Most HDR tutorials and books implicitly assume that you are using a tripod for your work. A tripod gives you stability, ensures that images are perfectly aligned straight out of the camera, and allows for long shutter speeds without blur. However, there are also a number of disadvantages, and in many situations you are forced to shoot hand-held. But how do you shoot the source photos for an HDR image hand-held to get the highest possible quality? In this recipe, you will learn about the proper technique and technology for hand-held HDR shooting.
Requirements and Assumptions
My basic assumption here is that you are using a DSLR – not a point-and-shoot (PnS) camera. A PnS camera usually has a high shutter lag (time between pressing the shutter release button and actually taking the photo) and a low high-ISO performance. This makes hand-held shooting very difficult if not impossible in many situations.
Furthermore, I assume that you do not use any flash. Why? First of all, a flash changes the light in a scene considerably, ruining the natural lighting that you would like to capture. Second, even the most powerful flash is too weak to illuminate the entire scene (e.g. a cathedral). Third, using a flash is prohibited in many locations because it may damage paintings. Hence, you can leave your flash at home!
You thought that hand-held shooting is quick and easy? Well, not quite. Getting decent results takes a lot of thought and preparation. Since this is going to a longer post, here is a quick run-down of the major issues that we are going to discuss:
In the first part, we will take a closer look at the motivation for hand-held shooting before we discuss why it’s difficult. This will lead us into a brief discussion of the two major shooting situations a hand-held shooter may find himself in.
Next, we will discuss the equipment. As I already noted above, you cannot shoot hand-held with any camera. But what are the features your camera needs in order to produce good results? We will also discuss the choice of lenses here.
After that we come to the technique itself. A very important part of that technique is the preparation. This preparation is split into three sections. 1. the basic camera setup, 2. the on-site preparation, and 3. the pre-shot preparation.
The actual shooting technique will be explained next. This includes basic body control and the immediate setup and execution of the shot such that you move as little as possible – which is key in hand-held-shooting.
At the end, I will give a few tips on how to post-process your hand-held shots.
Ok, let’s start!
Why do you want to shoot hand-held?
If you are reading this, you will probably already have your answer to this question. Nevertheless, let’s go through the motivation here in the following list:
- A tripod may be prohibited. In many great locations, like churches and museums, you will simply not be allowed to use your tripod. But, of course, you would still like to take photos that you can turn into an HDR when you are back home. Especially for interior shots, HDR is an important technique since they usually have a very high dynamic range.
- You simply may not have your tripod with you. Let’s face it, in many situations, you may have your camera with you, but not your tripod. Tripods are bulky and heavy. Even if you have an expensive carbon fiber tripod that is relatively light and compact, you may decide to leave it at home more often than not.
- Setting up a tripod and your camera to really make use of the possibilities takes time, thought, and effort. Sometimes, you don’t have that time. Pressure leads to mistakes and mistakes can easily ruin your shot.
- Setting up a tripod in a crowded place may not be possible as people may touch and move your camera or even trip.
Hand-held shooting can solve all these problems. It allows you to be versatile and quick, taking shots from different perspectives in a short time. You don’t have to haul around excessive weight on long tours in hot weather, and you can shoot virtually everywhere and under any condition.
Ok, sounds good but…
What are the challenges of hand-held shooting?
So, hand-held shooting has definite advantages. But of course, it poses some challenges to the shooter:
- Minimize movement: Especially when you are shooting an exposure series for an HDR image, you need to minimize the movement of your camera. Moving the camera between the exposures introduces an offset in the shots, making it more difficult for the HDR software to align the shots.
- Minimize blur in low-light: In some of the situations mentioned in the previous section, you will have to deal with low ambient light. This means that you will ramp up your ISO setting and open your aperture to increase the shutter speed. Still, you may have to shoot at shutter speeds as low as 1/10s. Hand-holding this speed without blurring your images due to camera shake is challenging and requires technique and practice.
- You need the right camera: Hand-held HDR shooting is not possible with any camera. It needs to have some specific features (more about that below).
