How Do Tripods Help?
The use of tripods is regularly touted as a means by which photographers can improve their photographs. Beginner orientated photo magazines often reinforce the same wisdom, as if it were a simple fact: ‘tripods make your photographs better’. However, I would actually argue that for many people tripods may be more of a hindrance than a help. By the end of this piece I hope to convince some of you to think twice about what is helpful and what is not. So why do many people use pick up their tripod?
Tripods help make your pictures sharper
Do they? Not always. If you can reach a high enough shutter speed for the equipment you are using, they make absolutely no difference. This speed will depend on the resolution of the camera (both for film and digital), the focal length, whether or not you have some kind of image stabilisation and the output size. If you are producing an A4 print from a 12MP camera with a 23mm lens (as per Fuji X100) you can get away with a much lower shutter speed than a 50MP Canon 5DSR with a 300mm f2.8 L II, aiming for a 40″ print. Then we have factors like shutter vibration and other issues that can impact how fast a shutter speed you need before your images reach the same quality you’d get with a tripod.
It is perhaps worth nothing that, in some cases, tripods can make image sharpness *worse* by amplifying shutter vibrations. This ‘joker in the pack’ has been well known for many decades, but you don’t every hear it being talked about. For what it’s worth, it does not seem to occur with wooden at all and is virtually non-existent with carbon fibre tripods, because they tend to be much better at killing vibration. Wooden tripods actually have an awful lot going for them….
I find that shooting with a 24MP camera and a 35mm lens, a tripod easily becomes entirely redundant at typically achievable daylight shutter speeds at medium apertures at ISO 100-400 (assuming typical subject matter and working distance). 35mm, f5.6, 1/1000….. f8 1/500th… even 1/250th will be absolutely tack sharp if you have a vaguely steady hand. With image stabilisation, the envelope is broadened (usually much) further. It does make me chuckle when I see someone posting a test shot of, say, a 28mm lens on a Full-frame DSLR shot at 1/1000th of a second and someone says ‘that’s not going to give a true indication of image sharpness. You need to shoot using a tripod [you fool]!’ At such a speed the tripod is entirely superfluous and may actually produce less sharp results.
Long gone are the days when ISO 50 Fuji Velvia dominated landscape photography around much of the globe. With today’s cameras, image stabilisation and excellent medium ISO that is in most cases impossible to distinguish from base ISO have changed the state of play dramatically. However, there are other reasons for wanting to use tripods, right? Yes, of course….
Tripods help you work more methodically and precisely
There’s no doubt that a tripod can help you to fine tune a very difficult composition, but most compositions are not that delicate. If you are shooting architecture then I would agree – one often has to get geometry just right in order for the image not to collapse into a mess of the wrong kind of a/symmetry. However, for most purposes, one can get the intended composition hand-held without trouble. Tripods can encourage a methodical approach by slowing you down, but isn’t this something we can do for ourselves with a bit of thought? Ever since shooting large format cameras, where tripod use was all but mandatory due to the mechanics of the beasts, I have never been convinced by this argument. I agree that it can help some of the time, but it can just as easily work against you just as often (or even more so). Unless you need to make very small adjustments to composition, or need to repeat the exact same composition at different camera settings, the tripod can probably go.
How Do Tripods Hinder?
I believe tripods hold many photographers back, especially those who are still building up their experience. Those just getting into photography may readily understand the ‘tripods make your pictures sharper’ argument, but perhaps not consider some of their downsides. Here are some examples:
… and get in the way. You need to attach them to backpacks, or use straps and they’re just another thing to take care of. Their weight impedes our movement, tire us out and can sap enjoyment from what we’re doing. Don’t underestimate how important it is to feel good about the process of taking photographs. It isn’t marathon training. When photography descends into drudgery in any form, something gets lost and that something may turn out to be the majority of your creative spark. On top of this we also have the general disinclination to pick up a load of heavy gear and walk out of the front door. We tend to feel more enthused when we have less weight on our bodies (and on our minds). Lighter is almost always better. Take that stroll with your camera because you fancy a stroll. With a tripod, it’s not really a stroll, but a focused activity requiring effort and perhaps some logistical thought.
