Skip the Travel Tripod?

Advances in image stabilization systems make shooting hand-held easier than ever

Christmastime in Europe is a magical thing to experience.

In 2023, I went on several trips where travel photography was the predominant style. That meant focusing on outdoor/street scenes, and indoor/ architectural scenes. These subjects are particularly prevalent in Europe, where I took a group of clients to visit Christmas Markets in Austria and Germany, along with a stop in Prague.

As always, I recommended for my clients to bring a lightweight travel tripod, because a primary goal for us was to shoot during the twilight/”blue hour.” Having a tripod in those situations can be really handy, because it allows you to shoot slower shutter speeds and keep your ISO down, which often leads to cleaner images (less noise, and more dynamic range).

I was excited to be using my new OM System OM-1 kit, with a couple of zooms (12-45mm f/4, 40-150 f/4) and two small primes (9mm f/1.7 and 25mm f/1.8). My entire kit only weighed 3.5 lbs.; less than my Nikon Z9 and 24-120mm f/4 combo, which I lugged around Croatia in 2022.

Along with my camera, I packed my trusty Gitzo traveler tripod and a small ball-head, and flew off to meet my clients in Prague, excited to capture photos of these magical cities at Christmastime. That’s when reality set in.

Tripods are awkward to use in crowded spaces

The Christmas Markets, or Christkindlmarkts, in Europe are magical places, especially in the evenings. People are everywhere. Spaces are tight. Snow and ice on cobblestone streets made it even more tricky. Trying to set up a tripod in the Old Town of Prague, or at the City Hall in Vienna would prove to be futile. It just wasn’t feasible.

The Christmas market in Prague… not a place that is tripod-friendly.
OM-1 with Panasonic Leica 9mm f/1.7 lens. 1/20s f/2.8 ISO 200

Tripods aren’t allowed in most indoor spaces

Some of the best architecture in Europe are the Gothic and Baroque cathedrals, with their huge spaces, artifacts, and stained glass. They are also pretty dark inside, meaning a tripod would certainly be helpful, both for reducing ISO and for getting better compositions. Nevertheless, tripods are not allowed in these spaces, because once again they present a tripping/safety hazard.

St. Vitus cathedral, Prague. I shot this hand-held with the OM-1 and the Olympus 12-24mm f/4 PRO lens. 1/10s f/5.0 ISO 200.

IBIS systems have gotten really good

I knew that camera stabilization systems have continuously improved over the years, so before I left, I decided to make some quick tests with my OM-1 and 12-45mm zoom lens. I wanted to know just how slow a shutter speed I could use while reliably getting sharp shots. What I discovered was that for wide-angle shots, as long as I wasn’t focused on anything super-close, I got tack-sharp photos at 1/4s. I could sometimes go slower, but 1/4s was a conservative, reliable setting.

In light of this information, I set the minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO to 1/4s. As long as I was shooting stationary subjects (architecture, etc), it was fine. I also found that if I simply braced myself against a wall or pillar, I could easily get sharp shots with the OM-1 at shutter speeds as slow as 2 seconds (I’m not making this up).

Moving traffic in Prague, 2 second exposure, hand-held. I leaned against a street post to brace myself, and focused on the building in the background. OM-1 with 12-45mm f/4 PRO lens

When I returned home, I had captured just over 1600 images from the 12-day trip. Of those, 1373 (84%) were captured at ISO 200 or lower! That means I captured an enormous percentage of my shots with maximum dynamic range.

Higher ISOs really aren’t a big deal anymore

On the flip side, I only captured 43 photographs at ISO 1000 or higher, and most of those (63%) were between ISO 1000-1600. Those ISO speeds just are not problematic when it comes to digital noise. For the handful of images above ISO 3200, I simply ran the raw files through DXO Pure Raw 3 to get rid of any noise. They look great.

Statue of St. Ivo on the Charles Bridge, Prague. 1/4s f/4, ISO 1000

So, did I need my tripod?

Funny you might ask… I did use my tripod on the trip. Once. We did a twilight photo walk in Vienna, and there was a pedestrian bridge over a street in front of one of the big churches there. I decided I’d go for some very long exposures (15s) to capture the trailing lights from passing cars. I was very pleased with the results, but some of my clients were able to get similar shots, albeit with shorter exposures, simply by bracing their cameras on the bridge railing.

Traffic passing by the St. Francis de Assisi church in Vienna. Two 15-second exposures, overlaid in Photoshop.
People on the street, Passau, Germany. 1-second, f/5.6 ISO 200 hand-held.

In conclusion, I’ve found that the IBIS system in the OM System cameras is so good that in most cases I can indeed forgo a tripod. In low-light situations where a higher shutter speed is required (for freezing moving subjects), a tripod would be of no advantage. Where a travel tripod can be very helpful is if you’re into making very long exposures (longer than 2-3 seconds) in places where setting up a tripod isn’t forbidden.

Side note: Dynamic Range and Micro 4/3rds

You probably noticed that I was able to caputre most of my shots (even indoor ones) at ISO 200. That’s the base ISO of the OM-1 camera, and offers the most dynamic range (about 9.5 EV). With my full-frame Nikon Z9 (or Z8), I found I needed to keep my shutter speed around 1/10s* or faster with wide-angle shots (24mm). In the same scenario, that would mean I’d need to use at least ISO 640 to capture the same shot with adequate sharpness using the same aperture (f/4). At that setting, the Nikon Z8 has about the same DR (9.21 EV) as the OM-1.

However, the M 4/3 sensor delivers 2x the effective depth of field when compared to 35mm format. So for a true comparison that included equal depth of field, I’d have to set the Nikon lens to f/8. That’s two more stops of light loss, putting us at around ISO 2560. At that setting, the Z8 has only 7.2 EV of dynamic range. So a full-frame shooter in the same scenario would either need to shoot at a wide aperture (at the expense of depth of field), or accept a lower dynamic range image. Obviously, that’s where a tripod would have come in handy, had we been allowed to use them.

*1/10s was my experience, others may have better or worse results getting sharp shots while hand-holding their camera.

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