For almost 18 years, tripods definitely didn’t fit into my style of photography, which was lucky, because tripods are awful. In recent months, I’ve found myself shooting more and more landscapes, and I’m relieved to have found that tripods don’t necessarily fit into this type of photography either. Here’s why.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that to be a landscape photographer, you need a large full frame camera, a big, heavy zoom lens, and a hefty tripod. That’s certainly the case if you’re producing refined, geometrically strong images of epic vistas with the intention of producing huge, high-quality prints. Often, landscape photographers are seeking to create a razor-sharp image with loads of depth of field as a result of a tiny aperture and perhaps some focus-stacking thrown in for good measure, or perhaps they want a slow shutter speed to smear otherwise unimpressive clouds or queitly lapping waves. While I appreciate the skill and effort that goes into these grand photographs (I regularly watch videos by Thomas Heaton and my colleague, Mads Peter Iversen, and think their work is phenomenal), for some reason, making such images myself just doesn’t appeal.
As it happens, the vast forest on my doorstep doesn’t really lend itself to that style of shooting, which is something of a relief, because tripods are terrible. Don’t get me wrong, my Corey from 3 Legged Thing is fantastic: well designed, great features, and beautiful to look at. But it’s a tripod, and for that reason, I only want it with me when absolutely necessary.
Based on four months of refusing to take a tripod with me while photographing the forest, here are five reasons why you might want to leave yours at home.
1. Stay Light
As a minimalist, I enjoy trying to have the absolute least amount of equipment with me. I still have the occasional struggle of choosing which gear to take, and sometimes, I pack far more than I’d ever use. However, more often than not, I take a 35mm prime and very little else. Most of my images are shot while walking the dog first thing in the morning, and typically, a single body and lens is all that I can face carrying. Occasionally, a second 35mm prime goes in my pocket (a cheap f/1.4 manual focus lump that lends itself well to low-contrast days and is fun to use) and maybe my tiny 75mm f/1.8 too. I’ve tried taking my 24-70mm f/2.8 with me on a couple of occasions but each time, it just stayed in the bag.
Upon reflection, it’s strange that I don’t find this restrictive, but then, there are plenty of moments where the boundaries in which we have to work trigger creativity. Stripping back your kit — including your tripod — can be liberating.
2. Move Fast
Light in the forest changes incredibly quickly. Trying to find bold compositions among the density of the trees can seem impossible, so often, I’m dependent on the quality of light that’s coming through the branches as a means of creating images that are more impressionistic. Faffing about with a tripod risks losing out on a shot.
The tripod can be restrictive, especially when you’re hemmed in by dense undergrowth and fallen trees. In addition, I’m more likely to shoot more photos and experiment with more angles, and I know that the sun hits the top of one hilltop about 10 minutes after it hits the first, so being able to move quickly is in my favor. I’ve plowed through brambles and wandered up and down gullies and ravines far deeper into the forest than I ever would have had I been hauling more gear.
I also have to factor in that my trips into the forest have come about as a result of walking my slightly useless Bulgarian rescue dog, and while he’s delightfully patient, I feel guilty if I leave him sitting around for too long. In addition, he often needs carrying; brambles aren’t his favorite, his hips aren’t made for rough terrain, and the sound of hunters’ shotguns will often render him frozen to the spot. As a result, it’s not unusual to walk with him in my arms for much farther than I’d like.
3. You Don’t Need Small Apertures
Tripods are essential for small apertures, but many of my photos are shot at f/4 or below. Trees — especially in winter — are messy and chaotic, and having too much sharpness in a shot can be unnecessarily distracting. These aren’t sweeping cliffs or epic mountains; they’re a jumble of randomness that rarely benefits from being crisp from front to back.
4. Not Everything Has to Be at ISO 100
For images that need a smaller aperture, I’m happy to let the ISO climb up. Squeezing my aperture from f/1.8 down to f/7.1 will mean a shift from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, and while your priorities might vary, I’d rather be fast and light and create a load of slightly noisy photos while moving quickly between a number of different spots rather than a handful of photos at a time in far fewer locations.
Having photographed action in low light for so long, I’m used to grain, and if it were something that bothered me, a large percentage of my photos simply wouldn’t exist.
For some landscape photographers, noisy images are almost as bad as slightly missing focus, and I understand the drive to produce shots that are the highest quality possible. However, I’d rather make that compromise, as the spontaneity and freedom I feel by not carrying a bag — never mind a tripod — is what keeps me excited to continue photographing.
It helps that mirrorless cameras have delivered (to a degree) on the promise of being smaller and lighter while still delivering excellent low-light performance. My full frame set up of a Sony a7 III and the Samyang/Rokinon 35mm f/1.8 weighs a mere 1.9 lbs (860 g), and throwing it over my shoulder when I leave the house each morning garners barely a second thought.
Having spent so many years shooting almost nothing but action, in-body stabilization has never been a feature that was relevant to me. Suddenly, the ability to shoot crisp images at slow shutter speeds is greatly appreciated, and as IBIS systems improve, there’s still potential for handheld shutter speeds to drop even lower.
I'm not sure I'll pursue a landscape photography career, but during these strange times, my random wanderings in the forest and the images that result are bringing me a lot of peace and enjoyment, and being able to move fast and light is a key part of the experience. No doubt, the tripod is a useful tool, but for now, mine is staying at home.