To Use a Tripod or Not?

Part I: When To Use a Tripod

Advantages to using a tripod

The best tripods


All of the pictures in this article were taken in Mount Rainier National Park.

To see all of our Mt. Rainier pictures, click here.


I wrote this article in 2008 when I was still using a tripod for every shot. Since then, I've totally given up tripods. However this is not something most landscape photographers might want to do. In fact, most professional landscape photographers still do use tripods.

One of the most important factors in deciding whether or not to use a tripod is how good is your camera? Your camera has to be good enough to shoot at high ISO's like 800 or 1000 or 2000 without noise if you are going to dump your tripod. You need to test your camera at say 1000 ISO and then blow the picture up to the largest size you plan to print pictures in. Look in the dark shadows; if they are full of colored dots, you need to keep your tripod.

There are other advantages to shooting with a tripod: you tend to frame your pictures much better and probaly will become a much more thoughtful and better photographer in general. Also, it is impossible to hand-hold large, heavy cameras and very long telephoto lenses.

When I decided to ditch my tripods, I wrote a series of articles on all the ins-and-outs of landscape photograhy without a tripod. Here is the first article in that series; if you are a serious photographer and don't know the pluses and minuses of shooting with or without a tripod, it is probably worth reading.

Update: 10-22-13

Below is the original article. I thlink it is very much worth reading.



The question, "To use a tripod or not?" is a pretty important question if you seriously want to take good pictures. Five years ago I answered this question with a most emphatic "Yes, of course, I always use a tripod. I haven't taken a picture without a tripod for twenty years." Now-a-days, with the advent of digital photography, the answer is not so simple.

Let's face it, using a tripod is a huge pain in the butt. They are heavy, awkward, hard to carry and take forever to attach to your camera. Setting up a tripod is so slow that it is possible to miss all kinds of good shots as the clouds and sun and wind change while you are struggling with the damn tripod.

In this article and the next I will go through a list of pro and cons for using tripods: this article will cover when and where tripods make lots of sense and the second article will be about those times a tripod is less than worthless.

I do several different kinds of photography pretty regularly such as casual family photos, more serious family history photography, vacation photography, artsy abstract shots mostly for my own interest, and serious landscape photography that I use to earn my living. Let me begin with the serious landscape photography.

When I am out shooting landscapes seriously, I use a heavy, large, cumbersome tripod almost all of the time. There are lots of reasons for this. The most important reason is sharpness. The easiest way to take consistently sharp pictures is to use a good solid tripod.

Sharpness is an important part of landscape photography. And since landscape images often need to be sharp all the way through, from the close-up foreground to the far background, things get complicated fast. For me, all this begins with the fact that these days I'm shooting a high end digital SLR camera, a Canon 1Ds Mark II for all my professional work. This is a full frame camera which means that the sensor is the same size as a 35mm negative. For reasons that I will explain in detail when I discuss small, handheld, digital cameras in the second part of this article, full frame sensors lead to long exposure times. For now, just accept this as a fact.

Anyway, it is not unusual for me to use shutter speeds of 1/2 or 1/4 of a second or even one or two seconds when I am trying to achieve a lot of depth of field that will keep both the foreground and background of a scene sharp . It just isn't possible to hand-hold a large, heavy camera at these slow exposure speeds without getting motion blur. And since getting long depths of field and extreme sharpness are so important in landscape photography, a tripod is an essential piece of equipment.

And it isn't just my high end, full frame camera that needs a tripod, any SLR camera (one of those cameras that you can exchange lenses on), whether it be a digital or film camera, is capable of lens apertures as small as f-22 and f-32 which will require very slow exposure times. So, all serious landscape photographers using higher end cameras need to use a tripod if they want to get sharp pictures with long dephs of field.

If all this talk about f-stops and exposure is leaving you a little dizzy you might like brush up on the basics of exposure; to do so go to my Photo Technique Articles and read "How to Set Up Your Digital Camera Part One" at the top of the page.

A second reason that I use a tripod when I am shooting seriously is because my camera is large and heavy. With the 28 mm to 70 mm zoom lens attached, it weighs almost eight pounds. This is a lot of camera to hold up to your eye for a long period of time searching for just the right composition.

And this brings me to a very important point: using a tripod is a huge help in composition. For one thing, a tripod forces you to slow down and really look at the scene you are trying to capture. Tripods make it impossible to blast off twenty shots of twenty different scenes in as many seconds hoping that maybe you'll get lucky and that something will end up being good; shooting like this is a recipe for disaster.

When using a tripod a photographer is forced to turn the little tripod handles, tightening and loosening the camera, as he goes from one composition to the next. He is forced to look at the actual scene and make decisions about what exactly should be or should not be included and whether this zoom position is better than another. It is almost impossible to do all this correctly if you aren't using a tripod.

And then when you finally do get the composition just right, you can lock it in by tightening up all the little handles, step back, say whew, rest a bit and then step up to the camera again and take a second look. Usually I end up giving the camera a little nudge here or there or a slight change in zoom. All this is absolutely essential to taking a good picture. I'll go as far as saying that I don't think anyone can take really well composed pictures of a complex landscape scene without using a tripod. It's that important.

And then when you have settled on the final composition and have snapped off your first shot, you still aren't done. I often stand behind my camera waiting for the wind to quit or for the light to get right or for those clouds over in the right rear corner to move over a little or for the sun to go behind the clouds or for the sun to come out or for the rain to stop or for something. When I have the compositon all locked in using a tripod, I don't have to recompose every time I am ready to re-shoot the scene, it's right there waiting for me; all I have to do is push the button. And I'll often re-shoot a scene twenty times before I think it's really right. (I even did this back in the days of film and that really got expensive.) Without a tripod all this fine tuning and reshooting is simply impossible.

