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“The best way out is always through.”

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Get Serious: Use a Tripod (Part I)

When I was about 20 years old, I was going through an intense period of frustration about the lack of progress my photography was making, both technically and creatively. My poor parents had to listen to me vent this frustration late nights as I would sort slides on a light table and fling the rejects (somewhat violently) around my bedroom like miniature Frisbees. One morning my father (also a photographer) said to me, "You'd like your photographs a lot more if you learned to use a tripod every time you shoot."

He was right. I had nothing to lose and so gradually (it wasn't an overnight thing, trust me) I started hauling a tripod around with me. The pictures got better, but still I would go through periods of laziness and rather than slow down and set up the tripod, I'd take the easy way out. Years later I came across a wonderful book by my now friend Bryan Peterson called Learning to See Creatively and I was really stunned to read that he used a tripod for almost every single photograph in the book. I was so impressed by the quality and creative genius of Bryan's photography that I decided to devote myself to using a tripod every time I took a picture.

Again, there was a quantum leap in the quality of my photographs--only this time I got the idea through my thick head: the secret to improving your photography is to use a tripod as often as you can. Today I wouldn't think of going out to shoot photographs without a tripod and even if I'm traveling I always take a substantial tripod. In fact, I'd rather leave a lens or two behind to save weight than leave my tripod.

To be honest, I don't think you can be a serious photographer unless you use a tripod most (OK, not all) of the time. I would guess that I use a tripod for 90-percent of my photographs and when the shot is very important, I use one 100-percent of the time. In fact, if I'm not using a tripod I feel downright lazy and I know I'm not giving the subject the full attention it deserves. I know that I'm not being serious about getting the best shot (and there is no quality I hate worse in myself than laziness). And if I find myself starting to get lazy, I remember those hundreds of nights in front of the light table cursing myself for the photographs that were "almost" good enough--but not quite.

"But!" you'll scream. "Tripods slow you down!" Or: "You can't photograph a birthday party indoors with a tripod!" Or "I have image stabilization, I don't need a tripod!" Yes, most tripods are a pain to carry, all but the most expensive graphite tripods are awkward and heavy. You're also right, photographing a family party with a tripod would probably be more of an inconvenience than it's worth (though I'll bet you'd get better quality photos if you did). And image stabilization is a wonderful thing (where was it when I was photographing rock concerts six nights a week at 1/30 of a second!). But image stabilization is no panacea, it's only designed to give you sharper images at marginally slow shutter speeds and that's all. It won't let you make a 10-second exposure of traffic flowing through city streets at night and it won't let you create multiple images to stich a panorama perfectly.

In the next posting I'll tell you exactly why you need to own and use a tripod--and why it's not as painful as it sounds.

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