Have Tripods Become Obsolete?

Modern cameras support fantastic image stabilization, and ISO noise is not a problem anymore. We can shoot freehand in dusk conditions and get stunning, sharp photos. So, have tripods become obsolete?

In my latest video on YouTube, I discussed the question of if tripods are obsolete today due to the fast development of technology. Those who watch my videos regularly might know some weeks ago, I was hiking up a mountain in the early morning for landscape photography and forgot my tripod, so I had to shoot freehand in the fog. This might sound like a photographer’s nightmare, but I got fantastic photographs that day. This raised the question among my audience if the usage of tripods has become obsolete. Has it? Let’s have a look at why we had to use tripods some years ago and earlier.

Making Movement Visible

Whenever we want to expose longer than we are able to hold our camera without shake, we have to use anything that stabilizes our camera. This is basically why tripods were invented. Just think about a nice water scene where you want to get motion blur in the water or blurry clouds due to their movement. We have to expose longer than we were able to hold our camera quietly in our hands. The solution is a tripod. The camera is fixed on the tripod, and with a longer exposure, we are able to make the movements visible inside our scene.

Modern cameras offer in-body image stabilization, which allows you to expose five stops longer or even more. Are tripods obsolete? Before I answer this question, let’s have a look at another use case first.

The Amount of Light

Especially in landscape photography, where we are used to not photographing with artificial light sources, we have often faced the situation of not having enough light for shorter shutter speeds. A tripod helps here, as it allows us to expose for seconds, without getting shake into our images.

But modern cameras support the usage of a quite high ISO without getting too much noise, which brings the exposure time amazingly low. In combination with image stabilization, the need for a tripod seems to fade away here. So, do we still need a tripod? Or has it become a relic from a time with poor technology?

Where Is a Tripod Still Useful Today?

I forgot my tripods some weeks ago, and I got some fantastic photographs, although it was early in the morning and we had fog. Some photos are even offered as fine art prints on my website. But I want to be absolutely honest with you: it was “photography on the edge.” It nearly didn’t work. And the reason is that I had to focus stack all my images, as I was too close to my foregrounds. I didn’t want to change my compositions, as I was happy with them. I had to focus stack, but focus stacking without a tripod doesn’t work. You have to take at least two exposures with two different focus points, better three or even four. And if you want to blend them in Photoshop afterward, they have to be aligned with each other. This doesn’t work when you are shooting freehand, as you change your composition slightly with each exposure. It is impossible to find the same camera position again after changing the focus point. So I didn’t focus stack, but my photos were pin-sharp.

Well, I stopped down as much as possible to increase the depth of field. For one photograph, I had to stop down to f/18. I used my Sony 24-70mm GM lens on my Sony a7R IV. But this was not enough, as the foreground was still blurry. So, I tried to shift the focus point a tiny bit more to the foreground. That made the foreground got sharp without the background becoming blurry.

If I had had my tripod with me, I had stopped down just to f/14 maybe, and then taken three exposures with different focus points for focus stacking. Had this led to better results? Let me be honest: when we start with pixel-peeping, then you might see a difference between f/14 and f/18. But I had no problem with printing the f/18 image at two meters width or something like that. It is absolutely sharp.

I’m really happy that it worked, and I went home with some fantastic photographs. But I nearly failed due to the high depth of field I needed and the fact that focus stacking wasn’t possible. Beyond that, it would have been much easier with a tripod. But there is another reason why I prefer to use this three-legged thing.

The Biggest Advantage Tripods Offer

When camera and lens technology has come to a development point where it seems that we don’t need a tripod anymore, there is one thing we should never forget: a tripod helps us to fine-tune our composition. I always look for a rough composition first, and then, I fine-tune it on my tripod. I can think about all the things we need to consider for composition, and when I get it as perfect as possible, I just have to wait for the right light. This is why tripods will maybe never become obsolete for me, even when image stabilization is able to stabilize 20 stops and when we can use ISO 50,000 without any noise. It will always be in my bag, unless I forget it, of course.

