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Some Thoughts on Tripods

Tripods – you either love them or hate them, use them all the time or have one collecting dust in a closet somewhere.  It’s a black/white piece of gear without a whole lot of middle ground.  I’m not about to cast a deciding vote in the matter, although for what it’s worth, I fall into the “it collects dust” category, since my tripod spends most of its life in the trunk of my car, coming out only for lens calibrations or the rare long exposure.

{Slik 700DX - the tripod that I use. Image Credit: B&H Photo}

But here’s the thing that really made me stop and think about tripods enough to want to write this: a statement made on the PhotoNaturalist blog this morning.  It’s a common statement; I hear it often, from a wide range of photogs who advocate their use.  ”Using a tripod forces you to slow down and focus on your composition and images.”

Your first reaction is probably to nod and say, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.”  But the longer you think about it, the more you should want to stop and say, “Wait, what?”

Does using a tripod really make you slow down and focus on the image more?  Does it really?  Anymore than, say, using a prime lens with extremely shallow DOF?  Or more than using artificial lighting in a scene?  Or more than, well, anything?

It’s one of those very subjective statements that sounds almost like wisdom when you first hear it, but as it sinks in you realize that it’s silly.  It’s unquantifiable.  It’s the same argument as “Canon is better than Nikon,” just with a layer of disguise painted over it.  Because translated, all it’s really saying is “shooting with a tripod is better than shooting without.”

So let’s examine that statement a moment.  Is shooting with a tripod better?  Sure, in some conditions, when your gear requires one.  Sure, when your subject is static and/or motion blur isn’t an issue.  And sure again, if you like working from a tripod.  But if you don’t fall into any of those categories, if you don’t like using a tripod, then the answer is: No.  No, using one won’t make magically better images.  How could it possibly?

Astrophotography - focused with Live View

{Astrophotography, a long-exposure situation where a tripod is not only useful, but absolutely necessary for success.}

In fact, if you’re not a tripod loving person, dragging one along with you may very well result in worse photos.  For starters, if you’re not a tripod loving person, you probably have a more basic model, as opposed to a trim, light, carbon fiber ‘pod.  Guess what, that aluminum tripod is heavy to lug around!  And cold to hold onto in the winter.  Furthermore, it’s a good bet that you’ll spend several minutes adjusting the legs and head until your composition is just right – and then as soon as you move, you have to do it all over again.

Personally, I like to move a lot when I’m shooting, be it nature, wildlife, or portraits (the last two have more in common than you’d think).  The tripod certainly does force me to slow down – because I’m dragging it all over and futzing with it when I’d be better off shooting photos!  I could put bricks in my backpack – that’d slow me down, too.  But I wouldn’t want to do it.

In the majority of everyday cases, I think a tripod is a recipe for frustration.  My advice: it’s a good tool to have, and most photographers should own at least at basic one, for those times when you do need it.  But if you’re not in love with it, if you’re not married to it, then don’t drag it around with you all the time.  You can’t force yourself to fall in love with it and, if you try, you just might find yourself chucking it over the edge of a waterfall someday.

Photography is full of fallacies.  Don’t fall victim to anymore of them than you have to.

Brent Pennington

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2 Comments to Some Thoughts on Tripods

  1. February 13, 2011 at 21:37

    My tripod, ballhead, and gimbal head are, for me, necessary tools for photography. I love shooting with my 400mm lens. On bright sunny days I can hand hold it well enough to get good shots but if it’s not a bright sunny day then a tripod is a must have. To compound things throw on a 1.4x or 2.x extender and you’re forced to manually focus. Trying to use that combination without a tripod is an instant trip down frustration lane.

    I find it interesting you mentioned Steve Berardi’s blog in your post. Steve is a great photographer. I’ve head the pleasure of reviewing two of his eBooks before they were published. I’m inclined to agree with you though. While using a tripod does help me a great bit I can’t think of a single time that using one has forced me to think more about composing the image.

    Your astrophotography image is very good. You should post a how-to on that one of these days.


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