For many photographers, their use of tripods can be tracked to the evolution of their photographic know-how. The journey often starts with the thinking that tripods are necessary for sharp pictures in every situation. Then the photographer’s skills improve and they realize they can make sharp pictures without a tripod, before finally culminating in the realization that they’re not as steady as they thought and camera shake is a bigger problem than they realized, so they should probably use a tripod more often than not. That last bit is good advice and a great place for all of us to land. Since camera shake can be an issue, we should use a tripod more often than we think—but not each and every time. Sometimes, in fact, a tripod stands in the way of making the best picture possible. To that end, here’s a look at three reasons why a tripod is essential, plus a couple of situations in which it’s better to skip the tripod altogether.
Stability. Of course, the first and best reason to use a tripod is to make sharper pictures. This is true with long exposures of hours in length, as well as even portraits shot in a fraction of a second. It’s true with wide-angle lenses and especially true with telephotos. Any time the exposure can be affected by ambient light, locking the camera to a tripod will produce a sharper, clearer picture—even at fast shutter speeds. If the subject isn’t moving so fast as to prohibit it, ambient light photos will be sharper when using a tripod.
Repeatability. In some cases, the use of a tripod isn’t simply because the shutter speed requires it or in an effort to really eliminate the tiniest vestiges of camera shake. Sometimes, the photographer wants to make the exact same composition over and over. For this, there’s no substitute for a tripod. If a photographer wants to make multiple exposures at different times and blend them together into a composite, such precise repeatability requires a tripod—and careful efforts not to kick it between frames. If the photographer is hoping to return to the same composition at a future date, a tripod is ideal because it allows for positioning of the feet in the exact same spot time after time. And if the photographer simply wants to approximate the same composition with multiple subjects over many different sessions, using a tripod is a great way to ensure the camera is in the same position time after time. When repeatability matters, a tripod is essential.
Deliberation. When a photographer wants to meticulously study their composition, there’s no substitute for a tripod. They were essential in the era of the view camera when photographers ducked under their dark cloths to study the framing and make minor adjustments to focus and composition. Even though digital capture facilitates a faster working speed, some photographers relish a slower, more methodical process. These photographers may go so far as to use the aforementioned large format camera to facilitate this, but even if you don’t want to resort to the cumbersome nature of sheet film and bellows compensation equations, consider simply attaching your compact camera to a tripod to slow down the process. Working in a slower, more deliberate manner gives the photographer time to study the composition, scrutinizing the scene and fine-tuning everything from viewpoint to lighting and the inclusion or exclusion of the tiniest details.
Tripods are cumbersome. Let’s face it: if you’re traveling, hiking or just strolling around town with a camera in hand, it’s a lot easier to just have a camera in hand than a camera plus a tripod. The fix? Consider a smaller tripod, something portable that easily fits in a backpack or shoulder bag. Or consider a tripod alternative, like a tiny travel tripod, a beanbag or, frankly, just a jacket. A jacket? Balled up on a table or bench, the jacket (or a backpack, bag or any other soft, malleable item) becomes a surprisingly stable and moderately adjustable resting place for a camera. Change the position of the jacket or bag and the camera angle changes too.
For a really long exposure, a jacket may not be ideal, but resting the camera on a wall or table can make do in a pinch. There are plenty of alternatives for those who want to travel light, and they make leaving the tripod at home much less of a problem. And they certainly mean you can give up the tripod without giving up sharp pictures.
Tripods mean you’re stuck. A lot of photographers use a tripod for everything they shoot, whether it involves a slow shutter speed or not. It’s a great way to ensure pictures are absolutely as sharp as they can be, but there’s a downside. The tripod sticks your camera to one spot, and the act of recomposing or relocating becomes more of a challenge. In the face of that, it becomes much easier to shrug and say, “Eh, this composition is good enough.” But with a camera in hand, a creative photographer is continuously making small adjustments to their compositions—moving slightly higher or lower, a little bit left or a little bit right, pushing closer or backing farther away.
It’s in this process that magic often happens, and frankly, it’s fun and interesting to explore a subject—any subject, be it portrait or landscape—in this fashion. So how do you compensate and have the best of both worlds? Consider a two-step process that starts with the portrait session on the tripod and graduates to handheld creative exploration by the end of the session. Or for a subject that more typically involves a tripod (a landscape, architectural shot or another static scenic) consider using the camera in hand to explore the scene, and once the ideal composition is found, only then lock the camera down to the tripod.