everything else being equal, using a tripod is better than not using one for the same shot. The problem with this is that in reality, nothing is ever “equal“, and the tripod does change the way you shoot. I feel that using a tripod often constrains my movement and thus my creativity. Then there’s the weight factor. In order to firmly hold a camera, a good tripod must have some considerable weight. Carrying one of these all day, especially when you have to walk a long distance, can be more than a simple inconvenience. It can be a literal pain in the neck (or back). Consequently, in most situations, I find myself using either one of these "Gorillapods" for their lightness and convenience, or no tripod at all. The former is a good “compromise” whereas the later is my first choice.
And then comes HDR… As you have probably heard if you ever attended a HDR tutorial, a tripod is “essential” for this type of work. Or is it? You be the judge. I shot all the HDR photos below hand-held and I'm quite pleased with the results.

Preston Castle.
Canon 450D with 18-55 IS Lens


Infusion Coffee Shop
Canon 450D with 18-55 IS Lens

In this article I will defy the conventional wisdom asserting that HDR work must use a tripod and show you my simple techniques for doing so hand-held.

camera settings

My normal HDR work-flow involves taking three images, two-stops apart (-2, 0, +2). I shoot jpeg for speed and because I don’t see much advantage in shooting raw for HDR.  You are purposely over and under exposing so what does Raw bring to the table? The main reason to shoot Raw is to adjust the exposure in post but here you don’t want to adjust the exposure… The only valid argument for Raw in HDR in my mind would be to adjust while balance. But then again, colors are so out of whack in HDR that who cares about the white balance…
The main reason people recommend a tripod with HDR work is the difficulty getting the three images to align properly. The second reason is that the +2EV exposure is normally a long one, hence difficult to handhold while keeping a sharp image. For example, if you shoot in Aperture priority (which I strongly recommend for HDR) at f/8 and ISO 100, the exposure might be as follows:

- 2EV => 1/100s @ f/8
  0 EV => 1/25s @ f/8
+ 2 EV => 1/6s @ f/8

While the 1/100s and 1/25s exposures might be relatively easy to hand-hold, the 1/6s exposure is not and will most likely be blurred. The solution is easy though: just bump-up the ISO! While this will increase noise a little (not so bad with today’s SLRs) it will help the exposure tremendously. Noise is also not as much of a concern if, like me, you are interested in black-and white work as this eliminates the chroma noise. So, using the same example above but at ISO800, the exposures will look like this:

- 2EV => 1/800s @ f/8
  0 EV => 1/200s @ f/8
+ 2 EV => 1/50s @ f/8

An viola’, the exposure times are now fast enough that hand-holding is practical. First "problem" is solved.
The remaining problem to be addressed is the issue of image alignment. This is admittedly the toughest part of this technique and also the reason it doesn’t always work (sometimes you have to take multiple sets to get an acceptable one). There are always trade-offs in life. There are however things you can do to increase your chances of success. The technique I use is to simply set the camera for motor drive and exposure bracketing (+/-2 EV). With these settings dialed in the camera, you will get three rapid shots (a "burst" if you will) every time you press the shutter button. If you are careful not to move much, this can yield very good results. Note: in Canon DSLR cameras, make sure to disable the “High-ISO noise reduction” feature (if available in your model). This feature reduces noise in the jpegs by applying some in-camera processing after the shot is taken. Unfortunately, image processing takes some time, and will slow down the burst-rate of the camera so you will not be able to take the three shots in rapid sequence (burst). With practice you will find that the number of “keepers” you end-up with greatly increase. So, to summarize, here are the camera settings for this technique:

1) Set the camera to jpeg mode, with “High-ISO Noise Reduction” OFF
2) Set exposure bracketing to: -2EV, 0, +2EV
3) Set the Camera to motor drive
4) Set the shooting mode to Aperture priority

Dial in an appropriate aperture for the DOF you want (don’t close too much or you will end-up with slow exposures again).
5) Set a high ISO. The ISO 400 to 1600 range should work for most situations.

And last but not least, leave your image stabilization in the lens ON (if available). You need all the help you can get when shooting without a tripod.

post processing

Since this technique does not yield images that are perfectly aligned (unlike when using a tripod) you need to pay more attention to the post-processing technique. I suggest that you familiarize yourself with the manual alignment features in your HDR software of choice. In my case, I use Dynamic Photo HDR and this software has some very powerful alignment features. While the “automatic” alignment sometimes works, I recommend that you tweak the alignment manually using the tools provided. For example, check that corners are aligned and not only the center of the image. If your camera rotated during the exposures, you might have the center aligned but the corners totally out of alignment. That’s when you use the more complex alignment tools such as rotate or  “pin warping” .  Consult the help files in your software of choice to learn how to best correct this type of alignment issues.

In summary, this is a powerful and “liberating” technique for HDR shooting. While you can certainly get better results using  a tripod, I think you will find that this technique opens new opportunities and you will find yourself shooting HDR in situations where you would have never thought of doing so before.

Point Reyes.
Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm
Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com