Setting up for the Tibetan monastery shot below, using a Gitzo Traveler Kit, Ser.1 4 sec tripod GT1545T + head GH1382TQD
Arguably the longest-lived piece of equipment in photography, the tripod is actually more relevant now than it has ever been in its history. That might surprise some, given that two of the most recent big developments in digital — higher and higher ISO ratings plus content-recognition software — make handheld shooting more effective. High-end cameras like the Nikon D4S that I mainly use can shoot at insanely high ISO, allowing capture in lighting conditions where it’s difficult even to see. When coupled with vibration-reduction technology in lenses, doesn’t that remove the need for a tripod at night, for example? That’s what camera and lens reviewer Ken Rockwell says: “…tripods went out with film cameras…Tripods are no longer required…factors which have buried the tripod…” and so on.
In fact, it’s the opposite. Digital developments have increased the number of occasions for needing a tripod, while tripod technology has allowed them to do more and be easier to carry. Take the high ISO argument above. Far from obsolescing the tripod, ISO amplification in the thousands has simply opened up an entirely new area of photography. Digital has introduced new ways of shooting that rely on holding the camera motionless between shots. Overall, tripods remain a part of the toolkit for all committed photographers, and have evolved in recent years to be even more compact, lightweight and versatile.
A tripod has one job in life: to hold the camera perfectly still. To fix. And there are more and more reasons, for more and more creative kinds of imagery, when you might want to fix it. I use tripods now more than I ever did. Read on…
- Avoid camera shake at slow shutter speeds
This is the most obvious and most traditional reason for being. Holding the camera steady is the basic operational skill, and all professionals spend at least some time perfecting it, like shooting with a rifle or pistol. The magnification of the lens affects it (wide-angle always easier than telephoto), but there are several things you can do, like stance, bracing yourself and breath control, to improve it. And since the 1990s there’s been image stabilization. aka vibration reduction, built into longer lenses to help steady things further. None of this has changed the fact that camera shake is a lower limit for shooting. With training and IS/VR you can lower the limit, but the uncertainty remains. With a close-to-standard focal length I can hope to shoot down to 1/8 sec, but around this speed there’s a lot more hope than certainty.
Compressing a clock, stature and bank sign in the City of London meant using a 400mm lens at minimum aperture to get depth of field, and that in turn meant a shouter speed of one second — time for a tripod!
Nor is ISO performance a silver bullet. It’s for getting a capture in otherwise difficult circumstances — at a significant price. The sensor — every sensor — has a base ISO, typically around 100 or 200. That simply is its sensitivity to light. Turning it up to 500 or 1,000 or whatever doesn’t make it more sensitive. Instead, this amplifies the signal, and the technology os certainly remarkable, but amplification, as in music, comes at a cost. It increases the noise, when what you really want is the signal. Ultimately it’s a personal judgment as to what level of noise you can accept in an image, but it’s still a compromise. And if you’re subject needs clear smooth gradients and the highest detail (delicate sky, distant blades of grass), you need to keep the ISO down. What high ISO is good for is capturing moving subjects in insufficient light, and that’s a different thing.
Another depth of field reason for a tripod, here the Gitzo Traveler Kit, Ser.1 4 sec tripod GT1545T + head GH1382TQD at Cap Malheureux, Mauritius. The shutter speed needed was 1/40 sec, just on the edge for handheld shooting, and with a need for precision framing (see #3 below)
- Extra long exposures
Another trend in photography that digital made easy is the kind of long exposure that drastically changes the appearance of slowly moving subjects, like skies and sea. These are exposures measured in the minutes rather than fractions of a second. It’s nothing new, but film has a technical issue with such long times — reciprocity failure. In principle, increasing the exposure time increases the brightness of the image by the same amount: twice the exposure, twice as bright, and so on. The response of film to long exposures slows down, however, and the colour shots, making it difficult to calculate. Digital suffers from none of this, hence the new popularity of ‘misty sea’ images. Set the ISO low, fix the camera, turn off autofocus, use aperture-priority auto exposure, make sure you have noise-reduction turned in of your camera has it (this takes care of fixed-pattern noise associated with long exposures) and you’re set to go. Check the first attempt and adjust as necessary. This usually works as is at dusk and night-time, but during daylight you’ll need a strong ND filter to cut down the light: The Manffrotto ND series includes the ND8 which cuts transmission down by 3 stops, the ND64 by 6 stops and the ND500 by 9 ƒstops.
