Okay, let’s talk about something that most people who photograph would like to do without—the tripod. Let’s face it, tripods are expensive (at least good ones are), bulky, heavy, inconvenient and, generally speaking, a pain in the behind. And yet…I wouldn’t be caught out in the field without one—ever. In the more than two years that I’ve been guest blogging here on 1001 Scribbles, I’ve posted a few hundred accompanying photographs and I can tell you without equivocation that not one of them was rendered handheld. Not one. The same is true of the images that have appeared on my own blog.
So, I’ve established my credentials as a tripod acolyte. The obvious question is: why? Why do I insist on using a tripod in light of all the negative points I’ve made about this most inconvenient of photographic tools?
Let me first note that a tripod is not an asset for all forms of photography. It can, in fact, be a true impediment. If you’re into street photography, for instance, it’s just about the last thing you want with you. Most sports photographers also find tripods to be far too inflexible to utilize. (Depending on the sport, and the venue, many use monopods instead.)
But when it comes to the photographic genres I engage in—landscapes with a touch of close-up work tossed in—a good tripod is not only helpful, I’d go so far as to say that they’re very nearly a necessity.
So what will a tripod do for you? There are, in my opinion, two primary benefits, one concrete and the other largely intangible. The concrete benefit involves all the technical advantages one accrues from shooting from a stable platform. Added sharpness, across the board is one. This benefit comes regardless of shutter speed, but is especially noteworthy the longer the shutter is open. Beyond about 1/15 second, even with stabilized equipment, the sharpness advantages of using a tripod are undeniable, regardless of focal length. Additionally, if you want to render one part of an image sharp while allowing other parts to go soft with a slower shutter speed—silky moving water, for instance, with rocks or other features remaining sharp—there’s no real alternative to using a tripod. And with the benefit of an anchored platform, the ability to combine exposures–as part of manual blending, HDR work or focus stacking–is a far more viable option than when hand holding the camera.
The intangible advantages of tripod use are arguably even more important: a tripod forces you to slow down in the field. The vast, vast majority of the time, this is a good thing. By requiring you to work at something other than a point-and-click pace, you’ll find yourself taking greater care with everything you do—from deciding what shot to take in the first place (hey, it’s got to be worth it if it means setting up the tripod first) to metering to fine-tuning the composition. More indirectly, the slower pace will also almost certainly put you more in tune with the place you’re shooting and the process by which you’re rendering it.
The caveat about certain types of photography notwithstanding, I can all but guarantee you that your “keeper ratio” will increase—perhaps astronomically—as you transition to using a tripod regularly. Some of that will be technical, some of it will be indirect, but regardless of the specific cause, the end result will be images with which you’ll be more pleased. And isn’t that the goal of every photographer?
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.