To Use a Tripod or Not?

Part II: Times when you don't need a tripod

Advantages to not using a tripod

All of the pictures in this article were taken in Mount Rainier National Park.

For more Rainier pictures, click here.


In my last news letter I talked about those times when I always use a tripod, when one is absolutely indispensable. To read that article, click here.

The current article, which is about when not to use a tripod, may be a little easier to understand if you review my article on depth of field first.

Yes, there are definitely times when even dedicated landscape photographers like myself take pictures without using a tripod. For me, shooting without a tripod is a direct result of the digital revolution in photography. This is because many smaller digital cameras, especially the pro-sumer cameras (those cameras that are half way between small, low-megapixel consumer cameras and high-end, high- megapixel professional cameras) have very short, built in lenses with long depths of field. How does this work? It's fairly simple. These cameras have quite small electronic sensors, much smaller than the 35mm size on my Canon. This means a shorter lens can cover this small sensor and short lenses have larger depths of field.

For example, a 100 mm lens on a 35mm camera has the same field of view as a 25 mm lens on a small digital camera with a very small sensor. A 25mm lens has lots more depth of field than a 100mm lens, thus the camera lens doesn't have to be stopped down nearly as much as the lens in the 35mm camera and thus it can be shot at much higher shutter speeds. If all this seems like Greek to you, don't worry about it. All you need to remember is that many prosumer digital cameras have lenses as short as 14 mm (even though these lenses have an equivalent rating of perhaps 30mm and act just like a 30mm lense on a 35mm camera), and you can gets lots of depth of field from them at quite fast shutter speeds.

In the real world you can set the f-stop on most prosumer digital cameras at about f-7 or f-8, which is probably the smallest f-stop they come with, and still have enough depth of field to keep everything from 2 feet to infinity sharp. This means you will often be shooting at shutter speeds of at least 1/125 or faster and still have lots of depth of field. And this means that you can hand-hold the camera without getting any motion blur. This is a huge advantage. You can wander around with your small camera in hand, shoot everything you want and still get pictures that are sharp all the way through from front to back. There are of course limitations to this, which will rapidly become apparent if you need a lot of depth of field for a dawn or sunset shot when it is fairly dark. You won't be able to get the shot without a tripod, no matter what camera you are using.

The fact that small digital cameras are very light and have short light lenses, not wobbly monster lenses that stick out 10 inches in front of the camera, also helps. I seem to be able to hand-hold small digital cameras down to 1/60, 1/30 and maybe even 1/15 of a second without too many problems. I wouldn't dream of hand-holding a heavy 35mm camera or even a heavy digital SLR with a telephoto lens at any slower speed than 1/125 of a second and probably more like 1/250 or 1/400. Also, one quickly learns how to brace these small cameras on rocks, trees, cars, door-jams and whatever is handy to shoot even more slowly. It all works quite well somehow. I've shot sunsets when it was almost dark at very slow speeds by bracing on a stump and unbelievably, all turned out well. I'm sure a bit of luck was involved in this shot but it worked.

I often hand-hold a small camera and use it like this when I am scouting a location that I plan to come back to later in better light and reshoot with a much larger, slower camera that I will support on a tripod. I can take a hundred hand-held shots in an afternoon and know that at least some of these shots will be good; I may not be able to make huge images from these shots, but using my 8 megapixel Olympus, which has a great lens, I know that I will be able to blow them up to at least 20x30 and probably a lot larger if I have done everything else right. I do miss out on all the compositional help that a tripod would have given me, but still, I'll get a few nice shots.

Hand-holding with small digital cameras works especially well for close-up shots and for shots with very close foreground and a minimal amount of distant background. If I place the center of interest in the very close foreground, making it huge and the background less prominent, it's hard to lose. For some reason, very close foregrounds seem to work better with digital cameras than they did with the old film cameras. I'm really not quite sure why this is true although I suppose the short lenses of small digital cameras which have such a lot of depth of field have a lot to do with it. At any rate, digital cameras seem to be made for very close up, super sharp foregrounds. I don't question the camera gods on stuff like this; when something good like this comes along, I just shut up and and make good use of it.

I love to lie down on the ground with my little camera, snapping away at wildflowers, colorful lichens, dewy spider webs, lacey birch bark and what-not. Some surprisingly good pictures come out of this. This works especially well with wildflowers. An added advantage is that most prosumer cameras have a built in flash which can be adjusted to a greater or lesser intensity and which can add immensely to close-up pictures taken close to the ground. The flash will add flawless lighting as well as stopping any wind movement as long as the distances are short.

