I went out for a walk with my camera one recent morning. It was bright and sunny—a perfect day for taking pictures. The camera ISO was set at 400, the aperture on my 105mm lens was three-and-a-half stops down from maximum aperture (the “sweet spot”), and my shutter speed was set to 1/500-second. According to the rules—never handhold a camera at a shutter speed slower than the numeric value of the lens in millimeters you are using—there was no reason I should have expected anything other than sharp pictures. Imagine my surprise when I opened the files, took the images up to 100%, and saw blurry details. And I hadn’t even had my second cup of coffee that morning. This was an eye-opener.
I know the lens I was using very well, and it has never disappointed me. On a hunch, I went back to eyeball photographs taken under similar lighting conditions with the same camera and lens a few days earlier. The exposure times were similar but, when taken up to 100%, the photographs were sharp.
After a bit of thought, it dawned on me the sharper images were captured with a tripod-mounted camera, while the pictures that earlier ruined my day were handheld, and made without enabling image-stabilization. I have a relatively stable hand and have successfully handheld lenses far more powerful than 100mm with excellent results, but at the end of the day, the best bet for the sharpest results is a tripod. And this is particularly true if you are using a camera packing a 24MP or higher camera sensor, because the higher the resolving power, the more you see camera shake.
Higher-Resolution Camera Sensors Take Sharper Pictures and Magnify Camera Movement
When you upgrade to a camera with a higher-resolution sensor, you are incrementally increasing the magnification of not only the detail in whatever you are photographing, but you are also magnifying the effects of ambient vibrations, particularly camera shake.
There are more than a few photographers who have placed their tripods on their no-fly list simply because the camera they just paid a lot of money for boasts more than 6 stops of image stabilization and nosebleed-inducing ISO sensitivities, yet can still deliver billboard-quality image files. In theory, you can take that reasoning to the bank, but whatever you do, don’t cash the check yet.
Image-Stabilization and Sky-High ISO Sensitivities Enable Sharper Results… at a Price
Nobody—including me, will deny the advantages of image stabilization, and I’ll be the first to admit that IS technologies have saved me in the past when the ambient light levels went south on me while out on assignment. I’ll also admit to upping the ISO sensitivity of my camera sensor to get a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action or better guarantee sharp results. Does increasing the ISO and turning on image-stabilization increase the chances of coming home with sharp image files? Absolutely.
The problem is that increasing ISO also increases noise and inevitably eats away at overall image quality. While image stabilization definitely smooths out the bumps when hand-holding a camera at slow shutter speeds, the process also tends to rob a degree of image sharpness, regardless of how steady you are holding your camera. The ultimate solution? It’s called a tripod.
To make my point, I shot a series of similar images using a Sony Alpha a7R III with a 100mm macro lens. Having previously owned several generations of Sony A7-series cameras, I was well aware of the subtle drop-off in critical sharpness among handheld photographs as I graduated from 12MP to 42MP camera sensors with a few stops in between. It was clear as day—the higher the resolution, the higher the probability of compromising image quality when hand-holding a camera.
I shot a series of photographs of distant subjects, as well close subjects, and took three exposures of each scenario: from a tripod, handheld with image-stabilization, and without image stabilization. Each file was opened in Adobe Photoshop CC. Apart from tweaking the curves in the extreme highlights and shadows, which I routinely do with all image files, no other adjustments were made to these files.
As the random test images below illustrate, under “normal” conditions, image stabilization does, in fact, enable you to capture photographs that are sharper than comparable photographs captured handheld without image stabilization, especially when shooting at closer distances. The same test also illustrates how a tripod-mounted camera delivers even sharper results.
The barn door illustrated above, on the left, was taken with the camera on a tripod; the center frame was captured handheld with image stabilization; and the image on the right was captured handheld without image stabilization. Although all of the above files are capable of producing decent 16 x 20" prints, if you look closely at the finer details you can easily spot the loss of detail in photographs captured handheld, compared to images captured from a tripod.
Take the same image files up to 100% and the differences between pictures taken with a tripod-mounted camera and handheld with and without image-stabilization become increasingly noticeable.
Photographing a bumblebee while hand-holding a macro lens focused at life size is akin to trying to land an angry sailfish from an 8-foot dinghy in a 20-knot breeze. It’s a fact. The barn door in the above series of photographs wasn’t going anyplace, and despite the fact that winds were calm, and the camera and lens were firmly cradled in my hands, the tripod and image-stabilized photos consistently won out over the non-image-stabilized, handheld photographs. The closer you are to your subject, the more pronounced your movements become, and it shows in the details as soon as you get in close.
Here I repeat the process with a distant subject: first on a tripod (left), followed by handheld with image-stabilization (center), and handheld without image-stabilization (right). Below are the same images taken up to 100%. Though the differences between the tripod-mounted image (left) and the image captured handheld using image-stabilization (center) are not as jarring as when photographing close up or doing macro photography, they are both notably sharper and steadier than their handheld, non-image-stabilized counterpart (right).
At 100%, there is less difference in sharpness between distant subjects photographed using a tripod-mounted camera and comparable photographs taken handheld with image stabilization. Pictures taken of distant subjects handheld without image-stabilization still do not fare as well as similar photographs captured using a tripod or image-stabilization. Regardless, nine out of 10 times you’re guaranteed to get the sharpest pictures from your camera when shooting from a tripod.
For straightforward handheld shooting on terra firma, there’s often little difference between similar pictures taken handheld with an image-stabilized camera and a tripod-mounted camera. This is not always the case when comparing pictures taken handheld with and without image stabilization. The image-stabilized image invariably comes out sharper, although I’d dare to say nine out of 10 times your sharpest pictures will be taken with a camera mounted on a tripod.
Now this isn’t to say you can’t make lovely 16 x 20" or larger prints from any of the sample photographs that accompany this article, but if your goal is to get your money’s worth from the cameras and lenses you’ve paid dearly for, doesn’t it make sense to shoot from a tripod when time and subject matter permits?
It should also be noted that image sharpness is far from the sole reason to shoot from a tripod. Tripods allow you to lock your camera and lens in place at a fixed height and if you want or need one—a level horizon line.
Tripods Allow You to Walk In and Around Your Photographs in Progress
Once locked in place, you can now walk away from your camera, move or adjust elements within the frame, straighten somebody’s tie or shirt cuff, move or adjust a light or reflector, and return to your camera knowing the frame lines along the edges of your camera’s viewfinder haven’t changed since you left them.
Do tripods slow you down? Yes, and that’s part of the appeal. Tripods are not the best tools for every assignment or genre of photography, but when you incorporate a tripod and head that meet your specific needs, the quality of your photographs goes up substantially. You might even say tripods enable you to get your true money’s worth from your camera and lenses.
Tripods are available with and without tripod heads, or as they say in the trade—"legs-only.” They are available in sizes that will support your camera anywhere from 2.2" to 89" off the ground. Depending on your preferences, they are available in aluminum, carbon fiber, magnesium, and even titanium, as well as with or without quick-release systems. There are also smaller tabletop and mini-tripods, which are invaluable for shooting on tables, flat surfaces, or at ground-level and similar low-angle perspectives.
There are many criteria for choosing the best tripod for your particular needs. For further information, I recommend checking out some of the many tripod-related hands-on reviews, buying guides, and other tripod-related articles and features that can be easily found on the B&H Explora website.
Do you use tripods regularly, sometimes, or rarely? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let us know in the Comments field, below.