Many photographers see tripods and monopods as necessary evils. They complain about the additional weight and reduced mobility but need the stability for long, extra-sharp exposures. I prefer to shoot detached from separate support, but I use them when it’s convenient, and I tend to lug one or both along on every trip – just in case…. You can quickly get into religious arguments about tripod materials and manufacturers (akin to the Nikon/Canon debates), so I won’t recommend a specific brand. I do think you should buy the best tripod that fits your requirements. People tend to buy cheap tripods, only to replace them with increasingly expensive replacements. I say buy quality early and bypass the extra costs trying to avoid the expense of a good tripod, especially since you're probably going to buy it down the road anyway.
Let’s leave the complaints for another day and talk about why you need a tripod and some tips on a good one. A good tripod reduces or eliminates any camera shake. Camera movement, even if it’s slight, can cause problems when absolute sharpness is required. If you’re a fan of soft-focus, dreamy shots, this may not matter to you. I, however, think it’s silly to pay lots of money for top quality lenses just to negate their sharpness with camera movement, and, without support, there will always be some movement. Here is an 8 second exposure inside Bolton Abbey (Yorkshire, England). This shot uses only available light and would be impossible to hand-hold.
Tripods are essential if you need precision framing of your image. Several of my photog buds are fanatics about precision framing. The tripod enables you to get everything just perfect and keep that composition intact for as long as needed. This type of shooting can also slow your pace as you try to take in everything around you, ensuring that you don’t just snap off a couple of frames without thinking through the image. We could all benefit from slowing down once in a while.
Monopods are the less-stable cousins of the tripod, but they have several advantages. Many locations - downtown Washington, D.C., museums and monuments, for example - will not allow you to use tripods, but monopods are acceptable. Monopods give you extra stability but can be easily moved. They allow the photographer to follow subjects in motion. You'll see lots of action sport photographers with monopods. They're much easier to carry with you on a photowalk due to their compactness and lighter weight.
There are many work-arounds for you if you neglected to bring your camera supports. I’ve tried just about all of them. You can lean against a building or tree or balance the camera on a wall. Although not as good as a firm support, with practice, you can hand-hold down to very slow shutter speeds. It comes down to posture and breathing.
Joe McNally did a funny blog on his technique (here) a while back. (Caution: Joe is a New Yorker with a salty style of writing his fans love, and I’m a big fan. If you’re easily offended, you probably don’t want to hit the link.) For slow shutter speeds, you want to hold your camera and arms close to your body; take a stable and comfortable stance; and shoot quickly after a slow exhale. My military and shooting buddies will immediately recognize this as the basic requirements for good marksmanship, as well. We’re talking about a different “shooting” here, but those techniques do come in handy for more than just high marksmanship scores.
How slow can you go? Well, the picture below is hand-held at 1/6 of a second. I’ve zoomed in to 100% to show all its flaws, but it is still sharp enough to read the label. (It would be more impressive if it was a great photo, too, but it was, truly, just a test of low shutter speed technique.)
Like all endeavors, knowing your tools and their proper use will get you the best results.
Sorry we’ve been slow in posting lately. Our real jobs are interfering with our free time. Our hopes are high for the new year.