- You need the right camera setup: Mastering you camera and choosing the right setup for the situation is essential. While this is not specific to this kind of shooting, I would still like to point it out here (read on for details).
Different Shooting Situations
NOTE: If you don’t know how aperture, ISO sensitivity and shutter speed are related, I recommend that you read about the basics of exposure first before you continue.
Most shooting situations fall into one of two possible categories depending on the available light:
- Sufficient-light situations: If you are shooting outdoors in good weather during the day, there is often enough light available for you to use any aperture you want and still get fast-enough shutter speeds at minimum ISO settings. This is rather unproblematic if you have a fast camera. You must still minimize your movement to limit the offset of your images though!
- Low-light situations: If you are shooting indoors, there is probably very little light available. Therefore, you need to make sure that your shutter speed is high enough such that the inevitable movement of your body does not introduce too much blur in your images. Hand-held shooting technique is all about minimizing this body movement which is quite challenging.
Most of the techniques explained below are important for dealing with the latter type of situations. Note that there is also a third kind of situation with even less light. That’s where you really need a tripod.
Hand-held shooting is not only about technique but also about technology. I would love to tell you that you can shoot hand-held with any camera you can buy (or already have). But unfortunately, that is not the case. If you are really serious about hand-held HDR shooting, you should invest in the right camera technology. It is important to realize that every improvement in this area will allow you to push the limits a bit further which means that you will be able to get acceptable images in more challenging situations.
Does that mean you need an excessively expensive professional camera? No! But you need to choose your camera wisely! The following is a list of important features roughly ordered according to importance:
Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
You cannot change the camera setting manually in the middle of an exposure series. More specifically, you must never take your camera off of your eye since the sensor plane must stay in the same place for all the exposures you take. Therefore, you need a camera that can produce an exposure series automatically. This function is called Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB). This is the single-most important feature that you need. If your camera does not have an AEB function, you need to upgrade to another model. Sorry!
Most DSLR cameras can do a maximum of three shots in steps of max. 2EV (-2EV, 0EV, +2EV). This is enough for most situations. Avoid cameras with less than that. Some cameras do as much as 9 shots in AEB mode. More is better here, but this is not necessary. These cameras are usually pro models that are much more expensive. Also, some models do 3 shots but only with +-1EV. This is too little.
Frames Per Second
The speed of a camera is often measured in Frame per Second (FPS), indicating how many photos can be taken per second under ideal conditions. A higher FPS value can help as the offset of the images will be less. I would leave my hand off any camera that does less than 3 FPS. 4-5 is Ok. 6 and above is excellent.
Good High-ISO Performance
If your camera produces low-noise images with high ISO values (>ISO800), you can ramp up the ISO value and thus increase your shutter speeds without reducing the quality of your source images too much. This is important in low-light situations. If you plan on buying a camera for HDR, study the tests and compare the high-ISO test images. dpreview.com is one site that offers great side-by-side comparisons of images. Don’t ask the guy behind the counter at your local store. 😉
There are some other features that are helpful. Every DSLR should provide them – so, I’ll just briefly brush over them:
- RAW image format for maximum quality: Be sure to enable RAW output!
- A-Mode: You should shoot in aperture priority mode to make sure your shutter speed (not your aperture) is changed to adjust the exposure.
- Exposure compensation: This function allows you to vary the exposure of the entire exposure series, shifting it up or down to expose for the shadows or the highlights. As you are limited to a 3-shot series (in most cases), you may have to decide which of the two is more important.
The lens is also an important factor for good hand-held shooting results. Make sure your lens has a wide starting aperture. What does that mean? For example, if you have the “Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3,5-5,6G ED VR” lens, take notice of the “1:3,5-5,6” part of the name. This means that at 18mm (low end of the focal range) your widest aperture will be f/3,5. This is ok, but not great. f/2,8 would be better as it allows more light to enter the lens in the same time frame. Thus, it allows you to use a higher shutter speed with the same ambient light level.
