The Tripod: Your Gateway to Better Landscape Photography

Have you ever wondered how photographers take those pictures of waterfalls where the water comes out looking all “wispy” and abstract? Or tried taking a photo of a beautiful sunset,  but it came out blurry? If you’d like to step up your landscape game, we have a few tips on WHY we always use a tripod, WHO should use a tripod, HOW to choose a tripod, and WHAT photographs become possible with a tripod that would be impossible without it.  

Why should I ALWAYS use a tripod for landscape photography?

  • Tripods provide stability and a fixed position for your camera that handholding simply cannot match. It allows you to shoot in lower light when shutter speeds naturally become longer, and handholding would result in blurring of the image due to motion of the camera.  

  • Landscape photographers always shoot from a tripod, because it ensures a tack sharp image.  Leave no doubts that your image is as sharp as it can be!

  • Tripod allows you to maintain a consistent composition from one shot to the next, even if you have to make adjustments to your camera’s settings, walk away for a bit to retrieve an accessory from your camera bag, or decide to attach a filter.  Once you find a composition you like, you can set the tripod and not have to worry about recomposing from shot to shot.  

  • Once you have your composition set and know it won’t move on you, you can concern yourself with other details, like establishing accurate manual focus and exposure.

How do I choose the right tripod for my needs?

Two popular styles of tripod heads:  Ball head versus tilt-swivel head

A tilt swivel head is not as versatile.  The camera can be panned left and right, or pointed up or down, but this type of head generally has no ability to level a camera on uneven ground, without adjusting the height of the legs individually.  This type of head is more useful indoors in a studio.  

 The tripod you probably already have, but shouldn't! It is designed for camcorders inside the home. The legs don't adjust separately so it's problematic on uneven ground and the head cannot be leveled.

The tripod you probably already have, but shouldn't! It is designed for camcorders inside the home. The legs don't adjust separately so it's problematic on uneven ground and the head cannot be leveled.

A ball head is more flexible for landscape photography, as it allows you to move the camera in any direction on the tripod, which is easier for finding a level position for the camera on uneven terrain.

 A ball head tripod is ideal for any terrain and let's you switch between horizontal use (landscapes) and vertical use (portraits).

A ball head tripod is ideal for any terrain and let's you switch between horizontal use (landscapes) and vertical use (portraits).

Materials: carbon fiber vs. aluminum

Carbon is much lighter for the same level of rigidity and stability, but is generally much more expensive.

Dolica Carbon Fiber Tripod would be an exception to this and can be found at Costco for around $90. This is a steal considering it is carbon fiber, super lightweight, compact, and comes with a quick-release and carrying case. With a max height of 60 in., it is only 3.5 lbs. and has a 13 lb. load capacity. Instructor Lauren just used this for her trip to Iceland and was very pleased!

Manfrotto Aluminum Tripod with Ball Head is also a good starting kit. It has a max height of 63 in., weighs 5 lbs. and has an 11 lb. load capacity.

Tripod heads and legs can also be purchased separately from one another to be mixed and matched.  Instructor Paul is a fan of interchanging his tripod and head combination to suit his needs for a particular shoot. Tripod legs such as the Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 can be paired with a head such as the 496RC2 Manfrotto Compact Ball Head, or a third party special-purpose head.

For instance, if you are interested in panoramic photography, we recommend going with a Ball Head with Panning Clamp because the ball head can be leveled independently of the clamp.

 A panoramic head lets you pan the quick release clamp independently, once the ball head has been leveled.  

A panoramic head lets you pan the quick release clamp independently, once the ball head has been leveled.  

For wildlife photography with large lenses, you may wish to mount a Gimbal-type tripod head to the top of your tripod legs.

 A Gimbal lets the lens hang from a swivel, so it will never fall over no matter how heavy your setup is!

A Gimbal lets the lens hang from a swivel, so it will never fall over no matter how heavy your setup is!

Important: Tripods come in different sizes and strengths, designed to accommodate different combinations of cameras and lenses. Tripods and heads have weight ratings, and for maximum stability, make sure that your tripod’s and tripod head’s weight ratings both EXCEED the weight of your camera and lens combination by at least 25%. Please do yourself a favor and buy the right tripod as it is helping to protect your investment. Don’t be that guy with the cheap tripod and brand new DSLR camera combo that just toppled into the river!

How will this help me to grow as a photographer?

Getting that "wispy" water effect

A tripod allows for creative use of long exposure photography, as with the wispy water effect for waterfalls and ocean waves, which require half a second to five seconds or more of exposure time, or even photographing the perceived motion of the stars across the night sky, which requires 30 seconds to several hours of exposure time! Remember: there is a correct exposure time for every shot you want to make.

 5-second exposure taken in the shadow of the mountains in Arthur's Pass, New Zealand.

5-second exposure taken in the shadow of the mountains in Arthur's Pass, New Zealand.

Using a Cable Release

A tripod and a cable release make for an indispensable tag team.  It’s tough to justify owning one without the other.  Even a camera on a tripod can move slightly if you have a heavy shutter finger!  This can result in a blurry image if the shutter speed is on the slow side.  A cable release allows you to trigger the camera without even touching the body, ensuring that the image is as sharp as possible.

 Click click, ohhh ahhh.

Click click, ohhh ahhh.

The “Bulb” setting on your camera and when you would use it

When you are shooting long exposures that are longer than the camera’s built in timer (usually 30 seconds), you must use the “bulb” setting, where the camera stays open indefinitely as long as the shutter is pressed.  In this case, a cable release allows you to lock open the shutter for as long as you want, even walk away from the camera while you time the shot, and return to release the lock on the shutter to end the exposure.

 In this shot that Paul produced in Death Valley, he used the Bulb setting because he needed a two-hour exposure time. He kept the shutter open using a locking cable release, walked back to his car a half mile away, brushed his teeth, played some FIFA on his tablet,  diddle-daddled some more, and came back to finish the exposure.  

In this shot that Paul produced in Death Valley, he used the Bulb setting because he needed a two-hour exposure time. He kept the shutter open using a locking cable release, walked back to his car a half mile away, brushed his teeth, played some FIFA on his tablet,  diddle-daddled some more, and came back to finish the exposure.  

The quick-release: the difference between keeping your tripod in the car and ACTUALLY using it!

Most people think tripods are a pain in the ass because it takes so much time to screw the camera on and off. Make sure to buy a tripod kit with a quick-release. If you don't have on your current tripod, don't fret! You can buy one separately as most tripod ! Oh look, It’s a hawk! Good thing you have that quick-release so you can go from super scenic landscape mode to capturing that thing in action.

quick-release

Trick question: where do I keep the quick release plate when I’m not using it?

Snarky Answer: Always keep it attached to the bottom of your camera!  Otherwise, it’s worthless!  That’s what saves you time in the first place.