You can’t use a tripod on top of the Arc de Triomphe, on the third level observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, or the top deck of the Empire State Building.
At the Chichen Itza archaeological site in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I’m hearing reports tripods are now banned.
Many cities don’t permit tripod use on busy sidewalks.Photographers wish to use tripods at these sites and elsewhere in order to make their photos when:
• Light levels are low,
• For night photography,
• To support long lenses on DSLRs and SLRs,
• For panorama photography,
• For general camera/lens support
• while panning for subjects such as birds and other wildlife,
• for landscapes with near to far focusing,
• for long exposures for motion and other effects.
There are numerous potential tripod substitutes which include:
• Clamps and clamp-like products,
• Great hand-holding technique with or without image stabilization or vibration reduction,
• Raising the ISO or ASA for one’s camera.
Clamps and clamp-like products which are light weight enough to take while traveling can hold Point and Shoot cameras, and DSLRs with short lenses well, but generally not SLRs or DSLRs with long lenses (300mm and beyond).
The Hama Clamp is an example of a clamp tripod substitute which can handle consumer level DSLRs with short lenses. This clamp holds beautifully on square surfaces such as the back of a park bench or some fences, however on round surfaces such as pipes, especially smallish pipes, it often slips.
The Joby Gorillapod can also act as a clamp-like device. You can bend each of the legs to surround projections like fence posts or pipes to hold your camera. On a vertical post you do need to somehow ensure that it doesn’t slip down.
Most mini-tripods, while useful in many situations with Point and Shoot cameras, are rarely strong enough to handle DSLRs or SLRs. An exception I’ve found is the Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom, specifically designed for them. It will work with lenses up to about 200mm.
Photography beanbags while principally the same as the ones you might have played with as a kid in the “beanbag toss” game, are actually very different. Photography beanbags, like the Visual Departures’ Steadybag come in a variety of sizes meant for different types of cameras, and are manufactured with waterproof bags and custom-milled polypropylene beads instead of dried beans, shredded foam pieces, or dried corn kernels.
The beanbags work by conforming to uneven surfaces on which they sit, and having a flexible surface to fully seat the camera to hold it rock steady. For decades, wildlife photographers on safari have used beanbags on the roof of their 4–wheel drive vehicles to steady their camera/lens, even cameras with very long lenses.
To me, monopods have an important place in action photography, but aren’t a reasonable substitute for a tripod. They still require the photographer to be the final support for the camera. Long exposures are not the strong suit of the monopod/photographer combination. Monopods aren’t designed for that. (I’ve found that most locations which don’t permit tripods, forbid monopods too.)
Great hand-holding technique alone, even if for camera/lens combos which have image stabilization or vibration reduction will not suffice for an exposure of a second or two, or for shorter night exposures, but it is possible to augment that, if you can brace yourself against a fence, wall, column, etc. When you can brace yourself, remember, it still won’t work every time, so take multiple shots to get at least one good one.
Increasing your ISO setting (sensor sensitivity) in your digital camera, or using film with a faster ASA rating (film sensitivity) will enable you to use a faster shutter speed, permitting you to hand hold your camera, but that does come with a cost; noise or grain.
My DSLR can be easily pushed to an ISO of 400 with no noticeable degradation of its images. Newer Pro DSLR’s can be pushed higher, but most Point and Shoot digital cameras can’t make it past an ISO of 200–300 without noticeable noise hurting the final photograph, at night. There are add-ons to Photoshop such as Neat Image or Noise Ninja which do a great job in reducing noise. Nevertheless, I rather keep my ISO as low as possible and not have any noise to deal with.
Which tripod substitute solution is best, depends on the particular configuration for each location. Weather permitting, and that’s a big question mark in the Northeast US these days, I’ll be taking night photos from the observation deck of the Empire State Building soon. I’ll be using a Steadybag on the top of the wall there, and will shoot through the fence.
Important tip: Use a remote shutter release to activate the shutter. That will eliminate camera/lens movement due to you physically pressing the shutter release.
Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.
After many years working in corporate America as a chemical engineer, executive and eventually CFO of a multinational manufacturer, Ned founded a tech consulting company and later restarted NSL Photography, his photography business. Before entering the corporate world, Ned worked as a Public Health Engineer for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. As a well known corporate, travel and wildlife photographer, Ned travels the world writing about travel and photography, as well as running photography workshops, seminars and photowalks. Visit Ned’s Photography Blog and Galleries.