A tripod is one of the most important pieces of gear that you should own and use as a photographer. Yet I see so many photographers struggle to choose the right tripod, or– even worse–not use them properly or– the absolute worst of all–not use them when they should be using them.
Back in the mid 1990s, I read a book called The Camera by the great Ansel Adams. To quote Adams, “Many photographers casually set up the tripod and use the various tilts and adjustments in a haphazard way. It is preferable, however, to be more methodical in setting up the tripod, to provide precise positioning of the camera and the greatest possible stability.” Hopefully you realize that the lesson there goes well beyond using a tripod.
I remember as a teenager that using a tripod was actually kind of cool. People took me more seriously, like I actually knew what I was doing or like I was a working professional. The reality is that a tripod is an investment in your ability to take great pictures – just like a new camera – so do your research and don’t cheap out.
10 reasons to use a tripod
1) To take pictures at slow shutter speeds without getting camera shake
2) To take photos in low light with longer shutter speeds
3) To use much smaller apertures giving you greater depth of field. The smaller aperture will generally require a slower shutter speed – hence the need for a tripod.
4) To shoot a series of frames that will stitch together in a panorama or extremely high resolution image.
5) To create High Dynamic Range images where you need to shoot a series of frames at different exposures without any movement from one frame to the next.
6) For time-lapse photography
7) For astrophotography
8) To make better self portraits – especially on vacation
9 ) To shoot video
10) To slow you down and force you to be more deliberate with your decisions.
5 Different types of tripods
There are many different kinds of tripods. For the most part we can divide them into five basic groups.
Pocket Tripods are usually less than 6 inches collapsed. A pocket tripod will easily fit into a bag or waist-pack and they are very handy when you don’t not want carry something bigger and heavier. Pocket tripods will support the weight of a smartphone or compact digital camera. Look for one that has some sort of adjustable head, even if it’s really basic.
Best used for: Self-portraits, group shots, and small, light cameras
Tabletop Tripods are excellent for situations where the camera and tripod can be placed on a small flat surface. They’re light, small, and easy to pack, so they’re great for travel. Put it on a table, set the self-timer, and you can include yourself in the shot. Or, turn your tabletop tripod sideways and place it against a wall or a pole to give you more stability when shooting. And since they hold the camera close to the ground, they’re great for low camera angles.
Best used for: Self-portraits, Group shots, Macro/close-up/nature, Travel photography, Small cameras
Travel Tripods will usually bring your camera to just shy of eye level, but collapse to an easy-to-carry size. Travel tripods will support a digital or film SLR with a kit lens, or even a modest zoom lens. Avoid using long zooms or heavy telephoto lenses on a travel tripod – they tend to be front heavy and can cause the tripod to tip.Travel tripods that collapse down to 22 in. or shorter will fit in most airline carry-on luggage.
Best used for: Nature, Travel, Sports, Amateur video, Small SLRs, Compact cameras
Medium Duty Tripods fill the gap between lightweight travel tripods and heavier studio tripods. The Medium Duty Tripod’s big advantage over travel tripods is that most models reach eye level or higher, plus they are heavier and therefore even sturdier – hence a much better choice when image sharpness is critical. Some models come without a head, and you can create a custom configuration by buying the head separately.
Best used for: Nature, Birding/Wildlife photos, Sports, Weddings and events, Location portraits, Macro/close-up photography, Medium-format cameras
Studio Tripods are very sturdy and usually designed to fit a specific need. They are big, sometimes immovable and nearly always used with a specialized head. They are designed to handle medium and large-format cameras.
Best used for: Studio photography, Advertising, Still lifes, Medium-format cameras, Large-format cameras
8 Characteristics common to all tripods
There are eight features or characteristics that are common to pretty much all tripods. The more you understand these characteristics – the easier it will be to select the perfect tripod for your needs.
Collapsed Size is how long the tripod measures with everything folded up. This is important if you are traveling or need to pack the tripod in a bag, camera case or suitcase.
Maximum Height Extension is how tall the tripod will stand with the center column and every leg fully extended.
The Maximum Load Capacity is the heaviest camera and lens combination the tripod or tripod head can handle. If you put a camera that’s heavier than the Maximum Load Capacity on a tripod, you run the risk of it breaking or collapsing and causing damage. So, it’s important to know how much your camera weighs with its heaviest lens and any accessories, and then buy a tripod that will handle them.
The Weight is simply how much the tripod weighs.
Head Type – There are basically three types of tripod heads. Depending on the brand or model, a tripod may or may not come with a head. Regardless, you will need one.
Pan-Tilt Heads are tripod heads with either with a single handle for horizontal movement or dual handles for both horizontal and vertical movement. This is the most common type of head that is typically built into cheaper tripods.
Ball-Heads in comparison to pan-tilt heads, most ball-heads only have one control that loosens or tightens the grip. They are very flexible and allow very smooth operation while keeping the camera and lens securely tightened.
Gimbal Heads are specialized heads for long and heavy lenses. Compared to pan-tilt heads and ball-heads, gimbal heads perfectly balance the camera and heavy lens. They are extremely easy to use in any direction and do not require tightening the head every time the camera/lens moves. They are great for sports and wildlife photography.
