Increase Your Exposure for Handheld Photos

If you’re without a tripod or need to photograph a subject handheld, a huge obstacle to overcome is making sure your shutter speed can both expose your image properly and avoid camera shake and blurring.

If it isn’t, this can give you one of two unwanted results:

1. A photo that is exposed well, but is too blurry from a slow shutter speed.
2. A photo that is sharp in detail and has no blurring, but is underexposed with muddy shadows and little detail.

The easy solution to this disparity between shutter speed and proper exposure is to just use a tripod – however, certain situations make this impossible or you just don’t have one to use.

If you’re new to photography and don’t know how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work together to create your image, I suggest reading this guide – it will help you understand why the amount of  light is so important in getting a sharp, well-exposed image.

Below are some common methods that let more light into your camera, allowing you to use both a fast enough shutter speed for a handheld shot AND expose your image properly.

Increase Your ISO
ISO is a great tool for photographers who need a bump in their exposure – it allows you to use a faster shutter speed so that you can capture your image handheld.

However, the drawback to increasing your ISO is also an increase in digital noise. This is generally an unwanted side effect, but an acceptable trade-off if it means capturing a sharper image without any blur.
The larger your sensor, the better your camera can handle digital noise when you increase it. So for example, a point-and-shoot camera will perform poorly at ISO 800, but a full-frame SLR will have acceptable noise at the same level or above.

Another thing to know is that digital noise is more apparent on darker tones than brighter ones – meaning underexposed images or those composed with shadows will look worse with noise when compared to say, a sunset image.

Open Up Your Aperture
Another way to increase the amount of light let into your camera without decreasing your shutter speed is to open up that aperture – that is, use a lower f/stop. If you’re photographing a subject and your shutter speed isn’t fast enough to both properly expose your image AND eliminate any blurring, a wider aperture will allow you to increase your shutter speed without sacrificing your exposure.

The side -effect of opening up your aperture is that you’re affecting the depth of field – whether or not this is a problem for you depends on the kind of image you’re trying to produce. For example, if you’re shooting an outdoor portrait with a distracting background, a wide aperture will help eliminate that. However, if you’re shooting a landscape at dusk and want that deep depth of field, you’ll probably have to get the tripod out and deal with the slower shutter speed that way.


Bokehlicious…. by The Jordan Collective, on Flickr

Use a Shorter Focal Length
Without getting into the technical reasons, the shorter your focal length, the less amount of light is needed to properly expose your image. It’s a great way to use a higher shutter speed in low-light situations, such as indoor portraits. If you find yourself lacking enough light to make a proper exposure, try switching lenses to a shorter focal length and you’ll see a difference.

Reflective Light
Let’s use this scenario – you’re taking an outdoor portrait during sunset and your subject is backlit by the sky. You’re trying to bump up your exposure to bring your model out from the shadows, but your camera just isn’t having it – every photo you take with a longer shutter speed comes out blurry and soft, and you’re afraid of bumping up your ISO because you want a noiseless image.

Instead of trying to bring more light into your camera, bring more light into your scene. You’re working the sunset hours, which means the light can be reflected onto your model.

Let’s pose,baby! by Emily Jane Morgan, on Flickr

While there are plenty of reflectors to purchase, pretty much anything can act as one as long as it has a reflective surface.

The distance and angle of your reflector to your model will greatly affect how the light looks – try out different locations and see what works best for you.

Using off-camera flash can help with this instead of using a reflector, but that’s a long topic for another day. :)

One final note – it’s always a good idea to shoot in RAW format, but more so when you’re dealing with difficult lighting situations. If you’ve exhausted all other options, you have a safety net when shooting in RAW – you can underexpose your photo up to 2 full stops to get a faster shutter speed (which will reduce blur), and then bump your exposure up to ideal in RAW editing.

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  1. aperture

    thx for this tips. I know that it will me a lot. :)

  2. Simon David

    But all this great advise is 200% useless if, your stance, the way you hold the camera, pull the trigger and breath is not up to scratch!

    In my experience, if you look at how a rifle shooter holds their rifle and translate that into your photography, the need to open the iris, increase iso, speed up the shutter will be greatly reduced.

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