I can sometimes crawl around on the ground for an hour or two shooting close-ups like this and forget where I am, since I'm having such a good time. Once in a while I look up and find people looking at me like I'm a little crazy, but whatever, I'm having a great time and taking some beautiful pictures. The poppy pictures below were taken this way. By the way, these poppies were not taken in Glacier National Park like all the other pictures on this page; they were all shot in southern AZ.

I also shoot very casually with my small prosumer camera without a tripod when I am on vacation or with family and not seriously trying to make professional pictures. I do however, try to make the picture as good as I can even though I'm not using a tripod. And it is often possible to do quite well. When traveling or in stange locations, I often try to make a record for the family history I am in the process of writing and illustrating. I try not to shoot just plain old, boring scenes of distant stuff, i.e. whatever happens to be in front of the camera. I find that one of the best ways to add interest to pictures and make them more creative is to include both close foreground and distant background in a picture. This means I am thinking about depth of field and and often shooting at my smallest f-stop. Or sometimes I go to the other extreme entirely and deliberately use a large f-stop to keep the foreground in sharp focus and blur the background, like the picture below.

Or sometimes I just give up and use the f-stop that is automatically selected by P mode (program or auto mode). Here, I focus on the up-close subject and and don't worry if the background is in focus or not. This always works fine as long as the close foreground is in sharp focus.

I'm sure you know how to get the close foreground in sharp focus, but just in case you don't, here is how. Move the camera until the focus brackets in the view finder are on the closest object and then push the exposure button half way down; now the focus is locked onto the up-close foreground. Then move the camera to the composition you want, without releasing the half down button, and when the scene looks right in the viewfinder, push the button all the way down to take the exposure. This is very easy to do without a tripod. Small digital cameras were made to shoot like this.

When you are not using a tripod you can be much more free and easy. So, try to be as creative as you can in every shot you take; taking pictures without a tripod will release the hidden artist in you. Try to see just how creative as you can get with every shot. It's amazing how much more interesting these pictures will be than the plain old ho-hum shots we often take.

A good way to show these creative pictures you have just taken, is to put them all into one folder on your computer and then turn them into a full screen slide show. This is really easy to do. There is a "View as Slide Show" button in the side bar of "My Pictures" on PC computers. Select a folder of creative pictures, click the slide show bottom and off you go. If you have a Mac, you are really in luck. Check out the Iphoto program included with all Macs which will make absolutely gorgeous multimedia slide shows complete with music and a lot more including the so called John Burn's effect. You can be just like the famous documentary photographer who transforms still photographs into movies by zooming around inside pictures. Iphoto can do this for you automatically or you can set it up as a custom effect. Getting to make Iphoto slide shows and show them on one of Apple's new Cinema Displays has got to rank at the top of any photographer's wish list. I makes my mouth water just to think about it.

Another place I never use a tripod is when I am taking people pictures, especially kid pictures. People pictures taken with a tripod are invariable posed, stuffy and boring. When I'm taking people pictures I don't worry about depth of field at all. I set the camera on P mode (for program or automatic) and fire away.

Sometimes, when I'm taking people pictures, I don't even look through the viewfinder. I set the lens to its most wide angle position and carry the camera around nonchalantly in one hand, point it in the direction of my subject and press the shoot button. Sometimes I don't even raise the camera above knee level; the low angle adds interesting effects to the candid shots you get this way. Look at the pictures of people taken in magazines like People or Time; often the camera position is very low to add interest.

When I am shooting this way, I usually have the flash on and set it to the fill flash function. This will expose both the subject and the background correctly, assuming the background is lighter than the foreground which it usually is when you are out-of-doors.

When I am shooting like this, nonchalantly, without looking through the view finder, I know pretty much what I am going to get at the wide angle lens setting I always use, because I have practiced it beforehand. It often works well to get as close to people as possible, like a two feet away, and then raise the camera casually without anyone noticing and shoot. It is possible to get some great candid pictures like this. This technique works wonderfully at settings like outdoor birthday parties and barbecues, etc. The adults are sometimes a little surprised when the flash goes off, but afterwards they love the pictures and the kids are usually so busy they don't even notice you are taking pictures of them. Compared to the hassles of rounding up the kids and posing them while they squirm and giggle and poke each other and refuse to stay put or look backwards, or make silly faces, or make rude gestures, this is a technique straight from heaven.

My next article should be out in two weeks or so. I think it will be about the Wind River Mountain in Wyoming or maybe I'll finally get started on the long promised series of articles about how to edit pictures using Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. At any rate, both are coming soon.

Fred Hanselmann
April 2008



Here is a whole series of articles that I wrote in 2009 about the the advantages of hand holding cameras and the various probems this creates and how to solve them. One of the main advantages is spontanaity, which I think you can easily see in the hand-held pictures of the poppies on this page.

Shooting Stars along Paradise Creek, Rainier National Park

Alpine Heather and Creek in Rainier National Park