Regardless of which head type you choose, I strongly recommend choosing one with a quick release. There is nothing more irritating than fumbling with a tripod that has a 1/4 20 thread on the head. Once you have mounted your camera if you want to grab it to do a quick hand held shot or even just to move the tripod – you would have to unscrew the threads from the camera and then repeat the process all over when you are ready to mount the camera back on the tripod.
Feet come in rubber non-slip pads for most indoor and some outdoor shooting, or a spike, which is best for outdoor shooting, the spikes hold the tripod firmly in the ground; and depending on the tripod brand and model you may be able to add wheels or even ball-bearing feet.
Leg Locks are most commonly available as twist types, where you twist the leg to pull it out, twist it in reverse to lock it in position, or lever locks, where you open a lever to pull a leg out and close it to lock it. There are also some custom options.
The Common Material is what most of the tripod is made of. The most common material is aluminum because it’s inexpensive, but in the case of a heavy duty tripod it can also add a lot of weight. Carbon fiber is extremely durable and lightweight but indeed more expensive. Some cheap tripods are made from plastic – the operative word being cheap- and for the old-school large format shooters you can still find wooden tripods which are valuable if you want to get your Ansel Adams game on.
10 Tripod Tips and Tricks
1) I recommend buying a tripod that matches your height or is taller, so that you do not have to bend to look into the viewfinder. Once you put your camera on a tripod, the viewfinder should be at your eye level unless you need to adjust for a creative camera angle.
2) Explore your camera angles BEFORE you open and set up your tripod. Since it takes time and effort to set up a tripod, and since we tend to be a little lazier about moving the tripod once it is set up, take a few moments to explore camera angles and lens combinations for your shot before you set-up the tripod. This way you know you are beginning with an interesting camera angle.
3) Only extend the tripod legs when needed. The less you extend the legs – the sturdier you tripod will be. Extend the thickest part of the tripod legs first, then the thinnest for the most stability. Before spreading the tripod’s legs, adjust each leg’s length. This ensures that the legs are the same length and your tripod will be level. However, if you are shooting on uneven ground, you will need to adjust each leg once the tripod is in the correct spot. If you are shooting outside in mud or on a beach, do extend just a little bit of the bottom leg first so that you keep the locking mechanism out of the mud or sand.
4) Avoid the center column – it is the weakest and least stable part of your tripod. There is no point in having your tripod solidly placed on three legs and then raising the center column as high as it goes so that it can move around like a camera on a monopod. The center column should only be used as a last resort.
5) Since you are usually working from the back of the camera, face a single tripod leg toward the focal point of your composition. Having two legs on the back side will create more stability and is less of a trip hazard.
6) Add some weight to the tripod. Many tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the center column that will allow you to hang a backpack or weight to add additional stability if you are working in windy conditions or if your tripod is a bit too lightweight for the gear you have attached to it. You can also use an accessory like the Stand Daddy that I mentioned in this article and attach small weights to the tripod legs.
7) Don’t move the tripod with your camera attached. Sure, just a quick little move especially in an indoor setting is no big deal, but if you’re shooting on location and especially working on rough terrain– don’t risk having the camera fall off the tripod or even simply stumbling while carrying the tripod.
8) Switch off image stabilization and or vibration reduction while using a tripod. When you are shooting with image stabilization or vibration reduction turned on, your lens generates a minor shake that is meant to counter-act your hand movements. This vibration ultimately reaches the camera and can introduce camera motion in your photos when shooting at slower shutter speeds.
9) Use the mirror lock-up feature on your camera. The shake caused by your camera’s mirror may not affect your photos while you are shooting at a fast shutter speed, but as you slow down the shutter speed the shake can become visible in your photos. To eliminate this, just manually lock the movement of the mirror. This can easily be done by activating the mirror lock-up feature in your DSLR. Check your camera’s menu settings or consult the user manual to find out how.
10) Use the 2-second timer or a remote shutter release. If you press the camera’s shutter release while shooting at a slow shutter speed you risk introducing camera movement even with the camera on a heavy tripod. By using the 2-second timer feature you can do away with the camera shake as you are allowing 2 seconds for the camera to absorb that minor shake before exposing the photo. If you want to be extra cautious and not take any chances, you can use a remote shutter release or cable that allows you to shoot without touching the camera at all.
So there you have it. Ten tripod tips and tricks plus some ways to know you’re getting your money’s worth. While spending several hundred dollars on a tripod is definitely not as sexy or satisfying as buying a new lens or camera body, it is every bit as important. Keep in mind that setting up the tripod for a shoot may take some extra prep time, but the results are worth the effort. You’ll also have to slow down and really think through how you want to set up a photograph or what angle would work best with your subjects. With just a little practice, you may find that using a tripod is easier than you think.
Be sure to keep an eye out for Part 2 of this series on tripods: My favorite tripods and tripod heads and how and why I use them.
Now go pick up that camera and shoot something – with or without a tripod – because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!