HDR Tutorial - Lesson 3 - Tripods vs Handheld
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Lesson 3: Tripod vs Handheld

In this lesson we'll teach you to take sharp HDR photos with both a tripod and when shooting handheld.

Welcome back!

In Lesson 2, you learned to take your brackets that you shot in Lesson 1 and merge them into an HDR photo, either directly into Aurora or through your host program of choice. In doing so, you may have noticed movement or blurred areas of the photos, especially if you did not use alignment and ghost reduction when merging the files. 

This often happens when you do not use a tripod, because it is very difficult to get everything aligned when holding the camera for multiple exposures. It’s just hard to be perfectly still sometimes.

But even using a tripod cannot guarantee that everything is perfectly still in your photos. Especially when you are outside, you are subject to the changing wind (trees move) and weather patterns (clouds move), not to mention other common elements in a scene, such as passing cars or flowing water (both of which may actually look better when blurry).

Today we are going to discuss shooting HDR on a tripod vs shooting HDR handheld. Sometimes you find yourself without your tripod, and you just have to fire the brackets while holding the camera yourself. It’s ok, and it happens. We’ll discuss some tips for making the most of it so you can come home with a group of shots you are proud of, and that you can still comfortably merge to HDR.

Using a tripod for HDR

It’s always recommended to shoot HDR on a tripod. Sure, it can be a hassle to lug it around sometimes, but when you look back on the photos, you won’t remember that part of it. You’ll just be happy with your shot.

The tripod is super important for two key reasons:

  1. It will make sure that all the frames line up perfectly. Because of the nature of HDR, you are taking multiple photos of the same thing, at different exposure levels. This means when you merge them, you want them to line up exactly, so that you don’t have any issues with ghosting or alignment.
  2. The other piece of this is that because the brighter shots in your bracket set require longer shutter speeds, the tripod will keep them from being blurry. It’s very difficult to hold your camera completely still for more than a few fractions of a second, and many times you will need to do so. A tripod will do that for you.

As mentioned above, there are some things you can’t control (moving clouds, moving cars but you CAN control whether the photos line up properly and whether they are blurry or not - that’s why a tripod is helpful.

When shopping for a tripod, you will find that you have a lot of options. There are big tripods, small tripods, mini tripods, travel tripods, and more. There are tripods made of metal and tripods made of carbon fiber. It can get confusing. It’s a great idea to speak with someone at a local store and doing research. Give some thought to what you will be doing. Read online reviews. Talk to other photographers.

Are you shooting in a studio? Are you planning to travel a lot with it? Do you shoot with a large DSLR or a smaller mirrorless camera? If you are in a local camera store, see if they have your camera model, and set up the tripod and attach your camera model to it. See how it feels. 

Check the weight of it, because if you are carrying it around all day, you want it to be as comfortable as possible. Check the height of it when fully extended, especially if you are tall. It’s worth getting exactly what you need, because this device will be one of your best friends, and you will come to depend on it quite often.

But guess what? You won’t always have your tripod with you, or perhaps you will be somewhere that they are not allowed. It happens, so be prepared to shoot handheld if you have no other choice. It’s better to take the brackets handheld than not to take them at all (to make some accommodations to help you get clean shots)!

Shooting handheld HDR

If you speak to enough photographers, at some point you will hear someone complain about “the tripod police”. This is a term used to describe any official or security person at a specific location who seems to exist solely for the purpose of keeping anyone from using a tripod. 

It’s happened to most photographers so many times that they have lost count, and it’s still just as frustrating for them as it was the first time. As soon as they see a tripod, they automatically assume you are shooting their location for “professional reasons” and thus they will not allow it - no questions asked.

If it’s not the tripod police, there could be any number of factors that keep you from using a tripod when out shooting. Maybe it’s too crowded and people will bump into the legs (thus causing your photo to be blurry and ruining your shot). 

Perhaps you don’t have enough time to set it up, and you don’t want to miss a shot. Some locations just prohibit tripods as a rule, like some government buildings and churches. You often won’t know until you get to your destination, it’s best to be prepared to shoot your brackets handheld.

Here are some tips for shooting handheld HDR when it’s your only option:

Tip 1. First of all, slow down. If you hurried to get to a spot, only to discover that tripods are not allowed, you may be short of breath. Relax for a couple of minutes before shooting so that your breathing and heart rate can return to normal levels.

