Do I Use A Tripod?
As part of a general conversation about photography, I was recently asked by an aspiring photographer if I used a tripod, and what tripod I might recommend for them.
The answer to the first part of the question was "Yes". With regards to recommendation, I made none. Rather, I explained why I have the one I do.
I Went Through Three
Back when I was starting to commit more than just an interest in photography, I purchased a tripod that a local camera store recommended. I knew nothing about stability, leg extension, or camera weight. It was economical, and recommended. That first tripod was lightweight aluminum with a center extension post. The legs were all interconnected. I didn't have the heavier equipment I do now, but the equipment wasn't light either. It came with its own interconnect tripod head, so it seemed a logical choice. Soon that tripod was replaced with a heavier aluminum unit.
Once again, that second tripod was recommended by the same store. It was the same one the sales person told me he used, so it had to be good. It didn't take long to find out it was too short, and again, still not quite sturdy.
Tripod number three was a heavier duty unit, though still aluminum with a center post. The legs extended easily and had locking latches to lock into place. The legs were not interconnected. As I remember, this was also the first tripod that required a ball head.
It wasn't long before even this third tripod was not working for me. With the center post extended for elevation, I soon observed vibration in the camera. Although the tripod was solid, the post extension became the "weak link" in this stability. The further it was extended, the more the vibration/movement was detected. It became most obvious when using the longer lenses. Any vibration, regardless of how small, can be easily seen when looking at images in their 100% view. Only way that I know of to fix vibration issues is at the time of capture. A sturdy tripod becomes critical to this goal.
Although I could lay out the legs flat, the center post prevented getting close to the ground with the camera. I even cut the post shorter, but still not satisfied. This too, was soon replaced.
And Then The Fourth - Worked!
After the experience with the first three -- all in a space of about six months, I purchased the Gitzo Mountaineer 1325 carbon fiber tripod. I wished I had done this first!
Combined with a Kirk BH-1 ballhead, I have had this tripod for over 13 years. It is my only tripod I use for my photography.
Why I Enjoy The Gitzo
Made of carbon fiber, this tripod is relatively lightweight. Combined with the Kirk ballhead, it scales in around 6.3 pounds. For that, it is also very sturdy.
This tripod can hold 26 pounds, far more than my camera equipment weighs, but also welcomed when I was using longer lenses. This tripod is literally rock-solid.
First, it does not have a center post. The camera mounts on the ballhead (quick release), the ballhead is mounted to the top base of the tripod, which is secured to the legs. I no longer have the possibility of vibration due to the center post. To elevate the camera, the legs of the tripod must be elevated.
Each leg has three sections, two extensions. The locking mechanism is a rotating collar. A quarter turn opens and closes the locking system.
It is tall. With the legs at their maximum extension on level ground, the camera view finder is actually slightly too high for me. Leg adjustment addresses this issue. Rarely, though, am I ever on perfectly level ground, and this extra extension has really paid dividends.
With each leg independently attached to the tripod base plate, the legs can be individually brought out to any angle up to and including 90 degrees. With this, my camera is now almost flush with the ground, and as solid as if the tripod is in full extension.
Because the terrain is not level, I can easily have two legs provide vertical support, and bring the third leg out more horizontally relative to the hillside I may be on, or the boulder I'm working off of. Again, once set up, this tripod is sturdy. Shooting at slow shutter speeds, the elimination of vibration is essential. This sturdy Gitzo tripod with its Kirk ballhead (along with timer release) has resolved those issues.
When Do I Use A Tripod?
I use a tripod about 99% of the time for all of my landscape photography. The only exception to this may be if I am just out for a general hike or biking. I then only have the camera with one mounted lens. I'll handhold or use something in the area (such as a fence post, boulder, my bike), to steady the camera if shooting at slower shutter speeds.
The same is true if I am "sightseeing" while on vacation. I use the camera with one fast, short-focal-length lens. In these instances, I tend not to shoot for great depth of field.
A number of years ago I owned the longer lenses (ex. 500mm f/4 L) for wildlife. I always used the tripod with that lens. When I owned the 300 f/2.8, I would hand hold it. Note, however, I am not a wildlife photographer for a reason, and I no longer have those lenses.
For any action shots of the grandkids sporting events, everything is handheld with fast shutter speeds and fast lenses.
Why I Use A Tripod
The first reason is simply stability. There is no way I can handhold my camera at slow shutter speeds and expect my photography to be sharp when printed large. Whether it is macro photography or great vistas, everything is shot using my sturdy tripod.
The second reason is convenience. With the camera mounted on the tripod, I can take my time framing up the image as I desire. Prior to depressing the shutter, I can step back, re-evaluate the scene, and then look back through the viewfinder for any additional adjustments I may wish to make. The camera and lens never changes its position during this evaluation period.
If I am shooting handheld, I lose this ability to frame up the image, evaluate, and reframe if necessary. Even if I am very careful with re-framing the image from what I thought I had initially, I most likely have not done so. Using the tripod gives me this flexibility.
It Is With Me - Always
As mentioned above, for all of my landscape photography, my tripod is with me always.
And What Is My Recommendation
Would I recommend the same to others? No, as I have found out the tripod selection is very much an individual choice based on the individual's needs, uses, and preferences. My requirements may not be the same as another photographer, even if they too, are shooting landscapes.
While not recommending any specific tripod, a very sturdy tripod should always be the initial consideration. Price should be last. (I found that out, three tripods later!)