Tripods have had their ups and down, so to speak. When photography was in its infancy, the wet plates used to make the images were very slow, so extremely long exposures were required and the cameras were big and bulky, so use of a big, heavy wooden tripod was essential. It’s all the more remarkable when looking at the incomparable work of Ansel Adams to realize that in order to make these images he had to hike miles up steep mountain trails with a heavy view camera, several big and fragile plates, and an enormous tree trunk of a tripod. As cameras became smaller and film faster, tripods went out of style except for certain low-light situations for professionals. Now, more and more enthusiast photographers are recognizing the value of a sturdy tripod for capturing the best possible quality images of landscapes, buildings, and of course night scenes. In some iconic travel spots, it’s hard to find space to shoot amidst the ocean of tripods.
Sure, they’re heavy and bulky, particularly when we’re hiking or walking for long stretches. But a good solid tripod is essential for so many types of shots that I now carry one with me at nearly all times.
An example of a technique requiring a tripod even in bright light is high dynamic range (HDR) photography. To make an HDR image, you shoot a series of photos of the exact same scene in rapid succession, varying the exposure by a little bit between each frame, and then use special software during post-processing to bring out all brightness levels in the image, from the dark shadows to the brilliant highlights. But if the camera moves at all between the shots, it becomes harder to stitch the shots together into a beautiful HDR image. I’ve been known to handhold some HDR shots, but I strongly recommend shooting them using a tripod. Of course, you’ll also want a tripod for low-light and nighttime photography, and they’re very useful for landscape images where the high resolution of your camera’s sensor is called upon to render extremely fine detail throughout the scene. And let’s not forget that to include yourself in a scene, use of a tripod makes life a lot easier.
Although I was shooting in bright sunlight, I needed a tripod to make this HDR image of Yosemite Valley peaks reflected in the Merced River. If the camera moves at all between frames, it is harder to combine them into the final photo. Buy this photo
For most travel situations, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that folds up to a portable size but still offers enough stability for most uses. There are times, though, when I need to bring along my heavy and bulky professional tripod. Whatever tripod you choose, be sure to fit it with a good quality head–ball heads provide a lot of flexibility and ease of use for travelers–and remember to take along the plate that attaches the tripod to your camera, if required.
My go-to lightweight travel tripod is the Manfrotto Be Free. It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability. The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity. This tripod is designed to fit into a specially designed pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.
The SLIK 615-315 is a great tripod for use close to home or on trips where you will have constant vehicle support. It’s very solid, supports a tremendous amount of weight, and can be adjusted for nearly any shooting situation. I recommend you fit it with a good ball head for maximum flexibility.
A monopod can be a real problem solver when you need more stability than handholding or resting your camera on a vehicle or table will afford, but you can’t carry or use a full tripod. I use the Manfrotto 681B model.
To be sure, if you know 100 photographers, you’ll hear 110 different opinions about tripods and the heads and plates that go with them. The products listed above are my recommendations only, but I’ve had good experiences using them. For those with a lot more money to spend, tripods and heads made by Really Right Stuff are much beloved by professional and well-heeled enthusiast photographers.
What combination of tripod, head, and plate do you use, and why? Please share your recommendations here. Tripods are one piece of gear with which we’re constantly experimenting, so bring it on!