Early this year, in an effort to ease congestion on popular trails, Zion National Park authorities implemented a tripod ban for commercial workshop groups. While individual photographers would be able to continue using tripods, and workshops could still use them in certain designated areas, the ban makes difficult the use of an often-essential piece of photography equipment. It’s likely that other busy parks and crowded places will follow suit and many popular attractions across the globe (such as botanical gardens, city parks and historical sites)already prohibit the use of tripods. (If you’d like to read more about Zion’s tripod ban, check out this article from Outdoor Photographer.
So what do you do when you’d like to use a tripod to make a sharper picture? Tougher still, how do you make a long exposure without this essential piece of equipment? You have to think outside the box to come up with options for steadying the camera while still following the rules.
Fast Shutter Speed Options
Many photographers use tripods to make their pictures sharper even when they’re not using long exposures that require tripods. I find, for instance, that portraits are sharper under close scrutiny when I use a tripod, even though handholding would be viable based on the shutter speed (faster than, say, 1/125th). In these situations, in lieu of a tripod, you’ll notice similar benefits from settings and accessories that help to steady the camera.
A faster shutter speed, of course, is a good place to start. When handholding, bear in mind the rule of thumb that a shutter speed of 1 over the focal length is a minimum for steady images—meaning with a 200mm lens, for instance, you’ll want a shutter speed of at least 1/200th. Faster than that is helpful, but a challenge particularly if you want deep depth of field (requiring a smaller aperture). Many cameras these days are capable of low noise at high ISOs, so don’t hesitate to crank the ISO if you need to get to, say, 1/500th at ƒ/22.
Short of changing your exposure, another option is—of course—to use a lens with optical image stabilization (also called vibration reduction) in order to help steady your hand. It’s not going to give you “long exposure” style stability, but it will make whatever exposure you’re using a little sharper.
In most cases, the reason tripods are banned is because they’re seen as cumbersome trip hazards that inhibit the flow of pedestrians in the area. So why not use a monopod instead? These stands are compact and provide considerable stability over handholding alone. Best of all, they occupy a much smaller footprint than tripods and keep the camera easily mobile so the photographer can clear the way for pedestrians in an instant. Also, they’re particularly helpful with long telephoto lenses; you’ll see sports and wildlife photographers using them regularly.
Ever hear of a “string tripod?” It’s really sort of like a monopod, but it’s made with a few simple tools: a quarter-20 eyelet and a length of string (8 feet should do it). It’s kind of like the poor man’s monopod. You take the eyelet and screw it into the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera and tie the string to the eyelet. Then, hold the camera at eye level and stand on the other end of the string, pulling the camera up to put tension on the string. This approach isn’t quite as ideal as a monopod, but it’s also much smaller and fits in a tiny camera bag or pocket, and it really does make the camera much more steady.
Obviously, when it comes to long exposures, every alternative pales in comparison to a tripod. But there are still plenty of viable options for a stock-still camera even when tripods aren’t an option.
The first thing you can try is simply setting your camera on something solid—a wall or a fence post, for instance—and using the self-timer or, ideally, a cable release to trigger the shutter. One way to gain some compositional options with this approach is to first use a jacket or a backpack on which to rest the camera, in order to change the position of the camera for framing. This approach is obviously limited by what you can find on which to set the camera, and you won’t have the same level of compositional control you would with an adjustable tripod head, but in a pinch it’s much better than not being able to get the shot.
A better approach is to carry a compact camera mount that holds the camera as a tripod would, but in a compact package that doesn’t break the rules. These compact bases and clamps offer stability and adjustability. For instance, the Platypod is a mini tripod base, available in a couple of different sizes (for big DSLRs and compact mirrorless cameras) all in a package that fits in a camera bag and follows the “no tripod” rules. Another option is Joby’s flexible Gorillapod. It sure looks like a small tripod—a no-no—but because the legs are flexible it can be used to wrap around a tree branch or grab on to a fence post in order to hold the camera steady without breaking the rules. You can also look into options for clamping the camera—like a Manfrotto Magic Arm mounted to a Super Clamp. Frankly, in a pinch, you can skip the Magic Arm and mount the camera directly to the clamp via a quarter-20 threaded stud, though you lose the framing adjustability that the Magic Arm provides. With this setup, you can again follow the rules when tripods are prohibited, instead mounting the camera to a tree branch, wall or fencepost—really anything solid that the Super Clamp’s 2-inch jaws will accommodate.