A massive (but silent) change

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I’ve long been one of the strongest proponents of tripod use for the simple reason that doing so forces you to slow down. This slowing down has the combined benefits of making you spend more time observing your subject and its surroundings to increase awareness and in turn create a stronger or more interesting implied story; it forces you to spend more than a breath looking at the composition in the viewfinder and being aware of elements that might be imbalanced or distracting or intrusive, or that should be included. In fact, I almost always land up working off the rear LCD rather than the finder as it has the convenience of touch functions, the precision of live view focus, and tends to be larger*. So why is it that I actually haven’t used a tripod outside of macro and product work in the studio for over a year now?

*My preference still remains for an eye level finder when working quickly, though – both for immediacy and stability of having the camera braced against your face; arms’ length with an LCD is not stable and such situations usually don’t yield time for another try if you happened to shake. We have recently seen the jump from ‘good enough’ EVFs to very good EVFs that have improved resolution, color accuracy, black point and dynamic range enough to be quite transparent; once again with the benefit of focusing on the sensor as well as magnification for manual focus. I’d say we’re about on par at this point, at least in FF-land. But I digress.

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Not counting the cheap freebie that came with an early bridge camera, I started off using a tripod seriously for stability with long lenses for birding; those were the days in which I shot APSC or 4/3 (no Micro 4/3 yet, no IBIS) and old manual focus lenses (no means, either). The Nikon superteles didn’t have VR anyway, but they did still induce a mortgage. I quickly found that the head was the weak point: it either moved well and wasn’t stable enough, or didn’t move easily and you couldn’t reframe quickly enough. And no, I hadn’t discovered gimbal heads yet – instead, I landed up moving to a monopod, and improving my technique. The flexibility and manoeuvrability was a significant improvement. I didn’t look at a tripod again until my first dedicated photography trip, during which I borrowed carbon and expensive from a friend, used it a grand total of twice, carried it around faithfully like an anchor for a week, and then panicked when the airline lost it in my luggage on the way home.

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Even during the early watch photography years, I preferred to work handheld with flashes and zero ambient; this allowed for a signifiant amount of flexibility in positioning the camera in odd places between various small pieces of diffusion material and with very short working distances. In the days before zero-backlash focusing rails and the Arca Cube, precision positioning for high magnification with a somewhat droopy ballhead was simply not workable. It wasn’t until I had to make repeatable catalog-type images that I reluctantly began using a tripod again.

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And then many things happened in parallel: I started using larger formats in film and CCD, whose image quality degraded significantly the moment your ISO climbed; I had clients, and they needed both the aforementioned repeatability and the image quality. I didn’t have a full MF system until much later, and there were things that still required FF (movements, wide angle, macro, longer tele) and thus tripod use. By this point, the tripod had become so ingrained into the way I shot that I thought nothing of carrying a ~5kg rig (RRS TVC-24L legs, Arca Cube) for everything. I would be a bit schitzo in my photographic styles: small formats (1″, M4/3) for handheld, documentary and spontaneous work; FF and MF and tripod for what I considered more ‘serious’ work. Personal and client preferences leaned increasingly towards the latter and the small format stuff mostly faded away; that style of shooting changed into a much slower, more deliberate, lower quantity but higher yield type of work. You can try, but you simply can’t be spontaneous when it takes a few minutes to set up and tear down, and you have to shoot on a timer.

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This is probably around the point where many discussions took place in the comments about how my images were becoming technical, precise, cold, soulless etc – I will not rehash this here since a quick search will allow you to make up your own minds – but I will say that I’m still happy with my output of the time and that it matched my creative intentions quite well. Those creative intentions have changed, and many factors have once again pushed me towards a more fluid style of working – client requirements, time limitations given other business interests, my earlier back injury limiting portable weight, and the fact that during all of that – I’d both found a style of working and hardware that produced results I liked, that were different to what I was making before. I think we can agree that the structure is still there, but there’s also a bit more looseness that psychologically allows me to experiment in ways that I wouldn’t have done before. It’s a different set of creative restrictions – using a balanced amount of movement/ motion instead of that sort of perfect pastel-graphic smoothness – but one that suits documentary style work a bit better.

