On tripods, a love and hate relationship

My current use of tripods after a decade of struggles

I hate to admit it, but many captions from my photos indicate the fat ugly truth... I am not a big fan of using a tripod... THERE! It's out in the open! But before the photographic community starts hailing wrath and judgment upon me – by paying brilliant Chinese hackers to execute DoS attacks on this very website – at least give me the chance to explain!

It goes something like this:
  • for hide photography... I will use a tripod
  • for having to shoot in one location... I will use a tripod
  • for travelling with car for an exclusive photo trip... I will take a tripod

So yes, dear reader, I really see its merits, but... Me hiking kms through the outdoors, looking for random subjects, or trying to pack as light as possible? That same tripod is often a real pain in the (insert body part here). I often find tripods bulky or not flexible enough or, worst of all, that I dragged them along with me without even using them. So this is a short blog on my love and hate relationship with tripods during the past decade, for those of you who are new to photography or struggle with tripods as well. This post does not delve into tripod heads; for wildlife, that’s a whole subject in itself.

Do we still need tripods?
First question up: do we still need to use a tripod in this age of fast and light sensitive cameras that are capable of high film speed? These days, higher ISO shows way less grain than it did years ago. Combined with fast shutter speeds, it’s possible to take tack-sharp photos of crazy wildlife or macro action. And so, I will often take my chances without a tripod. What also helps is the position you stand in. Plus I am blessed with pretty stable hands. The latter I attribute to abstaining from drinking, eating my veggies and getting up every day at 5.a.m sharp. "Really Bart?" Er...OK, no.

The above only seems to leave situations in which you use slower shutters speeds (like landscape and star trail photography). But is that all there is to it? Theoretically yes, but in practice, common sense prevails and my sharp photo count only increases when adding a stable platform.

A monopod would have been useful here: wearing waders in the frigid water of Iceland to photograph a pair of horned grebe (Podiceps auritus). Photo: Krijn Trimbos, www.trimbosphotography.com
A monopod would have been useful here: wearing waders in the frigid water of Iceland to photograph a pair of horned grebe (Podiceps auritus). Photo: Krijn Trimbos, www.trimbosphotography.com

What do I use and when?
Darn, still stuck with tripods then? The short summary of a long story: it depends on the situation. The past decade I went around trying different systems. Here is my story on what I use when. Whether I will take a tripod with me or not is tied up with both the nature of the trip and my expected subjects. Generally speaking, I have a minimalistic outlook on travelling: the lighter you travel, the more time and energy you have to enjoy the experience!.

So usually when I go on a trip in which photography is not the main focus, I mainly handhold my camera, which works fine for photojournalism, wildlife and macro. For landscapes, I take a lightweight Sirui UltraLight T-005X, with C10X ball head. The latter is only 48 cm long when folded and weighs 0.9 kg, even less when you skip the middle column. So all in all, it does not take up that much space.

If I go for a one-day or multiple-day hike, the above set-up works fine as well, especially since you are already loaded up with other gear.

If I travel for a longer period of time in which I expect to encounter wildlife under difficult weather conditions, or terrain I will bring a Gitzo GM2541 monopod. It’s made out of carbon, so takes up little space and weighs next to nothing.

I also tried a BushHawk for a while, a gunstock mount that seems to mix the versatility of handholding a camera with the stability of a platform. And I sold it again for two reasons: 1) due to its construction. With me shooting in AI servo mode, you can’t really frame your subject other than in the middle. And 2) due to its military look – I was seriously afraid to be seen as something else other than a harmless photographer in today's media-fuelled paranoid society.

If I do a commission, hide photography, a dedicated photo trip or anything else where I can expect to use my tripod frequently – and it will be easy on the logistics – I will take my main working horse: a Gitzo GT5532S with Manfrotto 501 HDV video head. It’s super stable, and although it’s made out of carbon, this combination still weighs around 4.4 kg. So I might go for a lighter version in the future still.

Anyway, I hope this helped you think a bit more on when to use a tripod, or helped you in finding the right type. Feel free to share your experiences on tripod use in the comments below!

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