HDR Without a Tripod

When it comes to HDR photography gear, a tripod is arguably the single most important piece of equipment, but sometimes situations arise where it is just not possible to use one.  I recently went on a two week trip to the Eastern US, and I did not have space in my luggage for my main tripod.  Instead, I packed a smaller travel size tripod, and I brought my GorillaPod.  In this article, I want to discuss these, and also some other gear and techniques that can be used in place of a full size tripod.

Before my trip, I went on a search for the smallest tripod I could find.  I had a few requirements that needed to be met, but I really just wanted it to be as small as possible.  My first requirement was that the tripod would be rated to support the weight of my camera plus the heaviest lens I expect to use (70-200mm).  Next, I wanted the fully extended height to bring the camera close to eye level, so I would not have to crouch down to use wedding bouncy castle the camera.  Finally, I wanted something of decent build quality that would last for at least a few years, and would function reliably without breaking the bank.

The tripod I ended up choosing was the Sirui T-1005X.  Its folded length is just 13.4 inches (340mm).  There are a few trade-offs compared with my normal tripod, but ultimately they are insignificant when it means I can fit this into my suitcase.  Using this tripod I am sacrificing on maximum height, which is just 51.4 inches (compared to 67” with my Manfrotto), but it is still high enough that I can see my camera without having to uncomfortably crouch down.  Also, the legs have 5 segments, which adds to the setup time, and reduces the overall stability.  The tripod is rated for 22lbs, which is more than I will need, and was a selling point for a tripod this compact.  I found a few other products that also met my needs, but ultimately I chose the smallest option.  While I was on my trip I did not carry the tripod with me everywhere, but having it available was really helpful, like when I went out in Times Square at night.

When I go out with more to do than just take photos even the small size and weight of a 13.4” tripod is often more than I want to carry around.  For these situations, I always have a GorillaPod stashed in my backpack.  The GorillaPod is extremely compact, flexible and lightweight.  If you have not seen one, it is a small, tabletop sized tripod with flexible legs.  The legs can be straightened for use like a normal tripod, or they can be bent to grab onto objects like fences or trees.  I really like using it for all day outings like Disneyland, where I am not really comfortable carrying the weight and bulk of a full size tripod all day.  It also came in very handy at the Top of the Rock in New York, where tripods are not allowed, however they had no problem with my small GorillaPod resting on top of the fence.  The GorillaPod gave me the freedom to compose the shot I wanted where other tripods were against the rules.


More often than I care to admit, I find myself being lazy, and I do not use a tripod at all.  In these situations, there are still some techniques that I use to align my HDR brackets as much as possible.  The alignment algorithms in HDR software have been getting better and better with each new version, but there is still no substitute for perfection straight out of the camera.  One way I like to accomplish this, even when I am shooting during the day, is to find a place to rest my camera.  Resting the camera on top of a ledge, a fence, a trash can, or any stationary object will hold the camera still much better than even the most stable hands.  If the available ledges are too limiting, it is still beneficial to lean your body against a wall or stationary object as you take your shots.  The more contact you can make with a strong base, the more stable your body will be, and the more stable the camera will be as you shoot.

I like to shoot in high speed continuous burst mode so my camera rattles off the bracketed images as quickly as possible.  Depending on the situation, I also use live view mode and the two second countdown timer.  Especially in situations where the camera is resting on a ledge, the countdown timer allows me to remove the vibration of my hand pressing the shutter button.

I was recently in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, where tripods again are not allowed.  I was able to find a ledge that was perfectly centered and had a great view over the main concourse.  The ledge however, was slanted down.  I rested my camera flat on the ledge and found the camera pointed towards the ground.  Everything interesting that I wanted to capture was at the very top of the frame.  I needed to tilt the camera up, but if I just lifted it I would lose the benefits of the ledge, so I took my camera strap and folded it back on itself a couple times, and then placed it under the lens.  The strap added enough height to level out the vertical tilt, and it was stable enough to take a 5 shot bracket with a 10 second exposure at +3EV.

Tripods are an important tool in the quiver of any HDR photographer, but next time you find yourself without your tripod, think about how some of these alternatives might improve your image quality and simplify post processing.  I am always looking for new camera stabilization techniques, if you have any tips or tricks you use I would love to hear them in the comments.

My initial journey into the world of photography was a high school black and white film class where I learned to use a camera and to develop and print in the darkroom. However, it wasn’t until years later, and after the purchase of my first DSLR, that I became truly passionate about photography. Based in Southern California I enjoy shooting landscapes and architecture, but I also enjoy traveling and searching for new places to photograph. My focus is HDR photography where I am constantly searching for new processes and techniques to create the best images possible. You can find me on flickr as Justin in SD, or on Google+.

  • Neil

    Been thinking of gettig a Gorillapod. Sounds like you get a decent amount of use out of it.

  • Leslie

    I’m a gorillapod fan too! Cool article.

  • Perry

    I shoot a lot of hand-held brackets with pretty good success by bracing my left hand on my right shoulder and using my left arm to support the camera and lens. Works well as long as shutter speeds don’t get too long.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1772809644 Adolph Pavel

    Thank you for the great tripod/non-tripod tips.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LensFlarePhotography Daniel Brennan

    I shoot quite a few of HDR shots hand-held thanks to the 7d high speed shooting. I usually only go for the 3 exposure when doing this and I don’t have an extreme amount of dynamic range or too low of light levels.

  • Jim Trant

    Good article Justin. I’ve had some luck sitting on the ground with my knees up, resting my elbows on them, keeping the shutter speed fairly fast and using the timer.