I was out shooting candlelit cemeteries on All Saints Day – a local tradition in some communities in south Louisiana-when I found myself thinking about tripods. When to use one, when not? There were lots of photographers out that night, some with tripods and some without. This got me thinking about the pros and cons of “pulling out the sticks” and what goes into my decision about when to use them.
Tripods are great when you need solid support for your camera rig-maybe a long lens that you can’t hand hold, or long exposure times that would be blurry without one. But they can also be a huge hindrance-particularly the way they limit your entire shooting/composing/creating/thinking ability while out shooting. Unless all of your photography is static-table top, landscape, for instance-you’ll find that using a tripod limits and changes the way you work. It can be a cinder block around your neck at times if you like to shoot, move, recompose, shoot, etc. On the other hand, the tripod can force you to slow down and see things differently. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
So how to decide when it’s worth it to use a tripod?
My cemetery shooting session provides some useful clues. Due to an afternoon meeting I could not miss, we were late to the cemeteries. My favorite time to shoot this would have been a bit earlier, right when it’s beginning to get dark, when “magic light” is available-when indoor and outdoor light is roughly equal, a time my dad used to call on fishing trips “first dark.” In this case, the candles would show up lit and glowing, but there would still be lots of subtle detail in the fading light around the graves. This only lasts for a bit, and I was missing it due to my prior commitment. So what to do?
In this case, I decided to leave the tripod in the car, rate my camera at ISO 1600, and shoot carefully, hand-held and steadied on various things-my camera bag, a wrought iron fence post, maybe even an adjoining tombstone. There were three different cemeteries we wanted to see and not much time before the candles burned out, so I needed to work fast. That desire took precedence over the tripod, which would have slowed the shooting down tremendously.
Would the tripod have helped? On the more limited output I would have achieved, of course. I could have taken longer exposures with smaller apertures. But I would have been able to shoot far fewer situations. Also, I frequently find myself down on my knees and elbows, looking for the angle I want, moving around a lot. The tripod ends up limiting this type of shooting and thought process for me.
But What Tripod to Buy?
Don’t get me wrong: I like tripods. They’re wonderful and at times indispensable. But what should you buy?
First think about exactly what it is you want to accomplish. Imagine the biggest lens you think you might be using in the next few years, along with your biggest, heaviest camera. You want a tripod to support that combination.
The controls should be positive and easy to use. You should be able to tighten things up without too much difficulty and have them stay tight, until you want to loosen them up.
With these things in mind, you can start to shop around.
My favorite for regular 35mm/dslr and 120mm shooting has always been the trusty Leitz Tiltall . Originally manufactured by the German camera company, they’re now produced by someone else, but the quality is still very nice. These are beautiful tripods, quick and easy to use, sturdy and tough. All of the parts are machined from aluminum and brass and in 30 years of shooting I’m only on my second one.
Another decent choice would be something from the Bogen/Manfrotto line of sticks. These are decently made and sturdy, although I’ve always found them a bit heavy and clunky to operate. But they do have a huge selection and seem to be in all the camera stores.
One other piece of advice: you get what you pay for with tripods. Stay away from the super flimsy, super cheap stuff. You’ll be back looking for another one before you know it, cursing your original decision to save a few bucks. The cheap ones won’t hold still, can’t support big telephoto lenses and will strip out the threads on all of the tightening mechanisms. A mistake waiting to happen!
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog