Ok, you are thinking: Is he really thinking that he is going to spend a whole blog session talking about tripods? Yup! You know why? Because I am a fan of making your pictures sharp. It’s that simple. It is, by far, the most important piece of equipment you could own, and probably the least appreciated piece of equipment used. But, if you watch a professional photographer take photos, you will notice, that they never take a photo without one. Lesson learned. Here is the perfect article about how to make the most out of using a GOOD tripod.
We’ve all heard the expression “all the gear and no idea”, and experience has taught me that this extends well beyond referring to cameras and lenses alone. The humble tripod is a great example. This seemingly simple tool is often misused by photographers, compromising not only their shots, but the safety of their other gear.
People can pay so much attention to camera settings and composition that they overlook the vital aspects of where and how they’re setting up their legs. Try these simple fixes, though, and it won’t happen to you.
1/ Check your location
You can have the best technique in the world but if your tripod is placed on the wrong type of surface it’ll all be for nothing. So the first thing to check is where you’re setting up. I try to avoid any unstable surface, or anything which transfers vibration to the tripod, and therefore to the camera. Even areas that seem solid, like the decking of a jetty can have movement in them. You might not notice it at the time, but after a 10 second exposure, it’ll be clear enough in your unsharp shots.
Unstable surfaces, like small bridges or walkways, are made worse by heavy footfall, so if you have to shoot from one, watch out for people walking past and creating movement. Wait until they’ve gone, or ask them to stop until your exposure is finished.
2/ Put your best foot forward
You wouldn’t wear sandals to hike up a mountain instead of walking boots, so if your tripod has interchangeable feet make sure you choose the right ones for the job. Non-slip rubber feet are fine for most places, such as shooting on rock, earth, asphalt or stone. And if you have access to larger, cup-like feet, they’ll give even more stability, especially on flat and even surfaces. If you’re shooting on sand or soft ground, use spiked feet and drive the legs in so they’re more securely planted. A quick squirt from your water bottle or a dip in a lake will clean them off afterwards.
3/ Stop at the stop sign
All good tripods have a series of stopping positions to the leg angles. There are usually three or four of these, allowing you to set the legs at different angles appropriate to the subject. Make sure you set the leg to one of these stops or it can slip outwards, which could be game-over for your shot – or worse still your camera. I’ve also seen photographers trying to gain extra height by using the tripod legs in a much-too-vertical position; this creates a really unsteady platform, and one that’s quite likely to topple over. The legs don’t need to be set at the same angles as each other, so if you’re on slanting ground, you can use a mix to get the right height and level.
4/ Face the right way
You might not think much about the direction your legs are facing when setting up, but you should. The best position is usually with one leg facing in the direction you’re shooting. This helps in two ways. First, in this ‘anchor’ position, the tripod is unlikely to fall forward, even if you’re shooting on a slope. Second, with the one leg pointing forward you can stand more easily between the others, without risk of knocking the leg during an exposure.
Pointing a leg forwards isn’t alway possible though; if you’re shooting at a very wide angle, especially when framing vertically, the leg may appear in the shot. That’s great if you like pictures of tripods, but not so much if you need to spend ages cloning it out in Photoshop.
5/ Get on the level
All good tripods (or tripod heads) come with built-in bubble levels. They’re not just there to look pretty, either. Getting your legs level is important, and not just in terms of making sure your horizons aren’t on the wonk. But why do the legs need to be level, when you can just throw them down and tilt the head, levelling the camera alone? The reason is to do with load bearing and overall stability; if the legs are on an angle, more pressure is put on one leg than the others. That uneven distribution of weight can cause vibrations, which softens shots and also means the legs are more likely to tip over.
6/ Follow your orders
By and large, the thicker the legs of a tripod, the more stable it will be – and that means sharper pictures. But each time you extend a tripod leg, the sections get thinner. Therefore it makes sense to use the top sections first, only extending the lower, thinner sections as you need them. The more sections the tripod has, the thinner they’ll be at the bottom, so four or five-section travel tripods can get very thin indeed.
7/ Use some column sense
Just like the leg sections, how you use the centre column has a big influence on stability. No matter how thick it is, or what it’s made of, the centre column is the weak link in the tripod chain; it’s the least stable of the sections to usem as with only one point of contact, at the collar, it’s prone to the most vibration. For that reason, it should be used only when absolutely necessary, and certainly not before the leg sections – even if it take less effort to extend it than the three legs.
8/ Worth the weight
You might not be thanking physics when you’re carrying a heavy tripod up a mountain, but the fact remains: larger, heavier tripods are more stable than smaller lighter ones – when used correctly of course. Adding weight is something that works to improve image sharpness on any set of legs though, so find the hook under the collar or at the bottom of the centre column, and hang your camera bag on it. The only time this isn’t a good idea is if conditions are windy, wherein you can end up causing more problems than solutions as your ballast swings or knocks into the legs.
