Do you need a tripod? Yes, no or maybe? Is that ambiguous enough for you? Tripods are controversial—I know, who would have thought? A lot of it depends on the kind of shooting you do. Personally, I don’t use a tripod much. I prefer the freedom of operating without an anchor. Tripods (of any value) are often big, heavy and awkward. Put a high-grade ball or gimbal head on it and it gets even bigger, heavier and more awkward.
I am primarily a wildlife, nature, travel and street photographer. You can see my problem. Living out of a backpack and travelling the world, a tripod doesn’t work very well for me. Do I ever miss having one? Sure. Three situations come to mind immediately. Many of my photographer friends (who read this blog) still use a tripod on a regular basis, usually for the reasons I’ve stated below. No problem. No harm no foul, to each his own. There is no right or wrong.
- Shooting night scenes, including Astro-photography (shooting the moon and stars), is virtually impossible to do without a good tripod. Long shutter speeds demand a steady platform even with today’s advanced IS-Image Stabilization. You absolutely cannot handhold a camera when using shutter speeds of a second or more. When photographing colorful cityscapes at night, or the Milky Way, you must use a good, sturdy tripod.
- Shooting with a ND-Neutral Density filter requires a tripod. And for the same reason night photography requires one—long shutter speeds. You use ND filters to intentionally slow down shutter speed to give flowing water and clouds that smooth, silky artistic look that is so popular now. I think it’s a bit overdone but there is definitely a time and a place. Again, multi-second exposure times require a tripod.
- Shooting with really long glass usually requires a tripod. Fast Super-telephoto prime lenses are big and heavy. I’m talking 500mm, 600mm, 800mm and beyond. These are the big gun prime lenses with fast apertures like f/2.8 and f/4. Check them out, they are HUGE. Couple them with a crop-sensor camera body and/or a 1.4x or 2x tele-converter and stability becomes even more important. Handholding this big glass isn’t really an option.
My wildlife lens is a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto prime lens and is relatively lightweight when compared to the lenses mentioned above. I can easily shoot handheld and I do. There is tremendous flexibility and freedom shooting this way and I would be hard-pressed to give it up. When I get back to the States for a visit I will be upgrading to the newer Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-Telephoto zoom lens but it’s still a pretty lightweight lens when compared with the big guns. So when do I lose shots because I don’t carry a tripod with me into the field?
I don’t really do night or Astro-photography as such but I often like to photograph nice sunrises or sunsets. A tripod would be very helpful in those situations. The shots I often miss are when I can’t use a ND filter to photograph flowing water and/or clouds. Waterfalls, fast-moving streams or rivers, or interesting clouds often fall victim to my lack of a tripod. Again, when I return to the States, I plan to remedy that situation. I cannot pack a heavy tripod like the one I left at home but I think I’ve found a solution that will work. My perfect tripod needs to pack small (very small), be lightweight but support a substantial camera and lens combination (a full-frame DSLR + plus lens).
Field Notes: Back in the day most of us shot 35mm transparency film (Kodachrome 25, 64 and maybe 200). That film was slow (very slow). Comparable to today’s ISO 25, 64 and 200. Photojournalists and Combat Photographers shot mostly Tri-X 400 black & white print film (IQ-Image Quality wasn’t always great but it was mostly printed on newsprint for newspapers). Shooting slow film, except in very bright sun, required the use of a tripod in most situations to insure crisp sharp images. We don’t have those restrictions anymore; stellar high ISO performance with great IS technology has all but eliminated the need for tripods except as mentioned above. SFD