Why the tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment

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Pentax 645Z with L bracket on Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

Chances are, a tripod is actually one of the first bits of gear you got at the start of your photographic journey: they’re usually given away free with DSLR ‘kits’ as ‘value added’ freebies (you’re actually charged for them, of course). Like most people, you probably even carried it with you on every photographic excursion for a while, and then eventually got lazy or frustrated with it and gave up. At that point, you probably also wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a good tripod and head and a poor one. I’m fully guilty of this, of course. I even bought my tripod – a relatively cheap Velbon thing for all of about $60 that included a head, and was light and relatively small but tall enough to be reasonably ergonomic and not induce too much back pain – jackpot! Of course, I would later learn that the only thing that’s worse than no tripod at all is a bad tripod.

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Below the Horzion, 245s, 135mm equivalent, windy. RRS 33 and Arca-Swiss P0

With no tripod you have no expectations of being able to get the kinds of images that demand long exposures or stability and longer lenses. And you don’t try, or try half-heartedly and don’t feel bad when the experiments turn out to be disappointments. With a bad tripod, you’ll think you got the shot, only to go home and discover when viewing on a computer that everything was quite a bit softer than you expected – except you can’t really figure out why, and believe it’s merely a consequence of long exposures. It isn’t. I don’t think I need to explain why this can be incredibly discouraging.

A quick note: when I refer to a ‘tripod’ in this article, unless stated explicitly (‘legs’) I’m referring to the whole combination of both legs and head. In general, be wary if they come together as a package.

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Kawarau Lodge, 30s, 19mm equivalent. Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

It’s probably also obvious why you’d need a tripod in the first place: longer exposures than you can handhold for a given focal length (which may well reach into the daylight regions with lenses that are very long, e.g. for birding, sport or wildlife); precision framing and alignment (e.g. product, architecture, anything that needs compositing or stitching); ultimate image quality without having to raise the ISO. They’re also of course useful when the weight of the camera exceeds what one can reasonably handhold or carry.

Using a tripod is not fast. No matter how well designed the hardware, it will never be as fast as simply raising the camera to your eye to take a shot. For the greater part of the early history of photography, a tripod was not even an option under most circumstances: films simply were not sensitive enough to work handheld, or there was an enormous penalty in image quality. And some types of cameras – view cameras, specifically – are just not conducive to be used handheld. Consequently, early images felt static and staged because they were static and staged; they had to be. A lot of landscapes were shot because it was easier to deal with something that didn’t move than explosive magnesium flash cubes. Later on, a great liberation came with faster emulsions and smaller hardware – we saw the rise of documentary and reportage work because the camera was small and stealthy enough not to be noticed, at least relative to the previous hardware. I suppose the closest analog of this now is the ubiquitous cameraphone compared to a DSLR.

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Kuala Lumpur skyline after midnight, 30s, 8-image stitch at 165mm. RRS 24L and Arca-Swiss Cube

But it’s also worth noting that for all of the staticness of the early photographs, they also had a couple of things in their favour: very careful control over light, composition and depth of field, and an overall sense of precision and ‘just-so-ness’ to them which got lost somewhere along the line in the search for grit. I suspect there are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, photography back then was an expensive and time consuming process, and you made damn sure that whatever it is you were photographing was worth photographing, and secondly, the act of working with a tripod forces you to slow down. And slowing down gives you thinking time; time to rearrange things, move your position, think about precisely where you want your focal plane, and wonder if the light might be better in an hour. This is almost entirely lost today. How often do we stop and really work a scene, to derive one perfect image rather than a whole bunch that we won’t be able to remember individually because they’re all not quite distinct and not quite there?

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Under the tracks, 1/15s at 400mm equivalent. RRS 24L and Arca-Swiss Cube

I see this a lot in the reader flickr pool: there are often people who submit three or four variations of the same image and expect me to do the curation. The trouble is, there usually isn’t a single one that stands out and just ‘works’ given the information you have about the scene; every image usually has something about the composition or exposure that can be exposed and perfected. I always can’t help but think that slowing down during the process could avoid this, and a double check of curation afterwards would make doubly sure.

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Still creek redwoods, 359s at 24mm, after sunset with tilt and shift. Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

The best thing is that all of these benefits apply regardless of the size of your camera: you’d be surprised just how good some compacts are if you really try to get every last bit of image quality out of them (shoot at base ISO, NR off, lock focus, optimum apertures, stable tripod). Especially if your exposure fits within the dynamic range of the camera – chances are it’ll be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between a compact and a larger sensor of similar pixel count.

