To Tripod or Not To Tripod?

Imaginon Children’s library in uptown Charlotte on a chilly Saturday in December

Kathy & I were talking the other evening about her experiences photographing this year, and she mentioned how much she enjoys just walking around with a camera, taking photographs of things she sees and things that interest her.  She seems to have the most fun – and does her best photography – when we are just wandering around with our cameras, no tripods, no bags full of gear, just a camera and a lens.

There are obviously times were a tripod is simply necessary to get a photograph.  And when I need one I’ve got a couple to pick from.  But the biggest problem with a tripod (besides having to carry it) is that it’s another piece of gear to think about.  Just like carrying extra lenses, a tripod gives you more choices to make, another bunch of problems to solve.  Adjusting, leveling, making sure the feet don’t crush some unsuspecting lichen, etc. takes time and attention away from the task at hand.  It’s like carrying a bunch of lenses.  The more lenses I carry the better the chance that I’ve got the “wrong one” on the camera.  Of course I can solve that by walking around with multiple cameras slung Pancho Vila-style over my shoulders.  Yikes!  No thanks.

Some people handle all that just fine, but for many of us and certainly for me, having to fuss with the equipment distracts me from the flow of creativity.  That’s what I love about the simplicity of using a compact camera or an SLR with one lens.  I start out seeing based on what I have with me, I stop worrying about whether I’ve got the right lens on the camera or whether the tripod is the right height or not and I just go out and shoot.  If I need to get lower I get down.  Sometimes I lay on my back on the ground.  I’d never bother with that if I had to adjust a tripod to get that low.

Admittedly there are some concerns with shooting hand-held.  Concerned about precise composition?  It’s perfectly OK to crop a little if you need to tidy up an edge or straighten a horizon.  I can’t get straight horizons on a tripod with a built-in level in my viewfinder!  I might get a little softness from camera movement so I have to be careful with shutter speed, although with today’s cameras cranking the ISO up a stop or two (or more) isn’t a big deal.  And most of the handheld shooting I do is in daylight so that’s not too big of an issue.  And you know what?  If you use good technique and don’t try to make huge prints they’re probably sharp enough!  I find that the best cure for soft photos is often to just stop looking at them at 100%

The tripod is definitely a great compositional tool.  If you ever want to see how unsteady you are at hand-holding, switch your camera to video mode and try to hold a composition.  That may convince you to use a tripod!  But there are times when leaving it at home allows you to fully engage your creativity, to just go out and shoot.  You may be a little limited in what you can do, but I firmly believe that if your shooting style allows you to respond to the things that “call your name,” you can react to them in a way that shows through in your photographs that a razor-sharp, technically-perfect but clinically emotionless photograph just can’t match.

6 thoughts on “To Tripod or Not To Tripod?”

  1. Early morning or late evenings are tripod times for me. Other than that I enjoy the freedom offered without one. Taking my cameras for a walk is something I do a lot, so having a fast lens or cranking up the ISO is preferred over the tripod. I’m learning when to use it and seem to use it less.

  2. Tom, of course we had this conversation. I’d say that tripod and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Naturally, it just depends on what you are doing. I don’t worry about engineering style photography, i.e., getting precise levels or horizon lines. Mostly, when I’m using a tripod, I am shooting macro, which, for me is a very contemplative type shooting, almost abstract, and demands using the tripod.

  3. Although I use one occasionally out of necessity, I hate using tripods. Not only that, but I hate the use of tripods in public places by “photographers” who have no concern for others around them. That said, I concede that there is a time and place for them and some shots just can’t be made without them.
    BTW, that is a very nice shot. Tripod?

  4. Tom, the issue of a tripod is with complications on both sides. When I did more landscape work, my best shots were always done with a tripod. Of the work I have that I’m proudest of, landscape-wise, they ALL were composed with the aid of a tripod. Now, it’s not because of the sharpness or anything technical,per se. For me it’s about the process, the thought process.

    However, unless I’m in that mode, I view them as clumsy beasts.

    1. Chris, I definitely agree with your comments. I probably didn’t state it clearly enough, but while walking around with the X10, G12 or an SLR with a normal lens is pretty easy to do handheld, my preference is to use a tripod as much as possible. There are some times when the need for mobility or stealth wins out, but overall the benefits to be gained from using one usually – for me – offset the inconvenience.

      I bought a new tripod late last year and was astonished at how much difference it made in sharpness, especially with longer lenses. My other tripod is no slouch, but just wasn’t up for handing something like a 100-400, which I find myself using more and more for landscape work. And you can’t beat a tripod for composition.

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