9/ Bracket your shots
L-brackets are often seen as a convenience, allowing you to switch from a vertical to a horizontal framing without affecting the angle of shooting, or having to change the position of the tripod or head. But L-brackets also help in terms of weight distribution. For example, with a regular mounting plate, shifting the camera from landscape to portrait on the head pushes the weight out to one side, decreasing stability. With an L-bracket, the weight remains centred so stability is uncompromised.
10/ Find your centre
Longer, heavier lenses, like fast telephotos, shift your setup’s centre of gravity forward and this can quickly reduce the stability of your shooting position. An unstable position means camera shake, already pronounced in telephoto shots, increases, and of course there’s the possibility that everything could fall over if your tripod is poorly placed. To prevent this, always make use of a long lens’s tripod collar. It can feel like a pain to swap the quick release plate from camera to lens as you swap optics, but it’s well worth the trouble. Better yet, buy a second plate and leave that on the long lens’s mounting point.
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Another great article about TRIPODS:
Camera technology has advanced so much that just about anyone can take good photos. (Not necessarily great photos–that has more to do with composition, subject matter, effective use of light and shadow, etc.) However, if there’s one item that helps in taking better shots, it’s the humble tripod. Many of us believe that a tripod is nothing but an extra item that helps us stop camera shake. With the high ISO capabilities and faster shutter speeds of new cameras, why do we need a tripod?
“La Tour Eiffel” captured by PictureSocial member Jaideep Singh Rai
The most obvious benefit of a tripod is that it affords stability to the camera and avoids camera shake by the operator in those situations where longer exposure times are necessary. Not many of us can hold a camera steady below a 1/60 of a second shutter speed, so we have no chance of avoiding camera shake when the exposure time could be seconds or minutes or sometimes hours in length. Examples of these times are:
- night shots
- star trails
- fireworks displays
- moon shots
- vehicle movement where blurring the lights is sought
- motion blur of waterfalls, sports action, or ocean waves
- low light conditions without the use of flash
We all like to produce photos that are as sharp as we can get them. The tripod assists in obtaining clear focus, especially if we use timer delays or remote shutter releases. Even pressing the shutter button can cause the camera to shake.
Talking about timer delays, the tripod is a boon when making delayed action movies. Several hundred or thousand individual photos of an object are shot at predetermined intervals and run together to give those amazing movies of flowers opening, cloud movement or of decaying objects. The camera not only needs to be steady but to be in the same position for each shot.
If you are taking panorama shots or action shots where a steady panning motion is needed, the tripod is a must. A tip I picked up along the way is to use a large elastic band on the arm of the tripod head. Pulling on the elastic band, when panning, reduces any jerkiness of movement which produces a good overall result.
If you are into HDR shots, you will need a tripod for auto bracketing. This allows you to take several identical shots of the subject at different exposures. When you process the shots in your favourite image editing software, they can be combined to produce those wonderful shots where everything is dynamically exposed.
“Bridge to Cincy” captured by PictureSocial member Fritz McCorkle
I am an ardent macro photographer and there is nothing more frustrating than trying to get a really small subject, such as an insect, into focus. All too often, the insect’s eyes are in focus but other areas on the insect, which are marginally further away, are too blurry. To overcome this I use small aperture settings to give a large depth of field, which in turn means slower shutter speeds. A tripod comes in handy in these situations. I also use sliding bracket attachments where the camera sits on the bracket and where I can finely adjust the camera movement in two planes. I can produce some really finely focused images this way.
One way that a tripod is useful, and not necessarily in an obvious way, is that it gives us time to compose our shots instead of taking instant hand held snap shots wherever we are. While this has its place in photography, we sometimes need to slow down, stand back and fine tune our composition to be able to produce dramatic landscapes, for example.
Another less obvious use of a tripod is camera placement. Capturing low level shots or shots above eye level can be achieved with a tripod without having to lie on the ground or climb a step ladder.
Tripods are also versatile in that they can double as light stands, microphone stands, or stands for reflectors or flash units. I have even heard of one photographer using a tripod as a weapon to defend himself from a vicious dog!
“MIlky Way Galaxy” captured by PictureSocial member Xavier Dizon
A final note is that if you find the tripod a bit of an encumbrance to carry around, considered a monopod. These can double up as a walking stick and are nearly as good as tripods. There are other tripods on the market which fold down to the size of a ruler and snap open in the fixed leg position when needed.
Tripods are a wonderful accompaniment to our camera equipment, and we should all be encouraged to make more use of them.
About the Author:
Geordie Parkin keeps a website about wildlife photography, pet photography or general questions about digital photography (photopress brianparkin). Parkin is a photographer based in Forest Lake, Qld in Australia.