Photographic Blasphemy: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.  Buy this photo

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.