Traveling with Tripods

About Traveling with Tripods

I know this will upset some people, but I almost never travel with a tripod and I pretty much hate using them. I find them annoying, clumsy and usually pointless.

The main reason I wrote this article is because I see a lot of rubbish written online, such as “always use a tripod” and “always keep your shutter speed more than 1/focal length”.  This is perfectly fine advice if have lots of time to take your pictures and if you need the absolutely best image quality, but that advice comes at the expense of convenience, cost and  portability – which is a definite negative when it comes to travel photography. Usually you want to be lightweight, quick to act and always looking for different shots.

I have taken a tripod abroad with me several times before, and every single time I began to regret bringing it almost instantly. Now, I just don’t bother traveling with a tripod for many reasons:

 

Hong Kong long exposure www.frescoglobe.com

This shot of  Nathan Road, Hong Kong was a 1.3s exposure. No tripod.

 

Practical Reasons

  • They are a hassle to take onto planes. For city breaks like Paris or Budapest I travel with only one piece of hand luggage and no checked baggage. Airport security treat a tripod as a weapon, so you can’t carry it on board. To check into the hold of the plane usually costs more money and then you need to wait for it at baggage reclaim. For a longer trip like Peru, I still don’t want to have to take a tripod on internal flights, long bus rides and treks through the Amazon.
  • I’m lazy and unfit. In hot countries in particular, excess weight makes you more sweaty, more tired and more miserable. I want to travel light. Even a full frame camera and 2 good lenses is nothing compared to the bulk of a decent tripod.
  • Tripods are simply not allowed in many places. Churches/cathedrals/temples, many old buildings, museums etc are not going to let you in if you carry a tripod. They are also often not allowed on public transport like buses or trains.
  • Tripods get in the way of other people, and yourself. At Montparnasse in Paris, Victoria Peak in Hong Kong or from the top of Burj Kahlifa in Dubai, tripods are going to get in the way. Most elevated locations like this have metal railings or glass panels around the edges which mean you need to lean out and over the edge to get the best shots. That is quite hard to set up with a tripod and you need a lot of space. Popular viewing spots are usually packed with tourists and people will bump you, look disapprovingly and get upset at you taking up too much space. For me, it isn’t worth the hassle.
  • Carrying a tripod makes you look like a photographer. Most of the time this is bad. If you want to be covert to photograph night markets, street candids or take photos secretly inside a museum or church, a tripod sticking out of your backpack is a big giveaway that screams “this guy has a camera”. Security guards in particular also seem to hate tripods.
  • Tripods are slow to set up. If you are part of a tour group you will make everybody angry if they are waiting for you to set up your shot, or waiting for you to finish folding and collapsing all of the legs. And your non-photographer friends will also get mad if you take ages setting up for one shot.

Photographic Reasons

  • High ISO performance in modern cameras is great for a lot of low-light shooting. You don’t need a tripod to shoot a low light street scene.
  • Image stabilising means we can hand-hold longer (up to 1/4s with a wide angle) exposures. Again, you don’t need a tripod to shoot in low light or use a longer shutter speed.
  • For simple photographic tricks where you need the camera to stay still with a longer shutter speed (like blurring traffic, blurring flowing water or panning with a subject), they can all be done hand-held. 1/8s is long enough for blurring traffic, people, water etc and 1/8 is handhold-able with many lenses with VR/IS.
  • Being tripod-free allows more spontaneity over composition and the ability to react to changes. Setting your tripod up in the right place requires planning. Often you won’t have this luxury.
  • For self portraits, just ask somebody else to take it. In reality, it’s just as safe as leaving your camera on a tripod.

London Bus night photograph

1/2 second exposure. Handheld. No tripod.

I mentioned some quotes earlier like “always use a tripod” and “always use a shutter speed greater than 1/focal length”. These things are totally untrue, and they constitute bad advice which is misleading to new photographers. The word “always” should not be given away so lightly. There is a right time to use a tripod, and a lot of times which are annoying, inconvenient and unnecessary. Most of the time I see people using tripods in all sorts of weird places, like at the beach in broad daylight or trying to set one up in the middle of the aisle of Notre Dame Cathedral. Not to mention that 9 times out of 10 I see flimsy cheap tripods which do almost nothing to stabilise your shot anyway.

