Friday Foto Talk: Using Your Tripod, Part II   9 comments

The Grand Tetons greet a June morning recently. 31 mm., f/15 @ 1/5 sec., ISO 100.

This is the second installment on tripods.  Not how to choose them; no recommendations on brands here.  Instead we’re going into when and how to use your tripod.  When is a tripod necessary?  And when can you get away with going light and doing hand-held photography?

It seems to me there is some confusion about tripod use out there.  Some folks can’t bring themselves to take their tripods out, and end up hand-holding the camera in light that really demands some stabilization.  They end up with far too many blurry shots as a result.  Others fall into the opposite camp.  They seem to think it’s necessary to use a tripod at all times, no exceptions.  This can, largely because of an unchanging point of view, result in lack of variety and a boring “planned” look to a collection.

The truth is this: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a tripod or not.  What matters is that you’re getting the shots you want, at the quality you want.

I just took this shot yesterday afternoon in the aptly named Beartooth Mtns., Montana. You can only see the feet of the black cub hiding behind mom.

I grabbed this shot just yesterday afternoon in the aptly named Beartooth Mtns., near Pray, Montana. You can see the feet of the younger black cub hiding behind mom.  400 mm., f/14 @ 1/400 sec., ISO 400.

Here is what I consider when deciding whether to take my tripod with me to shoot (I always have it in the vehicle.  It makes little sense to leave it at home):

  • LIGHT:  This is by far the most important factor to consider.  Is it bright and sunny out or is the light low?  I almost always use a tripod when shooting near sunrise or sunset.  And when I’m going to be in thick trees, or if heavy cloud cover is reducing the light, I’m using my tripod.  Conversely, if it’s very bright out, I just don’t see the need to be shackled to a tripod.
  • TYPE OF LENSES:  If you’ll be using lenses with longer focal lengths, consider more seriously the use of a tripod, no matter the light conditions.  That’s because it’s much easier to come out with blurry images when shooting at longer focal lengths.  Following the old rule of thumb, i.e., shooting at a shutter speed where the denominator is no less than the maximum focal length of your lens, can demand the use of stabilization.

   In other words, if you are using a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, at any of its focal lengths, you shouldn’t try to shoot hand-held at anything slower than 1/200th second.  If the lens has built-in image stabilization, that can mean (depending on how steady your hand-hold technique is) being able to shoot at 1/100th or even 1/50th second.  But a tripod is a much more sure way to stabilize that longer lens.  For the f/2.8 versions of 70-200s, and for extra-long lenses, on the order of 400 mm. or more, take a cue from sports and wildlife photographers:  a monopod is a nice solution when you’re mobile and/or the light is bright enough.  More on monopods next time.

On a ‘go-light’ hike through a canyon in Utah where I (barely) got away without a tripod for this reflection of the cliff walls in a vernal pool.  50 mm., f/13 @ 1/50 sec., ISO 640.

  • TYPE OF SHOOTING:  Will you be doing landscapes, where the quest for great depth of field means apertures will be relatively small?  If so a tripod is usually in order because those small apertures force slower shutter speeds.  There are exceptions to this, which I’ll cover next time.  For now, just think in terms of how much freedom of movement you need, how quickly you’ll be changing positions.  Factoring in the light, does a tripod make sense?

  Will you be walking through a populated area getting candid travel shots of people and their environment?  If so, a tripod  may just get in the way.  And besides, apertures are often wide, because of the frequent need to “go shallow” in terms of depth of field, to isolate the subject against an out of focus background.  One caveat about cities:  If you’re shooting a lot of architecture a tripod can come in handy, depending on how bright the light is.

