Posted by: kerryl29 | February 23, 2012

The Virtuous Tripod

There are many types of photography that don’t particularly lend themselves to tripod use.  Any form of candid photography, for instance, falls into this category, with street shooting perhaps the best example.  Landscape photography, however, is decidedly not one of these disciplines.  In fact, if you’re engaged in landscape photography and you’re not using a tripod, I would go so far as to say that you’re making a significant mistake.  And I’m typically a relativist about these matters!

I’ve heard all the excuses for disdaining tripods–they’re a pain to lug around, they’re heavy and bulky and annoying and good ones are expensive.  Besides, they get in the way and they slow you down in the field.  There’s truth to all of this, I’m sorry to report (though I would argue that slowing down in the field is actually a benefit, most of the time, as you’ll see below).  But despite the veracity of all this, I’m going to make the argument that implementing a tripod for landscape work (and the vast majority of close-up work as well, not incidentally) is worth the trouble.  In fact, it’s not even a close call.

So here’s my manifesto:  If you’re not already using a tripod essentially all the time when engaged in landscape photography, it’s highly unlikely that there’s another single thing that you can do to improve your imagery than making the pledge to use one all the time–and of course, following through on that pledge.  The benefits of tripod use–versus hand holding the camera–are manifold; they’re both direct/tangible and indirect/intangible.

Tunnel Falls, Clifty Falls State Park, Indiana

(By the way, I do practice what I preach.  I use a tripod to photograph landscapes 100% of the time; literally every image that has ever appeared on this blog has been shot using a tripod–including the the non-landscape photos.)

What are the benefits of tripod use?  The most obvious, tangible advantage is the stable platform a sturdy tripod–and tripod head–provides.  There is nothing else you can do to ensure sharp photographs that compares with the use of a good tripod.  (You can add to that advantage by using a remote release and mirror lockup.)  It’s far more beneficial than the best forms of handheld technique and image stabilization–in-lens or in-camera–combined.

Miner's Beach Sunset, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

A corollary to the stable platform factor is the ability to compose long-exposure photographs that render motionless objects sharp.  There’s an old rule of thumb in photography:  you need a shutter speed that is–at minimum–the inverse of your lens’ focal length to be able to obtain a sharp, handheld photograph (presuming good handheld technique is utilized).  So, if you’re using a 200 mm lens, you’d need a shutter speed of at least 1/200 second to have a chance to produce a sharp image.  Improvements in equipment-based image stabilization will improve this by a few stops.  But what if the scene calls for a much slower shutter speed?  Long-exposure photography effectively requires a tripod.  And even at marginal shutter speeds, you’re always going to do better with your camera mounted than when you hand hold it.

Another advantage of the stable platform is the ability to efficiently produce multiple exposures of the same scene–useful for compositing or HDR-rendering.  Even the use of a graduated neutral density filter all but insists upon the use of a tripod.  I can’t imagine trying to apply a GND when hand holding a camera; fine-tuning the filter would be nearly impossible if the camera isn’t mounted.

Sunrise, Swift Creek Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

As compelling as the direct benefits of tripod use are, the less evident assets are probably even more valuable.  I find it quite ironic that one of the biggest complaints about a tripod–how it slows the photographer down–is arguably one of its biggest pluses.  When I started getting serious about photography many years ago, I spent a lot of time in the field shooting with large format photographers.  The very nature of LF equipment forces photographers to work slowly and carefully.  Though I was still using 35mm gear, I was plainly impacted by this example and have always been quite deliberate in the field myself.  Most small format users aren’t like this–they work very quickly; too quickly, I believe.  This often leads to relative carelessness in photographic composition.  The use of a tripod forces the photographer to slow down in the field, and encourages extra care and consideration when it comes to composing images.  There’s scarcely a photographer on the planet who can’t benefit from such a development.