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The tripodless-ness is extending a bit further than that, too; I’ve packed one on the last four or five assignments I’ve done with the Z7 (out of habit) but found that firstly, the body is too small to play nicely with the Cube and tilt shift lenses, which tends to mean that I either use the D850 or shoot handheld. You couldn’t do handheld movements with a DSLR because the finder did not accurately reflect exposure or focus; furthermore, the submirror geometry is thrown off when you’re not using a symmetric central image circle, so you need to use live view (or stop down hugely). With the Z7, not only does the EVF reflect exactly what I get – the sensor stabiliser and the width of the 19 PCE means that critically sharp 0.5s images handheld are routinely easy. Add wide angle DOF and great optics, and I’m rarely stopped down beyond f5.6-f8 – which means more than enough light to fall within the 0.5s limit. It won’t take a filter either, so very long exposures are moot.

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There are perhaps two places left where I do break out the tripod – shooting watches and other products in the studio where repeatability and precision is required, and for certain long exposure images that require shutter speeds beyond what VR or IBIS can support. But for the former, the Cube has geared focusing rails in two axes and lives on a 5-series Gitzo with a geared head that isn’t moving anywhere in a hurry (not with a 12kg total weight). For the latter…let’s just say I keep wanting to find another way to compose or shoot that lets me leave the very light Gitzo 2-series traveller behind. Given my history, all of this is probably tantamount to a heretical confession – but I’m willing to admit vision changes, technology changes, and we might as well make the most of it. MT

Images shot handheld with a mix of Nikon Z7 and D3500, SOOC JPEG using my custom profile.


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. A tripod is a bit like going around shooting from a car. If you don’t get out of the car, you miss some interesting viewpoints. Also, with the excellent ibis of my Olympus and 12-100mm ( dual ibis ), I find that my tripod has become useless on vacation/fun trips.
    And finally Ming, one of my single greatest acquisition ( when I did studio work ) was my smaller 8 ft. studio stand ( I also had the big behemoth for my 8 x 10 view camera ). I still own the small stand today and use it religiously for tabletop photography. Quick and precise with repeatable height and floor lockdowns. Some “crazy” client actually told me he hired me because of the mono stand. He hated to see other photographers constantly fiddling with height or position of their tripods! Says a lot about my photography or his visual literacy!

    • I used to go around with the tripod – not just that, but with a full sized RRS thing and Arca Cube. Yes, definitely missed some stuff, but also landed up finding some interesting compositions once forced to work from one position for a while. On the whole though, I think the balance is much skewed in favour of handheld now for the kind of flaneuring one tends to do much of.

      In the studio I have a large (5-series) Gitzo with a geared column – I agree, that precision is irreplaceable…

  2. I want to thank you for keeping the Flickr site alive. My collection of favorites is immense and I count on reviewing it from time to time for inspiration. Some of your former students have produced amazing work. It would be a great loss if those photos were to suddenly vanish. Digital does not mean expendable.

  3. I’ve discovered your blog recently and really appreciate your well written in depth articles. I ‘stumbled’ into photography (by accident – long story) 8 years ago in the digital age so, although I’m keen and a sponge when learning all I can (while out with my camera a lot) – there is so much I have not experienced from pre digital. Instinctively I can see a difference in image types and quality but your articles are helping me understand why. Thank you. Most photography blogs are just displays of images without explanations. Thanks for your hard work and thought writing them.

  4. I never bought into that cold, clinical, soulless nonsense and I’ve been reading and admiring for quite a few years. My comment long ago that your photos automatically took on new life whenever you picked up an Olympus camera really had to do with the candid nature of the subject matter. Even the delicious people shots made with the 45mm and 75mm lens were partly the product of the situation in which you were working. I see that yet today, without regard to hardware, when you respond to people and the settings in which you find them.

  5. Great set of images, each one calling for spontaneity on the part of the photographer else images would be lost forever. The image of the two children embracing is particularly poignant. I’m sure that many of us are today watching dust gather on our tripods; I know I am, too.

    • Thanks! I still use mine for product photography of our watches where I need the precision of positioning the focal plane, but that’s about it. Even night work can be done at base ISO or close enough to it…

  6. scott devitte says:

    “…vision changes, technology changes, and we might as well make the most of it….images shot handheld with a mix of Nikon Z7 and D3500, SOOC JPEG using my custom profile.” Very sly that first shot.

  7. Funny but fitting typo: “schitzo” – a blend between schizo and Gitzo 😉

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