Lenses with Image Stabilization allow you to use lower shutter speeds without introducing blur. Finally, the longer your focal length, the higher the shutter speed you need to get sharp images. A rule of thumb says that for a focal length of Xmm, you need a shutter speed of 1/Xs to get sharp images.
You should also make sure that your lens can produce reasonably sharp images at its widest aperture. All lenses get softer at wide apertures, but some don’t get quite so soft.
Currently, I use the Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens for most of my shots – not only because the 10mm allows for low shutter speeds, but also because I like the super-wide-angle perspective. A good super-wide-angle lens is great for interior shots – both from a tripod and hand-held.
The Proper Technique
A proper hand-held shooting technique relies on a correct camera setup, on using your camera’s features the right way and on avoiding body movement during the exposures. In my description, I will concentrate on low-light situations. The same principles apply to sufficient-light situations only without the hassle of getting a decent shutter speed. Let us start with the preparation.
Basic Camera Setup
NOTE: At this point, it’s time to emphasize something very important: Please read and understand your camera manual thoroughly. Get to know each and every function your camera offers and try it out. If you don’t do this, you’re lost and you may just as well stop reading here. My personal estimation is that 70% of all DSLR users have never read the manual and never have a clue about how to use a camera correctly. Even if they know how to set the right exposure, all those wonderful functions that we are going to be using remain a mystery to them. I know that you’re belonging to the remaining 30%. But this may be a good time to get out the manual and study it again! You’ll need it!
The basic camera setup is best done at home and is rarely ever changed. The following steps are part of this:
- If your camera has an AF/AE-Lock button, configure it to lock the focus and the exposure. On most Nikon DSLRs, this button is positioned to the right of the view finder. You can configure it in different ways. Locking both – focus and exposure is most convenient for our purposes. When you are shooting, you can point your camera somewhere, focus, press and hold the AE//AF-lock button and you camera will not change the focus or the exposure until you lift your finger of this button. This comes in handy in many situations, e.g. if you are shooting for panoramas or vertoramas.
- Set your AF mode to single. Many DSLRs have different AF modes (e.g. auto, continuous and single on Nikons). The default setting is normally auto. In continuous mode your camera tries to re-focus between shots if it thinks the scene has changed, even if you are shooting a series of multiple shots not lifting your finger from the shutter release button. In single mode, your camera focuses once (when you press the button half-way through) and then keeps this focus until you lift your finger. auto mode lets the camera decide what to do. Forget about auto mode. You decide what your camera is doing! Continuous mode is not good as we want to keep the same focus throughout our AEB series. And especially in a dark environment, your camera will often decide to refocus in the middle of an AEB series, ruining the series.
- Set up your camera to use the highest possible shooting frequency (FPS). At least some Nikons also have a configurable low frequency that limits your FPS artificially. You want to shoot as fast as possible.
- Turn on continuous shooting mode. With some camera models, this is required to produce all three AEB exposures with one click of the shutter release button.
- Disable the mirror lock-up function (if enabled): This function locks up the mirror a second before the shutter is released to avoid vibrations. We don’t need this when shooting hand-held.
- Set the AEB function to exposure bracketing. DSLR cameras usually have many different things you can auto-bracket: ISO, flash, Active D-Lighting (on Nikons) etc. Make sure you configure this function to bracket the exposure. When you shoot in A-mode, this means that your shutter speed is varied to change the exposure. This is what we need.
Was everything clear to this point without touching your manual? No? See my point? 😉
Assume that your are entering this gorgeous church. Before I am really entering, I do the following things:
- I set the ISO sensitivity to ISO 1600. With my camera (Nikon D7000) you can still take photos of a reasonable quality at this sensitivity.
- I choose the widest aperture (f/3,5 for my preferred lens).
- I turn on AEB mode and set it to 3 shots with -2EV, 0EV, and +2EV.
- I turn on the single point focusing mode.
- I turn on matrix metering mode.
- I turn on aperture priority (A) mode.
