For landscape photography, a tripod is probably the most important equipment you should own besides the camera. If you have a good camera with an expensive lens and you do not use a tripod you will not get the most out of the camera and lens.
The more megapixels your camera has, the more important it is to keep the camera steady. Blurry 24 Mp photos are worse than tack sharp 12 Mp photos.
One of the problems beginner landscape photographers often experience are blurry photos. If they used a tripod, some of these problems could have been avoided. Even with image stabilization you will not be able to handhold your camera if you want to get the sharpest images your camera can produce. The longer focal length you use, the more important this is.
As a rule of thumb, you can handheld the camera as long the shutter speed is not slower than the reciprocal of the effective focal length of the lens you use. If you shoot with a 50mm lens, the reciprocal is 1/50. This means the slowest shutter speed you can use is 1/50 seconds.
With the improved technology of image stabilization, you might get away with a slower shutter speed than the 1/50 second. How well this works is also dependent on you “handhold” technique.
Unfortunately many beginner photographers often leave the tripod (if they have one) back home and instead bring an extra lens. I can assure you as soon you have tried photographing using a tripod you will never leave the tripod behind again. With a tripod, you have so many creative possibilities, and you get the best possible image quality.
Many reasons to use a tripod
The most important reason of using a tripod for landscape photography is to ensure no camera movement during exposure and, therefore, tack sharp images. The other reason is the creativity and freedom a tripod gives you. With a tripod, you can photograph things that you “can not see”, like creamy white water and star trails.
Below I have listed some reasons or situation in which a tripod is invaluable in landscape photography.
- Stability - sharp photos - highest possible image quality
- Creativity with long exposures - blurry water, waterfalls, waves, clouds
- Low light situations - blue hour fireworks, moon shot, star trails, Aurora Borealis
- Bracketing of many exposures - for HDR or focus stacking
- Exposures for panoramic stitching
- When you use heavy and long focal length lenses
- In windy conditions it is even tougher to handheld your camera
- If you shoot macro photos, a tripod is a must
- A final and important advantage with a tripod is it slows you down. By slowing down, you spend more time making the best possible composition
- In given situations, you might want to position the camera above your head for a better perspective. You can use the tripod as an extended arm and lift it above your head with the camera mounted.
Important features to consider when choosing a tripod for landscape photography
The main purpose of using a tripod is as already mentioned to keep the camera still during exposure and ensure sharp photos. Anything else than a sturdy and solid tripod will not do that for you.
If you do a lot of hiking with your gear some of the features mentioned below might be more important than other.
If you mostly bring your gear in a car and shoot at locations near a road you might not be too concerned about weight.
However, if you use airplanes a lot, weight and size is very important. So here we go.
Weight is probably the most important aspect of a tripod for landscape photography. You must consider weight in two ways.
- First the weight of the tripod itself.
- Next how much weight the tripod can hold.
If you often hike and travel you want a tripod with as low weight as possible. Most important with a tripod for landscape photography is how much weight you can load on your tripod. If you use a heavy DSLR with long lenses or you plan to buy this shortly you need a solid tripod.
Most landscape photographers rarely use lenses with longer focal length than 200mm. So you don’t need a heavy duty tripod unless you are fine with carrying some extra weight.
Height is the next important feature of a tripod for landscape photography. As with weight, there is more than one height aspect to consider
- First is the maximum height from the ground you can extend the tripod.
- Second is the lowest you can position the tripod.
- Third is the length of your tripod when collapsed.
If you photograph landscapes with a longer lens, you shoot from eye level most of the time as you won't include any foreground. In this case you want to adjust the tripod as high as possible to avoid bending your back when looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD.
How high you want the tripod to raise depends to some extent on your height as well. My previous tripod did not extend to my height making it quite exhausting for the back when I needed to bend down all the time.
The second factor - how low you can adjust the tripod, has been more important to me. The reason is I shoot many of my landscapes with a wide angle lens from a low level.
The tripod height is always a compromise and for me with quite an extensive traveling the length of the tripod when collapsed is very important. My tripod fits in my checked in suitcase. I prefer this rather than trying to get the tripod on board a plane as carry-on luggage.
The number of leg sections is another factor to be aware when deciding on a new tripod. Most tripods have three or four leg sections that can be extended. The highest tripods more often have four sections.
In general the more sections, the more prone the tripod is for vibrations. This is of course to some extent price related. A high end (expensive) four section tripod is very stable.
If you want a combination of a tripod that can be extended very high and at the same time fit in your suitcase when collapsed, you probably have to buy a four-legged one. If you don’t need the full height of your tripod you should extend the upper legs first before the lower and thinner legs.
Leg locking mechanism is important. There are two types of locking mechanisms - twist-lock or flip-lock. It is subjective what each photographer prefers, and none of the types are better than the others.
I have been using a tripod from Manfrotto for many years. This tripod has flip-locks, and I have not had any problems with this tripod. The only issue is it is quite cumbersome to disassemble the legs for cleaning as there is a lot of screws and nuts to loosen.
I use my tripod a lot in sand and sea water, and it needs cleaning from time to time. I have to admit I have not been good on the cleaning part.
Center column or not is another thing to consider. Many tripods have a center column that can be raised when you need the extra reach. However, an extended center column is not recommended because it makes the tripod more unstable.
