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Leading By The Hand – How to shoot landscapes without a tripod

By Mark Gilligan

You are out on a day walk with friends and suddenly the view that opens up before you all is fabulous. You really want to photograph it. After all, photography is your hobby and you never turn a good opportunity down. It makes your walks all that more interesting and memorable.

Whilst you enjoy taking pictures of the places you have visited, you are now getting more serious about photography. However, no matter how appreciative your friends are of the landscape, they don’t seem to match your enthusiasm when it comes to photography. Whilst they are content to snap away with their cameras or phones, they bemoan you for ‘holding’ them up as you go to get your tripod out. Of course you will enter into a bit of banter but they will probably just leave you to it and walk ahead.
Sound familiar?

The obvious solution is to have ‘me’ time and go out alone so you can shoot at your pace but before you decide to go solo, there is an answer to your predicament. Shoot hand held.

To be fair, that’s probably how you began in the first place. You took the camera out of the box and started taking photos. It worked then so why not now? I am sure that you have read that, to take ‘the bigger picture’ you will need a focal length to obtain a good depth of field such as f16. I actually use lower values than that most of the time but irrespective, chances are that the light will be poorer, you will need a slower shutter speed and without the support of your tripod you cannot take the photograph. After all, it is usually the mountains we are walking around and, surprisingly enough, they do get their fair share of low light. Sometimes that even leads to rain…

There is an answer to all this. It’s in your own hands. Literally. There are a few types of image that will prove difficult shot hand held and I will highlight those later but you can take very good landscapes without the aid of ‘the legs’ as they are often called. I have managed to take many shots in that way over the years as it is a method that works really well.

Personally, when I am on a commission, I do tend to go the whole hog and use all the kit at my disposal but there is many a time when I see something literally appear before me and I have to just ‘go with it’. This image is a prime example.

One March evening, I was driving from Coniston over to the Duddon Valley in Cumbria and when I saw this. I stopped the car and reached for the camera. The scene was like one of those Japanese paintings with muted pastel colours that fade and diminish into the background.

The sun was over to my left, quite bright and low in the sky but obscured by the trees and approaching cloud. I had no idea how long it would last. Speed was of the essence and therefore the tripod wasn’t an option. I upped the IS0 to 500 with the XF16-55mmF2.8 lens attached to my X-Pro2 and took the shot.
I focused on the mid ground and pressed the shutter. It worked. ISO is the key. You need to raise the level from the normal 100-200 and reduce the shake possibilities by giving yourself a good speed to work with. The phrase you will hear is ‘up the ISO’.

In this instance I managed a decent depth of field and was pleased with the result.
When running my workshops I teach people how to take images both on and off the tripod and usually the first thing they will say is, ‘Ah yes but upping the ISO will surely increase the graininess of the image?’ They are right but I have to say the ‘graininess’ is nowhere near as severe as it was years ago. Cameras cope far better with low light nowadays. I would trust my Fujifilm cameras in any conditions. They have never let me down.

Whilst landscape is my main type of photography, I do stray away from the norm of big vistas and enjoy the more intimate landscapes we can take.

I was on a walk around a local beauty spot not too far from my home and looking for something a little different to photograph. Whilst these Teasel plants grow in abundance, the way the light outlined them against the dark background just had to be photographed. There was a strong breeze moving them around, so I upped the ISO to 400, used a shallow depth of field of f4 and was able to hand hold at a speed of 1/2000.
I quite enjoy the freedom that a lighter backpack gives me and when out and about, I will regularly have the camera in my hand. I don’t use a neck strap but a leather one attached to the side of the camera that I wrap around my wrist. I don’t do this when I climb or descend but when I know it’s safer I will walk around with it this way. Always protect your investment!

So what about ‘the bigger picture’ – those great big panoramas that often appear before us? It is the same principal but with a twist.

I took this whilst on a shoreline walk along Wast Water. I could see the triangles of shale and mountains and knew it would make a nice photograph. The scene was very well illuminated even though there were dark clouds over Great Gable (nothing new there then…) but the shingle and the magnificent Yewbarrow on the left were nicely lit. I simply upped the ISO to a mere 200 and took two shots from left to right that overlapped. My settings were f11 and a speed of 1/125. I also used a LEE 0.6 Medium Grad.

When I got back home that night, I processed the left one first, copied and pasted the same basic ‘tweeks’ onto the right sided photograph and ‘asked’ Lightroom to merge the two. Simple!

Once you have tried this method of IS0 uprating, you will gain in confidence and be able to shoot hand held in lots of situations. So what are the ‘down sides?’

If you want to shoot soft silky water it will prove to be more difficult and I would always take them with a tripod. They look much better when the rocks that the water is flowing through and by are pin sharp. That’s where the tripod wins. The same applies for images where we record movement in the skies with neutral density filters or ‘stoppers’ as they are better known.

You can be creative with hand held images and slow shutter speeds. You can shoot images that use the ICM or Intended Camera Movement technique. By using a slow shutter speed and hand holding the camera, you can create some interesting abstracts of scenes. It can be done on the tripod too but I like to do it hand held. This image of a fallen Birch tree was taken this way.

It was a fairly dark scene and I picked a relatively shallow depth of field, focused on the tree in the middle with a nice slow speed of 0.8 second. My ISO was actually low at 200. Having selected the point of focus and framing, I then moved the camera down and began lifting it upwards, slowly pressing the shutter at the point of composition whilst still continuing to move the camera upwards. The result is a nice abstract of the trees. It doesn’t always work and you can experiment but it’s good to try it and see what you get.

I had also taken this photograph ‘normally’, but I always feel it helps to see things in a different way. It also gives you a new technique to work with. I practice my techniques all the time and the obvious way to improve your own photography is to actually go out and try it. You don’t have to write anything down as the data is all recorded there in camera for you.

It couldn’t be easier as the answers are always close at hand…


More from Mark Gilligan

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3 replies »

  1. When I am shooting handheld in lighting conditions that can change dramatically (and quickly) from scene to scene I set the camera to AUTO ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125s. The goal is not to get the perfect shot but to make sure I got shot.

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