As an addendum to the slowing down motif, the use of a tripod encourages the photographer to pay extra attention to small, distracting details in the frame.  The branch peeking in at a corner, the bright spot at the edge of the frame, the footprint in the otherwise pristine sand, the rock jutting in from the outline of the viewfinder, the etched graffiti…all of these are examples of the kinds of things you may not notice with a cursory glance but are likely to spot when your camera is mounted on a tripod and you have the opportunity to scan the frame, unencumbered by the need to hold the camera.  Much of the time, the inclusion or exclusion of these things is the difference between a keeper image and a discard.

Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

If all that’s not enough, another advantage to tripod use that is rarely mentioned is that it allows you to utilize shooting positions that may be difficult, if not impossible, to attain handheld.  The camera can be mounted, for instance, over your head (you can use live view to spec out the image) or at knee-level or below–without having to concern yourself with holding the camera steady in an unorthodox position.  This capability can be far more valuable than it might seem at first blush because the ability to use different shooting perspectives can ramp up your creativity as it pertains to perspective.  (I blogged on the subject of altering perspective some months ago; you can check it out here.)

Roaring Fork Autumn, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

There’s simply no question about it in my mind; the benefits of tripod use when engaging in landscape photography far outweigh the costs.  And, really, what are those costs?  There’s the actual monetary expense of the equipment.  A good tripod and head can seem quite pricey.  But, properly cared for, they can last a lifetime and they’re far less expensive than top flight camera bodies (which are replaced by most serious photographers twice a decade, if not more frequently) and lenses.  Spread out over its period of use, your shooting platform is one of the best bargains you’ll find as a photographer.  Beyond that, we’re talking about the “annoyance” of carrying one around.  But if you’re not talking long hikes with your gear, a tripod is scarcely an inconvenience at all, and if you are hiking for shots (as I often am), you can find relatively lightweight tripods which can be strapped on to any decent photo backpack.  It’s really not that much of a pain, in my experience.

Au Sable Channel, Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario

I think the main issue is that people who aren’t used to tripods don’t view them as essential components of proper shooting.  That’s a mistake, in my judgment.  Given the benefits, a tripod is more essential than any other landscape photographic accessory (save the camera/lens combination, which isn’t an accessory; after all, even I have to admit that it is possible to take a picture with a camera and no tripod, but not the other way around).  In other words, this “tripod disregard” is almost entirely a function of underrating the significance of the device.

If you’re not using a tripod regularly when engaging in landscape photography, do yourself a favor–start.  Properly utilized, you’ll be amazed how much better your imagery can be.

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Responses

  1. Awesome! 🙂

    Really enjoy your photographs! Charming!

    • Thanks very much, Elyas!

  2. breathtaking

  3. Beautiful and breathtaking – thanks for sharing:)

    • Thanks very much!

  4. Your results speak for themselves, I agree wholeheartedly that a good tripod is essential for landscape photography! And that’s coming from some one who is from the shoot quickly school of wildlife photography.

    • Thanks…and, yeah, wildlife photography is an entirely different animal, if you’ll pardon the terrible pun.

  5. Essential advice, Kerry, and very well presented. I wish more people who would like to improve their photography would take it to heart. I can’t say that I always use one, but I nearly always have one handy, and use it whenerve I have the time (which is usually). And the results are truly worth it.

    • Thanks…and agreed…a sturdy tripod/head is a real difference maker that really needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

  6. Great post Kerry very well said!!!! I have been using my tripod ALL the time since 1985. It’s a Bogen 3021 with a Manfrotto ball head. It’s a bit heavy but it is also more steady than any stabilized lens out there. I quite often mention the importance of using a tripod in my posts also, and some folks have taken the advice. They (tripods) really make all the difference in the world.

    • Thanks, David. I started out using a Bogen aluminum tripod (3001, I believe) and a pan/tilt head, but more than 10 years ago I switched to a Gitzo carbon fiber (2228) with a Kirk BH-3 ballhead. I got the Gitzo because it allowed me to get lower to the ground than anything else I could find (both for creative landscape perspectives and macro), as well as higher up than the Bogen I owned…and the CF was notably lighter weight. I moved to a ballhead because, while I liked the stability of the pan-tilt, I started to get really frustrated when I need to make a small, multi-directional adjustment with the camera. Anyway, though I’ve replaced the bushings on the Gitzo once, it’s still holding up, a decade later.