Tip 2. Increase your ISO. This will help to reduce your shutter speed for a quicker shot, thus giving you a better chance of getting minimal movement between frames. Note that this will also generate more digital noise in your photo, so try various test shots as you increase it. High-Speed Burst - CH mode. Firing your shots in continuous high-speed mode will help to reduce any chance of movement between them.

Tip 3. Tuck your elbows into your sides and remain as still as possible. Take a couple of full, deep breaths before you take the shot - this relaxes you and helps you focus better. Cradle the camera and exhale slowly. It’s good to press the shutter button at the end of the exhale and before the next inhale. It feels like that is when we are most still. Just don’t wait too long after the exhale to press it or you will find yourself needing to inhale again. 

Tip 4. Sit or lean against something for an added boost to your stability (but keep your elbows tucked against your sides). You can use a column or a pew if you are in a church. Put your back up against a wall. Sit down on the floor. Just try to find a stable position. Try to avoid having to take the picture from a squatting position because that is generally unstable - unless you are leaning against something.

Tip 5. Consider your Aperture setting. If you always shoot at tight apertures (f/11, f/13, f/16, etc), consider shooting a bit more wide open (f/9, f/8, f/7.1, etc) which will allow the light in more quickly and thus help you take a quicker set of brackets. Experiment and see what works for you.

Tip 6. What shutter speed is too low? Keep the shutter speed faster than 1 over the focal length of your lens. If you have a 200mm lens, shoot at 1/200th of a second or faster to keep things sharp! 50mm? Use 1/50th! Keep these numbers in mind when you’re making adjustments.

Tip 7. If your lens has vibration reduction or your camera has in-body image stabilization, make sure that it is turned on. Focus manually or use your camera's "focus lock" to lock your composition and prevent auto-focus shifts. Take the first set of brackets and then shoot again, noting any adjustments you may need to make (further increase ISO, for example). Having a set of spare shots is always a great idea.

Here are a few examples of handheld HDR brackets merged with, and without alignment!A photo merged without alignment:A photo merged with alignment:

Lighting Situations for HDR

Generally speaking, you are going to find yourself in one of two scenarios when you are out shooting. The first is when you have sufficient light, such as outdoors during the daytime, and this is an easy time to take handheld HDR photos. The bright available light allows your camera to quickly take the shots. Here is an example of an HDR photo taken in afternoon light, and shot handheld:

The other scenario is in low light, which could be early or late in the day (sunrise, sunset, blue hour) or perhaps inside a cathedral or museum (where there is limited available light). When the light is low is when it is best to make sure you have your tripod with you (unless of course it is not allowed), since exposures will generally take a little longer. Here is an example of an HDR photo taken on a tripod after dark and incorporating light trails from a long exposure:And here is an example photo taken inside a cathedral. 
The low-light situation here required a tripod to get the best results.Even if you have hands as steady as a surgeon, you are still likely to have a little shifting between frames when shooting handheld - even in sufficient light. It’s just very difficult to keep the camera perfectly still for a series of photos, which is why we suggest the tips above for making the most of handheld HDR. Minor body movements can have a big impact on whether a photo is blurry or not, and even your breathing can affect it. You want to minimize this as much as possible.

What are the benefits of shooting HDR with a tripod?

The first and primary benefit of shooting HDR with a tripod is the stability that it offers. You can capture your brackets without worrying about whether they are blurry or not, and without worrying about whether they will align properly or not. You can rest assured that they will be crisp and aligned. This gives you a great place to start on creating your HDR masterpiece.

The second benefit is that you can shoot at low ISO settings, which ensures your photos are free of noise (higher ISO settings result in greater noise in the photo). While Aurora HDR 2017 does a great job with noise reduction, it’s nice to know that using a tripod with a low ISO setting will possibly remove the need for it.

Another really big benefit of using a tripod is the ability to do long exposure HDR work. This is the perfect technique to use when you are in a city and want to capture passing cars. A long exposure will blur out the cars and you are left with a beautiful long streak of light instead. Another example is with moving water. A long exposure HDR allows the water to appear smooth and silky, which is a beautiful artistic effect. Neither of these is possible when shooting handheld, because there’s just no way to hold a camera still long enough to get a proper, clear long exposure. Here are two more great examples of HDR photographs from Dave Schmidt and Trey Ratcliff:

Share your photos with the community in our Facebook group.

Missed the previous lesson?
Check out the link below:

Lesson 1: The basics of HDR Photography
Lesson 2: Merge the brackets

If you have questions, don't hesitate to email us at support@aurorahdr.com

Use Aurora HDR for free for 14 days.

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