Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hand-Holding vs Tripod

The Setup

As a follow-up to my previous tripod post, I wanted take a look for myself at practical uses of a tripod versus regular hand holding, especially with the modern image stabilization systems available today.

The trigger for this post was a comment I read on one of the photography forums, the poster said that he would never consider shooting without a tripod, even in full daylight. This got me thinking, does a tripod really make a noticeable difference even when shooting at very high shutter speeds? I set off to find out.

But what do people usually use tripods for? I can think for a few, but I bet there are much more than what I know, I would like to hear from you in the comments if you know of more:

  • Slow shutter speeds (landscapes, night shooting, long exposures, etc...).
  • High magnification work, like macro and close-up shooting, any vibration will be greatly magnified.
  • Telephoto work, similar to the above, with long focal lengths, shake and vibrations are magnified, usually used with a gimbal head, to give a degree of stability, but enable free and smooth motion.
  • Fix camera position, when you want to tinker around with your subject or composition (product photography, portraits, etc...) and want the camera to stay still.
  • Fix camera point of view, when taking multiple exposures of the same scene (HDR), or taking wide panorama shots, etc...
  • Top view, some tripods provide a tilting center column,so you could get a top view camera position.
  • Low angle shooting, some tripods can get very close to the ground for very low angle shooting, or you could use small tabletop tripods.
  • High camera position, used for portraits.
  • Video work, obviously, good video requires a stable camera and smooth motion, which can be achieved with a fluid video head.
  • All sorts of other things, I use mine to carry flashes, hold reflectors, etc...

    Left: tripod carrying flash. Middle: gorillapod holding reflector in place (reflector fixed from the top).


    I decided to make it very simple, I white dotted piece of paper, then I drew some slanted crossing lines as you see below, then I used sticky pieces of paper to know which picture was taken with a tripod or handheld, IS on or off, and whether it was indoor or outdoor in sunlight.

    As you already see, this is not really scientific, but it will give me the answers I want. On the computer, I checked all pictures at 100% and 200% to see any motion blur. Apart from the crossing lines, there are very tiny dots on the paper that can only be seen by pixel peeping.

    My Scientific Test Chart

    Since I was already doing this anyway, I decided to answer Mic's request about the effect of leaving image stabilization on while the camera is on a tripod, and despite having experience regarding this issue before, I tested it as well.

    I wanted to compare different cameras with different image stabilization systems to get a little bit more information, so here's what I used:
    • Olympus OM-D EM-5 with 12-50 kit lens (for 100mm & macro tests) and the 40-150R (for telephoto tests), the OM-D has IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization).
    • Canon 60D with 55-250 IS (for telephoto tests), IS here comes from the lens.
    • Sony RX100 (for 100mm tests), not sure if the IS is in the lens or the body, but I believe it is the former.

    Now let me tell you what tests I performed, and what results I got. For all my testing, I shot at f/8 to get the sharpest results, and avoid any DOF issues.


    For this test, I shot the test target handheld, both with IS on and off, and both at 100mm and 300mm equivalent focal lengths, we're talking 1/30 sec shutter speeds, I took a three shot burst with each combination (which is what I do in normal shooting), here's what I found:

    • Sony @ 100mm - IS ON: 2 out of 3 shots came out sharp.
    • Sony @ 100mm - IS OFF: 1 out of 3 shots came out sharp.

    • OMD @ 100mm - IS ON: 3 out of 3 shots came out sharp.
    • OMD @ 100mm - IS OFF: 0 out of 3 shots came out sharp.

    • OMD @ 300mm - IS ON: 1 out of 3 shots came out sharp.
    • OMD @ 300mm - IS OFF: 0 out of 3 shots came out sharp.

    • 60D @ 300mm - IS ON: 1 out of 3 shots came out sharp.
    • 60D @ 300mm - IS OFF: 0 out of 3 shots came out sharp.

    But are the good shots come out as sharp as possible? Or are they just good compared to the blurry ones? Next I used the tripod for reference.


    Same scenario as before, but with the camera mounted to the tripod instead, I tested with both IS on and off, the shutter speed was 1/30 sec:

    • Sony @ 100mm - IS ON or OFF: little sharper than the handheld shot, IS didn't matter.

    • OMD @ 100mm - IS ON: similar to the handheld shot.
    • OMD @ 100mm - IS OFF: best result, better than the one with IS on.

    • OMD @ 300mm - IS ON or OFF: much better than the handheld shots, but remember the success rate wasn't that good (1 out of 3) in the first place, IS didn't matter.

    With such slow shutter speeds, the tripod makes a considerable difference, however, whether IS was turned on or off, didn't make an apparent difference except in one case.

    From experience, I had very bad results shooting the moon with the 60D & 55-250 on a tripod when I forgot the IS on, and when I turned it off, images turned sharp, so there must be a truth to this issue, it might not be 100% repeatable with all subjects, lenses, exposure times, etc... But it is there, and whenever I exert the effort to use a tripod, I would better turn IS off as well.

    For the record, I tested all the camera combinations mentioned above with long (one second) exposures on the tripod with both IS on and off, but didn't find a difference.


    For this test I used the macro mode of the 12-50 kit lens, which reaches 0.7x magnification @ 84mm, I wanted to see what I can do handheld at slow shutter speeds (1/30 sec). This time I fired a long series of shots, not just three shots, results go like this:

    • Handheld - IS OFF: not a single shot came out sharp.
    • Handheld - IS ON: 50% of the shots came out sharp, this was a surprise for me, I got much better results in the exact same room with the exact same lighting with my 5D3 and 100L Macro IS (f/8, ISO 1600 and 1/6th), as you can see here.
    • Tripod - IS OFF: best results as expected.


    Now we come to the most important question, does it make a difference shooting at high shutter speeds (read: daylight) handheld versus a tripod?

    I tested the OMD and the 60D at 300mm, and skipped the shorter focal lengths since these results would cover them anyway. The OMD metered for 1/1000 sec, and the 60D metered for 1/2000 sec, so the 60D had the advantage of a higher shutter speed. Here are the results:

    • OMD - Handheld - IS OFF or ON: all shots came out sharp.
    • 60D - Handheld - IS ON: all shots came out sharp.
    • 60D - Handheld - IS OFF: 2 out of 3 shots came out sharp.
    • Tripod - Both Cameras - IS OFF: same results as the other sharp ones, and not any better, busted.

    Are they always necessary?


    So what to conclude from this? You can already make your own conclusions, and you might even have different opinions about the whole matter (I would like to hear them), but here's what I learned for myself, tripods have many more uses than just trying to get the sharpest shot possible, however when seeking the sharpest possible shot (especially when printed big):

    • Always use a tripod at slow shutter speeds when possible, even if the shutter speed is faster than the 1/focal length rule, and turn IS off instead of risking the 1% chance that something will go wonky and create some motion blur.
    • Always use a tripod when shooting macro for the best results.
    • Don't bother with a tripod in daylight and fast shutter speeds.

    I guess that's it, do you have any other useful insights?

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