Do I really need a tripod?
For most situations, yes, one really needs a tripod; even accepting that at times it is simply not possible to deploy it or take it with us -like in crowded public places. A tripod not only forces one to slow down and check composition, but also sharpness largely depends on rock steady camera support, so it makes no sense to invest in the best camera body and good glass -for the maximum resolution and contrast one can afford- and then not plant it firmly.
Tighter film grain or least possible digital noise and great depth of field, even today mean low ISO speeds and small lens apertures, therefore slow shutter speeds. That is not the only one but still one of the main reasons why this very often overlooked accessory is one of the most important tools a serious photographer needs to carry, even if you always shoot at ISO 12,800; unless of course you are a photo journalist on the run.
Whether you use film or digital cameras, have to use slow shutter speeds or not, big lenses or not, if you are concerned with consistently producing high-quality results, improve your image vision and want to learn how good are your lenses, a good quality tripod is a must.
But beware, most tripods don't fall into the "good" category. Many enthusiasts who once bought a tripod soon abandoned it because it was the wrong one. Those tripods were typically either too short or too tall, too light or too heavy and seldom sturdy. Some even loose a leg now and then.
What tripods I should not buy?
I believe it was John Shaw, the splendid nature photographer, author of six field photography books at last count -always photographing from a tripod- who said he got rid of a great deal of potential competition for years, after a consumer guide with wide circulation advised to get the cheapest possible tripod.
On one extreme are the lightweight aluminum tripods with integrated head. The slightest breeze or just clicking the camera will make them vibrate, not to mention creeping under the weight of a modest telephoto or macro lens. Sorry, but I've owned too many of those to know that the inexpensive AND lightweight AND sturdy tripod does not exist!
Flimsiness or not, steadiness has little to do with braces. Braces just prevent the tripod from spreading its legs wide open, precisely where such wabbly "cheap'os" may finally attain some marginal stability even when never sturdiness.
On the other extreme are the very robust tripods, allowing for massive heads. These will stay in your studio or your closet because they are too heavy to carry around into the field. You may say that you only shoot close to home or your car, but Murphy's law has long proven that the best scenics in the world are exactly where it is forbidden to park or there is not a road.
How do I know this? Well, because as many before and after me, I bought a succession of wrong tripods and spent far more than it would have cost me to buy a good one from the start, surely messing up plenty of good photo opportunities that will never return.
So, even knowing this is against human nature, I would dare suggest it is possible to do it right and just once ....... or twice at most, but not in a repetitive chain of successive frustrating steps like I did
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