As a walking photographer, you find shots where a tripod isn’t needed and which are not achievable if you’re using one. The view above is from a mountain called Le Petit Vignemale in the French Pyrenees. It’s a hard climb getting up there, and as part of a two or three week trek a tripod is not a good idea. Thick cloud was covering the valleys then for a few seconds, it cleared away giving me this view. I was watching carefully, walking around with my camera, waiting for the opportunity.
I learnt photography many years ago with black and white film and darkroom processing. I used Ilford FP4 and basic cameras including a Zenit, Praktica, and the school’s Yashica. I saved enough money to buy an Olympus OM10 which at £100 was a large sum for a modest camera. Even with better cameras you were restricted by the performance characteristics of film. You could buy faster film, better for lower light, but with reduced quality so it was best avoided unless you were shooting in low light. With film you were stuck with one light sensitivity whatever you were doing until you removed the cartridge and inserted another. I bought a Pentax P30 a few years later and continued with colour photography and if your film was above 200 ASA – the 200 ISO equivalent – you noticed immediate ‘noise’ or image degradation.
I was a keen reader of the Amateur Photographer magazine. I read it every week in the library and remember some of the ideas I encountered, and the books on the shelves. Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, and make the first accessory you buy a tripod. Cartier-Bresson was described as stalking Paris in a battered leather jacket, his Leica hidden in a pocket he would pull out when he saw a decisive moment. He covered it in black tape so it was less obtrusive, and I did the same with my Olympus but then carefully peeled it back because I didn’t want to damage my lovely camera. It meant cutting the tape with a knife.
I weighed in my mind if I liked the use of filters or not, which were fashionable. The starburst for example, which I decided against because it was too artificial. I didn’t have the money for more lenses but thought a selection of 28 or 35 millimetre, 85 and 135 was the ideal kit. But 50 millimetre was all I could afford. Zoom lenses were at that time always inferior. It’s still true as a general principle but not always so depending on the comparison. Canon L lenses for example, which I use along with Sony Zeiss, are very good. They’re superior to many primes, flexible and convenient, and save weight, bulk and time if you’re walking.
You needed a tripod because you were crippled by the limits of film. If you wanted a slow exposure, or were shooting in low light, you had no choice. Even in good light, a tripod improved general photography allowing for smaller apertures and greater depth of field, which you generally want for mountain and landscape photography.
Consider the difference between the scenario above, thirty years ago, and digital cameras today. Sony A7 cameras have astonishing high ISO performance, so too with Canon and Nikon SLRs. Image stabilisation also gives you more freedom. In absolute terms using a tripod is better but that’s irrelevant if it makes no visible difference. As such, the subject is theoretical more than practical, traditional not modern. If you like walking, in addition to outdoors photography, using an unnecessary tripod is a burden. You have to carry it, set it up, find the frame laboriously slowly, and you are stuck with that fixed viewpoint. I had to be mobile on Le Petit Vignemale and that’s a common experience. I had to frame it fast – within seconds – and I often find my first instinctive composition is the best.
Part of the training of a PGCE is teaching analysis. Not to be academic, but to understand what works, what doesn’t, and how to refine your practice. You might need visual aids, internet access, or studio lighting. You might want to include books in your teaching. In college I made photocopies showing the work of Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, and others.
There are reasons for using a tripod. If you want, for example, a slow exposure to blur the movement of water, or you’re using a long lens to photograph birds. They are however specific situations not applicable the rest of the time. If you enjoy the process, great, but that’s a tripod process not photography as such. You also need to understand quality needs in relation to personal use. If you post on social media, make small prints, publish in a magazine, your needs are modest. Photographic education starts with basic ideas like tripod use. But it’s not an end in itself when photographic creativity is the more interesting subject: placing you at the centre not the technology or technique.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.