Posted by Alan Tunnicliffe
A camera tripod can make a huge difference in the sharpness and overall quality of photos. It enables photos to be taken with less light or a greater depth of field, in addition to enabling several specialty techniques. This article is all about how to choose and make the most of your camera tripod.
A camera tripods’ function is pretty straightforward: it holds the camera in a precise position. This gives you a sharp picture when it might have otherwise appeared blurred due to camera shake. A frequently asked question is, “how can you tell when you should and shouldn’t be using a tripod”? – “When will a hand-held photo become blurred”?
A common rule of thumb for estimating how fast the exposure needs to be is the one over focal length* rule. This states that the exposure time needs to be at least as fast as one over the focal length in seconds. In other words, when using a 100 mm focal length lens, the exposure time needs to be at least 1/100 seconds — otherwise blurring may be hard to avoid.
The reason this rule depends on focal length is because zooming in on your subject also ends up magnifying camera movement.
Keep in mind that this rule is just for rough guidance. The exact shutter speed where camera shake affects your images will depend on (i) how steady you hold the camera, (ii) the sharpness of your lens, (iii) the resolution of your camera and (iv) the distance to your subject. In other words: if in doubt, always use a tripod.
Camera lenses with image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) may enable you to take hand-held photographs at anywhere from two to eight times longer shutter speeds than you’d otherwise be able to hold steady. However, IS and VR do not help when the subject is moving — but then again, neither do tripods.
Just because you can hold the camera steady enough to take a sharp photo using a given shutter speed, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should not use a tripod. You might be able to choose a more optimal combination of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. For example, you could use a smaller aperture in order to achieve more depth of field, or a lower ISO in order to reduce image noise; both require a longer shutter speed, which may mean the photo is no longer able to be taken hand-held.
In addition, several specialty techniques may also require the use of a tripod:
- Taking a series of photos at different angles to produce a digital panorama.
- Taking a series of photos at different exposures for a high dynamic range (HDR) photo.
- Taking a series of time lapse photographs to produce an animation.
- Taking a series of photos to produce a composite image, such as selectively including people in a crowd, or combining portions lit by daylight with those at dusk.
- Whenever you want to precisely control your composition.
- Whenever you need to have your camera in the right composition well in advance of the shot, such as during a sporting event.
Considerations when choosing a tripod
Even though a tripod performs a pretty basic function, choosing the best tripod often involves many competing factors. Finding the best tripod requires identifying the optimal combination of trade-offs for your type of photography. The top considerations are usually its sturdiness, weight and ease of use:
Tripod Sturdiness/Stability. This is probably why you purchased a tripod in the first place: to keep your camera steady. Important factors which can influence sturdiness include: (i) the number of tripod leg sections, (ii) the material and thickness of the leg units, and (iii) the length of the legs and whether a centre column is needed to reach eye level. Ultimately though, the only way to gauge the sturdiness of a tripod is to try it out. Tap or apply weight to the top to see if it vibrates or sways, and take a few test photos.
Tripod Weight. This can determine whether you take the tripod along with you on a hike, or even on a shorter stroll through town. Having a lighter tripod can therefore mean that you will end up using it a lot more, However, tripod weight and sturdiness are often closely related; just make sure that you are not sacrificing too much sturdiness in exchange for portability, or vice versa. Tripods that do not extend as high may weigh a little less, but these also may not be as versatile as a result.
Tripod Ease of Use. What is the point of having a tripod if it never used because you find it too cumbersome, or if you miss the shot because it takes you too long to set it up? A general use tripod should therefore be quick and easy to position. Ease of use depends on the type of tripod head and how the leg sections lock. Tripod leg sections are extended or contracted using a locking mechanism, either with lever/clip locks or twist locks. Lever/clip locks tend to be much quicker to use. Twist locks are usually a little more compact and streamlined since they do not have external clips/latches. Twist locks also sometimes require two hands if you want to extend or contract each leg section independently.
Number of Tripod Leg Sections. Each leg of a tripod can typically be extended using anywhere from two to four concentric leg sections. In general, more leg sections reduce stability, but can also reduce the size of the tripod when it’s fully contracted. Having more leg sections can also mean that it takes longer to position or fully extend your tripod.
Maximum Tripod Height. Make sure that the tripod’s max height specification does not include having to extend its centre column, because this can make the camera much less steady. On the other hand, you may not wish to take your photos at eye level most of the time, since this can make for an ordinary looking perspective. The higher you extend your tripod (even without the centre column), the less stable it will end up being.
Minimum Tripod Height. This is primarily important for people who take a lot of macro photographs of subjects on the ground, or who like to use extreme vantage points in their photographs.
Contracted Tripod Height. This is primarily important for photographers who need to fit their tripod in a backpack. Tripods with more leg sections are generally more compact when fully contracted. Often compact tripods either don’t extend as far or aren’t as sturdy.
Although many tripods already come with a tripod head, you might want to consider purchasing something that better suits your shooting style. The two most common types of tripod heads are pan-tilt and ball heads:
Pan-Tilt Heads are great because you can independently control each of the camera’s two axes of rotation: left-right and up/down. This can be very useful once you have already gone to great care in levelling the tripod, but need to shift the composition slightly. For moving subjects this can also be a disadvantage, since you will need to adjust at least two camera settings before you can fully recompose the shot.
Ball Heads are great because you can quickly point the camera freely in nearly any direction before locking it into position. They are typically also a little more compact than equivalent pan-tilt heads. The advantage of free motion can also be a disadvantage, since it may cause your composition to no longer be level when you unlock the camera’s position — even if all you wanted to change was its left/right angle. On the other hand, some ball heads come with a “rotation only” ability for just this type of situation. Ball heads can also be more susceptible to damage, since small scratches or dryness of the rotation ball can cause it to grind or move in uneven jumps.
Tripod Tips for sharper photos
How you use your tripod can be just as important as the type of tripod you are using. Below is a list of top tips for achieving the sharpest possible photos with your tripod:
- Hang a camera bag from the centre column for added stability, especially in the wind. Make sure that it does not swing appreciably, or this could be counter-productive.
- Use the centre column only after all of the tripod’s leg sections have been fully extended, and only when absolutely necessary. The centre column wobbles much more easily than the tripod’s base.
- Extend your tripod only to the minimum height required for a given photograph.
- Spread the legs to their widest standard position whenever possible.
- Shield the tripod’s base from the wind whenever possible.
- Extend only the thickest leg sections necessary in order to reach a given tripod height.
- Set your tripod up on a sturdy surface.
- Always use a shutter release or set your camera for self timer operation.
Table Top or Mini Tripods
A tabletop or mini tripod can often be quite portable and even carried in your pocket. This portability often comes at the expense of versatility. A tabletop/mini tripod can only really change your camera’s up/down and left/right orientation; shifting your camera to higher or lower heights is not always a possibility. This means that finding the best surface to place the tripod is more important than usual with a tabletop/mini tripod, because you also need this surface to be at a level which gives you the desired vantage height.
Photos taken at eye level often appear ordinary, since that’s the perspective that we’re most used to seeing. Photos taken at above or below this height are therefore often perceived as more interesting. A tabletop/mini tripod can be one way of forcing you to try a different perspective with your photos.
Always remember, there are so many types, sizes and prices for tripods. If you are confused, look at what other people are using and ask questions, try their tripods out for size, ask yourself, is this what I need? A tripod is an essential part of your kit, buy the right one in the first place and (unless you lose it or break it) you should not need to buy one again.