Who remembers the Etch A Sketch? For those who didn’t have a childhood, an Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing device that’s erased by turning it upside-down and shaking vigorously.
One of the great misconceptions among photographers (and who isn’t a photographer these days?) is that the tripod’s sole value is to eliminate camera shake. I bring this up because I frequently hear photographers brag that they rarely use a tripod anymore because image stabilization is so good—and anyway, even when stabilization won’t be enough to prevent camera shake, they can just increase the ISO.
But before you throw out your tripod, consider that digital capture has given it a new lease on life. Unlike film cameras, a digital camera gives lets us instantly review each image to check the composition, exposure, and sharpness. Photographing on a tripod, when I find something that requires fixing, rather than attempting to recreate the shot, I can refine the composition I just evaluated. Let me explain.
When I come across a scene that I deem photo-worthy, I treat my first click like a rough draft, the first step toward the final image. I stand back with my capture displayed on my LCD, critique my effort, refine it, then click again. I repeat this process until I’m satisfied. In other words, each frame becomes an improvement of the preceding frame.
Taking this approach without a tripod, I feel like I’m erasing an Etch A Sketch after each click. That’s because after each click, I have to drop the camera from my eye and extend it in front of me to review the image, essentially wiping clean my previous composition. Before I can make the inevitable adjustments to my most recent capture, I must return the camera to my eye and completely recreate the composition I just evaluated.
Before I continue, let me just acknowledge that there are indeed many valid reasons to not use a tripod. For example, you get a tripod pass if your subject is in motion (sports, wildlife, kids, etc.), you photograph events or in venues that don’t allow tripods, you have physical challenges prevent you from carrying a tripod, or even if you just plain don’t want to (first and foremost, photography has to make you happy!). But if you’re a landscape shooter who wants the best possible images, “Because now I can get a sharp enough image hand-holding” is not a valid reason for jettisoning the tripod.
A few years ago I was at the Grand Canyon, looking for a scene to try out my new (just released) Sony a6300 camera. My first morning started at Mather Point about 45 minutes before sunrise, but as I often do at Mather, I took the trail along the rim to Yavapai Point (about a mile), ending up at a tree I’d been eyeing for years.
On all previous attempts at this tree, something had foiled me: either the light was wrong, the sky was boring, or there were too many people. One sunrise a few years prior, I found the tree and canyon bathed in beautiful warm light, and the sky filled with dramatic, billowing clouds—perfect, except for the young couple dangling their legs over the edge and making goo-goo eyes beneath “my” tree. They looked so content, I just didn’t have the heart to shove them over the edge (I know, I know, you don’t have to say it—I’m a saint).
But this morning, everything finally aligned for me: nice clouds, beautiful sunrise color, and not a soul in sight. I went to work immediately, trying compositions, evaluating, refining—well, you know the drill. As I worked, I started honing in on the proper balance of foreground and sky, alignment of the tree with the background, depth of field, focus point, framing—I was in the zone.
When I thought I had everything exactly right, I stood back for a final critique and realized I’d missed one thing: The tree intersected the horizon. While not a deal-breaker, it’s something I try to avoid whenever possible. To fix the problem, my camera needed to be about eight inches higher. I made the small refinement, so when the color reached its crescendo a few minutes later, my composition was ready.
Raising the camera would have been no simple task if I’d been hand-holding, but (since my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod, with head and camera, elevates to about six inches above my head) it was no problem with my tripod. But the extra tripod height was just a bonus. The true moral of this story, the thing that so perfectly illustrates the tripod’s value, is that there is no way I’d have gotten all the moving parts just right with a hand-held point-and-click approach.
Of course your results may vary, and as I say, photography must must make you happy. So if using a tripod truly saps the joy from your photography, by all means leave it home (and enjoy your $3,000 Etch A Sketch). But if your photography pleasure comes from getting the absolute best possible images, the tripod is your friend.