Astrophotography is also increasingly popular, and if you go for wide-field views of the Milky Way (often a feature of tropical beach holidays), it’s simple. The 600 Rule is a good starting point for full-frame cameras: 600 divided by the focal length gives the approximate ideal shutter speed. So, 600 divided by 28mm gives a maximum of about 20 seconds. You don’t want longer, because then stars begin to streak due to the earth’s rotation.
A 30-second exposure at ƒ20 at ISO 100 in bright sub-tropical daylight on the south coast of Mauritius called for both a tripod and two ND filters: an ND500 (9-stop reduction) and an ND64 (3-stop reduction), giving a total of 12 stops of reduction
- Precision framing, thoughtful composition
If you value composition and have a subject in front of you that’s not going anywhere soon, a tripod helps this area of craftsmanship. By no means is this just for extreme situations, such as using gloves on an Icelandic beach in mid-winter. It has long been one of the less obvious but important professional techniques, to fine-tune the view, often one axis at a time (which is why three-way heads are especially useful; by contrast, if you use a ball-head, loosening to changes everything). This kind of use is especially important in photographing buildings, and if you carry a shift/tilt lens, a tripod is an absolute necessity.
The wide-angle shot here in a Tibetan monastery, Dongzhulin in northern Yunnan, needed precise framing, which would have been uncertain handheld with a 14mm focal length. I set up the camera well before the monks exited from prayers
- Heavy equipment
It’s a strange thing with the evolution of cameras. Digitalisation and miniaturisation drives equipment to become smaller, which we have to thank for the new generation of mirrorless cameras, yet at the same time, some equipment has actually become heavier. My standard configuration in the old days was a Nikon F3T with a 180mm lens and weighed 1.5kg. Now I carry much more of a handful — a Nikon D4S with 24-70mm lens at 2.2kg. In fact, if I have the 70-200mm lens fitted, that weighs 2-8kg. Long lenses of the kind you need for wildlife and sports photography are always heavy — the 600mm ƒ4 is over 5kg! And the success of high-end, no-compromise, aspherical fast lenses, pioneered by Zeiss, point the way to even more weight in pursuit of optical excellence — the Otus 55mm weighs one kilo! Imagine that for a standard lens. In all, if you’re into high-class equipment, you’re adding weight, and that’s definitelty one more reason for carrying a tripod. Ironically, with the modern materials and new designs from Manfrotto, your tripod can be the lightest part of your equipment — a BeFree Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod with Ball Head MKBFRC4-BH weighs just 1.1kg.
Hunting Dogs in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park, with a 6kg 600mm f4 Nikon lens. The weight makes support essential
- Extended shooting occasions
An extension of the last use is when you need to wait for the right conditions and have a shot set up that could take many minutes or even an hour — very common in landscape photography, and especially at the ends of the day, waiting for sunrise or dusk, for example. Waiting, and patience, is an integral part of landscape photography, and we can include cityscapes, seascapes, any-scales in this, but as carefully found viewpoints, framings and composition are also important ingredients fro success, you don’t really want to throw away all those adjustments each time you shoot. In particular, once you’ve worked out the focus, exposure and depth of field settings, you also want to preserve them. A locked-down camera is the answer.
