lightweight tripod

Opinion: Why I Rarely Use a Tripod & How I Cope Without One

The trusty tripod, the photographer’s 3 legged friend. Loyal, likes being stroked, doesn’t stop eating, and likes long walks on the beach. Oh wait, that’s my dog. Anyways, tripods are a valuable tool in many photographer’s arsenal and for good reason. But I very rarely use one and in this article, I’m going to explain my reasoning why.

Waterfalls are a favourite subject for photographers with tripods - to get that silky smooth water effect loved by tourist brochures. Photo by Alan Stock. Photo by Alan Stock.
Waterfalls are a favourite subject for photographers with tripods. Photo by Alan Stock.

What are Tripods Good For?

First of all, let’s talk about tripod’s strengths. Photographers use them for one main purpose–stability.

  • A tripod lets you put your camera in a fixed and stable position where it’s not going to move. That’s useful when you need it in a specific position like in product or studio photography.
  • They’re great when you need sharp photographs unaffected by camera hand-shake.
  • Tripods also allow for long exposure photos to either to overcome dark conditions and to get specific effects like blurred sky and water, or light trails.
Don't get me wrong - tripods are essential for some photographs and I still use one from time to time, such as in this Kathmandu temple, where a monk mediates as people walk past - achieved through a tripod and a long exposure shot. Photo by Alan Stock.
Don’t get me wrong, tripods are essential for some photographs. I still use one from time to time, such as in this Kathmandu temple, where a monk meditates as people walk past. I achieved this through a tripod and a long exposure shot. Photo by Alan Stock.

These are all very good reasons to use a tripod, and landscape photographers, in particular, won’t leave home without one! If you’re interested in learning more about tripods, here’s some great resources for you…

Moose Winan’s video shows some of the situations you may want to consider using a tripod for.

For more tripod buying recommendations and advice, check out this BHP buying guide, this WEX video buying guide, and Mike Browne’s “Which Tripod should I buy?” video, you can watch it below.

For specific tripods, BHP has a best of 2016 list here and What Digital Camera’s top rated list is also worth a look.

So, tripods can be a good addition to your kit. But they aren’t perfect…

What are Tripods downsides?

Now we get to the reasons I don’t tend to use tripods very much.

Portability

Tripods are bulky bits of kit. Even when telescoped down to their smallest form, they’re pretty large. Unfortunately, the general rule is the more stable the tripod, the bigger or heavier it needs to be. Weight is the other main issue, lightweight aluminum and carbon fibre tripods are the lightest, but even they’re a significant weight when added to all your other camera gear.

If you can afford it, always invest in a lightweight tripod. After a few hours of lugging one around, you’ll appreciate the extra money you spent! However, the only problem with lightweight tripods is they’re more susceptible to vibration, especially from the wind. Look out for ones with a hook on the underside that you can hang heavy objects from to add weight. (Your loaded down kit bag works great for this!)

Although a scene might seem too dark to get a shot without a tripod, you'd be surprised at how little light your camera can work with whilst hand-holding - if you use the right settings and kit.. Photo by Alan Stock.
Although a scene might seem too dark to get a shot without a tripod, you’d be surprised at how little light your camera can work with whilst hand-holding–if you use the right settings. Photo by Alan Stock.

I mainly do travel photography and often find myself on extended travels. Therefore the amount of kit and weight I can travel with is limited. To begin with, I used to take my tripod in my day bag every single day, for months and months, just in case. This became completely exhausting and I wrecked my neck and shoulders carrying around the extra weight (bearing in mind I was carrying my camera, lenses, and day gear as well).

When I removed the tripod and only took it when I knew there’d be a good chance of using it, my quality of life improved a lot! One of my biggest mistakes was not to spend the extra money upgrading from aluminum to carbon fibre. 

