If you want the highest quality images then the humble tripod is a must have piece of kit in the eyes of many photographers. It is essential for keeping the camera still and avoid any unwanted camera shake, with the end result being beautifully pin sharp images. As landscape photographers this is absolutely vital. However with the introduction of IBIS (in body image stabilisation) in both camera bodies and lenses, which allows photographers to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds, it really does beg the question....do we actually need a tripod? I'm going to have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both methods and try to determine whether there is still a place for the tripod with all the advances in camera stabilisation.
We will start with the tripod and its advantages. The over riding advantage of a tripod is that it will keep your camera perfectly still, which is vital when trying to avoid unwanted camera shake and to take perfectly sharp images. As landscape photographers we really do want to maximise sharpness and quality in our images and there is no doubt the tripod certainly aids this.
Another advantage is that having the camera on a tripod allows us to shoot when the light is low, this is usually the case with landcape photographers as we like to shoot at the time of day when light is at a premium. It also increases our creative options allowing us to use long exposures, focus stack, composite and exposure blend. These effects require both the camera to be perfectly still and also for the images to be the same, so they can be seemlessly stacked together or blended in software.
The tripod can also help you to slow down your work flow and really take time to compose and tweak your compositions so they are perfect. We can tend to get a little snap happy when we are free of the tripod and as a result we are not taking the time to really think about our composition and just snapping any old scene which catches our eyes.
This is a shot taken at Rydal Water. It was shot on a tripod as I wanted maximum quality and also I used a filter, so I could smooth out the ripples in the water, so using a tripod was absolutely essential. Settings used: ISO 100, f8, 8 seconds at 57mm.
This is a zoomed in view of the above image from Rydal Water. As you can see the detail and quality when zoomed in is absolute incredible and really highlights the quality you can get with a tripod in the right circumstances.
In theory the tripod seems perfect right? Well there are some definite disadvantages of using a tripod. The first disadvantage is that they are awkward and clumsy. I've often been found on the side of a mountain wrestling with my tripod trying to manoevre it into a good position to get my shot just right. Tripods also slow your reaction time down and you can miss out on shots while trying to re position your tripod, especially when the conditions are changeable.
You also pay for what you get with a Tripod. If you buy a cheap one that isn't sturdy, well then you might as well not bother having one at all. So you usually have to fork out a bit of cash to get a good one. You also have to lug them around and a good tripod can be pretty heavy as well and it's all additional weight. If you like to travel light and take minimal kit with you, then again is the tripod necessary?
Tripods are also not practical in all scenarios, if you need to be a little more discreate then a whacking great big tripod isn't really gonna work. If you are in really windy weather conditions then a tripod can be more of a hinderance. You always need to have the tripod set up on solid ground, if you are on soft spongy ground this can also create camera shake and movement. So while they are brilliant, they do have there limitations.
Now we have looked at the advantages and disadvantages of using a tripod, we will now take a look at the same for handheld shooting. So for me the main benefit of handheld shooting allows you to really free up your movement and gives your greater speed of response and spontaneity. This is essential when we are dealing with changeable conditions and fleeting moments. Photography is about catching that moment, that split second in time and if we are faffing with a tripod then that moment will be lost. The most striking and powerful images of our time are all reactionary and capturing a single moment in time......this is a hugely powerful thing and makes this advantage a potential winner.
Photography is a creative persuit and freeing yourself from the tripod can really open up your creativity. We can employ lots of different angles and points of view that might not be possible when using the tripod. This enables us to really push the boundaries of our creativity and create unique and interesting images. Not using a tripod also helps you to be a little more discreat when shooting and this is important in certain genres and scenarios.
It also helps to impact our understanding of camera settings and how to get the best possible results when we are not using a tripod. So we have to be more mindful of our settings and how they affect the shot we are taking. An example of this is we should always shoot with our shutter speed one over our focal length to ensure sharp images. So if I have a focal length of 125mm my shutter speed should be 1/125th sec or higher. We will also need to use wider apertures and increase your ISO in order to allow or sensor more light and achieve quicker shutter speeds. Ok IBIS in modern cameras is very good, but it is still good practise to understand your settings for handheld shooting to maximise your image quality.
A shot taken handheld on a blustery late afternoon on Kings How. This was one of those reactionary moments, when trying to set up the tripod and getting it nice and stable would have meant I missed the shot. Plus it was so windy I would have struggled to keep the tripod still. So used the following settings to achieve the shot. ISO 200, f8, 1/350th Second at 103mm. I increased my ISO and used a wider aperture to help get as much light to the sensor as possible, while keep the quality as high as possible. I had my IBIS on for the shot.
Finally the disadvanges of handheld shooting. So the biggest disadvange as I see it is the camera shake and loss of quality in images. This is a bit of a biggy really, what is the point of catching a fleeting moment if that moment is blurry and has camera shake. I have had to bin a few shots which simply aren't good enough in quality because they suffer from camara shake.
As I mentioned in the tripod advantages, shooting handheld can introduce a 'snap happy' mentality and instead of really 'working' a shot and getting the best of it we are more likely to take more random shots with a little less thought to them.
Going handheld does free your creativity in certain ways, it also stifles it in anothers. Creative effects like long exposures, focus stacking, blending exposures and composite images are all dependant on using a tripod and keeping the camera as still as possible, so if you like to employ any of these effects into your photography then a good tripod is essential.
Shooting handheld can be physically demanding as well, as modern cameras and lenses are pretty heavy and this impacts your ability to keep the camera still if we are trying to hold up a weighty camera set up. My camera and one lens weighs around 1500g and its not the largest set up ever and even holding that still for a few minutes can be hard work and my steady hand can get a little wobbley.
When handheld goes bad: A recent shot which illustrates the problems we can experience with handheld shooting. As you can see the bottom third of the image has a fair degree of camera shake, party due to the strong winds and me not keeping the camera steady enough and also the incorrect settings to achieve a quick enough shutter speed.
So there you have it, the main advantages and disadvantages to both methods. As I see it, it comes down to a play off between ultimate image quality and ulitimate freedom and which is more important to you. We also need to look at your own personal circumstances and the scenarios you find yourself in and the types of photography you practise. So If i had to choose one....well I don't think I could and I don't believe I should. It won't surprise you to know that there isn't really a right or wrong answer and I like to employ both methods in my photography depending on the circumstances. If I have time on my hands to work a shot and get the upmost quality image then I will always use a tripod, however sometimes we are presented with opportunities we aren't expecting and have to have the ability to adapt quickly to these and catch these fleeting moments, this when I tend to go handheld and I'm willing to drop a little bit of quality to get that dramatic fleeting moment. So in conclusion, they both have a place and I'd recommend that you get familiar and practise both, this way your are more adaptable in any given circumstance and have the ability to handle any scenenario that we are presented with. I'd rather have my eggs in more baskets than just one. I've really enjoyed working on my handheld shooting this year, it definitely has opened up options and increased my camera setting awarness. I've seen a real improvement in the steadiness of my shots and ultimately believe I'm a stronger photographer as a result but I won't be ditching the tripod anytime soon.