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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

Handheld versus tripod - why, when & how?

When is a tripod essential?

Carrying a tripod around can be a pain, but I almost always have one with me because there are some times that it's essential to use one to get the shot that you want. In brief, the times I would use a tripod are:

1. The main reason is when shooting longer shutter speeds as it's often not possible to keep the camera steady for the length of the shutter being open - this ensures that only parts of the scene that are moving will be blurred (e.g. the waterfall) rather than the whole photo due to camera shake!

Examples are when you are doing long shutter speeds of moving water, creating light trails of moving traffic or taking photos of the night sky.

There is a rough and ready guide for the hand held limit when a tripod is needed; a shutter speed of slower than 1/50th of a second. However, a much better guide is 1 divided by the focal length you are shooting with. This means that when you are shooting a wide landscape scene (say at 24mm) then you will need a tripod for shutter speeds slower than 1/24 seconds; if you are shooting a landscape detail with a telephoto lens (say at 200m) then you will need to use a tripod for shutter speeds slower than 1/200th second - a big difference! 

Note that blur from the camera moving is only one reason why your photo (or parts of your photo) might be blurred - see more info on reasons for blurred photos in this blog

Many cameras or lenses have in-built stabilisation systems which means that you can often take crisp photos with shutter speeds slower than the guidelines above, but I would still suggest following the guide. 

A tripod was definitely needed for the photo below, which was taken with a 57 second shutter speed! It definitely wasn't possible to hold the camera steady for that length of time!


2. When it's windy. A less frequent reason to use a tripod is when it's windy. As this can make it harder to keep the camera steady, using a tripod can help to keep the camera more stable and reduce the risk of camera shake if you're using shutter speeds close to the hand held limit.

3. When shooting with studio lighting. The final reason to use a tripod is if you are shooting with a lighting set up (e.g. a portrait shoot in a studio). In these situations, lighting is usually placed in specific positions relative to the camera to create the desired light on the subject. It is often therefore desirable to keep the camera in a fixed position in the setup using a tripod. 

When to shoot handheld

In simple terms, you should shoot handheld in all other situations to those outlined above! Tripods are great in the right situations, but they slow down taking the shot, and make it harder to change composition quickly - so for most situations you should shoot handheld. 

Choosing a tripod

Although the key purpose of a tripod is simply to keep your camera steady, there is a dizzying choice of options available, so how do you choose? A few of the main considerations are discussed below:

- How tall are you? If you are a tall person then you probably want to buy a tripod that extends high enough so you can look through the camera viewfinder without bending down. 

- What will you use it for? If you do mainly landscape photography then a tripod with a ball head is the best choice as this allows easy movement in all directions to assist you in composing photos. If you do a lot of video then a pan and tilt ball head is better.  Note that although many tripods come with a head, some of the most expensive tripods expect you to buy a head separately. 

- How heavy is your camera? All tripods have a weight limit, so you will need a more substantial tripod for a DSLR with a large telephoto lens than you will for a small compact camera. Note however that lighter tripods tend to be less stable, so there is always a trade off between weight and stability.

- Where will you use it? If you generally just carry it from the boot of your car to a location a short distance away, then a heavier aluminium tripod will be fine (these are generally the cheapest). If you intend attaching it to a rucksack and hiking 20 miles across Dartmoor then you will want a lighter tripod such as those made of carbon fibre (although these are MUCH more expensive). 

- What type of tripod leg locks do you prefer? Most tripods have either clasp locks or twist locks to control the various leg sections; this choice is very much person preference. 

How to use your tripod

Using a tripod is pretty straightforward, but there are a few tips that beginners tend to find useful:

Attach your camera: As long as your tripod comes with a tripod head (some don't) then it should also come with a mounting plate. This attaches to the underside of your camera (the large screw hole) and then attaches to the top of the tripod head.

Make sure all joints are secure: Before taking the photo, make sure all joints on the legs, and the head are fully tight - e.g. a loose leg twist lock can drift imperceptibly during the exposure and ruin the photo.   

In windy conditions try to brace the tripod: Windy conditions can blow a tripod and cause photo blur. You can try hanging your camera bag from the hook on the bottom of the tripod (if it has one) but beware that this can make the situation worse as the bag acts as a sail! You can also try wedging one or more of the legs against a nearby object such as a wall.  

Beware of soft ground: On soft ground such as a beach, the legs can imperceptibly sink while you're taking the photo and cause a blurred image, so try and make sure you are on firm ground. Pro tip: You can put old CD disks under each of the legs to help stop the tripod sinking into soft ground! 

Beware of dogs! Bear in mind that you have your expensive camera on top of a precarious structure, and if it falls your camera will probably break. I've seen far too many accidents where dogs have knocked tripods over, so I would suggest never leaving your tripod with camera unattended and keep at least one hand on it at all times, especially when dogs are nearby!

Want to jump-start your learning?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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