On a tea mountain in Qimen, in China’s Anhui Province, I already had the shot planned precisely for a strongly vertical image in the style of a Chinese ‘mountain-water’ brush painting but had to wait for the tea-pickers to appear, which took over half an hour. Definitely a case for fixing the composition first with a tripod
- Awkward viewpoints
Tripods can extend your reach, literally. Some valuable viewpoints are awkward — and occasionally impossible — for handheld shooting. In particular, overhead views looking down, and very low, floor-level views looking up, invite contortions that might instead make you give up the idea. Here’s where intelligent use of a tripod comes in. Imagine a shot from a balcony looking down. The vantage point seems ideal, and yet just leaning over doesn’t give you enough clearance to avoid having part of the building — the vertical front of the balcony — in shot. The solution? The unique Manfrotto mechanism that rotates the centre column to horizontal on tripods like the 055 aluminium 3-section tripod with horizontal column MT055XPRO3. Or, a tide pool shot looking straight down and avoiding the tripod legs and possibly your shadow in shot — the same horizontal centre column mechanism is perfect for this. Ground-level shots looking upward are also notoriously tricky, which is where the wide-splayed legs position comes in handy. For even lower, reverse the entire column so that your camera is upside-down, and you can position it just millimetres above the ground. You can combine this use with a coupe of the triggering methods described in #10 below, in particular a self-timer and a long manual cable release.
In this open-roofed ancient Thai monument in Sukhothai, getting a near-vertical downward shot, accurately framed and without including the near wall meant leaning the tripod outward, beyond a position I could safely reach handheld
- HDR and focus stacking
Digital processing and post-production has created a new category of shooting in which different frames are stacked in the computer. HDR, focus stacking is another, as indeed is any way of treating images that involves combining them in register in a single image file, such as using a Photoshop Stack Mode to make passers-by disappear from a scene (that uses Median mode, which finds and removes differences between layers). Photoshop, with its many tools can handle most of these multi-shot stacking tasks, but there is also dedicated software for each of them, such as Photomatix for HDR and Helicon Focus for focus stacking. All rely on aligning every frame perfectly, and while software, like Photoshop’s Align, can do a pretty good job, there is absolutely nothing like a perfectly fixed camera for getting identical frames. Apart from anything else, it guarantees that you make full use of the sensor, because software alignment from handheld shooting inevitably has to crop in. For a guide to shooting naturalistic HDR for interiors, see [Silvia, can you please reference the link to that article I recently sent you?]
Using stitching with a Nikon PC 28mm shift lens for control of verticals, this wooden traditional Thai interior took 16 frames to shoot, all needing alignment
- Pan and stitch
Software that seamlessly composites overlapping frames has long been perfected, and whether you use an automated panoramic mode in-camera or in the smartphone, or import the frames into a computer and use software like Panoweaver or Photoshop’s PhotoMerge, what’s essential is a levelled view. The only way of guaranteeing that as you rotate the camera in an arc is to use a tripod ad first of all level the head. This maximises the height of the final image, because doing this at an angle means cropping top and/or bottom, sometimes to the point where the panorama becomes unusable. Using a tripod for pan-and-stitch also keeps each frame vertically aligned to each other. If you take this one step further and shoot an HDR sequence for each frame — which you’d need if the contrast is very high shooting into the light — a tripod becomes even more essential.
Actually combining three uses — pan and stitch plus HDR plus extended shooting over 10 minutes — this panorama of the Spanish colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia was possible only with a tripod
- Video and Cinegraphs
Shooting video clips is now so straightforward with most modern cameras that there’s no longer the decision to take between shooting stills OR video. You can, and more and more people do, shoot both. Added to this is the relatively new image form of the Cinegraph, which can lay claim to having its own creative space. Cinegraphs present as still images with one small moving area within them (think model on a beach with just her hair blowing and all else frozen), and while there’s more of the still image in them than video, they start life as videos, from which you choose one frame and create a ‘hole’ in it for part of the sequence to show through — and then loop it. Again, a tripod is essential.
Filming with a 70-200mm lens on a Nikon D4, with rig and shotgun mic
- Remote triggering
The reason could be as trivial as a selfie from a distance or as intense as capturing a rare animal, like a Snow Leopard, but a secure tripod that can be relied on to look after itself for minutes, hours, or even days is an essential component of a remote triggering kit. Most cameras have some form of built-in delayed shutter release, from a self-timer to an intervalometer. For remote release, the choices range from doing it manually wired or wireless (using RF, radio frequency) to using a smartphone app, to triggering by means of sound, vibration or motion.