To Tripod or Not to Tripod?

Blue Moon.
Moonset over Lago Pehoe. Even though intending to be set up for sunrise, this moonset was impossible to resist. This long exposure would not have been possible without a sturdy tripod. © Jerry Ginsberg

Story and photographs by Jerry Ginsberg

 

Camera movement is the eternal enemy of sharpness. Perhaps.

Once upon a time, in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, shutter speeds slower than about 1/125 often required the use of some form of camera stabilization in order to obtain maximize sharpness. Yes, the old rule about a fraction in which the numerator is “1” and the denominator being a value no less than the focal length of your lens has always been at least partially effective, but other than that, we needed some help.

Having that help usually meant the need to carry a tripod. Some of these are lightweight and very portable, but many are heavy and a bit clunky. The often tough choice of tripod stems from the immutable fact that the heavier they are (having greater mass), the more solid and stable they will be. Conversely, the lighter it is, the more likely a tripod is to exhibit a lack of stability just when it is really needed.

Over the past few years, great strides have been made in the advancement of the anti-shake technologies (called by various names and acronyms) offered by many camera manufacturers. From the promise of a mere one or two stops in shutter speed when this function first made its debut to the present when some cameras boast up to five stops of added stability while shooting handheld.

It all sounds good, but is it real?The answer is — Sometimes.
When your exposure calls for 1/2 second, I would not want to bet the success of my image on getting the sharpness otherwise provided by shooting at 1/60th.
Software, firmware and other techno tools do not replace fundamental best practices.

If it’s the greatest possible sharpness that you’re after, especially when shooting landscapes, you won’t go wrong with the proper use of a sturdy tripod and a cable or remote release. There is nothing like using a heavy-duty professional tripod.

On the other hand, when you’re out after great travel and street photography, use of a tripod is usually neither practical, nor desirable. Before the days of anti-shake technologies, I customarily squeezed through the crowded warrens of the Middle East and narrow Medieval streets and alleys of Europe with a sturdy monopod, perfectly suited to the task with its tiny footprint. These days, however, I rely on the anti-shake functions built-in to my DSLR cameras and lenses. This great feature allows me to shoot completely unfettered and come home with extremely sharp travel images. Even when using this great technology, I try to maintain a shutter speed of 1/125 or at least 1/60.
Other components integral to being able to do this are fast lenses and the ability to shoot at an ISO of at least 400. In the days of film 400 was the upper limit of the ISO (then ASA) usable before encountering significant sharpness-eating grain.

So to sum up, should we be using the latest in anti-shake technologies or stick with tried and true tripods?   The answer, to quote John Shaw, is, “It all depends!”

 

Navajo Falls, Havasupai Reservation, AZ.
After having been swamped by recent floods, this lovely cascade no longer exists.
The one second exposure needed to streak the falling water would not have been successful without a heavy tripod. © Jerry Ginsberg

 

Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.
More of Jerry’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com
Or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com