Is a tripod really necessary?

Gary Hart Photography:

Sunset Fire, Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

If you’re content with derivative snaps of pretty scenes, a tripod may not be for you. But for those who agree that, rather than regurgitating a rough representation of the world as we know it, landscape photography should reveal deeper, less obvious natural truths—things like relationships between diverse elements, an intimate exploration of larger scenes, detail and pattern lost in the blur of motion—there is no substitute for a tripod.

The case against the tripod

Once upon a time, the tripod’s sole purpose was stability—preventing blur caused by camera shake during the exposure. And while stability remains important, clean high ISO and stabilized bodies and lenses make possible shooting hand-held in light we’d never dreamed of just a few years ago.

The anti-tripod argument says that tripods are expensive, add weight and bulk, are awkward to set up, get in people’s way, and slow the composition process. Given that the exposure compromises (higher ISO, larger than ideal aperture, longer shutter speed) forced by hand-holding are usually minor and more easily corrected today than what we faced with our film cameras, why bother with a tripod at all?

I’d argue that you never know when even a minor, hand-held compromise—such as shooting at ISO 400 instead of ISO 100, opening to f5.6 when  f11 would have been better, or stretching your exposure duration out to 1/4 second and holding your breath—will be a deal-breaker for that law firm downtown who ordered a 10-foot print for their lobby. Why spend all this money on state-of-the art equipment only to compromise your image quality even just a little?

Nevertheless, I’ll (grudgingly) acknowledge that for many current landscape photographers, the convenience of tripod-free shooting outweighs these compromises—clean, printable images are possible without a tripod most of the time.

But….

Inconveniences notwithstanding, serious landscape photography is improved by a tripod. In fact, despite the advantages digital capture has brought to tripod-free shooting, digital photography has enhanced the tripod’s value to landscape photographers.

There’s a draft in here

The odds of the perfect landscape image happening on the first click are about the same as crafting a perfect poem, novel, or essay on the first pass. When we write something important, we don’t sit down and spin it out without stop or correction, we start with an idea, write a draft, review, rewrite, review, rewrite, until we’re satisfied.

A photograph should be no different—no matter how much you like the first click, it’s pretty unlikely that frame is so perfect that further scrutiny and adjustment won’t improve it further. Much like the drafts I create when I write, my workflow in the field is a click/review/adjust, click/review/adjust cycle that continues until I’m either satisfied with my image, or convinced there’s no image to be had. I can’t imagine doing this without a tripod.

To review a hand-held image, you must completely remove the camera from its shooting position (your eye) and extend it down and in front of you, essentially erasing your camera’s view of composition the way vigorous shaking erases and Etch A Sketch—fine if you’re done, but to fix problems and add improvements, you must return the camera to your eye and completely recreate the composition you just reviewed. Standing at a vista snapping a scene that’s been snapped a million times before? No big deal. But what about an image with layers of detail at varying distances, trying to include all of that rock on the left while without including any of that tree-branch on the right, all while trying to maintain front-to-back sharpness?

When I shot film (always on a tripod thank-you-very-much), my personal image reviews involved alternating between studying the scene and peering through the viewfinder. The most I could hope for was a good guess that I had everything right. Enter digital, with its instantaneous display, including a graph and flashing pixels that tell me if I messed up the exposure. Suddenly, I can critique the image itself, right on the spot.

With digital, composing on a tripod gives me the freedom to stand back and take time to scrutinize my creation. I can study the frame for balance, scan the borders for distractions, check the histogram to ensure proper exposure, magnify the LCD for sharpness and depth of field—doing all this comfortable in the knowledge that when I’m ready, the exact image I just critiqued is waiting right there atop my tripod, ready for my improvements. In other words, my adjustments are applied to an existing creation, rather than an approximate (fingers crossed) recreation.

Revisiting the writing analogy, hand-holding reminds me of the typewriter days, when a major revision required retyping everything I just wrote; using a tripod is more like a word-processor that allows me to edit the existing document.

For example

A trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite has become a tradition for the final sunset of my Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop. Olmsted Point offers a distant, less common view of Half Dome and an assortment of photogenic trees and boulders for the foreground.

On this year’s visit we parked and made the short hike to the “point” (more of a granite dome than an actual point) for the best view down Tenaya Canyon to Half Dome and beyond. I pointed out that the sky was setting up for something special; following my encouragement to anticipate the colorful sunset and find a foreground to complement the obvious background, the group quickly scattered.

I tried to stay fairly centrally located, eventually choosing a nearby triangle of glacial erratics (granite boulders carried by glaciers and deposited in place when the retreating glaciers melted) anchored by a weathered pine. With time to spare, I set about finding a composition. I decided vertical orientation would be the best way to exclude peripheral distractions, emphasize my primary subjects (rocks, tree, Half Dome), while including enough of the sky feature what had the potential to be dramatic color.

Working methodically, I started wide and gradually tightened, refining the focal length, focus point, and borders. I’m kind of obsessive about no distractions on the edge of my frame, and try as I might, it always seems that widening or tightening to eliminate one distraction introduces a new distraction over there.

In this case I was dealing with a couple of large boulders carrying too much visual weight to be on the edge of my frame, plus the leg of a nearby tripod, and an overhanging tree branch. I was able to tighten enough to eliminate these distractions without going so tight that I cut off the boulder on the right, or crowded Half Dome on the left. Of course, since I was on a tripod, each click was an improvement of the one that preceded it—in this case it took only about a half dozen images until I was satisfied.

The foreground was static, but the sky seemed to change with each second.  While I had the general framework of my composition ready, as the color overhead intensified I decided I wanted a little more sky. Fortunately, by now I was so familiar with my composition that adjustments were easy. This image came as the color reached a crescendo, intensifying until the entire landscape throbbed with color.

My primary tripod is a Really Right Stuff TVC-2 with a RRS BH-55

My travel/hiking tripod is a Really Right Stuff TQC-14 with a RRS BH-30

Each of my cameras has a RRS L-plate

Upcoming photo workshops

A gallery of tripod-crafted images

(All of my images were captured using a tripod, but my favorites tend to be the images that require the click/review/refine/repeat process that’s greatly enhanced by a tripod)

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

10 Comments on “Is a tripod really necessary?

  1. Very nice post, Gary, and great images! You hit the nail on the head with “clean, printable images are possible without a tripod most of the time”. The first time you come away with a spectacular moment that’s not crisp on the sensor, you will kick yourself. Carrying around a tripod seems like such a burden to some, but I think any serious landscape photographer would have to agree with your philosophy.

  2. Really good photographs rarely come easy. Use every available tool to get the best possible exposure.

  3. Great advice! I think the advantages of shooting at small apertures can only be achieved by a tripod. And with the monster megapixel camera sensors, any little movement is almost exponentially magnified. I think a tripod is almost essential. One question, do you strive to always shoot at the lowest aperture possible in landscape photography?

    • Thanks, Chris. I always shoot at the best aperture for the scene, which is rarely the smallest aperture. If depth of field isn’t a concern, I shoot at my lens’s sharpest aperture, usually f8 or f11. Lenses tend to be less sharp at their extreme f-stops, and once you get smaller than f11, you start getting diffraction, so I avoid anything smaller than f16 like the plague. One exception would be a sunstar, which improves as the aperture shrinks, but even then I usually stop at f18 or f20.

  4. Pingback: What lens should I use? | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  5. I can agree with you more. I started using my tripod more this year and my photos have improved. Great photos; I even think I have a photo of the tree you write about somewhere on my computer. Shot with the camera on a tripod; however, I did not have such a nice sky. Just dark blue, no clouds.

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