Creating Artistic Landscape Photographs – Tripods Part 1
In film days using a tripod meant being serious about photography. It was part of being a professional or a committed amateur. It was an essential aspect of doing photography seriously, of creating above-average images.
This was the rationale when the best landscape photography films, such as Velvia or Provia, had an ISO of 50 or 100 at the most. Obtaining the extensive depth of field required in landscape photography requires using a small aperture which when combined with a low ISO calls for a slow shutter speed. Add to that using large, heavy and cumbersome cameras — medium format, 4×5 or 8×10 — and you had a situation in which not having a tripod means not being able to take a sharp photograph, or not being able to take a photograph with an extensive depth of field, or not being able to take a photograph at all.
1999: No Tripod At Grand Canyon
Such was my situation in 1998 when I embarked on a trip to photograph the Grand Canyon with the goal of photographing with my large format Linhof 4×5. Unfortunately I traveled from Chinle to Grand Canyon, a journey of over 400 miles, only to realize when I got there that I left my tripod at home. I had to drive to Flagstaff, the closest town to Grand Canyon, and see if I could find a tripod there. The only place that had one was Wal-Mart and the only tripod they had was an amateur model with a plastic three-way head and thin unsteady legs that extended only up to my waist. It was of such poor construction that it would have been a miracle to have it support a fixed lens 35 mm camera steadily, or any camera for that matter. It was definitely too small to support a 4×5 camera with any hope of creating professional quality images. However hope springs eternal so I bought it hoping I could make it work somehow. I had no choice because that was the only tripod available. I could get it and hope for the best or not get it and drive back home without any photographs to show for the trip. I had not packed a second camera — another mistake in addition to forgetting my tripod — so I could not revert to using a different and hopefully hand-holdable camera instead. I was stuck with the 4×5 which would have guaranteed superlative quality images if I had the proper tripod but which in the situation I was in meant nearly guaranteed failure.
Back at the Grand Canyon I tried to photograph with the Wal-Mart tripod but to no avail. No matter what I tried I could not find a way to stabilize the camera. Setting the aperture and shutter speed caused the camera to wobble on the plastic head of the tripod. Closing the lens and cocking the shutter made it move. Inserting the film holder and removing the dark slide made it rock from side to side as if animated by forces internal to the camera. Even triggering the cable release caused it to vibrate. I attempted to stabilize the 4×5 by lowering the tripod as far as I could, extending only one of the three leg sections but the camera still moved on top of it. I tried to wait after setting the lens and removing the dark slide hoping this would make the camera movement subside but the tripod was too light and the head too wobbly to get the camera to be still even for a few seconds.
I knew I was not going to get satisfying results when I saw the camera rock back and forth on the wobbly tripod. Hope is what kept me going for the duration of the trip, however my fears were confirmed when I received the developed film back from the lab: all my 4×5 photographs were blurry and therefore unusable. This was supposed to be a trip that would provide new images to sell at the El Tovar Hotel, the location where I sold my work full time and made my living. Unfortunately the trip was unproductive because I forgot my tripod.
2019: No Tripod In Antelope Canyon
Flash forward 20 years. This is now 2019 and I am in Antelope Canyon photographing handheld in a location that is known for requiring long exposure times and where using a tripod used to be a must.
Antelope is a deep slot canyon. The light creates beautiful colors but the light intensity is low. There are two Antelope Canyons, Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope. Upper is deeper and darker requiring particularly long exposures. This means that with a low ISO film and a large format camera exposures of 5 to 15 minutes were common in the darkest recesses of the canyon. What this meant is that with film using a tripod in Antelope Canyon was a must. I just could not photograph Antelope without one.
However today I am using a lightweight 35 mm camera that can be set to a high ISO, something like 10, 000 or more, without getting noticeable noise in the captures. I mounted a fast super wide angle zoom lens on the camera because super wide angles do not require very small apertures to get everything sharp. Freed from my tripod I am able to create images I have never seen before, images that could not be done with a tripod because there is simply no way I could have set a tripod in the locations where I can stand. These locations are just too tight and awkward. I can barely stand in some of them so setting up a tripod would be simply impossible.
At first not using a tripod felt like rock climbing without a safety rope, or visiting a foreign country and not speaking the language, or eating food I never saw before and not being sure what it is made of. It felt foreign. I felt like something was missing. The main difference was that I was not standing behind my camera. I was holding it. I was the tripod or rather the bipod.
However these initial feelings faded as the scene in front of me unfolded, the light making the slot canyon more and more interesting, more and more colorful and dramatic. I quickly forgot about not having a tripod, mesmerized by the shapes and colors of the canyon. Focused on capturing the beauty around me I let go of thinking about my tripod. In fact I forgot about it and started enjoying the freedom of taking photographs without having to spend time setting up a tripod in a narrow space crowded with people. What a relief. What a sense of freedom! I had never experienced it because I had never photographed Antelope Canyon without a tripod. This was new and I liked it. I was hooked.
As I walked out of the canyon I saw a group of photographers on the ‘photography tour’ crouched behind their tripods, waving us by, asking us to move out of their shots. They looked stressed and unhappy. They did not seem to be having a good time, or at least they were not having a good time when I passed by them. They were also limited to photographing light shafts and did not have a chance to go through the whole canyon like I did. I was not jealous of them. I had taken photographs of light shafts on many occasions and taking one more was not something I craved for. Especially not after seeing the distressed look on the faces of the tripod-using photographers. I much preferred being able to stroll through the canyon freely, unencumbered with a tripod, without having to wait for people to walk by. It was more fun, I got more photographs and I wasn’t stressed.
Reflecting on this experience I realized that I was no longer longing for a tripod in Antelope Canyon. This was the practice of a time past, a time that had come and gone. Now it was time to learn how to capture photographs hand-held, knowing that a digital camera with a high ISO setting would let me set the shutter speed and f-stop necessary to take sharp photographs with adequate depth of field and without excessive noise.
Shooting handheld has its challenges just like photographing with a tripod does. However having photographed with a tripod and a heavy 4×5 camera I enjoyed the freedom of photographing handheld with a lightweight camera. I felt I was being let out of the classroom for recess without anyone stopping me from doing this or that. I also knew there was no going back.
At one time being a professional landscape photographer meant using a tripod. This is no longer true today. It was a superficial aspect anyway. In reality tripods have little to do with being a professional or with being serious about photography. Being committed to creating quality images means being able to adapt to changing conditions. It also means not assuming I will be able to continue doing things the way I have done them so far. Not using a tripod is one aspect of this commitment.
About Part 2
This is part 1 of a two-parts essay. The stories featured here are a good jumping off point for additional insights and remarks about tripods. This will be the focus of Part Two. Look for it here next month.
About Alain Briot
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I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
Workshops With Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link.