I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been asked by photographers this simple question. When do I need to use a tripod? And when can I handhold my camera? It’s a good question, and the answers aren’t always as simple as you might think.
Let’s be real, tripods can be clunky, heavy, and take forever to set up. Tripods are also not convenient when I need to track moving subjects or be quick with changing compositions. And if you’re shooting events for clients, friends, or family, a tripod is likely just a hindrance. Then, of course for street photography where you need to be discreet, a tripod is the defacto sign to go the other way because somebody is literally taking your photo right now. Not good if you want to capture authenticity.
So handheld has some serious advantages, but these are the only times when I won’t be putting at least a lightweight tripod on my back. Because I know that if even the tiniest moment arises where a tripod would have made a photo better, I’ll be kicking myself for leaving it at home.
The determining factor 9 times out of 10 is shutter speed. So the slower your shutter speed is the more likely you are going to need the tripod and the faster your shutter speed is, uh, the less you need a tripod, but where is the cutoff point at what shutter speed do you need to be thinking ‘okay, I need a tripod for this?’
Every lens is different. The wider angle lens you use, the more you can get away with a slower shutter speed. But when it’s longer, you’re going to need to use a faster speed. For example, If I’m using a 70mm lens, the bare minimum I’ll go is 1/200th. And I know that there are definitely people who will say, ‘Oh, I handhold at much slower shutter speeds than that.’
But, here’s the thing with the cameras. From five years ago, we were able to get away with a slower shutter speed, but cameras today have much bigger sensors with a much higher pixel count. Since these bigger sensors capture more detail, they are also more likely to capture motion blur. For example, you’ll notice motion blur much less on a cell phone than you will on a Nikon D850.
So when I’m out in the field using a lens wider than 70mm, if I can’t get 1/200th of a second with the aperture and ISO I want, I’m using my tripod.
Well, for one, tripods are fantastic for fending off other tourists. But when you’re not swatting people out of your way, they are absolutely necessary for the vast majority of landscape, architecture, macro, timelapse, panorama, and astrophotography applications. Any type of photography that requires precision will almost always involve a tripod. In some cases, you could get away with setting your camera on an even rock, on your backpack, or just in the grass. But you’re not going to take many keepers that way.
For example, if you’re shooting a panorama, it’s tempting to just take a bunch of photos from left to right and hope Lightroom and Photoshop can make something out of it. (Okay, yes, I’ve done it before, don’t judge) Most often though, you’ll just come home with a full memory card and no usable photos.
HDR photography (which will need an article of its own!) also relies heavily on having a solid tripod. If there’s motion in the photo, you’ll end up with some weird patchy ghosting that Lightroom and Photoshop might not be able to remove. And if the details aren’t fully lined up, solid lines turn into an unsharp mess.
Yes! But the trick with HDR is to make it look less like a high-schooler’s overcooked Tumblr page, and more like the way you see a scene with your eyes. No camera has ever matched what a human eye can do, but they do come closer with HDR imagery. Most professional cameras can only take 8-bit images, meaning 8 bits per RGB channel, or 256 colours per pixel. But of course, HDR photographers are straight-up colour addicts, so that’s not nearly enough.
Combining the same photo with three different exposures in Lightroom can create a single 32-bit image capable of storing over 16 million different colours. A proper HDR image also stores more information in the highlights and shadows, reducing the limitations in editing. I personally love this, because it allows me to keep the saturation in a sunset, without having to sacrifice the shadow detail on the edge of the mountains, or in the trees.
HDR images add a lot of details, and also reduce the ISO noise in an image. Just hold back on the Vibrance, Dehaze, and Saturation sliders — unless, of course, you want it to look like a fever dream.
For Architecture, you need to use a higher f/stop — to reduce the distortion common in wide-angle lenses — and bare minimum ISO. Aside from that, the tripod makes it easy to get all of the lines meticulously straight. Lightroom has some powerful straightening tools, like the guided transformation. But even that can’t fix some images when they’re poorly shot.
Interior architecture photography very often involves HDR imagery in a different way. The pros will perfectly expose the outside and the inside in two different photos. Then opening both images as layers in photoshop, they’ll meticulously bring cut out the windows from the brighter interior, so that the outdoor detail is showing in the perfectly exposed room. It’s a long process that simply cannot be done handheld — unless you really want to go back and photograph the place again.
The first diagnosis is that your tripod is too light for your camera. If your camera is too heavy, small vibrations at the base, or gusts of wind can make the tripod move. The easiest change to make is not extend the tripod. If you keep it lower to the ground, you’re using only the sturdiest parts, which will better resist vibrations.
Some tripods also have a hook on the bottom for attaching a weight, or sandbag. Bringing weights along is fine if you’re driving to the location shoot. But if you’re hiking and aren’t a masochist, you can always just attach your photo bag with the lenses in it. Just make sure the tripod isn’t ready to fall off the far side of a cliff.
Next: did you touch your camera? Even pressing the shutter while the camera is on the tripod will introduce camera shake. After years of trying, I’m still unable to press the shutter without moving the camera. Fix this by setting a timer. Most cameras have a two second timer so you can press the shutter, stand back, and wait for the camera to finish before touching it again.
Was there wind, or did you have any loose straps? Anything loose dangling from the camera can introduce shake. Get rid of them. If it’s too windy, try blocking the wind with your body, or find a small alcove to get out of it. Sandy beaches are also fantastic for stopping little vibrations in the ground — with the added bonus that you can use the water as a reflective foreground for your image.
Last check, Was your camera in focus? This is a bit more obvious, but especially if you’re doing night photography using manual focus, it’s very easy to have the camera just slightly out of focus. Fix this by using Live Mode and zooming in on the area with the most contrast, or the brightest star in the sky. It can take a couple of tries, but once you get it, don’t touch that focusing ring.
Tripods are one piece of equipment that I would never suggest cheaping out on. Good ones can cost as much as a new lens, but bad ones only ever get in the way. Years and years ago I bought a $200 tripod that seemed to have everything. A bubble level, pan head, spikes, snap-lock legs, and other helpful features. But when push came to shove, The tripod was flimsy, but most importantly, it wasn’t precise enough to get level photographs.
If you’re just starting out, get a tripod that you can grow with. Unlike camera bodies, tripods don’t degrade over time — one that’s solid today will still be solid in 20 years. And trust me, you’ll always find more uses for it and be thankful you spent the money early. If you want to see the tripod I’m using, you can find it here.
And when you’ve done all of this right, you’re going to get an absolutely tack sharp photo. It is the result of years and years and years of battle-tested techniques that I have used by trial and error in the field. And I think you are going to love it.
If you liked the tips I have here, there’s plenty more in store on my Tack Sharp Photography guide. These articles are meant to give you the fundamentals so you can get out there and shoot stunning images. But there’s always more to learn than I can put in a single article. In fact, we didn’t even really get to the cool things you can do with a tripod! The tack sharp photography guide — now 40% off for a limited time! — has many more in-depth tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years to build my library of Fine-Art photographs.
Tim Shields is the founder of Photography Academy, the author of The Photo Cookbook, and the creator of the Photography Transformation 4-Step System. He holds the designation of Master Photographer in Fine Art from Master Photographers International.