The tripod difference
Disclaimer: The tripod comments that follow aren’t directed at the casual photographers for whom nature photography is simply a great way to record memories of times outdoors–if using a tripod saps the pleasure from your photography, leave the tripod at home. But if your photographic pleasure derives from capturing the best possible images of nature, or (especially) if you aspire to make money with your photography, no single piece of equipment will improve your results more than a tripod.
The Tripod Police
You’re wandering the snowy banks of the Merced River in Yosemite when El Capitan emerges from a swirl of clouds, painting at your feet an icy reflection of golden light framed by virgin snow. Out comes your camera and immediately you start working out the best way to capture this magic moment: The scene’s extreme depth calls for a small aperture, but your tripod is a) strapped to your camera bag (a misdemeanor); b) in the car (a felony); or c) at home in the closet behind the tux you haven’t worn since your first wedding (a capital offense). In a moment of weakness, to ensure a shutter speed fast enough for hand-holding, you compromise your aperture and ISO settings. Shutter-finger poised, you’re suddenly frozen by a command from behind: “Tripod Police! Step away from the camera!” Uh-oh.
Fortunately, the mandate of the Tripod Police is not to punish, it’s to rehabilitate. In that spirit, let me make my case.
Photography without compromise
If you think the main reason to use a tripod is to avoid camera-shake, you’re mistaken. With enough light and a steady hand, acceptable sharpness is usually possible without a tripod. In fact, in this day of phenomenal high ISO performance and stabilized bodies and lenses, hand-held sharpness is possible in the vast majority of images.
But here’s a reality that’s tough to deny: The steadiest hand-held image will never be sharper than it would have been if it had been properly executed using a sturdy tripod. But shooting sans-tripod in “photographer’s light” (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy or cloudy weather) almost always requires image-quality reducing compromises: a larger than ideal aperture; a higher than ideal ISO; a slower than ideal shutter speed; an underexposed capture. While most of these “solutions” can be more or less improved in post-processing, and many may not show up at all on a fifteen-inch laptop screen or 8×10 print, most serious photographers need to print their images large. Nothing reveals flaws more than a large print, and we rarely know at capture whether this will be “the one.”
Nevertheless, bolstered by new technology and validated by computer monitors and small prints (and misguided advice), many photographers still flip on stabilization, bump their ISO, and off they go. But the two or three stops gained through image stabilization are rarely enough to ensure a tack-sharp image in the limited light conditions that make the most compelling images. And I don’t care if my images are nearly as clean at ISO 400 as they are at ISO 100–unless I’m dealing with motion in my scene (such as moving water or blowing leaves), the potential that any click may need to be printed large means I always go with my camera’s best ISO.
Let’s imagine you just got a request for a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio–a (hand-held) Death Valley moonset, captured before sunrise at ISO 800 and f4 (it looks great in your Flickr gallery)–for the reception area of your father-in-law’s law firm. (A real coup after that whole llama-farm investment fiasco.) So what do you tell him when you go to hang it and he asks if you can re-print it so it’s not so “mushy” and doesn’t have all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops–looks like another Thanksgiving at the kids’ table.
Put simply, using a tripod allows me to use the best settings for the scene.
The ideal f-stop
There’s an ideal f-stop for every landscape image. Really. In fact, the ideal f-stop epiphany is the tripod tipping point for many photographers.
Let me explain. Anyone with a camera can snap the lateral (left/right, up/down) dimensions of a scene. But artistic photographers understand that the key to rendering our three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium is creating the illusion of depth (the missing dimension) by composing elements throughout the frame, from near to far. Since depth of focus is controlled by the f-stop, of all the exposure variables at a landscape photographer’s disposal, f-stop is the most non-negotiable. And regardless of the f-stop a scene calls for, you should be able to select it without making ISO, shutter speed, or exposure compromises affect image quality. In a static scene (as most landscape image are), the tripod removes motion from the equation, allowing the photographer to select the ideal f-stop without fear of camera shake.