They are relatively inflexible
Not only can a tripod rarely manage the contortions the human body is capable of, just making those adjustments can be a pain in the backside. Certainly working through a number of compositional variations can take a tremendous amount of time when using a tripod, whereas the same shots might take seconds when shooting hand-held. This can make a difference to the light, as well as to the likelihood that you will experiment with viewpoints. How many times have you looked through a large number of shots from a particular scene and found one really strong frame that you quickly took while experimenting with compositions or new ideas? What about those shots you took that you can barely remember, because they were grabbed on the fly? I suspect there are many of both. As a personal example, I took a Ricoh GR to Iceland with me in 2015 and kept it in a zipped chester pocket in my parka. The weather was cold and often uninviting. There was often snow in the air. I shot the majority of the trip with my two Sony A7 series bodies, but I was shocked to find that nearly 40% of the final portfolios Iceland Sea and Iceland Land were shot on the wonderful little GR. The reason is simple: it was there, always close to hand and perfect for handheld grab shots when the idea of setting down the bag and establishing everything for a ‘proper shot’ wasn’t very appealing. In many cases, I took them while standing there with a pack and tripod on my back!
They Can Burst the Creative Bubble
How many times have you scoped out a scene with camera in hand and loved what you see through the viewfinder, only to spend 10 minutes trying to get everything right the moment the camera is snapped onto a tripod (and sometimes failing in the process)? There may not be a Cartier-Bressson-esque ‘decisive moment’ in landscape photography, but there are real moments when the emotional exhilaration, inspiration and light coincide beautifully. These moments can be fleeting and time spent messing with tripods can mean missed magic. It doesn’t matter whether it is time lost to setting up, getting sand out of joints, retrieving feet that have slipped deep into mud, or wondering if the whole ensemble might blow over. It’s time lost and time distracted. I am not suggesting that this is always the case. Tripods naturally lend themselves to a good deal of classical landscape photography, because of the low light often shot in. However, just because the subject is ‘landscape photography’ it does not mean that use of a tripod should simply be assumed. A great deal of landscape photography can be very well accomplished without a tripod and under a surprisingly wide range of conditions.
A Personal Opinion
Tripods are becoming less necessary as time progresses due to the improved high ISO of modern sensors and the increasingly commonplace image stabilisation. These both mean that we can shoot in much lower light levels and still maintain sufficient shutter speed for good sharpness. If we also remind ourselves that not every shot needs to have perfect sharpness or ultra-low noise, we’re on the road to enormous creative freedom.
Tripods are only essential when it comes down to shutter speed absolutes, like the need to shoot at very long exposures to blur water, or where the light really is very low indeed. This is an area where cameras like the Leica Monochrom are very handy, because they produce such beautiful results at ISO values that would be considered far too high for conventional colour cameras. A user of the Mk I Leica Monochrom is likely to feel very comfortable shooting a landscape hand held at ISO 640-1600+, or perhaps at 3200 with the M type 246. That major advantage such cameras have over image stabilisation (and lower shutter speeds) is that it means not only sharp landscapes, but the ability to freeze action for street photography. Image stabilisation does not help you much there (and neither would a tripod of course).
I’ve written this simply to encourage some of you to think again about what you might not be gaining every time you pack that ‘essential’ support. Does every image need to be pin sharp? Might some ‘imperfect’ images not look wonderful printed at smaller sizes where a slight loss of detail would be hidden? Maybe they would look better for not being sharp in the first place? Would your love of adventure not be heightened by feeling free of the weight and clutter? Might you be more tempted to take that quick shot as you step across a stream? Perhaps you will spend less time looking for rest stops and more time exploring? It’s up to every individual to find their own balance, but for me it is firmly in the ‘without tripod unless I absolutely have to’ category. In general, my cameras have been getting smaller, as have the formats. This means smaller and lighter tripods too, but also much greater freedom not to use one at all. We are all vulnerable to dogma, which is to fall into patterns of behaviour that have no reasonable rational basis and where the original purpose has been lost to repetition and habit. Image processing is another area where ‘reliable, repeatable technique’ can limit us.
There has been a strange association between tripods and ‘serious photography’, especially where landscape photography is concerned. They certainly have their uses and at times they are essential, but leaving them at home (or in the boot/trunk of the car) may bring pleasure, relief and expand horizons in ways that bring about far greater improvements in photography. After all, with digital photography the shots are for free….
One of the things that prompted me to write this was my experience in Iceland in January 2015 (Sea & Land). Strong, gusting winds meant tripod use was impossible for much of the trip so I had no choice but to enjoy the freedom of shooting hand held (when I could stand upright, that is). The end result was a huge amount of enjoyment and photographs that I was very pleased with. Additional examples of shots taken hand-held are below (including from my later visit in May 2015):