 

To help prove my point, the following three shots were taken at:

Paris: ISO1600, 1.4, 1/40s, 35mm (Full frame). Standing still, focus on the Eiffel Tower

Peru: ISO500, f9.0, 1/6s, 16mm (Full frame). Crouching to hold the camera stable, f9.0 to get everything in focus. 1/6 to get the traffic blurred.

Dubai: ISO3200, f4.0, 1/6s, 10mm (APS-C). Supporting the camera properly, this was easy at 10mm

Night time high ISO, long shutter speed, no tripod

 

What to Use Instead of a Tripod?

  • Know your camera settings. A correctly exposed shot looks better than an under/overexposed one. At the top of Burj Kahlifa, I saw so many people firing their popup flash 828m (2,717ft) down to the ground. This is completely pointless and of course all of their shots were underexposed. Whereas I leaned over the edge at ISO3200, f4 and 1/6s and got the shot above. I didn’t have better gear than anybody else there. I just understood my gear and knew what to do.
  • Learn to hold your camera properly. This will let you use much lower shutter speeds than you could have previously. I will be writing a tutorial about this soon.
  • Use continuous mode and shoot several frames while holding still. Pick the sharpest one to keep.
  • Rest the camera on something and bear in mind how you might need to crop your image. The bottom of a camera is flat, so you can rest it on a bin, post box, a post, a wall etc. Even if you can’t get your composition perfect, you can crop and rotate the image later. Todays entry level cameras are 16-24mp, which is more than enough to crop and rotate without sacrificing quality.

Image-stabilised IS/VR Lenses

I left this until last, because I think buying things is the solution which most people jump to straight away. Everybody wants to buy more gear, when most of the time it is LESS gear which is better.

Buy image stabilised cameras or lenses. In terms of pure low-light performance, image stabilising is fantastic. To understand the terminology, Canon IS = image stabilisation; Nikon VR = vibration reduction; Sony SteadyShot = sensor-shift stabilising which works with all lenses.

Think about it this way – IS or VR will get you around 3 more stops of hand-holdable shutter speed. If you follow the 1/focal length rule for a 50mm lens, you should need 1/60s. But with IS or VR you can hand-hold 1/6s.   The equivalent in ISO would be using ISO400 instead of ISO3200. A huge improvement. In this respect, an f4 lens WITH IS/VR is better than a 2.8 lens without.

The main benefit of fast f1.4 prime lenses is stopping action with higher shutter speeds, not just for hand-held low light. Image stabilising will give you more low-light capability than a faster lens, but it doesn’t give you the ability to freeze motion. That’s why people still buy fast f1.4 lenses.

 

Times when you DO need a tripod to travel

Obviously there are times when you do need a tripod. High ISO and image stabilising can’t always replace a steady camera fixed on a tripod.

  • If your travel photographic demands require it. If I went to see the Northern Lights in Northern Finland, I would take a tripod. They are the highlight of the trip and so are worth the effort of taking and carrying it.
  • Macro photography. I don’t do much macro, but if I did, I would use a tripod. The small apertures that macro photography often requires means you either need a lot of light, or a tripod and longer shutter speed.
  • If you need to stabilise massively long lenses – like a 200-400, or 400, 500, 600mm prime lenses with teleconvertors. Then again, if you own any of those lenses, you don’t really need me to tell you how to use them!

I am not saying that tripods suck and should never be used. Tripods have a place in great photography, and in terms of image quality, a tripod helps massively. Of course a shot at f8, 10 seconds and ISO100 will look better than a handheld f2.8, 1/30s and ISO3200. BUT you have to weigh up how often you take this type of shot where you need that extra quality. Then ask yourself if it’s worth packing the tripod. If most of your shooting will be in daylight, don’t bother. Or if it’s simply a matter of low light, bump up the ISO.

 

Lens Recommendations

For Nikon, the 16-35/4VR is a good bet on a full frame camera. The Tamron 17-50/2.8 VC is a great lens with built in stabilising for APS-C cameras. 17mm is reasonably wide, but not ultra wide.

No equivalent stabilised lens for Canon full frame unfortunately. Tamron 17-50/2.8 VC is also a good bet for Canon APS-C users.

If you shoot Sony, all of your lenses are stabilised – it’s just a shame there aren’t more lenses! For APS-C I’d recommend the Tokina 11-16/2.8, Sigma 10-20/4-5.6 or Sigma 10-20/3.5 EX DG HSM. For Sony full frame, the Sony Zeiss 16-35/2.8 is your only ultra wide option, but at least it’s good.