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Redwood grove, 30s, 3-image stitch at 45mm with tilt and shift. Gitzo 1542T and Arca-Swiss P0.

The reason I’ve picked the example images in this article is to show you what can be done with a good tripod and head – the camera doesn’t matter; think of it as affecting only resolution and field of view (through lens choice). What you should be looking at are a) the acuity and level of detail of the 100% crops, b) the shutter speed and focal length combinations, and c) the conditions under which the images were shot. Obviously, wind affects things significantly. Could I have done it with lesser equipment? Debatable, actually. Sometimes there are no free lunches and no way to make up for technical deficiencies with your own technique; there’s simply no way to make a bad tripod not transmit vibration or sway in the wind.

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Occluded observation, 80s at 24mm with tilt and shift, very windy. RRS 33 and Arca-Swiss P0

Technique and achieving ultimate image quality aside, I think using a tripod is really about two things: firstly, forcing you to slow down and think (with the attendant benefits of creativity and coherence of composition), and secondly, enabling the production of what you cannot see: it’s usually a length of exposure or quantity of light thing, but it can also be angle of view related. It should really be seen as a creative device and not merely a technical one. I highly encourage you to use a tripod, plus your imagination, to see what you can produce. MT

Part two of this article will continue to good tripod technique, how to pick one, and some recommendations.

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Comments

  1. According to the discussions at some other forums, some big cities such as New York and San Diego have laws prohibiting tripod photography on the streets. Although I have not had those bad experiences, some photographers reported being fined with the tickets of $500.00-$600.00. Those tripod laws do not apply to monapods and some photographers take advantage of that.

    • Quite possibly. There’s no way you’re going to manage a 5s exposure on a monopod, though. I suppose there are always gyro arms.

    • a single “tripod ticket” of USD 500~600? that’s shocking and thanks for the info. most of the time i use tripod to take photos for me & my wife when we are traveling in foreign countries, i guess we better rely on single-arm-selfie next time when we are there~

  2. Is there some advantage in using L- bracket with Pentax 645 over using the in-body vertical tripod mount? I thought this is one camera that does not require an L-bracket….

    Some photographers like Lloyd Chambers and Mark Dubovoy prefer RRS tripods over similar Gitzo, would you agree that RRSs are more stable?

    Thank you for the article!

    • Convenience and you still need to find a plate that has a pin in it to prevent inadvertent rotation, which is physically not possible with a L bracket. For a given size, I do find the RRS tripods to be both more stable and just a little better ergonomically.

  3. Ivar Holst says:

    Any experienca with monopod ?

    • I used to shoot wildlife with long lenses off a monopod for mobility. For more planned stills it doesn’t really give me the flexibility or precision/long exposures I want, but you still have the inconvenience.

  4. Hi Ming,

    “if your exposure fits within the dynamic range of the camera ” <– how do i verify this? or do i missed your elaboration in this from any of your previous articles?

  5. My first visit – great photographs! Quick question- I’m unclear on the term “curation?” Have a great week!

  6. TranslucentTraces says:

    Hi Ming,

    excellent article as always from you;)! To have a good, sturdy tripod is one of the most underrated accessories & essential tool esp. for landscape and macro shooters! Lens & body stabilization cannot replace it! Never-ever! We made good experience with tripods and heads from Sirui (even better than Manfrottos!) so far! We can recommend them wholeheartedly esp. for those on a tight budget! Excellent price/performance ratio!

    Keep going and take care!

    <A href = "translucenttraces.com"

  7. Looking forward to part II as I’m on the lookout for a new tripod. My cheap Manfrotto doesn’t really cut it anymore(unstable and not that flexible)

  8. Great pictures!
    I have a nice Benro combination that I picked up for a third of retail in a stock clearance. Ball head is rated for 20kg, lol, way, way more than I need ATM but rock solid it is. 😉😊 And I figured that buying over the top means that I probably have a tripod for life – can’t see any reason to upgrade, as the MG/Alu legs are great as well. Now I really need to use it more.
    What gets a lot of use is my prized Leica TGOON ball head from the 1940s, made in New York, with a unique Kodak tabletop stand, that I effectively got for free when buying, and subsequently selling, a Leica Minilux on EBay. After selling the camera I covered all the costs, and the Leica store in Vienna graded my ball head at 250Euros retail, due to rarity and condition. And it works superbly, so not for sale. 😉 Unless I really get strapped for cash.