I took this shot from the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal with a tripod. By the second day into this 9 day trek in the mountains I was cursing the fact I didn't invest in a lighter tripod! In the end I only took a few shots using it at sunrises, the light being so bright at other times to make it unnecessary. In future I would take a much lighter tripod for a trip like this, a tripod substitute, or simply enjoy the freedom without one! Photo by Alan Stock.
Photo by Alan Stock.

For example, I took the photo from above with a tripod while traveling to Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal. By the second day into this 9-day trek in the mountains, I was cursing the fact I didn’t invest in a lightweight tripod! In the end, I only took a few shots using it at sunrises. In the future, I would take a much lighter tripod for a trip like this, a tripod substitute, or simply enjoy the freedom without one!

Setup Time

Setting up a tripod can be time-consuming. You need to set up the legs in a stable position, mount the camera on it, adjust vertical position and camera head angle, and lock everything into place tightly. If you’re going for a tripod, look for features that speed this process up. Things like fast snap locks or fast screw system for legs. Also, ball heads rather than “platforms” to allow fast positioning of the camera on top. A fast release snap plate which quickly clicks into place on top of the tripod is also a must-have. Every little helps.

The big issue I have is the setup time can cause you to miss photographic opportunities. For landscape photographers, for example, this isn’t as much of a problem. They usually have the time and patience to set up and wait for as long as it takes for the perfect moment to arrive. When traveling, I rarely have this luxury. Many times I have set up my tripod only for my subject to move, or the scene to change from how I wanted it by the time I’m ready to hit the shutter.

Setup time is critical for sunrises - they are surprisingly fast so you'd better be prepared to set up quickly if you need to move your tripod during it! Photo by Alan Stock.
Setup time is critical for sunrises–they are surprisingly fast so you’d better be prepared to set up quickly if you need to move your tripod during it! Photo by Alan Stock.

My advice is to do a quick evaluation of a scene you’re considering using a tripod to capture. If there’s something in the scene which might change in a short space of time (especially people or animals), take some handheld shots first before you set up the tripod.

Also, try to predict what might happen over the minute or so you’re setting up. For example, perhaps you’d be better off setting the tripod in a different position to catch something moving. Events like parades or sports competitions are great proving grounds for this.

Photography Life has some good tips about setting up your tripod and when to use one in this article.

Sometimes getting your tripod in position is a real pain! You have to decide if the payoff is worth it. In this shot I was stood to my knees in a river with deathly slippery mossy rocks, terrified that I would plunge my kit into the water! But I couldn't have got this effect without the tripod, so in this case it was worth it. Photo by Alan Stock.
Sometimes getting your tripod in position is a real pain! You have to decide if the payoff is worth it. In this shot, I was up to my knees in a river with deathly slippery mossy rocks, terrified that I would plunge my kit into the water! But I couldn’t have got this silky effect without the tripod. So in this case, it was worth it. Photo by Alan Stock.

Composition

Tripods are very good at forcing you to slow down your thinking and seriously consider your photograph’s composition. When teaching, landscape photographers often highlight this as a good learning tool, and I agree. The precision you can gain with a tripod also lets you make “perfect” compositions, where lines exactly meet up the way you want them to–proportions and visual ratios can be set just right. It’s a great way to learn and I recommend it.

However, there’s a drawback. Tripods can limit your compositions as well as benefit them. By working from a fixed point, it’s easy to become focused on one particular point of view or angle and ignore other possibilities.

The other problem is making adjustments can be difficult if you’re forced to use a tripod. Even minor angle changes or just stepping forward or back can be a mission, requiring resetting the tripod and making adjustments to the legs or other parts. This can be very limiting and if you want to change the composition entirely (for example going to another location or taking a very low angle shot), you’re going to have to move the tripod and set everything again. The physical limits of a tripod’s range of movements and its height also restricts the kind of shots that you can get.

Fast moving events like parades and sports matches are ideal for tripods, but in practice it can be hard to set them up, and if you do, you may well miss special moments and angles that you can only get by swooping in at the right time. Photo by Alan Stock.
Fast moving events like parades and sports matches are ideal for tripods, but in practice, it can be hard to set them up. And if you do, you may well miss special moments and angles you can only get by swooping in at the right time. Photo by Alan Stock.