We want you to leave a comment below if you prefer to photograph with or without a tripod. And watch the above-mentioned video to get more tips about this topic, especially for landscape photography.

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39 Comments
Nigel Voak's picture

I often shoot the interiors of dark Italian monuments. I often shoot a 30 seconds using base ISO stopped down to F16. A tripod is still vital for this type of work.

I shot an exterior some months ago during the blue hour. A 30 second exposure "disappeared" the people passing through the piazza. Again a tripod got the work done.

Jon Kellett's picture

I personally hate carrying a tripod but until image stabilisation can manage 30 second exposures, for some photos it's indispensable.

Heck, even shooting multiple frames to average in post is distinctly unsatisfying without a decent tripod.

Nigel Voak's picture

I have seen claims about very long IBIS hand holding times on several photo forums.

Unfortunately the pictures are never bitingly sharp at best, and one can see movement blur even at small sizes at worst.

I hate the tripod too for the weight and time you need to set it up. But my compositions are far better, as I study the framing more.

Jon Kellett's picture

The Panasonic G9 was an IBIS beast. At about 24mm I could do 1.5s, but their IBIS gave razor sharp center but strange double edge outlines on the edges. Repeatable too.

Braced against a pole, 2-2.5s handheld was doable and the double outline went from 4/5 photos to 2/5 photos. Must be something software related going on there, on camera.

Not seen the same with Sony, but I've not tried unbraced handheld with Sony longer than about 0.8s.

When looking through my images for this comment I couldn't see a single long Sony that was definitely handheld, though I think I may have had a few over 1s I can't be sure.

Jan Steinman's picture

I would say that a tripod is much less relevant than it has been in the past, but "obsolete?" Hardly!

There are still specialist niches that ''require'' a tripod, such as panography, astrophotography, precision macro photography, copy photography — I'm sure y'all can imagine a dozen or more cases!

Precision positioning will always be with us — at least some of us, to some extent. For that, I really appreciate a geared tripod head, like the Manfrotto 410. If you're careful, you can even polar-align that sucker and use it for an improvised manual star tracker!

Personally, I find that, even with outstanding IBIS, I appreciate the weight-handling aspect of at least a monopod with certain lenses.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

A geared tripod head makes things so much nicer and the added weight / bulk is not an issue when shooting at home / in studio.

And even when going out so far it has not been an issue for me.

But the benefits are plenty!

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Sure you are right in what you wrote, but, but... What in God the Almighty is that black beauty of a catadioptric lens in the last picture? And is that a custom-made handle?

Jan Steinman's picture

That is a Sigma XQ 500mm ƒ/4. According to Yasuhiro Oshone, a Sigma engineer, it was the first Sigma ultra-telephoto: https://www.sigma-sein.com/en/ohsone/ultratelephotolenses_1/

As mirror lenses go, it is better than most, but if I'm going to carry three kilograms, I'd rather bring the OM 350/2.8 plus the OM 1.4-XA teleconverter, at just about the same weight.

I could just hear some marketing guy shouting, "Yea? But I can't PICK IT UP!" And the engineers rushed down to the local hardware store and bought some drawer-pulls. Later versions had a more integrated-looking handle on it.

This one's collectability is marred by the engraving: "BPA HV LAB" on it, which is probably "Bonneville Power Authority." I'm picturing some high-voltage engineers, peering at insulators on top of huge electrical towers.

It's actually pretty sharp in the centre, and has considerable contrast… for a mirror lens. And no chromatic aberration.

(Tried to upload a sample image, but it won't let me: )

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

A 500mm f4.0 Reflex lens. I did not even know such a lens ever existed. Just wow...
Thanks for the link to the Sein blog. Will be a good weekend read :-)

Paul McMurrick's picture

Sorry but I think this is ridiculous. There are still many situations were a tripod is of great use, Timelapse, long exposure beyond a couple of seconds, astrophotography where star stacking will be used, etc. Even when stabilisation is available and top quality, you will produce acceptable images at the limits of IS but the very best quality images for printing big will still be on a tripod

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

There are so many situations where I can shoot better with the tripod than without...

