Nature isn't perfect and neither are we. So don't worry if you're photo isn't either.
I should preface this journal entry by coming clean. I am not your traditional professional photographer. I learned how to use a camera by watching YouTube videos and through the old methods of "trial and error." With that said, I consider myself an adventurer who happens to carry a camera with himself. Also, as a matter of principle, I made a rule for myself early on in My Year Alone in the Wilderness of the National Parks, which was simple - put the camera away long enough so that I could enjoy any fleeting moments, then if there is any time left to capture the moment in a photo, go for it! For me, it was more important to let the adventure drive the photography, rather than letting the photography drive the adventure. Preamble finished...now onto the point of this article.
Now I know there are a lot of nit-picky "pixel pickers" out there (I think that's what they're called) and that's totally fine. I, myself, appreciate all those super clear photos just as much as the next guy. In fact, below I not only layout why I opt for leaving the tripod at home but also how, by doing so, you aren't necessarily jeopardizing quality.
0.5 Stubborn: Ok so this is probably the weakest argument you will find on this list for why I don't use a tripod for my nature photography. It's not even good advice. I blame my Irish upbringing for being the stubborn ol' fool that I am. Well I'm too set in my ways to change now. SEE! I did it again! Anyway, yes I blame my stubbornness as part of the culprit for why I don't use a tripod. "I've never used one so far, why start now." Now on the same vein, I think I can also attribute this stubbornness to being a man of principle. A neutral principle in this case. Of course, I don't think its evil to use a tripod. No not at all. What I mean is that I'm perhaps more of a simpleton. I prefer to do more with less. And I think the below points help to better illustrate how...
Photo: Mike Quine
1. Lazy Frugality: The first, and perhaps most influential reason for why I elect to leave the old leveler at home is because I simply don't feel like carrying it around. The majority of my time spent in nature is with a backpack over long distances, and therefore cutting weight can sometimes mean all the difference. Any day of the week I would easily prefer to substitute more food or water in the stead of a clunky tripod. Now I know that in this day and age, technology permits tripods to be considerably lighter. However that can often call into question a matter of price. Proper tripods for a decent DSLR camera can run a pretty penny these days. Of course the issue of weight really only exists for backpackers.
2. Mobility: This is perhaps the easiest element of this list to accept. A tripod is clunky, cumbersome, awkward, and annoying. As a backpacker, all of these things are a hindrance to me moving forward. As I said earlier, I am an adventurer who happens to take photographs. Therefore, my primary purpose is to keep walking. If I happen to take a picture then its all bonus. Therefore it should be no surprise why a tripod is not on my list of gear to bring. Not only is it heavy (especially over 50-3000+ miles) but its simply "in the way." If I happen to be taking a picture in a precarious situation or terrain, I want to be sure that nothing prevents me from escaping that area. Carrying three human-size sticks is usually going to do more harm than good if I'm trying to run with them. A big camera is enough of a pain in the arse to lug around with me, the last thing I want to do is try to quickly move around with a tripod. Not having the temptation of a tripod also excludes the need to stop, unpack it, set it up, get it ready, shoot, fold it up, pack it back up, and then move. Without it, the steps are stop, shoot, move. I think I've made my point on this one. Moving on!
3. Teaches Patience: This element of going tripod-less was not something I realized I learned until after having done this outdoor camera business for a while. You see, when you aren't using a tripod, your excitement and nerves can often cause the camera to shake...sometimes ruining the quality of the photograph. If you are determined to take a still photo but don't have a tripod, you, therefore, force yourself to calm down in order to avoid blurring the photo. You might not get the best photo on your first try. It may take several until you get the settings to cooperate with your shaky body, the wind, or even a moving object. Either way, by forgoing the use of the tripod you allow your mind to teach your body patience, and you allow your body to teach your mind patience. Dibs on the use of that in a fortune cookie!
4. Be Resourceful: This proved to be the most fun and creative way of learning how to take photographs in the wild without a tripod. Nature hath already provideth what thou need! *Sorry not sure why I went all Shakespearean there for a second* But anyway, it's true. Perhaps the most convincing argument for not needing to lug around a tripod is that nature will often already have something around that works just as well...or at least good enough. Trying to take a still photo in the forest? Lean that lens up against that tree! No tree? How about resting the lens on that big boulder! Hell even in a pinch, I found my walking stick to be a good substitute at times. (Walking stick = free stick found on ground not bought for $80 dollars.) Trying to take a "candid" selfie? Self timer + the ground/rock/stump/etc. The angle doesn't work? Try sliding a pebble/piled dirt/twig underneath the lens to help give it lift. I'll grant you that you might be hard-pressed to find an appropriate means to do so in the desert without ruining your camera, but otherwise your excuses are running thin. Over time I found this to be a point of pride - trying to find new means of taking a tough still shot without a tripod. Again, the pixel-pickers might poke you, but do you really care about what they think anyway.
5. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff: At the end of the day, most of us aren't professional photographers. Even if you are, maybe some of the above points could serve as food for thought. Get back to the roots and challenge yourself a little by leaving the tripod at home. For me, and I'm sure for most of you, the adventure and experience is the most important thing. I find that the photograph best serves as a reminder and a trigger for those experiences, and less so a bartering chip. So don't freak out if after you get back from your trip you notice there was a speck of dirt on the lens or your shaky hand made the grass blurry. If the photo triggers a memory that helps you ignites your nostalgic senses, you took the right photo.
P.S. For nighttime photography, you will certainly have a better argument for the tripod...but let's leave stars out of this article!