For me, this removes a lot of the compositional freedom I use in my style of photography. As I’m not especially patient with these kinds of things, I get frustrated if I find out my tripod position is just a bit off for the shot I want, and have to reposition and set up again trying to find the perfect view.

I often find a good angle by hand-holding, but struggle to get the tripod setup to have the camera in that exact spot. In my ideal future world, I’d be able to move the camera to a spot, press a button and it would hover perfectly still in that spot with anti-gravity. For now, though, I have few tips for countering these problems…

First of all, before you set up a tripod, have a good walk around the area and look with your eyes and through your camera lens. Check out plenty of different angles, and try different compositions before you lock that tripod into place. This way you’re much more likely to get a good photo straight away instead of constantly moving the tripod around looking for a good shot.

Do the legwork in advance.

Secondly, when recomposing once your tripod is set up, if you’re looking for anything more than small adjustments, try detaching your camera and move it around a bit looking through the viewfinder to get a sense of how you should adjust the tripod. It’s usually faster than flipping levers and unscrewing leg joints, again and again, trying to find a good adjustment.

Check out Visual Wilderness’ example of how important it is to adjust your composition when using a tripod.

For this fire show in Bali, I wasn't able to set up a tripod. However, with such fast moving subjects in a wide area and constantly changing light, a tripod would have been a nightmare to use (not to mention ruining everyone else's view of the show!). Hand-holding still allowed me to get shots - yes they are not sharp but the slight camera shake combined with the long exposure necessary to see what's going on, only adds to the sense of movement and chaos in the scene. It's worth considering the artistic impact that handholding and imperfetions can bring to a photograph, try the same shot on and off the tripod and see what you prefer!
For this fire show in Bali, I wasn’t able to set up a tripod. Hand-holding still allowed me to get shots–and the slight camera shake combined with the necessary long exposure only adds to the sense of movement and chaos in the scene. It’s worth considering the artistic impact hand-holding and imperfections can bring to a photograph. Photo by Alan Stock.

Tripod Philosophy

If you’re planning to take a tripod with you, it’s worth asking yourself why. I don’t mean this in an accusatory way–it’s perfectly fine (and essential in some cases) to use one! But can you achieve the results you’re looking for without one?

If you’re using it to get a pixel perfect sharp shot, is that very important to you? Many of the best photos have plenty of technical issues, just look at the film days. Are you taking it on the off-chance you may need it? See how you do without it. Maybe you’ll prefer the freedom of not having to carry it and can compensate in other ways. Just asking yourself these questions and trying a different approach may change your way of thinking or use tripods in a different way.

For some other opinions about when to use tripods, check out these videos:

 

Can You Live Without Your Three-Legged Friend?

If you’re going to use a tripod, try minimizing the impact it has on the core of your mission–taking photos! If you can, invest in speedy set-up features and a lightweight tripod. It really pays off in the long run. Think in advance before setting up your tripod. Handhold your camera and find the best places to set up. Never forget potential better compositions that you might be missing. From time to time step away from the tripod or detach the camera and look at other angles. This will all help to avoid “tunnel vision” and tripod laziness.

A steady hand and good posture can make night shots possible without a tripod, if there is enough ambient light in the scene. We'll talk more about ways to get around using a tripod in a future article.
A steady hand and good posture can make decent night shots possible without a tripod if there is enough ambient light in the scene. You do have to accept that they may not be as sharp as with a tripod, but unless they’re going to be blown to a large size, it’s not usually a big deal. We’ll talk more about ways to get around using a tripod in a future article. Photo by Alan Stock.

 

I’d love to hear your own philosophy on tripods. When you like to use them and what you do to overcome their downsides? In another article, we’ll look at how I cope when I don’t have a tripod. Until next time, folks!

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