With my Manfrotto tripod, the center column can be turned upside down that enables me to move the camera almost to the ground. I have found this feature handy when photographing flowers.
Other tripod features
Some tripods have built-in bubble levels so you can level the tripod to make sure the horizon is leveled before taking the photo. A level is also useful if you want to shoot panoramas. If your tripod doesn’t have a bubble level, you can buy a tripod head with built in level.
Foot spikes can be useful if you plan to use your tripod on ice or slippery surfaces.
A hook to add extra weight is useful in windy conditions. You can hang your camera bag under the tripod using the hook. The extra weight makes your tripod a lot more stable.
Aluminium or carbon fiber tripod - which is best?
Most tripods are made from aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum tripods being the cheapest, but they weigh more than carbon fiber tripods. The advantage of carbon tripods is weight, and they absorb vibrations better. As a landscape photographer, you should go for a carbon fiber tripod if you can afford it.
Most tripods are three-legged, but there is another option - a monopod. A monopod is a one legged tripod on which you mount your camera. The advantage of a monopod is you can change camera position fast. This is useful for wildlife and sports photography where subjects move quickly. A monopod is not much used by landscape photographers.
There are many other small compact table top and mini tripods available as well. These tripods are meant to hold small Point and Shoot cameras and Smartphones. If this is the camera you use a Gorilla pod type is and options.
There are also different types of clamps you can use to hold your Smartphone. As the resolution of these cameras is much less compared to DSLR’s, the stability of the tripod is not as important.
Anyhow, I recommend you to use a tripod even with your Smartphone both for increased quality but also because of the creative options it gives you.
How to choose a tripod head and accessories
Most high-end tripods do not include the tripod head on where you attach the camera. The tripod head can be purchased separately, and it can be from another brand than the tripod.The cheapest options are tripods with the head included as a part of the tripod.
My recommendation is to buy the tripod legs and the head separate for the extra flexibility to choose what is best for you. So let us go ahead and look at the different tripod head options.
You can choose from several different tripod heads. The most common are:
- Ball heads
- Pan/tilt heads
- Gimbal heads
- Panoramic heads
- Joystick heads
The ball head type is most common tripod head for landscape photographers. The advantage of a ball head is you can make adjustments in all direction by loosening one tension knob. A ball head is smaller compared to the pan/tilt head.
Pan and tilt head
A pan/tilt head has three handles that stick out of the head. Because of the handles this head takes up more space. The advantage with the handles is you can make small and accurate adjustments in horizontal or vertical direction independent of each other.
So if you have made the horizontal adjustment and you want to make or correct the vertical adjustment you can easily do this without having to readjust the horizontal position. With a ball head if you loosen the knob you will have to adjust both the horizontal and vertical position every time.
If you have experience with a ball head, you will make adjustments faster with this head compared to the pan/tilt head. I have owned one pan/tilt tripod once but after changing to the ball head I have never looked back. In my opinion and for my use as a landscape photographer a ball head is much faster to use.
A gimbal head is good when you use heavy long focal length lenses like in sports and wildlife/bird photography. When you have balanced your camera and tripod on your gimbal head the camera is more or less “weightless” and you can track objects that move fast quick and easy. The use of a gimbal head in landscape photography is limited.
The panoramic head is useful if you do a lot a lot of panoramic landscape photography. The purpose of a panoramic head is to eliminate parallax error when rotating the head when shooting the number of frames you need for your stitch. These heads are quite expensive, but you can do fine with a regular ball head as well. It is just a little more cumbersome doing the adjustments.
The Joystick head is ball head with a joystick type handle. You can do all adjustments with one hand. Unless you buy a good one, these heads do not hold a heavier camera as good as the regular ball heads.
Quick release system
A Quick release system is an efficient way of attaching your camera or lens to the tripod. You might have tried to mount your camera directly to the tripod using the screw on the tripod and the mounting thread under the camera. This is fiddly and not how you should do it.
A much better way and faster is to use a quick release system (QR). A QR system consists of a plate that you attach to the mounting thread under the camera or directly to the lens. On the tripod head, you mount a clamp. You attach the plate into the clamp, and the camera is fixed and safe in place.
If you have more than one camera you fix a plate to each of them, and you can easily switch cameras on the same tripod without hassle.
L-plate or L-bracket is as the name suggests an L-shaped mount you attach to your camera. When L-plate is mounted, you can quickly change the camera from vertical to horizontal orientation. The tripod will still be in balance.
You can of course change the position on a ball head as well, but when tilting the camera the balance is no longer centered. If your camera and the lens are heavy, you might risk the tripod tilt over and fall. Not a good idea with expensive gear on it.
When using a ball or pan/tilt head, you will need to adjust your composition because the viewpoint has changed.
Using a tripod for landscape photography is a must if you want the sharpest possible photos. It is difficult to recommend a tripod or head as there is a lot of brands and the choice is dependent on your camera and lenses.
You don’t need to buy the most expensive one but the more money you put in, the better a tripod you get. As tripod is something you will not buy often I will suggest you look at a tripod around your budget limitation, and then add a little more money to it. You won't regret it.
I have done it and many other photographers have done it - bought a flimsy cheap tripod, and then another one less flimsy. You got it. If you buy three or four tripods before you get a good one you have thrown money out of the window, money you could have saved by doing the right investment the first time.