The first two steps are necessary to get acceptably fast shutter speeds. Of course, the conditions are different in every location. This is just a base setting that should work in most cases. If the shutter speeds are still too low, you’re not going to get good photos. Experience has shown that an ISO value of 800-1600 and an aperture between f/3,5 and f/5 usually works, e.g. in churches. The third step should not require any explanation.
Focussing and Metering
I usually always have my camera in single point focus mode and in matrix metering mode anyway, so I do not execute steps 4 and 5 explicitly. Single point focussing mode means that only one of the focus points is used to focus. Note that the default setting of any camera is a mode where the camera itself chooses the object to focus on. You don’t want this! You want to control yourself what you focus on. Especially in dark environments, the auto mode will fail. Most DSLRs have a joystick or a similar control next to the display and you can control which point is active using this joystick.
Matrix metering uses the entire image to find the right exposure. You may have learned that you need to measure the darkest and the brightest areas of the scene and then do some complicated math to figure out which exposures you need. Forget about that! With the matrix metering mode, you let your camera set the exposure for the entire scene and then hope that the overexposed shot and the underexposed shot capture the details in the shadows and in the highlights.
“Hope? What is he talking about?” I know that word makes you feel uneasy, but we’re not finished yet. If your hope is dashed, you will use exposure compensation to fix it. This is much more efficient than manual measurement.
Once I have found a good composition, I adjust the settings to match that scene. With the D7000, I can adjust the ISO sensitivity and the aperture without taking to camera off my eyes. Check if your camera allows this too. I adjust the settings as follows while looking through the view finder:
- I check the shutter speed (indicated in the view finder). My goal is to keep it between 1/100s and 1/250s. This will be the 0EV exposure time. The -2EV time will be 4 times higher (1/400s – 1/1000s). More importantly though, the +2EV time will be 4 times lower (1/25s – 1/60s). 1/25s is approximately the lowest shutter speed I can hand-hold consistently without introducing too much blur. I may stretch it to 1/10s, but that would take a number of tries before I have a decent shot. 1/25s is Ok.
- If the shutter speed is below 1/100s, I first open the aperture if possible. If the aperture is at its widest setting (lowest f-number), I increase the ISO sensitivity.
- If the shutter speed is above 1/250s, I have some room to optimize the settings: I try to increase the f-number to get a sharper image and/or decrease the ISO sensitivity to reduce the noise. Usually, I try to reach a compromise between the two.
These are the steps that you will execute for each an every shot you take, even if you take them all in the same location. Learn how to apply these changes as quickly as possible with your camera!
That’s it! Now you’re set to shoot the scene!
The Shooting Technique
I am getting an increasing number of questions asking how I shoot hand-held. Most question read like this: “I am really trying hard, jamming my body against a pillar, grabbing the camera firmly, holding my breath until my face turns blue, but I still can not get a decent exposure series. Why?” (a little bit exaggerated).
My prototypical answer is “You’re trying too hard!” Jamming, grabbing firmly and holding your breath means that your whole body is cramped and your muscles soon start shaking. You should do the opposite: Stay relaxed and calm down! Ok, this was the ZEN part, but how do you actually do this?
Here are my rules for a proper hand-held shooting technique:
Rule 1 – Take a natural position
Don’t put your body in any unnatural or unstable position (e.g. bending over, or squatting). Stand or kneel!
If you stand, put your feet about one 1.5 feet apart such that they are right below your shoulders. Don’t turn to either side. Your feet should point into the same direction as your camera. This gives you a stable stand.
If you kneel, put your right knee down and keep your left foot on the ground. Rest your left elbow on your left thigh, like a soldier shooting with a rifle.
Rule 2 – Relax your body
It is good practice to close your eyes, take a deep breath and just relax moments before you shoot. This calms you down and gets any hectic out of your system.
When you look through the view finder, don’t press the camera firmly against your eye brow. Keep your grip safe but relaxed and just lean your camera against your brow.
Don’t squint your other eye. Many people squint their right eye (assuming you look through the view finder with your left eye) so they can concentrate on what they see through their camera. Squinting means that you flex the muscles in your face which inevitable introduces instability. With a bit of practice, you can switch to your left eye and ignore the image from your right eye.
