The tripod difference

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1.3 seconds
ISO 100
19 mm

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.

And finally

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).

For example…

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

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

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.

Tripod amnesty

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.

Not Without a Tripod

26 Comments on “The tripod difference

  1. And once again, what tripod(s) would you recommend? What do you think about the ball heads?
    Thanks Gary!

    • A tripod is a very personal choice that depends on what and how you shoot, the weight of your gear, the amount of hiking you, your height, the amount of travel you do, and (of course) your budget. I use Gitzo tripods and Really Right Stuff ball head because they give the best combination of light weight and sturdiness. But they’re also quite expensive. For someone on a budget, I think you’ll get more bang for your buck with Manfrotto tripods and heads–they’re quite a bit heavier, but they’re sturdy and easy to use.

  2. Connie I am an armature photographer and have purchased 2 Manfrotto tripods. I love them. Word of caution. How far to do travel with your tripod? My first Manfrotto weighed a good 4 to 5 lbs with the grip ball head. This past winter hiking in a foot of snow for several miles just about killed me. If you shoot just several hundred ft from your car it’s great. If you do any amount of hiking I would suggest a carbon fiber tripod from Manfrotto. They are a little more pricey but worth every extra dollar.

    Gary I am new to your site. Love your tips and suggestions. They are right on the money. Your photographs are pretty awesome too!

  3. Gary
    Just finished RE-reading your comments on tripods et al. Having taken a workshop with you I did learn to practice the approaches you discussed here. I was glad to read this summary. Thanks for your teachings. The make sense, and they work.

    Jon Scarlet

  4. Gary, excellent article as always. I also want to point out that putting together a perfect tripod combo can be fun in and of itself (see for my “custom” setup).

    To those asking for tripod recommendations, I got a very good piece of advice when looking for my own set of legs: don’t skimp on price/features and you’ll own the thing forever…ignore this and you’ll spend thousands of dollars on unsatisfactory tripods until you finally come around to following this original advice 🙂 I looked at the Benro’s, Feisol’s and other knock-offs, but in the end, like you…I settled on a Gitzo and have never been happier. Most people who have done the same see their tripod outlast several rounds of camera bodies, lenses, and maybe even wives 🙂

    One thing I didn’t consider (but wish I had) with my first Gitzo was necessary height. I was so focused on getting something light and compact that I ended up with a tripod that always required me to scrunch down to see in the viewfinder (even though it was the tallest Mountaineer series available). I’m not saying that all my pictures are best composed at eye level, but reality is that quite often that height is both convenient for the photographer and for the composition. I upgraded to the XLS (extra tall) model that extends to around 78″….perfect for working on the side of a hill when one or two legs needs to extend far down. I then plan to buy a cheaper set like a Feisol for those times when weight and folded length are non-negotiable.

    • Thanks, Scott. I completely agree that with a tripod in particular, it’s important to start with the one you really want because you’ll eventually get it anyway. Height is probably the most overlooked characteristic–people just don’t appreciate how uncomfortable it is to stoop continuously, and raising the center post more than a couple of inches is a big no-no (very destabilizing).

      I actually own four Gitzo CF tripods–not because I’m a compulsive tripod buyer (really), but because they last so long that there’s no reason to replace one when I get another for a different purpose. In addition to my everyday 3530LS, I have one for backpacking (quite small but still sturdy enough for my 1DS3); one for traveling and hiking (small enough for my suitcase but big enough to be an everyday tripod if I’m careful); and one is in semi-retirement as a backup/loaner that lives in the back of the car. My heads are a RRS (Really Right Stuff) BH40 and a RRS BH25. I also have a Manfrotto ball-head in my car for those times I can’t stand seeing workshop participants fight their inadequate heads. (Okay, so maybe I do have a small problem.)

  5. I learned that in your class and never leave home without my tripod and cable release. This is great advice.

  6. Pingback: Photographers are stupid (and I have proof) « Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  7. If I really want control of my capture, I will use Live View. It enables me to control an entire variety of parameters, not the least of which is selective sharpening. I can’t tell you how many times I have been taking a macro shot (with the camera on a tripod); I think that image is tack sharp; and then in Live View, I position the red rectangle and zoom in; whoa!; time to micro-focus. When at the Coast, I frequently use a 10 stop ND filter; not only does this necessitate a tripod; using Live View enables me to see what I am doing with exposure and focus. One more thing about Live View; mirror lock-up is automatic. I realize that I am talking more about Live View than the value of using a tripod. However, it was using Live View that forced me personally to use a tripod.

  8. ok, ok, I am using my tripod
    my trigger comes tomorrow, ready to travel

    • I am using my tripod more since I got a higher quality one and an L bracket for my camera to make vertical and horizontal shots easy. I’m still quite impatient and struggle to take the time to set up the scene for a tripod. Taking a few photography travel workshops has helped me be more consistent.

  9. So well written and right on. You’re one of my heroes. Over the years I have gone through many tripods, now use RRS gear, love it. A good tripod is an important investment. In the workshops I teach, people nickname me the tripod queen. Of course, there are moments when this is not possible. As my colleague Ron Sanford says, “Use a tripod except when you can’t.”

  10. Gary,
    I agree with everything in this article except you not wanting to use a filter holder for you ND grads. Just like a tripod, the filter holder assures reproductability when taking several exposures. When Handholding the filter you’ll never get it in the same place twice…
    Just my two cents…

    • There’s no single right or wrong way to use a GND. Since I don’t blend images, I never take multiple exposures and in general find filter holders far more trouble than they’re worth. Also, like many photographers, I try to move my GNDs during exposure to disguise the transition, something a filter holder makes difficult to impossible. But by all means, you should do what works best for you.

  11. Gary,
    Do you think you could use your TVC-24L system as your primary system, even when you fly? Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts about using a leveling base. It seems that we’re never on totally level ground, especially when doing panoramas.
    Mike Hammon

    • Hi Mike,

      The TVC-24L is my primary tripod, but I usually fly with my TQC-14. The TQC-14 is a little short and I’m lobbying RRS for a taller version that won’t require a centerpost. I’ll always fly with the 24L when weight isn’t a concern. I don’t have any experience with a leveling base, and have never wanted one, but I don’t shoot panoramas.


  12. Your post has given me a very special impression, unlike other posts.
    I hope you continue to have valuable articles like this or more to share with everyone!

  13. Absolutely spot on, especially having printed LARGE photographs (up to 40×60) in my prior small business…saw alot of “strange things” in alot of those prints. And as I was reminded just two days ago in Rickett’s Glen, try taking a beautiful waterfall image holding your camera by hand…it’s NOT going to happen! 😅 Great blog Gary!

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