  7. Great advice.
    I love all your photos, but that Miner’s sunset image is truly magical.

    • Thanks very much, Vicki.

  8. Hi Kerry — First off, let me tell you how much I appreciate this collection of images. They are lush. I won’t name a favorite because I like all of them.

    I learned the utility of tripod use when I was shooting macros with 35mm color transparency film. An ISO of 100 or less coupled with the need to stop down demands a tripod.

    I have a nice heavy tripod. I bought a shoulder strap last year that makes carrying the tripod a lot easier. Since I’m still using 35mm film equipment, I snagged a used Nikon DR-4 right angle attachment for my F3. Now I can use a low camera position without contorting myself into a pretzel. LOL

    John

    • Thanks, John. Yeah, I honestly don’t know how anyone can do outdoor close-up work without a tripod, without jacking the ISO through the roof. Every movement is magnified (literally and figuratively). The effects of camera shake with macro is much more evident than it is with essentially any other form of photography.

      Good move on the tripod strap. If I’m not hiking too far, or if I regularly plan to stop and shoot along the way, I carry the tripod in my hands. But if it’s a long hike, finding another way is a major plus. A few years ago I was up in the UP of Michigan and decided to hike out to Chapel Beach–it’s a 7-8 mile roundtrip from the trailhead–with my full back (at the time, about 30 lbs.; it’s now up to 35 lbs., to my chagrin). For that trip, I strapped the tripod into the holder on my Tamrac pack and was quite thankful to have the option to do so.

      I used a right angle finder when I was still shooting film (and for the first DSLR I owned). It’s a handy gadget. Really, ever DSLR ought to have an articulating LCD screen (allowing the use of the EVF in way to make the optical VF superfluous when the camera is inconveniently positioned), but none of mine have ever had one! The camera makers seem to think that this is only something that appeals to snapshooters, an attitude I simply don’t understand.

  9. Excellent blog and great photos. Well done!

    • Thanks very much for the kind words.

  10. Thank you so much for another fantastic post!! I feel like I learn something new every time I read your blog. I love to do landscape photography, but I never use a tripod. Clearly I need to change my ways because your photos are proof that it works!

    • Thanks, Cindy. If you want to move the needle on your landscape shooting, I think you’ll find that a good tripd and head combination will be a big help.

  11. Great post and great photos.

    • Thanks very much, João!

  12. the images are awesome.
    i believe you … i believe you kerry.
    tripod is absolutely essential. I haven’t used them
    but your pictures are testimony enough 🙂

    always love your photography skills 🙂

    • Thanks, Amira. That’s very kind of you.

  13. Excellent article and beautiful photos! Thank you!

    I have to admit I was I tripod “hater” until taking a local “Twilight Workshop” last year. I still don’t like carrying one around but the results are definitely worth it! I need to find a lighter tripod that won’t break the bank.
    What do you recommend for a good solid lightweight tripod that can handle a DSLR with a 400mm zoom lens?

    • I’ve sent you an e-mail, Angela. To answer your question, I’d need to know the approximate maximum load (camera and heaviest lens) you expect to put on the platform…and what you’re using now. I assume you’re using an aluminum tripod of some sort, but I’d need to know the particulars…

  14. Hey, Kerry –

    Love the images!

    I became a convert years ago, soon after I got serious about nature photography. I have some pinched nerves in my back & neck and twitch a bit, so handheld shots were problematic. I first tried using some image stabilization lenses, which was good in that I needed better glass anyway, but I still wasn’t happy with the number of not-quite-sharp-enough photos I was getting. Once I started shooting from a tripod, there was no going back!

    Flowing water is a favorite subject of mine, and a tripod is indispensable for that kind of shot. I don’t believe _anybody_ can hand-hold a 3 second waterfall exposure – well, not and have it recognizable, anyway… :^D

    — Jack

    • Hi Jack. Thanks very much for the comment.

