Look, no tripod!

Take pictures hand-held
Stand by your DSLRs. I am about to commit photographic heresy. I am about to be extremely rude about tripods.

How many times have you read ‘use a tripod’ as expert advice in books and magazines? Ten? A hundred? Every time? How often have you seen it trotted out as a panacea for better photography? But is it really? Is it possible to manage without a tripod?

To be honest, I don’t like tripods. They don’t like me. I do not get on with them. Can’t stand ‘em. And, believe me, I have tried to make friends with them.

I have at least three tripods at home: a heavy one, a lighter one and one of those miniature, table-top affairs. But at home is where they stay, shut in a dark cupboard like shoes that never quite feel as comfortable as they did in the shop.

So what is my objection to this most highly recommended of photographic accessories? Can’t I see the benefits that a sturdy tripod would bring to my wobbly snaps? Er, not exactly.

Tripods are heavy, cumbersome, finger-trapping, attention-attracting irritations. By the time you set up one, the picture has gone and your enthusiasm has gone with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I understand the perceived benefits of a tripod. I understand that for some photographers it is an essential piece of kit. I simply question whether it is necessary or helpful for everyone.

Let’s look at the case for the defence. Use of a tripod slows down your picture-taking, encouraging a more considered approach.

Well, a tripod certainly slows me down. It reduces me to a painful, wheezing plod across the countryside and encourages me to leave the camera in its bag rather than face the flat-pack furniture-style trial involved in putting up the tripod. I doubt I would ever have caught a picture of a rainbow if I had used a tripod regularly. It is still possible to think carefully about what is in the frame without fiddling for 15 minutes with a tripod.

A solid tripod is the only way to eliminate camera-shake. This is true if you’re working at ISO20 in dull conditions with a long lens and half a dozen filters. In bright conditions it is possible to get a sharp shot with good depth of field even with a polariser on board. If you specialise in low-light landscapes with front-to-back sharpness you are going to need some support for your camera, admittedly, but I am happy to leave that and the 4am starts to the professionals.

A tripod helps creative picture-taking. For me, it is the opposite. It tends to encourage you to plonk the three-legged beast in one spot and clunk away, slowly, with maximum depth-of-field from head height. Without the tripod, it is easier to consider higher or lower viewpoints, differential focusing, and quick shots to capture action or weather conditions. You tend to move around freely without carrying the equivalent of half a tent-frame on your back.

Now what about the case against tripods? Well, even the greatest advocate of the tripod would admit that while they want solid support they also want a light, portable, quick and easy-to-use tripod. And such a paragon is available – for the price of a small second-hand car.

But even the Ferrari of three legs remains an idiot-magnet. Bored security folk will be drawn from miles around to tell you that you cannot take pictures … even though it is a public place. Small crowds of people in anoraks will congregate to watch you work and ask ‘What are you taking pictures of?’ Drunks will become over-friendly until you are forced to move on. Teenagers will derive huge enjoyment from leaping in front of your lens yelling ‘Take a picture of me!’

The clinching argument? Well, for me the clinching argument is that a tripod takes the spontaneity and fun out of photography. We all want to take great shots, yes. But not at the cost of feeling weighed down both literally and metaphorically by a tripod.

If you want to be Joe Cornish, you will need a tripod. If you want to take night-time shots, you will need a tripod (although you could try resting the camera on wall and using the self-timer). Otherwise, you can take many good pictures without a tripod and some that will be better without one – capturing the moment, for example, or photographing people.

All I ask is that those experts who insist that a tripod is an essential tool in improving photography think twice before trying to get us all to follow this advice. Some of us do just fine without a tripod, thank you.

Martin O'Neill