  9. While I don’t use a tripod often, buying a good one is essential. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of seeing a heavy body slide on a cheap head!

  10. “In general, be weary if they come together as a package.” Perhaps not what you meant to write, but true nonetheless.

  11. A very good set of pictures as always and a very timely article for me as i have upgraded my camera recently . my previous point and shoot had a 1/2.5 inch ccd sensor , so was basically useless above iso 400 , but had a manual mode which helped me discover long exposures . Those shots gave me more satisfaction than others probably because i had to slow down and think , and also lacking a tripod , placement of camera on something solid was also a big part of equation . I have thought of buying tripod since then but advice of everyone not to buy cheap one and a good RRS or Gitzo being out of my reach at present have put me off . But I will be looking forward to your next post and maybe finally able to pick up one . loved your entire set , and as always you continue to inspire me . Just going to head out in cold winter night to try a few long exposures )

  12. A quick correction to a quick note. Be “wary” and not “weary” unless of course your tripod and head are very heavy.

  13. Curious where you get RRS and Arca-Swiss here? YL doesn’t carry those brands, and I can’t imagine the cost of shipping (along with potential duty costs) if you order them online?

  14. point noted and taken, sifu.
    many thanks.
    ken

  15. stunning images as usual Ming, tripod is must have for landscape, but night portrait is my fav, i really jealous with
    sony A7 II + zeiss 55 f1,8 when nikon will release 50 f1,8g vr or others focal length, whatever.

  16. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Ming, as usually you are so right. I used to say to newbes in film time, don`t worry about camera and lens, get a sturdy tripod, put Velvia 50 in a camera with a prime, stop it down to 8-11 and you cannot go wrong.
    The tripod issue, oh boy. Talking about that, I guess most of dedicated photogs have a ladies soft spot for carrying bags and gentelmen of bygone times weakness for walking sticks and canes.In all sizes and for all occasions.
    Personally, being mostly a walkabout photographer,neverless I still menaged to amass an old Manfrotto 055 heavy and sturdy like hell- for an occasional video and heavy camera shot, a Manfrotto 190 carbon for taking out, a super cute Gitzo Weekend and a bit smaller Sirui half the weight of Gitzo to put in a small rucksack. But what I have with me, when carrying a small, and I mean a small, bag with me most often, is one item you forgot to mention. A table tripod with a good quality ballhead. Mine is old Leica big model which saved me couple of long exposure shots. Just press it agains a wall, car, door frame, a ceilling if, a table, a chair and so on. Of course when you doing a landscape photography with no walls and tables around, one does take his fav sticks, They do come handy as a crutch to lean on after long walk in the open. By the way, I think Novoflex makes a model with removable legs which convert into norwegian walk sticks. Now that`s an idea! 🙂

    • The little Manfrotto 345 that goes into a small leather pouch is excellent too. These days I’m carrying the proper tripod almost all the time though (Cube, RRS 24L, levelling base, Novoflex nodal rail).

      • Ming, do you use a single nodal rail, or the entire nodal setup (for multi-row panoramas)? What are your thoughts on both? I can see the advantage of the latter if you’re trying to squeeze center-of-lens sharpness out of every area of the scene.

        • Just a single rail, and ensure enough overlap. I’m not worried about off-center areas because I’m using pretty high end glass for the stitches (85 Otus, 135 APO, 180 APO etc.). The weight tradeoff for two rails isn’t worth it when travelling and when a single gust of wind can ruin everything…

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Plus a good strap to tie it to a tree or lamppost.

  17. Out of curiosity, let’s say someone has bought, say, an entry level canon or nikon DSLR, with the kit lens and, say, the 55-200 (with the obligatory UV filters the salesperson forced on them…), and the “free” tripod, and they want to take photos like the ones you posted above, but have limited money. Choosing between: 1) better camera, 2) better lens, 3) better tripod, or 4) photography classes / training, what order would you recommend?