      Yeah, rendering “silky water” (be it in the form of a waterfall or cascade) is probably the most best example of tripod necessity; it’s not an accident that there are two such examples in this entry. 🙂

      Handheld three second exposures? I don’t think so. 🙂 I think 1/15 second is about the limit, and that’s really pushing it, in my opinion…and requires exceptional technique and a light camera/lens package. I’m not sure what my max would be with, say, the D700 and the 24-70/2.8 (my most frequently used lens), but I’m sure it’s north of 1/15 sec. Doesn’t matter since, as I mentioned in the write-up, I use a tripod 100% of the time. 🙂

  15. Wow, beautiful photographs, Kerry! 🙂

    I think I also need a tripod now. 😀

    • Thanks, Nandini. I don’t think you’ll regret it if you start using a tripod!

  16. Great post, Kerry.

    I only have a point-and-shoot, but I’ve definitely noticed a huge difference in the quality of my photos since I started using my little Gorillapod a couple of months ago. Once I can afford a DSLR, I’ll be sure to get the big-girl gear. 🙂

    • Yeah, I should have mentioned…you don’t need a DSLR to benefit from a tripod. Just about every dedicated camera has a tripod socket–certainly high end compacts, and even many of the most inexpensive point-and-shoots. The benefit of a smaller, lighter camera is that you can use a smaller, light (and less expensive) tripod and still obtain adequate support.

  17. Great post, really informative as well. I am a lazy photographer, I freely admit that, but when I go out to take my landscape photos, I always use my tripod and it is equipment that is always in my boot when I go out to take photos. You never know when you might want to take a photo.

    I purchased my tripod when I first started photography, many many years ago. I would like to replace it with one of the carbon fibre ones, but that is on the wish list and certainly isn’t necessary.

    I also wanted to add, that being a lazy photography, when I do set up my tripod I try to make the most of the set up and move around and try lots of different things. I use the time while setting it up to really scan the view and to see what else I would like to take. It is really worth it.

    • Thanks, Leanne. Yeah, I want to emphasize, it’s certainly not necessary to have a carbon fiber tripod. Aluminum is every bit as sturdy and it’s less expensive (it’s somewhat heavier, and it’s a better conductor of temperature). You could really push the envelope and go the basalt route. And I know of a couple of people who are using wood tripods (incredibly sturdy, but quite heavy).

      The key is finding something that you can afford and that you’ll actually use. A tripod isn’t worth the proverbial plugged nickel if you don’t have it with you to use in the field.

  18. the photographs are breathtaking esp. the second one. alien planet 😉

    • Thanks, Paprika.

  19. I enjoy making panoramics and have found a tripod essential to getting good images to stitch together. And, as you say, a versatile tripod is what gets me into those awkward and usually low to the ground perspectives.

    Fortunately technology today means you can stabilize your camera without a tripod, depending on your application. I’m sure you’ve played with the beanbags, Gorilla tripods, car window mounts, etc. as well as just leaning against a tree or sitting the camera on a rock. In nature you can find stability all over the place!

    • Yup, a tripod is highly recommended for stitched panos. (So is rotating the camera around the nodal point when producing panos with wide angle lens, but that’s another story.)

  20. I have been living without a tripod for over a year now, because I finally broke my old student model that I’d had for over 25 years. Hm, $25, twenty-five years, guess I got my monies worth out of it. Anyway, as I have gotten older I have found that I am less able to hold the camera steady for any picture taking, so just last month I forked over the money for a new one. You don’t have to convince me about how much better your photographs can be with the tripod. That said, I hadn’t considered your points made about composition. I will have to grab the dog, find a good trail, and go forth. 😉
    Thanks ~ Lynda

    • That’s great, Lynda! Let me know how your compositional experiments go, tripod in hand.

  21. Thanks for sharing this post with us,nice work….

    • Thanks very much.

  22. […] 1) Use a tripod.  The rationale here is obvious–since aligning multiple frames is an inherent part of the HDR process, keeping the camera static is important, if not imperative.  Besides, for the kind of subject matter that generally lends itself to HDR, using a tripod is always a good idea. […]

  23. […] to this aspect of things at the end of my last post.  Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a relentless advocate of the use of a tripod for landscape (and closeup) photography.  But birds–particularly birds in flight–are […]


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