What is the most important piece of photographic equipment you own? I was asked this question while attending an art show last September. I’ve got to say, up until that point, I had never really given it much thought. A list of obvious candidates such as my camera and lenses immediately came to mind, however, I quickly ruled them out as great images can be created with almost any camera and lens combination. Stumped by the question, I tried to re-word it to come up with an answer. What piece of equipment would I not leave home without? The answer immediately popped into my head. My tripod.
Surprised? So was I. Let’s take a look at why. Great images come in all shapes and sizes. Epic light, surreal mood, and once in a lifetime events are all good examples of a great shot. But if they’re not sharp, what’s the point in taking them? Landscape photography often requires shooting in low light and extreme weather conditions. Shooting in these conditions requires the use of a slow shutter speed. Add a filter to the end of your lens, and your shutter speed gets even slower. The only way to keep your images sharp is to shoot from a tripod. Still have doubts? I encourage you to try the following experiment. Take two images of the same subject. Shoot one image hand held, and the other one from a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, find a subject you can shoot by setting the camera on a sturdy surface and use the self timer to trip the shutter. Try and shoot at a shutter speed around 1/60 sec. Now upload both of the images to your computer and zoom in to 100%. Examine the same area of both images, and note the difference in sharpness. If this doesn’t convince you that shooting from a tripod is worth the effort, I don’t know what will.
Shooting from a tripod offers you other benefits as well, that aren’t as easily recognized. First off, it causes you to slow down and become more methodical in your actions. This allows you to concentrate more on your composition as opposed to trying to keep yourself steady to take the shot. You’re a lot less likely to make amateurish mistakes like a tree limb sticking in from the side of the image, or cutting off a critically important element in the image, when you become more methodical with your actions. If you invest in a sturdy tripod (as you should), it can also be used as a makeshift walking stick to assist you in keeping your balance while climbing a steep slope or crossing a swift moving stream. I have used my tripod in this manner more times than I can count. In fact, the image of the stream at the beginning of this essay, I used my tripod to steady myself crossing the stream barefoot on slick rocks in waist deep water. I know for a fact that I would have gone down, had I not used my tripod to steady myself. The image itself would not have been possible without a tripod, as it was taken in a shaded canyon using a polarizer filter which required a shutter speed of 2 seconds. Two uses of the tripod for one image. I’m sold!
The tripod is quite a versatile piece of equipment. I know they are bulky and hard to carry, however, the improvements to image quality far outweigh the inconveniences of carrying one. Most photo backpack manufactures offer a way to attach your tripod to the pack, making it easier to manage on long hikes. I prefer to carry mine on my shoulder. In fact, when I’m in snake country, I extend one of the legs all the way out and use it to prod the bushes in front of me. I have found numerous snakes this way, that I might not otherwise have seen. Jeez, there’s yet another use for the tripod. If you’re not using one yet, I would strongly encourage you to make it your next investment. You won’t be sorry.
In my next essay in this series, we will jump right into some of the technical aspects of creating great landscape images. Feel free to start up a conversation in the comments section below. I will gladly answer any questions you might have. Until next time, Happy shooting!