    I find my tripod ($100-150 lightweight SLIK model for travel) is occasionally a source of soft / bad shots because of a lack of stability, but far more frequently it’s my composition that wrecks the shot 🙂 Now I have a camera body I’m happy with, I’d probably rank a better tripod as maybe a purchase for late this year / next year, but first I think I’ll concentrate on improving my skills…

    PS: where is the great KL skyline shot taken from? (The flickr links don’t appear to work, although that might a problem on my end) I saw an amazing sunset / storm in KL many years ago from the KL TV tower, but I can rarely get photos from behind glass to work well. I’m always looking for good urban viewpoints

    • 1) No point, you wouldn’t know the difference
      2) Ditto
      3) Would you know how to use it? What would you spend more time thinking about if you are not that well versed in the theory?
      4) Bingo: you can make a compelling image with mediocre hardware, but the converse is also true 😉

      KL shot was from a friend’s balcony.

      • Thanks. And I guess I need to cultivate friends in high places 🙂

        • Not really, if you’re living anywhere in the city in Asia it’s going to be in a high rise…land is crazy expensive. It’s when you have a view of your own garden then you’ve got friends in high places 🙂

      • I have a slightly different situation, and would love input (from whomever).

        I’m debating on upgrading my tripod/head or purchasing a lens that covers a focal length that I don’t have right now (Canon’s new 16-35 f/4) — my current lens set is a 24-105 L, 70-300, and a 14 prime (Rokinon). I consider myself primarily a landscape photographer. Is it smarter for me to cover the focal length or get the better tripod?

        Other funds have already been budgeted for classes / training, so that’s not an issue. (Including more videos of yours, Ming 🙂

  18. Do we still need so often a tripod with Olympus and Sonys IBIS development/implementation ? They are better than Nikon and Canon cameras with IS/VR lens stabilization….IBIS is esp. useful for stills and video….only not useful if you wanna freeze motion….

    You got your hands already on the sony a7II ? Not convinced/impressed with firmware uptate 1.1 it is even better…..a lot of pros using/switching to sony already!
    You can use your old glass via mf and focus peaking, a lot of the lenses will be made from zeiss and more af lenses are coming too (flashes if wanted as well) and the 11+7bit raw issue (artefacts) is in most shots not a problem only in very fewi! I would never buy a dslr nikon,canon again…and i think the raw option for true 14 bit will be soon implemented as you can see already online petitions are ongoing…https://www.change.org/p/sony-enable-uncompressed-or-lossless-compression-raw-files-on-the-a7-cameras-and-future-f-e-mount-cameras

    I find the smaller size, ibis, focus peaking/magnifier, evf advantages (exposure etc.), better video codecs/quality and much better built in connectivity (wifi, bluetooth, nfc, thethering shooting/remote control) far more useful than dual card slots (might come in new sony cams as well), shooting always in 14 bit raw files and slightly better af tracking/ af low on the old DSLRs…

    I think the missing features /current advantages of Canikon DSLRS will be easier to implement for Sony (FE Mount) than the other way around meaning as it is/will be for the establishment to build a complete competitve mirroless fullframe system…..

    My 2cents!

    The only open/remaining question is if sony can create/made excellent native af wide angle primes for the fe mount due to the shorter flange distance (and e mount wasnt developed for full frame at first)….you have often probelems with haloing etc. if you adapt wide angle prime lens from leica m or others….

  19. John Cleaver says:

    Possibly even more under-rated is the humble bean bag. When it can be used, for supporting a camera with a long telephoto lens from the top of a solid wall for instance, it can often be preferable to any but the very best of tripods. Inherently it is excellent for damping vibration, and the camera and lens can be well bedded in so that the support matches the position of the centre of mass.

  20. “Below the Horizon” is peacefully beautiful. I’m waiting for a friend who works for Manfrotto to buy me the BeFree Carbon tripod: using m4/3 gear, RicohGR and LeicaM it seems it might be perfect for someone like me, who hates carrying around big and “heavy” gear.

    Keep up the great work!

  21. Lol Ming… I’ve got the same setup – 1542T and P0. A question though. Is it fair to expect that once I fixed the P0 and get leveled for one orientation of the P0, then if I rotate the level plate, the level should remain the same? or it is acceptable for the level to fluctuate a bit?
    Is there any way to make the level same at all directions?

    • Fair assumption – assuming you’re using the pan base on top of the ball, not the optional one underneath.

      • Hmm, I’m referring to the pan base on the top of the ball of the P0. If I get the spirit bubble right in the middle at one orientation, I can never get the bubble to remain in the middle when I rotate this base. Is this a problem with the head?