Here is a third reason why a tripod is so important to me when I am doing serious landscape work. When the lighting of a scene is particularly difficult, I will often shoot the same scene three or four times at different exposures. Then when I get home, I can combine these different exposures into one perfect exposure in the computer. It is impossible to do this unless all the different pictures are exactly the same, pixel for pixel. You just can't do this without a tripod.

Another time a tripod is essential to me is when I shoot very long, very large panoramics. Instead of shooting one picture and then cropping the top and bottom to make a panoramic, I will often shoot, two or three or five or even eight or more overlapping images of the same scene, moving from left to right. When I get home I will combine all these individual pieces of the scene into one long, seamless panoramic picture using a computer. The advantages of this are huge; for one thing, a cropped image has very low resolution, very low dpi, and it will be impossible to make a very large picture. A panoramic made by combining five or eight or ten shots is huge, it has very high dpi, and can be enlarged into huge pictures sometimes as large as ten or fifteen or twenty feet long. It is hard to get this kind of quality even with an 8x10 view camera. Without a tripod, none of this is even remotely possible.

So, if you want to be a serious landscape photographer, don't even think about not using a tripod.

There is one little trick that makes tripod use a little easier. When I am shooting in a spot where I think there will be a lot of pictures, I mount my camera to the tripod and then leave it there for as long as possible. When I move from shot to shot, I put the tripod with camera attached on my shoulder. It is actually possible to hike quite a long way comfortably with the tripod on your shoulder. The lighter the tripod and camera the better it works. Be sure the camera is solidly attached though, especially if using an atachment plate. There is no sound worse than the crunch a heavy camera makes when it meets a granite rock, lens side down, after falling from six or seven feet.

Most professionals use Gitzo tripods as they are well built, very solid and last forever. If they don't, Gitzo will replace them for free; or at least they used to and I hope they still do. I have three Gitzos. The one I use most is one of the largest Gitzo sizes which weighs a ton and is probably a lot more tripod than I really need. With the head (which is also very heavy) it weighs almost 20 pounds, which is a little ridiculous, but I have a lot of faith in it and have carried it around to a lot of places from deep in Grand Canyon to high on the Tetons.

I originally used this tripod with heavy view cameras and my heavy 6x7 Pentax film cameras. On these cameras it was essential and I still use it with my smaller digital cameras because, I guess, I'm getting older and resist changing things that have worked well for years. However, you really don't need anything nearly this large with most digital cameras. I'll get to some suggestions of tripods that may work better in a bit.

Mt Rainier Craggy VistaI also have two smaller Gitzo tripods, both are model G-226, which I use for long hikes and short backpacking trips. They are much lighter than my large Gitzo, but still not light enough for long distance backpacking. I use small Gitzo ball heads (G1276) on these tripods which are fairly light and work well. This is probably about as light a tripod that I want to use for general landscape work.

And finally I have a very light, one pound Cullen tripod which I use on long, serious backpacking trips when I really have to keep the weight down and just can't carry even my light Gitzos. This is a plastic tripod with a built in head. It works fine for my light C-8080 Olympus camera which is the only one I use for long, serious backpacking trips, but not so fine with my heavy Canon. The Canon is so heavy that it wobbles quite ominously on top of the tripod, attached by a single, small, flimsy screw. However, the big Canon itself is too heavy for serious backpacking, so I tend to stay with the very light Olympus and the even lighter Cullen tripod and head.

I suspect that what I really need for my backpacking trips is a very light, carbon fiber tripod and head that weighs about two or maybe three pounds total; Gitzo makes some very light carbon fiber tripods which are great. The Mountaineer is a nice Gitzo tripod that weighs only 2.5 pounds and unfortunately costs a bunch, $371.00 from Amazon. However, on a backpack trip, or even a long day trip, climbing up and down steep hills, I expect that it would be worth its weight in gold, both for lightness and sturdiness. I would seriously look into this tripod if you are in the market for a good one.

You will also need a tripod head which screws to the top of the tripod. The camera then clamps or screws to the top of the head. The head allows you to rotate and tilt the camera and then lock it solidly into position. Make sure that you buy the kind of head that has a separate plate that screws onto the camera. When the camera has the plate screwed to it, it can be attached or detached from the tripod head very rapidly with one quick snap. Be sure the head is just as sturdy as the tripod; a flimsy head negates any tripod, no matter how sturdy. I use a Bogan #3047 head with my exta sturdy, extra heavy tripod. This is a very heavy duty, sturdy tripod head and again, this is certainly a much bigger head than you need with a digital camera. The light Gitzo heads mentioned above are usually plenty for any digital camera.

One more piece of equipment is needed, some kind of a shutter release device. Most digital and electronic cameras have an electronic shutter release cord or a wireless release device. Once you get the shot all set up, let go of the camera completely, don't touch it at all, and trip the shutter using the release device. It is usually necessary to order the shutter release device separately from the camera. However, my little Olympus C-8080, which I dearly love, came with a very handy wireless release which works wonderfully.

In the next newsletter this article continues with a discussion of those times when you absolutely should not use a tripod.

Fred Hanselmann
Rocky Mountain Photography
March, 2008
Updated, Oct 22, 2013


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Mount Rainier and Tall Pines near Tipsoo Lakes

Rainier, Lupine and Grasses
Lupine and the Tatoosh Range

Shooting Stars in Rainier National Park