I used to shoot photos of the moon with my telelens hand-held, because aiming with tripod and regular ball head with a pain, lens was sagging after fastening the ball head, etc etc.

Now I have a geared head and shooting moon images with a tripod is again a viable option -- and gets me lower ISO images!

Then for any still-life compositions the tripod with geared head is almost indispensible for precise framing of my composition, and getting it right not just once but repeatedly, as I will often be focus stacking after I'm done adjusting the lights.

Finally for night shooting, long exposures, the tripod is of course a must as well. Especially when I will do exposure-bracketing of my shots too.

Chris Duzynski's picture

Shooting architecture with camera tethered to my Mac, focus stacking. Shooting @ F11 at ISO 50 for 10 seconds, combining multiple elements from different variations of the same scene etc. Tripods obsolete? Uh, no. One of the big hidden benefits... it FORCES me to slow down a bit, think, breathe, and analyze any scene, even a group pic at a wedding.

Tom Reichner's picture

My main lens for most of my wildlife work is a Sigma 300-800mm lens, which weighs 13 pounds. I only shoot it from a tripod. It has nothing to do with the lack of stabilization or with exposure times, and everything to do with the need to hold the lens up and in place for extended periods of time, as my arms and back are not capable of doing so.

Chris Duzynski's picture

Good point Tom: I don't shoot events much anymore but when I did, camera on tripod, and shooting groups. Camera stays put, I can then go to the group and arrange and primp the group. Camera doesn't move, group doesn't move. LESS, much less stress on my arm, hand wrist and shoulder from having to hold a camera for hours on end.

Kirk Darling's picture

I shoot lots of groups, and I find a tripod (or, in my studio, a camera stand) indispensable. That's particularly the case with children in a group. I'll take several shots, concentrating on each child in turn, then swap heads, faces, eyes, whatever necessary, for a final composite image.

In addition, children greatly depend on seeing faces for communication (adults too, but less). A tripod lets me get my face from behind the camera and speak directly to people.

Charles Haacker's picture

I basically dislike tripods as a necessary nuisance. I do let my ISO float up to improbable heights and mitigate in post, sometimes using Topaz Denoise and/or Sharpen AI. But for long exposures, the tripod is still queen because you can put it where you need it (as opposed to trying to find a natural support that is hardly ever where you really want it.

I shoot as many events as they will let me but I am old and frail(ish). I never go out without my monopod with a rifle rest (shooter's wye) in place of a head. Tom Reichner mentions he uses a 13-pound lens for wildlife. Such a massive thing needs support just to take the load off the user's arms. My heaviest body/lens combo weighs only 3-pounds but it's awkward and difficult to shoot handheld. I use the monopod with the vee rest to take the load off me so I can concentrate. I can lift the camera out and go handheld instantly, then go back to the rest instantly. I have a wrist strap on the monopod that allows me to just let go.

I do what works. If I need a tripod I will use one. If I need the monopod I will use it. My preference is to handhold which most of the time I do.

A picture of my monopod with rifle rest is attached. The spider macro was made with it and my too-heavy-to-handhold 3-pound outfit in macro mode. Note the silk extruding from the spinneret. I was in the weeds and a tripod would have been awkward at best.

Hennie Bester's picture

This must be a tongue in cheek question. For landscape photography, a tripod forces one to slow down the process of composition and the overall photo-taking process. It adds an element of deliberation. And that is besides the obvious benefits of pin-sharp photos and mastery of depth of field.. That would never become “obsolete”. Besides, I don’t know how you do photo stacking *without* a tripod.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Indeed, I recently took some sunset / sunrise images, where lens flare was an issue, so had to take two sets of images (three in one case to accommodate for focus stacking as well) where I covered the sun with my thumb to create a "fix" image I can layer in via luminosity masking in PS in post, and to do that a tripod isn't even needed, it's mandatory.