If you really, really want a tripod-like device, a gorillapod works well with the Fuji X100 or smaller dSLRs. However, even the “dSLR” version struggled to hold a d90 with the Tamron 17-50/2.8 stable.

 

If you agree or disagree, please let me know by leaving any comments below!

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Steezus - June 10, 2012 - 2:02 am

Interesting take. I personally prefer to take a tripod no matter where I go. I have a carbon fiber Benro that was pretty cheap and very light. I keep an L-bracket on my camera at all times. The best shots I have ever taken were only possible on a tripod, but I really value sharpness. I figure why spend thousands on nice gear only to come away with fuzzy shots.

The last point I dislike about lack of tripods is that I do not like the way polarizing filters look on wide angle lenses at all. The sky has all these crazy blue variations in it that are a dead give away. I like to stack my photos to merge them later when shooting landscape wide angles. Now, you can usually get away with handheld in the daylight, but the golden hour in the morning and evenings require a bit more exposure time.

In the end, whatever works for each person! For me, a tripod is one of the most useful tools I own.

David (admin) - June 10, 2012 - 11:41 am

I think it depends on your style. Personally I really like the wide angle polariser look to create some drama in the sky. But I know some people hate it! :p

Same with a tripod. I’d rather just get the shot at ISO3200, than spend time faffing with the tripod. Of course a tripod is better for image quality, but I was talking about travel here so convenience has to be a factor. Also the other things like “looking like a photographer” and not being allowed tripods in some places is also a factor depending on where you travel and what you like to shoot.

Kevin - June 20, 2012 - 2:59 pm

Just bought a tripod, a lightweight a small one which perfectly fits on my new bought lowpro backpack. Using it while traveling for night shots, shots with very low shutter speed, to capture movement at day and night, for my 50mm prime which has no IS and for my 70-300mm with IS but for longer shutter speed and night and zoomed stuff.

Brian - June 20, 2012 - 6:06 pm

randomly found you, this is a great website, thank you for sharing!

Arvind - September 9, 2013 - 5:39 am

I have a Vista tripod that I use with my Canon T3i. I have taken the tripod with me on two different occasions when I was traveling and regretted having taken it both times. I’m nowhere near being a professional photographer (I’m quite the amateur) but it seems to me that tripods for most non-professionals who are traveling are more hassle than its worth. It sort of makes traveling seem like a chore too when you’re lugging around and setting up gear searching for that perfectly sharp, etc…shot.

The points made in the blog post above make a lot of sense for the vast majority of people who take travel photos. Unless you’re trying to submit a photo to National Geographic or some other magazine then I can’t see how the benefits of taking a tripod along outweigh the costs.

Olivia Morgan-Gaines - January 23, 2014 - 9:24 am

Found your site while searching for the right kind of tripod to buy to take with me to see the Northern Lights – extremely useful information. Any help you could give an amateur photographer with a Canon 350D SLR camera wanting to take some memorable pictures on my trip?

David (admin) - January 24, 2014 - 4:49 am

Hi Olivia,

Ok – shooting the Northern Lights is one of the occasions when you DO want a tripod. I generally prefer to not carry one, but for the Northern Lights I definitely would take one.

A 350D is a fairly light camera, so I think you can take a lightweight travel tripod. Sorry I haven’t got any specific recommendations, but I don’t think you need a huge and expensive gitzo.

You probably also want a wide angle lens. If you are shooting with the kit lens that only goes to 18mm and f3.5, you might want to look into renting something like the Tokina 11-16mm/f2.8. That means you can use a lower ISO and 11mm will let you capture a really wide view of the sky.

Aside from that, you’ll probably want to shoot in manual mode. Check out Flickr for good Northern Light photos and see what sort of settings they are using. I’d guess at ISO3200, 30 seconds and f2.8 to get a good bright exposure of the Northern Lights.

Hope that helps!

Rama - March 4, 2015 - 5:45 pm

I think this also depends on your goal. If you are travelling with the goal of doing serious landscape photography or architectural photography and that is the primary purpose of the trip then the tripod is a must. If you are on vacation and hoping to take some nice pictures along the way then the tripod is not necessary.

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