To Trippod or Not to Tripod? That is the question. I love photography and I aspire to make good photographs. So every time I head out on a new travel adventure the question always comes up. Should I take my travel tripod along on this trip or not? It’s never an easy question. How to decide? Let’s look at a few of the pros and cons.
REASONS TO TAKE AND USE A TRAVEL TRIPOD –
Low Light Photography –
Probably the best place to start is to admit the obvious. There are many situations where you are able to make better photos when you use a tripod. It’s always best to shoot those low light or nighttime scenes with a tripod. With lots of light you can “hand hold” a camera and get good results. But even the best of photographers have difficulty holding steady and avoiding camera shake (and hence blurry photos) below shutter speeds of 1/60 of a second. And if you are shooting with a longer, telephoto lens, well then you need to shoot with increasingly faster shutter speeds. So low light really calls for a tripod. You can attempt to compensate a bit by shooting at a higher ISO, which is another way to be able to use a faster shutter speed. In the past, bumping up the ISO resulted in lower quality images with lots of “noise.” But today’s newer digital photo sensors are much better in this regard. You still get the best results and quality of color saturation at those nice low ISO’s around 100 to 200. But in a pinch you can bump ISO’s up to 1600 if you must. You’ll get an image, and with luck, and perhaps a lot of “Photoshopping, you might be able to get a good image. Still, the bottom line remains fairly clear – tripods lead to better low light photos.
Shooting With Long Lenses – Some photographic situations call for long lenses. The subject is is just too darned far away. To get that “up close and personal” image you may need to pull out the telephoto / long lens. Those long lenses are great, but they do have a couple of limitations that come into play with this discussion of tripods. First, longer lenses tend to be slower lenses. They need more light to give you a good image. So, you may have to shoot at a slower shutter speed. Second, longer lenses tend to magnify not just the subject you are shooting. They also magnify any camera shake that might be present. Because of these issues, it’s probably best to shoot longer lenses using a tripod.
Shooting With Slow Shutter Speeds –
There are times when shooting with a slow shutter speed adds to your photo. For example, as in the photo above, a slower shutter speed blurs the motion, adding a sense of flow and movement to the water which would be lost if the action were “stopped” with a faster shutter speed. But in order to keep the shutter slow and not induce “camera shake” which would blur the entire photo you need a stable shooting platform. Bring on the tripod!
Shooting Panoramas –
Panoramas combine a number of photos which are taken in sequence from left to right (or right to left if you prefer) to cover a perspective wider than is available with a single shot. These numerous photos are then “stitched” together in a computer program to provide a wide view panorama. The photo above of Kansas City is comprised of seven different photos. Panorama shooters benefit from tripods. It’s much easier to keep your images level and even by panning from a fixed position using a tripod. This makes it much easier to line those multiple images up and to stitch them together to create an awesome panorama.
Shooting HDR Images –
Producing High Dynamic Range (HDR) images requires shooting the same image multiple times using different expose settings to cover the entire range of light and dark in the scene. These multiple images are then blended together via a computer program to produce one final image with the entire range of light and dark – something not possible when you shoot only a single image. If you want to shoot some High Dynamic Range images you also might do better with a tripod. While no panning is involved, shooting the required multiple images from a fixed and stable shooting platform (tripod) leads to better results.
Shooting Self Photos –
Sometimes it’s nice to include yourself in a photo or two. Just to prove that you really were “there.” Now we’ve all tried holding the camera out at arm’s length and shooting. But honestly, it really doesn’t produce great results as the photo here attests. (By the way – Paris in February can be a bit chilly.) What to do? That’s a time when it is handy to pop your camera on top of a tripod, set the timer for the shutter release, and scamper around to put yourself into the image. Now of course there is another way to get yourself into your photos. You could ask another person in the area to take your photo. But getting them to understand your camera might be a challenge (especially if they speak no English and you don’t speak their language). And then, some would say it might not be a great idea to hand your $2000 camera body and $1500 lens over to a stranger in a strange land. You never know. At least always ask yourself first – “Can I run as fast as that person?”
Slowing Down Your Shooting Pace –
Now it probably sounds a bit counter intuitive but stay with me on this. Using a tripod forces you to slow down. You can’t just run around shooting wildly with a tripod. You have to set up the shot. And this gives you time to think through the shot – what camera settings would work best, what composition gives you the image you are looking for. Thoughtful image making generally produces better results and shooting with a tripod encourages thoughtful image making.
REASONS TO LEAVE YOUR TRAVEL TRIPOD AT HOME –
Extra Weight – Tripods come in all shapes and sizes. Some are truly heavy monsters while some are lighter, “designed for travel.” Unfortunately with tripods, heavier tripods generally result in better images because they are more stable and less likely to shake or move. The lighter the tripod, the less effective it becomes. And even a light weight tripod adds extra weight to your photography kit. I don’t know about you, but I try to avoid extra weight as much as possible. Extra weight leads to extra fees on the airlines and just more fatigue lugging your stuff around.
Extra Clutter – A tripod is just one more piece of equipment you have to carry, keep track of, pack, unpack. I try to keep my travel gear to a minimum. In most ways I feel less is good.
Extra Time – Shooting with a tripod slows you down. It’s hard to grab that quick, spur of the moment shot with a tripod attached to you camera. And you can cover a lot more ground and get a wider variety of shots if you are not having to stop, set up, shoot, take down.
It’s a Hassle – Traveling and shooting with a tripod is just more of a hassle. It can sort of take the fun out of a vacation
HOW TO DECIDE?
So how do you decide? Take the travel tripod or leave it home? For me, the answer depends on factors related to the type of trip I am taking and the type of photography I plan to do.
Type of Transportation –
If weight and clutter are not an issue, well then there is no problem. On my various road trip adventures in my handy dandy Road Trek for example (related articles here and here) I have the luxury of having lots of room. So I bring everything – all my lenses, camera bodies, and several different tripods.
However, it’s a totally different question If I am traveling internationally. I MIGHT bring a light weight small travel tripod that fits in my pack IF I have room and can stay under my airline’s weight and size restrictions. (It pays to check these things out while packing – don’t wait until you arrive at the airport!)
Type of Travel –
If I am traveling solo, or with other photographers, I feel much more comfortable taking a tripod. I know that I will have the time (and the understanding of my fellow travel photographers) to use the tripod for some of my images.
However, if I am traveling with a general group or tour – again, that’s a totally different story. In that situation I generally have little if any control of the pace of travel. So if I stop to do my tripod photography one of two things will likely happen. Often the group will simply continue to move on and I will have to shoot fast and try to catch up. And on some occasions the group will feel obligated to wait while I shoot. But of course if you are traveling with a group you don’t want to be “that photographer guy that we are always waiting for.” That doesn’t make for happy group travel relationships. Trust me!
Type of Photography –
This is a tough one because we are all trying to shoot the best images possible. Still, keeping in mind the various “downsides” of traveling with a tripod, you have to be a bit honest with yourself. How critical is it that you get absolutely the totally best photos that you can on this trip? Now, if I were planning to shoot cover photos for National Geographic I know that I would be using my tripod! But so far National Geographic hasn’t asked me for any cover photos. (By the way – National Geographic – I am available – call me!)
So there you have it – the pros and cons of taking and using a tripod for travel photography. What do you do? How do you decide?
Tripod Photography ……. Enjoy The Adventure!
Dr.B, The Photo Trekker
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© 2013, Bruce W Bean, Ph.D. All rights reserved.