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Ditch the Tripod for Serious Landscape Photography?

Handheld single image. I held the camera above my head to get the elements to align correctly.

If you have been in the outdoor photography scene for a while, you have probably either been taught, or learned on your own how valuable a tripod is. I remember older pro photographers telling me that if it’s worth shooting, use a tripod. Period. It didn’t matter the circumstances. Even though I have mostly followed that advice over the years and historically would never take a low light “serious” landscape image without one, I find myself doing so all the time these days! Honestly, I shoot more often handheld now than on a tripod.

Let’s get one thing straight first off. Tripods are still a VERY valuable tool for a landscape photographer and absolutely an invaluable tool in certain cases. I would never advise anyone to go on a photo trip without one and strongly encourage beginners to buy and use one, but I also hate that so many instructors and teachers are still telling students that they must use a tripod all the time, no matter what. I strongly disagree, and so do many of my favorite pro photographers that are also using a tripod less and less. 

Why would you even consider this?

Freedom of movement:

One of the most important things I have always tried to impress on students (and I mostly fail), is to at least find your composition off the tripod. Once you’ve found the “perfect” spot handheld, set the tripod up in that exact location and height to take the shot. 

It is overwhelmingly common in my workshops to see students set up their tripods to normal height, and proceed to shoot for the entire session at that same height. It is just so easy to get stuck and lazy at a set height. It also affects where you choose to stand because the tripod makes it harder and more awkward to move around when the ground is steep or challenging.

Of course as photographers moving around is literally how we create an image. Being limited in that movement is a huge disadvantage! The difference in how effective and creative a photographer (especially a beginner) is with a tripod stuck at one height, vs no tripod at all is crazy. 

So while you can certainly be very creative by finding your shot off the tripod, and then setting it up to shoot, there is no doubt in my mind that when I am actually shooting 100% handheld, and not using a tripod at all, I am more free and able to create stronger images. Plus it’s just more fun! 

Less physical limits on height and position:

Besides the huge advantage of free unencumbered movement mentioned above, there is also the very big advantage of simply being able to get both lower and higher than your tripod will go. Sure, tripods without a center column can get pretty low, but most still limit how low, and the legs can also get in the way when lowered all the way. It can also be a major pain to actually get that low depending on the conditions and your tripod. 

Most tripods are very limited when it comes to getting higher as well. Sure, there are massive tripods out there that go as high as you would almost always need, but your average height tripod, especially if it’s fairly small for travel and hiking (something that is extremely important to me), might not go all that high at all.

 With many modern cameras having 360 flip screens, it’s possible and easy to get the camera literally on the ground low, and above your head high when hand holding, and you can do both in a second, vs having to make possibly challenging changes and adjustments while still being able to see the screen. When light is changing fast this can be seriously helpful. The image above is a great example of this. Holding the camera way above my head was the only way to get seperation between the log in the water and the reflection of the peaks.

Sometimes you just don't need one

Sometimes even if it's not a big deal to use a tripod and it's not limiting you in any way, if you have plently of light, there is simply no reason get it out. If you have enough light to shoot at a low ISO, at whatever apture you want, and there is no need or want for a long expsoure shot, might at as well leave it in the bag in my opinion.

This is a handheld focus stacked image using automatic focus stacking.

How is it possible?

Better cameras and editing programs

The ability to shoot landscapes in low light handheld these days really comes down to 3 things. High ISO performance of modern cameras, focus stacking and editing programs. 

The ability to shoot at high ISOs is of course the biggests and main thing here. The fact that you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode with AUTO ISO turned on and get excellent results even in very low light handheld is great. The issue here is that you still really want to shoot with a fast aperture setting (like F4) when hand holding to let more light in to keep the ISO as low as possible (mostly because dynamic range gets worse with higher ISOs and noise). But of course if you are close to your foreground subject and want the entire scene to be sharp, you need to use a smaller/slower aperture setting (like F11 or higher). 

This is where focus stacking comes in. Even if it’s just 2 shots. By taking more images for focus and stacking them, you can keep your aperture faster/wider (closer to f4 for example), to keep the shutter speed fast and ISO low and still get a very sharp image from foreground to background. Note: I often still shoot around f8 to f11 handheld if I have enough light to keep the ISO manageable, so I can take a single image, or just 2 to get sharp focus throughout. 