  Macro photography is very difficult (but possible) without a tripod.  Consider this:  If it’s worth the extra weight to take your dedicated macro lens on a nature/photo hike, does it make sense to leave your tripod behind?  With static portraiture you can go either way.  One one hand, why not?  You’re not carrying it anywhere.  But no matter how still the model can stay, a live subject can’t help but move a bit.  So you’re going to need faster shutter speeds no matter what. What about flash photography?  Since a flash freezes movement, you can get away without a tripod more easily.  If light is dim however, I’d use a tripod.  That’s because you may want the dimmer background of your flash-lighted subject to be sharp too.

Sandstorm, Owen's Valley, California.  A quick grab without the need for a tripod, partly because I was able to use a modest aperture.  144 mm., f/8 @ 1/250 sec.

Sandstorm, Owen’s Valley, California. A quick grab without the need for a tripod, partly because I was able to use a modest aperture.          144 mm., f/8 @ 1/250 sec., ISO 100



  • WEIGHT:  This is not a factor I ever consider by itself, but always in combination with other more important factors.  One important thing:  my tripod isn’t terribly heavy.  If you’re looking to buy one, I highly recommend spending the extra for a carbon-fiber model.  And don’t pair it with a ball-head that is overkill for the (heaviest) camera/lens combination you use a lot.

   I’m not suggesting you get a tripod that is too light for the gear you’re supporting.  But don’t get one that’s heavier than you need either.  If you plan to hike and do photography, get a carbon-fiber tripod, period.  Also, make sure your camera backpack has a tripod attachment system that holds your tripod snugly, no swaying around.

   So how to think about weight?  Weight might sway me if I’m on the fence about bringing a tripod, depending on how far I’m hiking.  But I’m always careful to not let any laziness about carrying extra weight slip into my thinking.  The goal is not to carry less weight, it’s to get better pictures.  More on this in the next post.

An older bull bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.  500 mm., f/6.3 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 1000.

An older bull bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.                                                     500 mm., f/6.3 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 1000.

  • TIME:  This is something I mentioned in Part I.  You may make a quick decision to forego the use of a tripod for this reason alone.  It’s always tough to make this rapid-fire decision on the fly.  But you do know when time is of the essence, when light or your subject is changing or moving quickly.  I’ve missed great shots by a second or two.  We all have.

   So if you’re the type of photographer who believes a landscape shot always demands the use of a tripod, I would reconsider your position and be more flexible.  As long as your camera does a pretty good job with noise at higher ISOs, you can get a nice sharp image before the light changes.

In the next installment, we’ll look at some examples to highlight how and when to use camera stabilization of all types, whether it’s a tripod, a monopod, or just a rock.

While shooting (on a tripod), I was getting hit by a big dose of steam from this hot spring along the Firehole River, Yellowstone.   16 mm., f/13 @ 1.6 sec., ISO 100.

While shooting (on a tripod), I was getting hit by a big dose of steam from this hot spring along the Firehole River in Yellowstone.
16 mm., f/13 @ 1.6 sec., ISO 100.



9 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Using Your Tripod, Part II

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  1. When I s aw the bear photo I thought “WOW, did you see the tail on that bear ?” Anyway, your post was very timely for me. I need to use my tripod a lot more! or more anyway. I’m looking forward to your next post too. Thanks.

    • Thanks Annette! Yep a lot of people seem to believe they’re not using the tripod enough. Next time I’ll go into some examples of when you definitely need one and when you can get away without. And what to do to get sharp pictures when you’re without a tripod.

  2. How fortunate for us that we get to see such beautiful photos and get the wisdom of your artistry. Thanks so much for the tips. It seems that I should get a lighter-weight tripod as we do lots of hikes that are rated strenuous and I am reluctant to lug along my tripod. Sometimes it is all I can do to lug myself up the mountain. 😉

    • Thank you LuAnn! Next week I’ll give tips on how to get sharper photos without a tripod. But yes, a lightweight tripod, as long as it is heavy enough to hold your camera and lens very still, is much better than not taking any tripod at all, especially when you’re out there in low-light situations.

  3. Healthy looking bears. That’s good to see.

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