Tripod or Handheld: Which is Better for Landscape Photography?
Traditionally most landscape photographers would not leave the house without their trusty tripods.
However, with the growth in popularity of mirrorless cameras and advancements in image stabilisation more and more people are choosing to leave their tripods at home and to shoot handheld.
In this article I look at the pros and cons of both approaches in an attempt to understand which is better for landscape photography.
Up until recently all of my photographs have been taken using a tripod. I currently use a Benro Mach 3 TMA48CXL.
My main reason for choosing the Benro (or Big Ben as I like to call it) was its maximum height. Fully extended it is over 2 metres tall.
The ability to get my camera up high is extremely useful for creating seperation between foreground and background elements in certain situations.
Tripods Slow You Down
One of the things that I like most about tripods is that they slow you down.
I find that when I use a tripod I take much more time to consider my composition. I am able to make lots of small adjustments that add up to making a big difference.
One way that I like to work is to set up my camera on the tripod and take multiple shots as the light changes without ever changing my composition.
I find that I am most comfortable using a tripod when visiting a location that I already know.
Handheld is Faster
If tripods slow you down then the opposite is true when shooting handheld.
I find when shooting handheld I am able to react more quickly when I see a shot. I miss more shots when using a tripod.
There is also the tendency to remain rooted to one spot when my camera is mounted on a tripod. When shooting handheld I find I am much more inclined to move around in order to explore different angles.
As a result I find that I produce better results when visiting a location for the first time if I shoot handheld.
DSLR v Mirrorless
My main camera for landscape photography is a DSLR.
I find that over the years I have become dependent on live view for composing, focusing and setting the exposure. As a result I only ever shoot with my camera on a tripod.
However, my back up camera (the one that I would normally use for video) is mirrorless.
During the lockdown that was enforced in response to the coronavirus crisis I started to take this smaller camera with me each day when out exercising. I found that the EVF displayed the same level of information as the LCD on the back of my DSLR.
This meant that I could continue shoot in manual exposure mode, with full control over both aperture and shutter speed, but was no longer tied to my tripod.
Another big advantage of using a tripod is that it allows you to capture high quality images in low light.
Attempting to shoot handheld when light levels are low will mean having to increase the ISO in order to keep the shutter speed high enough to get sharp shots. This has an obvious negative effect on image quality.
Advancements in image stabilisation (both in camera lenses and camera bodies) mean that we are able to shoot handheld at slower and slower shutter speeds.
However, we are still some way away from being able to shoot handheld when the shutter speed exceeds 1 second.
Tripods are Heavy
Probably the biggest disadvantage of tripods is that they are heavy. Mine along with its ball head weighs something like 3kg!
As a result I often find myself leaving it at home, particularly when hiking up into the fells. Keeping my kit as light as possible allows me to walk further and to climb higher.
A tripod isn’t much good if you always leave it in the car.
The Tripod Conundrum
Many people extol the virtues of lightweight tripods when hiking in the mountains.
In my experience the higher you climb the windier it becomes. The windier it is the sturdier your tripod needs to be. And generally speaking sturdier tripods tend to be heavier.
Personally I am not a fan of lightweight tripods. I’d rather shoot handheld.
Filters play a big part in my approach to photography. When shooting with my DSLR I rarely take a photograph without some form of filtration.
I generally like to use graduated neutral density filters to balance a bright sky with a dark foreground. I also take a lot of long exposures using a 10 stop neutral density filter.
With my camera mounted on a tripod positioning a filter is straight forward. Using filters when also hand holding is a lot harder. For that reason I almost never use filters when shooting handheld.
Some photographic techniques such as HDR or panoramas involve combining multiple shots to create a single image.
Whilst it is still possible to create HDR and panoramic images from shots taken handheld I find that I get more consistent result when using a tripod.
I have 2 very different approaches to my photography.
Most of the time when I go out I will have a preconceived idea of the photograph that I want to take. Typically my aim will be to get a single image good enough be sold as a print.
On these occasions photography is my primary reason for being outdoors. These circumstances always lead to me shooting on a tripod.
However, more recently I have start to experiment with a more documentary approach to my photography.
This will often involve me hiking to some remote part of the Lake District capturing multiple images that combine to tell the story of my day.
This approach usually leads me to shooting handheld.
For me the decision to shoot with a tripod or handheld very much depends on the situation.
I use a tripod when:
- Visiting a location where I know my preferred composition
- Shooting with a DSLR
- Staying relatively close to the car
- Aiming to produce a single high quality image
I shoot handheld when:
- Visiting a location for the first time
- Using a mirrorless camera
- Hiking long distances (particularly when climbing up into the mountains)
- Taking a documentary approach to my photography
The video that accompanies this article will be released on my YouTube channel on Tuesday 29th September 2020.