Use a tripod. That’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to landscape photographers. The main reason is that it opens the door to a whole new creative process and makes it possible to capture sharp and noise-free images that you otherwise wouldn’t.

While there are many advantages of using a tripod, the facts are that not every shot benefits from it. Additionally, there are situations where you either can’t use one or you don’t want to use one. So, what do you do then?

That’s what we’ll look closer at in this article. Keep reading and you’ll learn how to capture the best possible handheld images.

No Tripod = The Need for a Quicker Shutter Speed

An advantage of using a tripod is that you can use longer shutter speeds while maintaining ideal sharpness. Handheld, this becomes more difficult. Yes, the latest image stabilization technology is amazing but it’s not enough to replace the tripod.

This is why the shutter speed is an even more important factor when photographing handheld.

Handheld landscape photography
Image shot handheld at 1/4th of a second

In order to capture sharp handheld images, it’s crucial that you quicken the shutter speed until you can take an image without the camera registering vibration.

A Quick Guideline to Calculate the Slowest Acceptable Shutter Speed

The rule of thumb is to use the focal length as a fraction: photographing at 35mm allows the slowest shutter speed of 1/35 (rounded to 1/30), at 70mm you can use 1/70, 200mm is 1/200, etc. That being said, this is only a guideline and shouldn’t be thought of as a set rule. Some cameras get good results with much slower exposure times while others aren’t as good.

I strongly recommend that you zoom in 100% on the image preview to make sure that the image is sharp. Once the shutter speed becomes too slow, the camera registers your movements by holding the camera or pressing the shutter button. What happens then? The image becomes blurry.

I’ll say this once more: Always zoom in on the image preview to ensure the photo is sharp!

You might not notice the slight blur until you zoom in. It’s better to see this in the field than when you’re back in front of the computer. If the image is becoming blurry, simply use a quicker shutter speed.

Using a Quicker Shutter Speed Affects the ISO and Aperture

Adjusting the shutter speed means that you’re affecting the amount of light passing through the lens. A longer exposure time results in more light reaching the sensor (making the image brighter) while a short exposure time reduces it (making the image darker) To make sure the image remains well-exposed, you’ll need to also make changes to the ISO or aperture.

But which one?

The bad news is that there isn’t one correct answer to this question. Different scenarios benefit from different adjustments. That being said, the following tips are recommended for standard landscape photography.

Handheld Landscape Photography
Image shot handheld at 1/30th of a second

Aperture or ISO: What Do You Adjust?

I strongly recommend that you read our Fundamentals in Landscape Photography series if you’re not familiar with what the ISO and aperture do. This is must-know information if you aspire to improve your photography.

Using Aperture to Brighten the Photo

When we use a quick shutter speed we are unintentionally darkening the image. The purpose of adjusting the ISO or aperture is to correct this. In other words, brighten the exposure.

Brightening the image by using the aperture means we have to use a small f/stop number. This allows more light to reach the sensor in the brief period the shutter is open.

However, the aperture also affects the Depth of Field. An open aperture leads to less of the photo being in focus. For example, at f/2.8 the element you focus on is sharper than it would be at f/22 but the rest of the image is completely blurred. This is great for macro photography but not for standard landscape photography where we want optimal front-to-back sharpness.

Aperture for handheld landscape photography
Image shot handheld at 1/125th of a second with an aperture of f/6. The long focal length combined with the open aperture has blurred everything except for the flower, which was the focus point.

Using ISO to Brighten the Photo

The second option is to increase the ISO. This will also brighten the image.

Increasing the ISO doesn’t come without consequences either. The biggest issue is that it introduces additional grain and noise to the image.

Professional cameras handle high ISOs much better than entry-level cameras. For example, a high-end camera allows you to use an ISO of 1600 (+/- depending on the model) without the image being too grainy but an entry-level camera introduces unwanted amounts of noise already at ISO400. This is why photographers always aim to use the lowest ISO possible in a given scenario.

So, What Setting Do You Adjust?

You now know that there are two ways to brighten the exposure when using a quick shutter speed: use an open aperture or a high ISO. The “problem” is that they both have a negative effect on image quality.

