Tripod or Handheld?

Love them or hate them for many landscape photographers tripods are an essential bit of kit. But as advances in image stabilisation allow us to shoot handheld at ever slower shutter speeds are tripods becoming a thing of the past?

Tripod or Handheld: which is better for landscape photography?

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.

My Tripod

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.

Most of my photographs are taken using a tripod
Without such a large tripod I would not have been able to create seperation between the reflections of Side Pike and the fence.

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.

A Cumbrian fell pony in Ralfland Forrest
Had I been shooting on a tripod I would have probably missed this shot of a fell pony munching on the cotton grass.

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.

I find it much easier to shoot handheld with a mirrorless camera
The EVF on my mirrorless camera allows me to use manual exposure mode when shooting handheld.

Image Stabilisation

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.

Mist surrounds the Duke of Portland Boathouse on Ullswater in the eastern Lake District
Using a tripod remains the best way of creating high quality images in low light.

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 summit of Sheffield Pike high above Ullswater in the eastern Lake District
When climbing up into the mountains I like to keep my gear as light as possible. Therefore I tend to leave my tripod at home and shoot handheld.
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

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.

A temperature inversion over Ullswater viewed from Hallin Fell
This shot required the use of a 3 stop graduated neutral density filter in order to balance the bright sky with the dart foreground. Positioning filters is far easier when using a tripod.

Exposure Blending

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.

Mossdale on Ullswater in the eastern Lake District
Techniques such as HDR that require combining multiple exposures to create a single image are easier when using a tripod.

Approach

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.

A whole in the wall that runs over the top of Little Yarlside in the far eastern Lake District
I have a tendency to shoot handheld when taking a more documentary approach to my photography.

Summary

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.

5 thoughts on “Tripod or Handheld?”

  1. Chris Sale tripods

    I really liked this blog about tripods and I thought I would add my thoughts. I started getting interested in landscape photography through walking. I took a camera out on all my walks and recorded scenes but then started to look for better interpretations of them – I began to understand the key element of composition. To help me with this I bought a Light & Land weekend workshop with Charlie Waite in the Lakes. It was a revelation and I began to understand something deeper about landscape photography. In particular Charlie extolled the virtues of a tripod as a means of ‘slowing you down’ to examine the scene and extract the best composition from it. I note your recognition of that feature.
    I tussled with the balance between instant reaction to a view from a hill and working a location and began to realise that they were complementary but seperate explorations of landscape photography. I coined a phrase – ‘Landscape Documentary’ to describe the interactive response to the scene that I used when walking and I think that is what your lockdown pictures typify.
    This is your best blog for a few weeks and I look forward to more like it. I think that there is a lot of snobbery about ‘you must use a tripod to take landscapes’ and you are challenging that view. I have seen many stunning images taken handheld and a lot of poor ones with a 3 legged thing on landscape vlogs recently.
    Cheers Keith Ratcliffe
    PS I note a recent vlog by James Burns who seems to be embracing the dark side!

  2. Like many things, there is no one-size-fits all position; somethings demand a study platform, others less so. I recently changed camera bodies and found my ‘natural’ workflow not producing the same results as I was used to. I re-watched Nigel Danson’s vlog about getting to know your camera/lenses by doing a series of 4 tests. A few happy hours later I returned form the woods knowing that I can shoot hand-held, at base ISO, down to 1/50s, I can pump up the ISO to 800 and not be too worried about noise, my lens is OK to f16 before it starts to soften, and my DoF is in agreement my HPF app, but, if there is no very close foreground, it is better to focus on infinity.
    I found it really weird that a different body, from the same manufacturer, with the same sized (full frame) sensor, would be different from what I was used to, but it is.
    Now I know when I need the tripod and when I can ‘get away’ with shooting hand-held; try using a 6-stop ND hadheld!
    Thanks for sharing Chris.

  3. It really is horses for courses. I prefer to always take mine, its not to heavy, and I just dont know when I would need it. A wildlife shoot may turn into a macro shoot if the conditions change or I see something of note, so a tripod is essential for me. I always have a plastic bag to put extra weight in and suspend from the tripod if stability becomes an issue in high winds for example. But I dont use my tripod as a matter of course just because its there.
    Interesting blog as always mate.

  4. Great! I don’t think I’ve heard such a sensible (both-and) approach to this topic, based in real experience. So much out there seems to be ‘either-or’ (on many things)…

    As background, I’ve been photographing just over two years. I knew nothing, but was given a camera and it happened to be 5-axis stabilised M43. I now shoot Manual and simply use the LCD (in ‘Constant Preview’ mode so it’s WYSIWYG) and the exposure is always exactly as I wanted it when I view them later. I use zebras, rather than the histogram, to show exactly where (if) my image is blown out (e.g., specular highlights). Also, I have found specular highlights can often throw any meaningful metering anyway.

    But, in terms of the topic: as I use only the LCD, I use a neckstrap with my arms extended, so it’s taut, if I need extra stabilisation. If my elbows are on something like a wall or the ground, or I’m leaning on a tree I, more often than not, get perfect bracketing alignment, but even standing free (if it’s not windy), it’s pretty accurate. Also, for macro, it keeps the camera-to-subject distance far more constant, so I usually get razor-sharp, shallow DoF, without a tripod.

    Don’t know if that’s useful…

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