Yes, things like IBIS or combined optical stabilization / IBIS have come a long way and allow us to take shots we never could've dreamed of before just a few years ago, but the need for tripods will always be there for one photography task or another.

This is yet another click-baity article by a YT "photographer" trying to get, well, clicks and views, with FStoppers joining the party.

Doug Birling's picture

No.

Rob Vanderpoel's picture

Is there a reason you couldn't use Photoshop auto align or Difference layer blending mode to align hand held shots?

Jon Kellett's picture

Yup - It, to be polite, is sub-optimal.

Even resting a camera on the ground and firing a couple of dozen shots, you see cropping become evident when aligning. Hand held would be a murderous amount of crop in many/most situations.

Vangelis Medina's picture

Define murderous amount of crop

Jon Kellett's picture

Comes down to the individual and the circumstances of the photo.

Low res camera or tight framing and any crop is pretty murderous :-)

Manny Robalino's picture

Click bait titles spoil what could be a decent article.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I grew up in a time when a tripod was a must. Especially for nature/landscape photography using low light. And it still is a must. I would LIKE to not use one, but...well that just ainta-gonna-happen. For high-quality professional landscape and nature photos, it is imperative to have a very good quality tripod along with at LEAST a medium format camera and larger. I still use a Bogen 3036 tripod with a 3047 head. Good combination. Heavy? Hell yeah, but it never really bothers me.

Eduardo Bernardes's picture

Fstoppers is becoming irrelevant with nonsensical articles, this one being an example along with "why I would never buy a Canon camera (spoiler: it's black and looks boring") and the recent one "which maker has the best 50mm lens" (the whole discussion was centered on light flares).
Is there an editor reading these before they are published?

user 65983's picture

Anything goes at Fstoppers now. It's really sad.

Gary Pardy's picture

For most hobbyists and event shooters, anywhere that mobility is more important than stability, tripods are effectively unnecessary for most photographers most of the time. That said, for the odd time you need a tripod to take a long exposure, or for a talking head video, I imagine most photographers need a tripod at least some of the time.

Pedro Pulido's picture

quick and easy answer - no. tripods are not at all obsolete.

dean wilson's picture

Absolutely obsolete!

I use a study rock, or tree for long exposure night shots. For low level lighting with my zoom I just use my shoes to hold the lens. Another great substitute is my little brother. I set my camera on his back and have him hold his breathe to a 2-minute exposure.

If there is not a rock handy or my I cannot raise my feet high enough for a zoom...there probably wasn't a shot to be had anyway.

Ed Sanford's picture

A tripod is a key element to quality photography. It doesn't exist only for slow shutter speeds. A tripod is an excellent tool for methodically composing landscapes, architecture and even portraits. Also, tripod manufacturer's understand this as they continue to develop bracket accessories as manufacturers release new camera bodies.

Jay Goatz's picture

Man, really running out of things to write about let alone come up with idiotic titles to get clicks. Could've tried to come up with an intriguing title instead of being lazy

dean wilson's picture

Monopods: Tripod or Bipod ~ Who's the real father, next on Jerry Springer.

paul Sheridan's picture

Besides agreeing with the others who have said--a tripod FORCES you to slow down, making many handhelds into the equal of some view camera options--I find it essential when working with Tilt/Shift lenses doing architecture. Post -processing can do wonders, but having the combo available is great: T/S and "shopping."

Onur Pinar's picture

No

Mike Forsythe's picture

For those of us who qualify for Medicare, tripods will never be obsolete.

Douglas LeBlanc's picture

I don't do landscapes so that's my excuse. I shoot wildlife and the natural world mostly handheld. Knowing my reciprocals and having image stabilization certainly makes a big difference. Now if I had a very large heavy Canon EF 600 or 800 mm lens something in that order then yeah, maybe a tripod would be wise.

parallel-imagery's picture

I think if I was going out on a landscape photography shoot and forgot my tripod I wouldn't be telling the world about it. You can clearly get results in many situations without having the ideal equipment, but having the right equipment will get better results consistently. I think the premise of the article is a bit silly really.