Gullfoss, Iceland. Phase One XF 150MP with Schneider Kreuznach LS 240mm lens, f11 @ 1/13 second, ISO 50. When using long exposures, a tripod is essential. However, you can still hand-hold a high resolution camera, but you should keep your shutters speeds faster than normal to ensure maximum sharpness.
Any movement of the camera during exposure can create blur – and the higher the resolution of your sensor, the more obvious this blur becomes. Similarly, the longer your lens focal length (the more magnified your view), the more obvious the blur will become.
Let’s start with the most obvious question first: do you need to use a tripod to get the most out of a high resolution sensor?
Not necessarily! I regularly hand-hold my 150-megapixel Phase One XF/XT and get perfectly sharp images, but the trick is to keep the shutter speeds fast – at least 1/1000 second and maybe faster if I’m using a telephoto lens.
One of the ideas behind using a tripod is to keep your camera completely still during the exposure, but if the exposure is fast (short) enough, then maybe your camera won’t move, or a tiny amount of movement may be invisible. Hence the idea of using a 1/1000 second or faster shutter speed.
However, you can’t always use super fast shutter speeds (there’s not enough light or you don’t want to use a high ISO setting), so we find ourselves with shutter speeds of 1/125 second or longer. At these speeds, we have two options. The first is to use image stabilisation. Modern IS systems are incredibly effective and while you may not be able to hand-hold a one second exposure even if the camera manufacturers suggest you can, they are definitely useful at middling shutter speeds. If you don’t have image stabilisation, or your shutter speeds are, say, 1/125 second or longer, a tripod definitely becomes important to keep the camera still and this is the second option. It can be the difference between sharp photos and blurred failures.
Unfortunately, tripods aren’t perfect. Lightweight tripods can move around in the wind. Remember, your camera only has to move half a pixel width during the exposure to blur the image. If you have a centre column on your tripod, try not to use it as the camera can move more easily when the centre column is extended. Many photographers choose tripods without centre columns for this reason.
If you’re working outside, then metal spikes on the bottom of your tripod legs may be more suitable than rubber feet. Sinking the metal spikes into the ground can help to keep your tripod very rigid. And don’t forget to ensure everything is locked off tightly before you take the photo – a loose tripod lock can be problematic!