So, which one should you choose? Out of focus or noise?

Handheld landscape photography settings
Image shot handheld at 1/500th of a second

I know that neither option sounds tempting but this is a choice you need to make when photographing handheld in dim light. This is what I prefer to do:

  • Avoid having an aperture wider than f/5.6. This does depend on my focal length (a longer focal length requires a smaller aperture and vice versa) Typically, opening the aperture more than this results in a lack of overall sharpness.
  • The ISO has more wiggle room. Aim at having it as low as possible but be willing to increase it to the point where the image is bright enough. It’s easier to remove noise in post-processing than to sharpen an out-of-focus image.

The best results often come when combining the two above. For example, you can use an aperture of f/7.1 and an ISO of 320. Of course, the exact settings depend on the situation.

Drop the Filters for Handheld Landscape Photography

This should go without saying but using Neutral Density filters or other darkening filters when photographing handheld should be avoided. The only exception is if you’re photographing in broad daylight and need to reduce the shutter speed to, let’s say, 1/100th of a second.

A popular filter during daytime photography is the Circular Polarizer. It can be a beneficial filter during the day (to remove reflections or add contrast to the sky) but it does darken the image by roughly 1.5 stops. That means you need to compensate by increasing the ISO, opening the aperture, or lengthening the shutter speed (a combination of all three is possible).

Use Vibration Reduction (VR)

Note: the name of this function varies between camera manufacturers. For Canon it’s Lens Stabilization, for Fuji it’s Image Stabilisation and for Nikon it’s Vibration Reduction. This is a small button/slider which you can find on certain lenses.

Capturing a sharp image when using a semi-slow shutter speed isn’t easy without a tripod. Vibration Reduction is a tool found on some lenses that can make a big difference. It can be extremely helpful when photographing handheld (though it should always be turned off when using a tripod).

Vibration Reduction for Handheld Photography
Image shot handheld at 1/160th of a second

It wasn’t until I purchased the Fujifilm 100-400mm back in 2017 that I really experienced just how good the Vibration Reduction has become (and it’s become even better since!)

Previously, I would rarely consider using a shutter speed of less than 1/400th of a second when photographing at 400mm. With this lens, I was able to get a razor-sharp image at 1/30th of a second at the same focal length. I didn’t believe it myself until I had taken 10 images and 8 of them were sharp.

Now, I’m not saying that the Vibration Reduction works that well each and every time. It definitely doesn’t. But it’s a tool that can allow you to use a slightly longer shutter speed than what you could’ve done otherwise.

Don’t Forget About the Composition

One of my biggest challenges when photographing handheld is to remember that the images are just as important as those I take with a tripod. In the beginning, I struggled with viewing my handheld images as anything other than snapshots and thus I missed several good shots.

It’s important that you don’t forget about the composition. Treat the image as any other image and take enough time to optimize every aspect you can. Use the viewfinder and position yourself until you’ve got a good composition, review the image and make any adjustments necessary.

A lesson I’ve learned as my photography has evolved is to capture every image with the intent to print large. That means that every image should be optimized and not just a snapshot; those I can capture with my phone.

Conclusion

A tripod is an important tool for landscape photographers. It’s something that every photographer should have. The reason is that it allows you to achieve techniques you wouldn’t otherwise. However, there are times when you don’t need one. Or maybe you’re unable to bring it.

Whatever the reason is, there’s nothing wrong with doing landscape photography handheld. You’re able to create just as impressive images as when using a tripod. You just need to be aware of the limitations.

The main importance when photographing handheld is to use a shutter speed that’s quick enough to get sharp results. Slower shutter speeds result in camera shake and motion being introduced (read: blur). This mainly becomes an issue when you’re photographing in dimmed light. In those cases, you need to adjust the aperture and/or the ISO to get a well-exposed image.

And I’ll mention this once more here at the end: Always zoom in on the image preview to make sure everything is sharp and in focus.

Now, what are you waiting for? Get out there and capture some beautiful images!


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Handheld Landscape Photography