Trick Question: When Do You Need a Tripod? Straight Answer: (Pretty Much) Always

This was at sunrise in Tequesta, Florida. The tripod is in the water, I'm in the water, and the shutter speed is 1/3 second to slow the rush of the receding wave to reveal the rocks below. This shot is all about the way the waves happen to go across the rocks, and I made several exposures to get the most dynamic patterns. The ball head was tilted down so limit the sky area, which was secondary to the action taking place in the foreground. All photos © Deborah Sandidge

If I were taking a photography-based word-association test, and the word coming my way was "tripod," my response would be "absolutely essential."

For many of the pictures I take, that's the absolute truth. I simply couldn't take those pictures without a tripod. Well, more accurately, without a camera support of some kind, be it on three legs, two legs, one leg or no legs at all—meaning a tripod (three legs); the ever popular and ever-present human tripod (two legs); a monopod (one leg); or a Platypod or beanbag (no legs at all).

Here's how these camera supports work for me, and how they might help you create more exciting and creative images.

In Tanzania, from the safety of the safari vehicle. It's a 1/160 second exposure with my Nikon Z6, a 200-500mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter (for a 700mm focal length reach), all supported by my LensCoat LensSack beanbag.

Destination Determination
I always like to have some means of camera support with me, and the specific camera support I choose largely depends on where I'm going.

For example, any location near water requires a tripod. If my destination is a beach, I'll want to get out there—onto the rocks and into the waves to get dramatic and detailed photos, usually at shutter speeds that capture the water's motion, texture, power—or all three. And I'll need all the stability and sturdiness I can get.

My choice for those times is my Really Right Stuff RRS TVC-24, a tough, strong, carbon-fiber model that weighs just a touch under 3.5 pounds. The ball head I use on it—a Really Right Stuff BH-55—adds two pounds to that.

Worth the weight? Absolutely.

I got to the seawall before sunrise and set my camera on the Platypod on the wall and waited for the light and its changing colors to provide a setting for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This image was a 30-second exposure that smoothed the water and the cloud's motion just a bit.

I've set it on rocks and in sand, it's been battered by waves and wind-blown grit, and once a particularly strong wave drove me back to shore as I held it high to keep my camera and lens dry. Even if I don't go near the water, I always assume a beach location is going to be breezy at least, blustery at worst, and stability will be a necessity. And in all cases, saltwater, sand, and assorted debris rinse right off after every adventure.

For my near and far travel photography I take my 2.3-pound Gitzo GT1545T Series 1 Traveler with a center ball head. I may not use it everywhere or every day, but it's vital for the blue- hour landscapes, cityscapes, harbors and bridges I love to capture.

I might be tempted to leave it in the car if the weather report indicates a nice clear day in the countryside, but then I'll think: what if there just happens to be a fabulous array of clouds crossing the sky? Of course, I’m going to want to get a long exposure of their travel, and if I didn't bring the Gitzo, I'm out of luck.

I wasn't planning for blue-hour photos, but I had my camera and 50mm lens and there was this great balloon at the Disney Springs complex, near Orlando, Florida, and...well, you know how it is. I was able to form the triangular human tripod—arms outstretched, full tension on the camera strap around my neck—for a 1/40 second exposure.

African safari? No tripod at all. They're not permitted in most safari vehicles—a beanbag is the support limit.

And the thing about a beanbag is that it's always worth having one in the camera bag. It doesn't weigh much, doesn't take up a lot of space, and I never know when it might come in handy in any location.

I used to have a monopod—a lightweight Manfrotto, if I recall correctly—and it was perfect for those instances when people were plentiful, and space was limited. I found, though, that closing down the Gitzo and letting the center column function as a monopod was just as effective in instances when one-leg stability was needed.

Provence, France, in low, soft, end-of-day light in a 1.3-second exposure with my camera on my Gitzo travel tripod, its height carefully adjusted to include all the levels of interest. Back home I used the Analog Effects choice in my Nik Collection filter set to accentuate the yellow sky and purple mountains.

And then there's the Platypod, which is essentially a set-it-down-anywhere mini-tripod for those instances when only it will do—like when there are lots of people around and I can't have tripod legs sticking out all over the place, or when I want the camera stabilized really low to the ground or secured on a ledge, a balcony, or a wide railing.

One of my favorite places to shoot is San Francisco, and at one location in the city I can set the Platypod on a seawall and quickly be rock-steady and ready to go. There are always people walking by who might bump into a tripod, but they can bump the seawall all they like and I'll still get sharp shots.

 I generally use a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head on the Platypod; sometimes the BH-55. (Platypod, by the way, is the brand name; I use the Ultra model.)

Finally, in a pinch, there's the human tripod: me, arms outstretched with the camera strap pulled tight against the back of my neck.

At the Bellagio in Las Vegas, among tourists—not the spot for a tripod nor the light for a hand-held photo, but this was back when I had the Manfrotto monopod, which kept my needed space to a minimum and enabled a 1/25 second exposure. These days I use the Gitzo as a monopod.

Use and Choice
My list of support situations includes blue hours, beach and shore scenes, time-lapse sequences, videos, and long exposures of the movement of clouds, water, headlights and taillights. There's also the factor of the lenses I'm likely to use.

If I have a lens that comes with a tripod collar or a built-in tripod socket...well, that's a sure tip-off that support is suggested, if only to protect the camera's lens mount from the weight of the glass. When I see a tripod collar on a lens, you tend to think it's a case of the camera being mounted to the lens, not the other way around.

Why it makes sense to always have the beanbag in the camera bag or backpack. This was before the Platypod was born, and the beanbag got me low to the ground and was a much more suitable support than sand. It's a bracketed 1/4000-second exposure to cut down the sunrise light coming from behind the starfish at Marineland, Florida.

If you're upgrading your camera support system or you're starting from scratch, I'd suggest you check out what's available at a photo show or expo, or take your camera and lens to a photo store and spend some hands-on time. See how quickly and efficiently you can set up and break down the rig. Consider the lenses you'll be using. Is a 24-70mm the extent of your reach, or is a 70-200mm or longer more your style? Take into account the size and weight of your camera as well as the support's heft and bulk.

I think camera support selection is an in-person experience rather than an online buy, but of course as someone who spends a lot of time working with various versions of support gear, I'm partial to getting to know these almost-constant companions before I make my choices.

This image is the result of a precise technique professionals resort to when a tripod, a beanbag and even the Platypod will elevate the camera too much to achieve the effect. It's called the Scrunched Jacket Method, and I used it to support the camera in exactly the right spot and at exactly the right height to position San Francisco's Transamerica building under the iron arch, and to capture the beautiful golden glow on the bench boards in a one-second exposure at f/16.

Deborah Sandidge's website,, offers a collection of her photographs as well as photo tips and a schedule of upcoming workshops, photo tours, and seminars.

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