Friday Foto Talk: Tripod or Not, Part I   6 comments

The grassy shore of Lake Quinalt on Washington's Olympic Peninsula is perfect for a sunset stroll.

Did I need a tripod for this?  The grassy shore of Lake Quinalt on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is perfect for a sunset stroll.

Tripods are one of the most essential of photography accessories.  That’s mostly because stabilizing the camera is the surest route to sharp images.  But in case you’re wondering, let me say right off the bat that this post is not about choosing a tripod.  I assume you either already have or soon will have a tripod/head setup which suits your camera equipment and budget.  So this post is about the decision to use your tripod.

 For movement blur in this little unnamed waterfall in Washington, I needed a tripod.  But the water was almost too deep to use one.

For movement blur in this little unnamed waterfall in Washington, I needed a tripod. But the water was almost too deep to use one.

If I was like other photography bloggers and teachers, this would be a very short post.   I’d say, “anytime you want sharp images (most of the time, right?), put your camera on a tripod and leave it there, no exceptions.  If I gave you that advice I’d be a hypocrite.  Actually, I very often shoot hand-held, my tripod sitting (lonely) in my van or at home.  And I’m not talking only candid portraiture or when using a flash.  I’ve done plenty of landscape photos hand-held as well.

But why not shoot from a tripod (or at least a monopod) all the time?  It’s not that simple.  Here are the pros and cons of using a tripod:

PROS

  • Image Quality:  A tripod allows you to use the lowest ISO your camera has, and that will result in an image without noise.  Noise will negatively impact any image, and though you can use software to reduce or eliminate it, that process softens the image.
  • Image Sharpness:  If you use mirror lockup or a shutter release trigger, it doesn’t matter how slow your shutter is.  A solidly built tripod and head will keep your camera perfectly still.  Those parts of your image that are in focus will be as sharp as your lens optics can accomplish.
  • More Flexibility:  You can use as small an aperture (for depth of field or a sunstar) as you want.  If you’re on a tripod, you don’t need to worry about your shutter speed being too slow, blurring your shot.  As long as your subject isn’t moving that is.
  • Slow & Deliberate:  Using a tripod helps you to slow down.  You tend to be more deliberate about things when on a tripod, leading to more careful compositions.  Set the camera in precisely the right spot at the right height.  Then use LiveView to focus manually with great precision.  This sort of approach is essential for shooting macro/close-up, but the same logic applies to landscape and even portrait photography.
I had a tripod on a recent hike in Glacier National Park.  But didn't use it for this bighorn sheep who was shedding a winter coat.

I had a tripod on a recent hike in Glacier National Park. But didn’t use it for this bighorn sheep who was shedding a winter coat.

 

CONS

  • Missed Shots:  Taking the extra time to break out your tripod, short as it may be, can mean the difference between getting a fantastic image and missing it.  Whether it’s on your backpack or in your car, sometimes you just don’t have the time to set it up.  But, you may ask, “if my camera is already on the tripod, we’re not talking about any extra time, right?”  But think about it.  Using a tripod just takes more time.  Adjusting leg length between shots is just one part of that extra time.
  • Less Flexibility:  It seems as if I’m contradicting myself.  But while a tripod allows more flexibility in some ways, it takes it back in others.  When tethered to a tripod, we just don’t change perspectives as much as when shooting from the hand.  We don’t get super-low, we don’t zoom with our feet or turn around as much.  In short, we don’t get nearly as many different angles & perspectives as we get shots.  You can definitely mitigate this by forcing yourself to move around with your tripod.  But I still see plenty of photographers, parked at a scenic viewpoint, shooting picture after picture from a tripod that never moves an inch during their session.

Crater Lake, Oregon under a late winter sky on my last visit in April.

  • Restrictions:  Some places (museums for example) forbid the use of tripods, mostly because they’re a tripping hazard.  But even where they’re allowed, and if other people are around, you always need to bird-dog them.  Kids especially represent a hazard not so much to themselves but to your equipment!  Also, depending on how much adjustment your tripod has, can steep slopes enforce restrictions on where you shoot from.
  • Camera Security:  I know about this one with firsthand pain.  In sketchy situations (such as the top of a waterfall), you should certainly keep the camera strap around your neck whether using a tripod or not.  But it’s nonetheless easier to get separated from your camera when it’s mounted on a tripod.  Anytime your camera isn’t in your hand, in your bag or slung around your neck, it’s vulnerable – to theft or damage.
Going light on a hike through a canyon at Natural Bridges, Utah, and a challenging close-up of these hedgehog cactus blooms.

Going light on a hike through a canyon at Natural Bridges, Utah, and a challenging close-up of these hedgehog cactus blooms.

It may look at first glance like the pros win out over the cons.  But not so fast.  That first con is a biggie.  This may sound like hyperbole, but if you miss the biggest shot you’ll ever get the chance at, in your life, all the perfectly sharp, perfectly average images in the world won’t make up for it.

So it’s worth a part II on this subject:  we’ll look at what to consider when deciding whether or not to use your tripod.  As usual, it all depends on the situation (you knew I was going to say that!).  Happy weekend and happy shooting everyone!

Long exposures like this at Lake Tahoe demand a tripod.

Long exposures like this demand a tripod:  Lake Tahoe, California.

 

 

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6 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Tripod or Not, Part I

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  1. I have all those same thoughts flit through my head when I’m out there. Mostly I’m thinking the tripod is a pain, then I look at the photos later and wish I’d used one. Look forward to the next post.

  2. I don’t use a tripod enough so I am looking forward to Part II of this post.

  3. Thanks Michael. This is really timely for me. I’m thinking I’ll take a tripod to Yellowstone and a monopod as well. Daughter and husband have promised to carry stuff for me. I plan to take the monopod on our 2 day class/hike. UGH, I have so much to learn! At our recent trip to Wildlife Safari no way could I use a tripod in the car and my beanbag was totally useless.
    Love your blog!

    • Thanks Annette. It’s fun learning! I bought a carbon fiber monopod recently but have only used it once. I used a couple pillows a lot when I went to Africa. There are frames made for vehicles. They clamp to the door and have a screw-in for a tripod head. When I go back there I’ll buy one, probably get it there and re-sell it before leaving.

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