Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk that stabilized bodies and lenses, combined with fantastic high ISO capabilities, have made tripods obsolete. But to borrow from Mark Twain, the reports of the tripod’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, when used right, I don’t think there’s a single piece of equipment more essential to consistently successful landscape photography than a sturdy tripod.
The tripod police
You’re wandering the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite near sunset when, without warning, El Capitan emerges from a swirl of clouds; at your feet a mirror reflection of the scene mingles with smooth granite rocks. Bringing your camera to your eye, you find the composition that works best is a 30mm vertical frame. But keeping El Capitan and the nearby trees sharp requires f16. Hmmm. In the fading light, at ISO 100 the meter suggests 1/2 second. Even with image stabilization that’s a bit of a stretch at 30mm. Unfortunately, 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). So you bump the ISO to 400, dial the aperture to f11, and push the shutter speed to 1/16 second. Your finger is poised on the shutter-release when from behind a tree you hear, “Tripod Police! Step away from the camera!” Uh-oh.
Photography without compromise
If you think the main reason to use a tripod is to avoid camera-shake, you’re mistaken. In this day of phenomenal high ISO performance and stabilized bodies and lenses, acceptable 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.
And here’s another reality: Each camera has an ideal ISO—the quality of any image that doesn’t use it is compromised, sometimes just slightly, other times a lot. So if hand-holding an images forces you out of your camera’s ideal ISO to reduce camera shake, you’ve made an unnecessary compromise. “Photographer’s light” (such as sunrise, sunset, and stormy or cloudy weather) only compounds the problem. While most of these compromises can be more or less remedied in post-processing, and many may not show up at all on a fifteen-inch laptop screen or in an 8×10 print, most serious photographers want the option to print their images large—and nothing reveals flaws more than a large print.
Let’s imagine you just got a request for a 24×36 print of the pride of your portfolio—a (hand-held) Yosemite Valley moonrise telephoto, captured at ISO 800 (it looks great in your Flickr gallery)—for the reception area of your mother-in-law’s law firm (a real coup after that whole llama-farm investment fiasco). So what do you tell her when you go to hang it and she asks why it looks “so mushy,” and what’s with all that “sludge in the shadows”? Oops—looks like another Thanksgiving at the kids’ table.
Not only does every camera have an ideal ISO, every composition has an ideal f-stop. 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 photography’s two-dimensional medium is creating the illusion of the missing dimension, depth, by composing elements throughout the frame, from near to far. Since depth of field is controlled by the f-stop, of all the exposure variables at a landscape photographer’s disposal, f-stop is the least negotiable. In a static scene (as most landscape image are), the tripod removes motion (camera shake) from the equation, allowing you to select the ideal f-stop at your camera’s best ISO.
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 consideration, I choose my lens’s sharpest f-stop, usually f/5.6-f/11. Some photographers put each lens through extensive testing to determine its sweet spot; I usually go with f/8 or f/11 unless I see clear evidence that a lens is sharper at a different f-stop. I also try to avoid f-stops smaller than f/11 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 f/11, diffraction starts to rear its ugly head.
The bottom line: By removing camera shake from the equation, a tripod 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. Managing the relationship of elements in the frame is usually the single most important compositional decision a photographer can make. Relationships are especially important when you’ve included the front-to-back objects so essential to enhancing the illusion of depth. Photographing on a tripod gives you the time to consider each element in your frame and its relationship to other elements and eliminate distractions, and the flexibility to evaluate and refine until everything’s perfect.
When setting up an image, I try to achieve a sense of visual balance throughout my frame. I think about the path I want my viewers’ eyes to follow and where I want them to pause or land. I consider the elements that will move or stop the eye, and potential distractions that might pull the eye away, and merged elements that rob the scene of depth. With these things in mind, I position myself and frame my composition, identifying the ideal focus point and f-stop that gives me the depth of field I want. Having my composition frozen in place atop my tripod enables me to make these adjustments deliberately and methodically, and helps me ensure that one tweak here didn’t break something else over there.
After each click, 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 composition and depth of field improvements, 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 image I just reviewed will be waiting right there in my viewfinder atop my tripod, exactly as I captured it, ready for me to enhance.
Other benefits of a tripod I’ve almost come to take for granted. For example, I sometimes use graduated neutral density filters 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 with my fingers during exposure (I don’t even own a filter holder). 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 can do on virtually every daylight shot because unless something in my scene is moving, the two stops of light I lose to a polarizer are irrelevant 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 f/16, 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.