  22. Alex Carnes says:

    Great article, and nice to see ‘Below the Horizon’ again – definitely one of your masterpieces!

    A quick technical question about tripods please, since I’m in the market for a new one, mostly to support a Nikon D750. I see ‘high end’ tripods are generally made of carbon fibre these days, which is light and (I would think) good at damping vibration originating in the camera itself – shutter shock and mirror slap etc. But surely a light tripod is less effective than a big heavy aluminium one in windy conditions, or on soft surfaces, e.g. woodland floors? Granted one mustn’t forget practical considerations since, technical matters aside, you’ve got to carry the damn thing, but is a light tripod still a compromise, even if it’s made of high tech materials?

    • Thank you. That one comes alive in print because of the pastel tonal transitions…

      There’s no real substitute for weight, but you could always hang your bag off a hook. That said, the big CF tripods are pretty weighty anyway. My largest rig is 10kg+ with head plus rails plus geared column; the smaller one is still 6kg. That doesn’t move in the wind at all…especially with another 2-3kg of camera on top.

      You also need to consider balance in addition to absolute weight: if the thing is too top heavy it’ll resonate, and worse, possibly fall over.

      • Mosswings says:

        I’d chime in here but Ming is writing another post on good tripod technique. I’m sure he’ll cover why a heavy hanging bag might be better than a heavy tripod…

  23. Wonderful images Ming 🙂 The crops makes me want to use my tripod more and the additional positive spin off is Time to Think. A free of charge accessory improving composition.

  24. I’m guilty of owning a cheap tripod. Wanted to explore the possibilities and see if the legend was true – more contemplation and fewer but better images. I bought a cheap, small but eye-level high model. Reasoning, cheap – wouldn’t be a disaster if I didn’t use it. Small – fan of ultralight hiking and otherwise not wanted size to be an issue. Eye level – sounded good. Needless to say, as late as two weeks ago I took some architectural shots, got home and was not happy with the result. Ruined by wind-induced softness.

    My main issue however is the head. My reasoning told me to get a video head but everyone wrote and talked about ball heads. Please give us your thought on that specific matter, because I find the (cheap) ball head to be hard to work with to get the framing precise, I think I would like to be able to work one axis at a time.

  25. Thank you for the great article, Ming. Which tripod would you recommend for Olympus OMD EM-1?

    Should I turn image stabilization off when I shoot with a tripod?

    Thank you, again.

    Val

  26. Thanks… For the improvement they can bring to your photography, a really good tripod is the bargain accessory.

  27. how to pick one

    I’ve been using a Mefoto Aluminum tripod for a while—after some discussion here—and it’s worked out well. It’s sturdy but portable. My main complaint is the lack of two levels built into the head.

    I’m struck by the extent to which tripod decisions change based on the weight of the camera being used and the probable lenses attache. Ten or even five years ago most cameras and lenses were automatically very heavy; with mirrorless cameras the bodies at least can be quite a bit lighter.

    • There’s one more part to the equation: we’re now seeing resolving power that was undreamed of ten years ago. It’s as though we’ve gone up one or tow format sizes.

    • I sometimes use the Mefoto when I go hiking. I’ve found the most success with it when using a camera with a very quiet shutter. Cameras with a leaf shutter work especially good. Some low vibration cameras with a leaf shutter are the Sigma DP series. For film cameras the Hexar AF works very well with this tripod. With some other cameras I can feel vibration from the shutter when I hold my hand on one of the Mefoto legs, even when using the self timer, so I avoid those camera/Mephoto combinations. A very nice tripod for very little money, when combined with the proper camera.

      • I’ve had the Mefoto Roadtrip for a year and a half now. It seems to me that it produces good results if used properly, but I’ve never owned a ~$1k tripod before, so perhaps I just don’t know what I’m missing.

  28. I forgot how good the birds picture was. That level of detail for the conditions of that shot is just amazing — that night was pretty damned windy. That’s the next print on my shopping list, too.

Trackbacks

  1. […] but because you’re forced to work slower, you’re thinking more. (And that is one of the reasons a tripod is such a critical piece of equipment.) As with every photographic discipline, it takes a lot of practice to get to the point where one […]

  2. […] actually. Whilst I do most of my work handheld, I actually use a tripod more often now than before. Some very good reasons are in this post, but in summary: image quality. Even though you can get ‘good enough’ quality handheld, […]

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