If you are curious about photography, you may have wondered whether a tripod is needed for shooting landscapes. They’re often on gear lists, but are they really essential? Well, the answer is somewhere between a no (with a but) and a yes (with a lot of ifs). Let̵
What does a tripod do?
Taking pictures is largely about compromising. It is often impossible to use the exact lens and exposure settings you want, especially in landscape photography. Instead, you have to find a balance between your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that works while still shooting what you’re trying to capture.
What a tripod does is make some compromises less of an issue by providing a fixed and stable platform for your camera. This means you can use slower shutter speeds than you could if you just hold your camera (your hands just shake too much to get a good photo with slow shutter speeds). Since it keeps your camera in the same place, you can take identical shots with different camera settings.
There is a guideline for how long a shutter speed is that you can use while holding your camera before the movement of your hands becomes visible. It’s called the reciprocal rule. The idea is that the slowest shutter speed you can use is the inverse of the focal length of the lens, so if you have a 100mm lens, your slowest shutter speed by hand is about 1 / 100th of a second. With a 20mm lens you can go to 1 / 20th of a second and so on.
There are some caveats to all of this. If you are using a crop sensor camera, consider the crop factor. Also, the image stabilization has gotten significantly better in recent years, meaning that if you have one, you can use slower shutter speeds than the reciprocal rule suggests.
If this is all a lot to wrap your head around, here’s an easier way to look at it:
For landscape photos with a wide angle lens, you should be able to hold any shutter speed faster than 1 / 40th of a second. You need a tripod for shutter speeds longer than 1/2 second. In between is a gray area that depends on your exact lens choice, how stable your hands are, and whether you have image stabilization.
So the big questions are: in what kind of landscape photography situations do you want a shutter speed slower than 1/2 second, or do you want to take identical photos but with different settings?
RELATED: What camera settings should I use for landscape photos?
Tripods make it easier to take pictures in low light or at night
When taking photos in low light or at night, you have three choices:
- Use a slow shutter speed to give the light more time to hit the sensor.
- Open the aperture further to let more light hit the sensor at once.
- Use a higher ISO to make the sensor more sensitive.
Unfortunately, at least for landscape photography, using a wider aperture and higher ISO has some pretty big drawbacks. Increasing the aperture decreases the depth of field (making your photo more blurry), while increasing the ISO increases the amount of digital noise in your photo.
For most photographers, this means that using a tripod and a slow shutter speed is the best way to capture landscapes around sunrise and sunset and at night. You can even take pictures of the stars.
It is also worth noting that the early morning, evening and night are often the most beautiful times to photograph landscapes. You then get the most interesting and dramatic displays of light. This is why so many landscape photographers consider tripods essential.
For taking pictures with a slow shutter speed
Sometimes a slower shutter speed is not just about capturing more light, but also about creating a creative effect. A popular look is to blur moving bodies of water or clouds to show their movement. You can see it in the shot above. It adds a lot of drama to your images.
To get this kind of blur effect, you have to use a shutter speed slower than you can hold, which means it’s trip time. Some photos require shutter speeds measured in minutes!
For more information on these types of long exposure photos, check out our full guide to taking long exposure shots.
RELATED: Freeze or fade? The two ways to capture movement in photography
To get a really deep depth of field
Shutter speed and aperture are the two-camera set you need to balance most often. If one goes up, the other has to go down. To really get a deep depth of field with everything in focus, you have to use a small aperture. In some cases, this will force you to either use a high ISO and deal with digital noise, or use a slow shutter speed instead. Again, with a tripod, you don’t have to make that compromise.
There is also another technique called focus stacking that you can use to increase the depth of field in your images. It involves taking multiple photos with focus on different parts of the scene and combining them in Photoshop. To do this easily, your camera must be locked to a tripod so that all the photos you take are identical.
To take HDR shots or blend exposures
In addition to blending images to increase the depth of field of your photos, you can also blend images to increase the dynamic range or amount of light values between the darkest black and brightest white in your shot. Taking one photo exposed for the shadows and another exposed for the highlights and combining them in post-processing will expose your entire image better than if you were taking a single frame. The technique is called High Dynamic Range or HDR photography.
There are also a few other reasons for combining exposures. Sometimes you want to blur the water that moves through a stream, but not the grass that winds in the wind next to it. You can also combine shots to remove people or other distractions.
And if you need your camera to stay in the same position for multiple shots, a tripod of course really helps.
But they are still not necessary
With all that said, I don’t think a tripod is absolutely necessary – and not having a tripod certainly isn’t an excuse for not taking landscape photos. Yes, without one there are certain types of shots that will be impossible to take, and others you have to make big compromises. But I’ve also taken tons of landscape photos that I’m really happy with without one. Here are a few.
I took this photo on an eight hour hike with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain. There was no way I could carry my tripod.
For this shot I had to use a slightly higher ISO than if I had had my tripod. However, I don’t think it does anything about it.
And here? I photographed directly on the sun. Yes, my ISO is slightly higher than without a tripod, but that hardly matters.
A tripod is only an aid. A very useful tool that allows you to use a slower shutter speed and combine exposures when needed, but if you don’t have one, you can still take great photos. And sometimes, even if you have one, you don’t have to use it – and then you’ve just brought a heavy piece of gear with you for no reason.