But what about a scene that’s all on the same plane, where depth isn’t a factor? The f-stop still matters because every lens has a single f-stop that renders the sharpest result. For some lenses the sharpness difference between f-stops is small, for others it’s significant. But it’s always there. So even when DOF isn’t a factor, I choose my lens’s sharpest f-stop, usually f8-f11. Some photographers put each lens through extensive testing to determine its sweet spot—I usually go with f11 unless I see clear evidence that a lens is sharper at a different f-stop. I also try to avoid f-stops smaller than f11 unless the scene requires extra depth—not only do lenses tend to be less sharp at their extreme f-stops, at f-stops smaller than f11, diffraction starts to rear its ugly head (though I don’t see a lot of diffraction at f16 on a full frame camera, so I’ll sometimes drop to f16 when I’m not sure how much DOF I’ll need).
Because the f-stop controls depth of field, landscape photographers should use f-stop only to manage depth and only as a last resort (for example, to avoid bumping ISO to unmanageable levels when photographing at night) to control exposure. In other words, your f-stop is creative decision based on the depth-of-field you want and (when DOF isn’t a factor) the f-stop at which the lens is sharpest. Since a tripod removes camera shake from the equation, it frees you to choose the best f-stop for your composition, without compromise.
An image is not a snap, it’s a process
Still not convinced? Consider also the control a tripod gives to your composition process. A tripod slows you down (a good thing), helping you consider each element in your frame and its relationship to other elements. Managing the positional relationship of elements in the frame is particularly important when you’ve included front-to-back elements to create the all-important illusion of depth.
Before capturing any image, I try to achieve general sense of visual balance throughout the frame. I look for distractions on the side of the frame that pull the eye (objects cut off or intruding), and merged elements that rob the scene of depth. Then I carefully determine the ideal focus point (selecting the ideal f-stop has little value if you miss your focus point). Having my composition locked in place on my tripod enables me to make these adjustments deliberately and methodically, and helps me ensure that one tweak didn’t break something else. (Not to mention that using the using the DOF preview button is much easier when I’m on a tripod.)
But I’m not done. After capture, I step back and study the image on the LCD, imaging it framed large and hanging on a wall. I scrutinize my composition for possible refinements, and check the histogram for exposure problems. With a tripod I can do all this at my pace, taking as much time as necessary, knowing that when I’m ready to make adjustments the original image will be waiting right there in my viewfinder atop my tripod, exactly as I captured it.
Other benefits of a tripod I’ve almost come to take for granted. For example, I use graduated neutral density filters a lot, but find the holders that screw onto the end of my lens awkward. With a tripod, it’s easy to position my GND and hold it in place during exposure. During long exposures I’ll sometimes move the GND up and down slightly to disguise the transition–also easy on a tripod.
A tripod also makes it easy to use a polarizer to reduce color-robbing glare, something I do on virtually every daylight shot because the two stops of light I lose to a polarizer are a non-factor when I’m on a tripod.
And advanced digital techniques such as image stitching (for panoramas or high resolution capture), HDR (high dynamic range blending of multiple images for exposure management), or focus blending to increase depth of field are all easier on a tripod. As is old-fashioned mirror lock-up to reduce mirror-slap induced vibration. And live-view focusing, the best way to ensure precise focus, is a snap on a tripod (and pretty much impossible hand-held).
With so much top-to-bottom beauty, this North Lake reflection scene required lots of DOF. To find my composition, I removed my camera from my tripod and moved it around, zooming and widening, switching between horizontal and vertical, until something
stopped me. I found that by dropping to my knees, going wide, and orienting the frame vertically, I could include everything from the foreground reflection to the partly cloudy sky and aspen-covered mountainside.
My general composition conceived, I lowered my tripod and reattached the camera. Because the contrast between the bright sky and shaded foreground exceed my sensor’s dynamic range, I used a 3-stop soft graduated neutral density filter to reduce the difference to a manageable amount. I find GND-holders awkward and don’t own one, opting instead to use my fingers to position the filter–not practical without a tripod, but simple with one.
With my equipment ready, I dialed to f16, metered, set my shutter speed, composed, positioned the GND, and clicked. After evaluating the image on my LCD, I made a couple of refinements. I repeated this cycle a couple more times until I had a composition that satisfied me. Finally, with everything exactly as I wanted it, I captured several more identical compositions, each with a different polarizer orientation.
Just as the llama farm is now dust in the Peruvian desert (just checking to see how carefully you’ve been reading), all those beautiful hand-held scenes from your unstable past are history. Fortunately, the Tripod Police offer a generous amnesty program that rewards rehabilitated offenders with great new images each time they use a tripod. Just give it a try, and allow enough time for the tripod to become habit. Once you see the improvement, I don’t think you’ll relapse.