Rule 3 – Breathing
Breath normally until just before you fire off your AEB series. Compose your shot and focus your camera. A split second before you shoot, take a deep breath, exhale half way and hold your breath. Don’t let more than a second pass before you take the shots. It is important to exhale because if you inhale and hold your breath, your blood pressure rises quickly and every heartbeat feels like someone is padding you on the shoulder. With your lungs half-filled with air, you have enough oxygen and your body is relaxed. Don’t forget to inhale once you took the AEB series! 😉
Rule 4 – Focus your camera and your mind
If you are shooting a scene like the one depicted in the figure below, you want everything to be in focus. Thus, focusing on the far end may not be the best choice. In this situation, I would point my camera at some object that is mid-way between me and the far end. At a focal length of 10mm, this will put more or less everything into focus. After focusing (pressing the shutter release button half-way through), I recomposed my shot and try to relax (see Rule 2).
Use your focus point (remember that you are using the single point focus mode) that is displayed in the view finder to help you point consistently at the same position in the scene. Keeping exactly the same framing is best done by focusing your eye on the focus point area and trying to keep it in the exact same place in the scene.
Keeping the exact same position is not easy. Especially, in the beginning, you will find that whenever the mirror comes down again (clearing the view on the scene) during an AEB series, the focus point will be in a different place. This means that 1. your source images will have an offset, and 2. they will be blurry, both caused by the continuous camera movement.
There is a trick to cure this: The mistake that you will make at the start is that you concentrate on the focus point itself. Don’t do this! Concentrate on the portion of the image that you see inside the focus point area! Fire-off the AEB series and keep your eye (and your brain) focused on that area.
Rule 5 – Keep your position
Keep your position a brief moment after the shots are fired off. This helps eliminating blur caused by premature movement.
Rule 6 – Check the images and repeat
Check the images (in particular the longest exposure) by zooming in real close to see how much blur they have. If it’s too much, shoot another series. You should always have multiple series of each scene to be able to choose the best one for post-processing later.
If you follow the above tips, and practice a lot, you will soon be able to hand-hold very low shutter speeds without blurring the images. However, at first you will fail! The reason is that you want it too much, and you concentrate on the wrong things. This is natural. Don’t let that frustrate you, and keep practicing!
Post-Processing Hand-held Exposure Series
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the above recipe will produce pin-sharp images. Your images will not be as good as those shot with a tripod. The main problems will be
- high-ISO noise
- image blur due to camera movement
- image blur due to wide-aperture softness
- image blur due to some very far and very close regions being slightly out of focus.
- lack of dynamic range due to the (likely) limitation to 3 shots
- ghosting due to image offset that your HDR software may not be able to fix
- Use a good dedicated noise reduction software, and use it at the right point in your workflow. Read my Three Rules of Noise Reduction recipe for details.
- Deal with the lack of dynamic range by producing additional exposures in your RAW converter software. Read the recipe on Creating 32-bit HDRs the Right Way for additional information on this topic.
- Use image enhancement software to get back some of the details. Read Using Topaz Adjust to Improve Your Images to see how this is done if you are using the Topaz Labs software.
- Use intelligent sharpening tools to cure the lack of sharpness. I use Topaz InFocus for this, and it serves me well.
- Learn how to fix ghosting manually in your image editing software. I have no recipe on that until now. But you can get an idea of what that means by taking a look at The Making of – The Boat – Ko Panyi, Thailand (HDR). 40 seconds into the video, I start fixing ghosting problems.
Summary and Conclusions
What you should have learned in this recipe is that adequate camera technology, proper preparation, body control, and staying relaxed are the key elements to taking good-quality images hand-held. All of this may be a bit too much to memorize. So you may want to print this and take it with you when you go out there to practice.
Practicing is important! Before you head out to a shooting that is meaningful to you, try the techniques in your local church and take a look at the results. This is not something that works right away, and you will get better with experience. But once you have learned to master these techniques, they will expand your abilities and enable you to shoot scenes that you thought were impossible to capture.