The latest software like Photoshop and Helicon Focus allow you to blend the images together, reduce noise, and pull details out like never before. 

Automatic focus stacking

The combination of built in auto focus stacking, 360 flip screens and high ISO ability is one of the absolute biggest advantages modern cameras offer! The 3 together are just a complete game changer. In the past you would be on the tripod, focus stacking manually without a screen that flips vertically (which meant having to be on your stomach to see your composition since you often shoot these images vertically. Often in tough/dirty conditions). It was very tough, time consuming and uncomfortable and many people just wouldn’t be able or willing to do it at all. 

With the setup above you can now walk around without a tripod hindering you, leaning down while hand holding your camera getting super low if needed even vertical, with a perfect view of your comp. Then you just have to hold the button down or press start and the camera takes as many shots as needed for focus automatically. All while achieving excellent quality results. 

Unless you have really spent time doing both, you just can’t imagine how much easier it is with this setup. You can be SO much more creative. You can also take so many more possible comps and shots even in a short time frame when the light is going nuts. It is just a huge advantage. 

I could (and plan to) write an entire article on this subject alone, but for this article, trust me when I say it is awesome, and a major reason why I hand hold in so many cases these days. 

Single shot handheld.

Ease of travel & hiking

Another factor that plays into this conversation is the ease of traveling and hiking without having to mess with a tripod. As stated above and discussed below, having a tripod is still very important in certain circumstances, but there are so many cases where taking the tripod is a major hassle and it might not be worth it. You might decide not to even take the camera at all because your entire kit, tripod included, just doesn’t make sense. However, a small mirrorless camera with a 24-105 lens and no tripod, can be taken almost anywhere, and knowing you can still get excellent images with few limitations might mean taking the camera and still working hard for some great images even on something like a family trip. 

I used a tripod for this image as I was shooting water and wanted the option of motion blur.

When to still use a tripod

There are 2 main situations that I still use and strongly recommend a tripod. The first is when the light is very low. That can either be when shooting a sunrise/sunset before or after the sun has left the building. Or when you are shooting full on night time images. If I’m in a situation where the light is getting low, and it’s not a big deal to just pull out the tripod, I almost always do so. So many times I am shooting from my car so having it with me is easy. The subject does not require me to be in a strange position, high or low or on uneven ground. There is no rush. I can just grab the tripod, easily set it up and shoot with little to no hassle. Why not in that case.

The second is anytime you need a long shutter speed to blur movement. Most of the time that means water. Using long exposures to make water look silky smooth and clean, or just to add interest is very common and can make a busy scene look amazing. You can also blur things like clouds or even people. While there are ways to blur things like water by shooting images in burst mode and blending them in Photoshop, for the most part a tripod is 100% mandatory in this use case. If I am going to shoot waterfalls for example, I would never even consider not having one. 

The camera settings are also much easier on a tripod. Especially in low light.  You can stay at a low ISOs and the shutter speed can be as long as needed. There are a lot of cases like this, and especially for beginners it can be really nice and overall quite a bit easier to have a stable camera and place to work to get settings correct. Most of the time when my workshop group is shooting from a road side pull out and shooting something in the distance we are all on tripods. 

In this case I also used a tripod. The light was farily low and there where no real reasons not to use it. This is focus stacked shot using automatic focus stacking.

Can force you to slow down

This is another major thing to keep in mind. Slowing down and forcing yourself to really think about your shot and every element that is in it can be very, very important. Especially for a beginner that is learning to be more aware and deliberate with their shooting, being forced to slow down can be really helpful. There are both advantages and disadvantages to being forced to move slowly and deliberately with a tripod. 

Check out this article that breaks down the idea of shooting both slow with deliberation and fast without overthinking things. I feel like both methods can have advantages and doing both can help you become a better photographer. 

It’s great to have options!

To me the number one takeaway here is that it’s great to have the option to shoot both on and off the tripod depending on the situation. Mastering the camera settings for both and knowing when and where to use a tripod or not, can give you great creative freedom.


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