Seven Tripod Mistakes to Avoid
A tripod is an important ingredient in getting good images when working outdoors, particularly at the edges of light when exposure times lengthen and many of the best images are made. But mistakes are possible, and surprisingly easy to make. Here are some of the main ones to avoid.
Skimping too much when buying one
Photographers can easily be tempted to skimp and save so they can afford to buy a new camera body or lens. This seems justifiable given that it is the camera and lens that create the very images photographers are seeking. Everything else can easily get relegated to a supporting role and viewed as an opportunity to save a few bucks. We all have limited budgets, after all. Cameras and lenses seem areas where precision and quality would be paramount. Tripods and the like seem more utilitarian. And so, it's not uncommon for photographers to buy a tripod that seems "good enough," even as they save their pennies for the best lenses. Compounding matters, they end up believing that tripod use is a pain because their cheap tripod is a pain to use, and their friends all hate their cheap tripods too. But a good, quality tripod can be a joy to use. And its purchase can be an investment for a lifetime. As with many things, you get what you pay for.
Finding yourself without it
Readers here may know that I went on a trip one time, accidentally leaving my tripod on the counter at home. That was a bummer. I wasted a good chunk of the first day of my trip driving back home to get it. I don't ever want to go through that again, and I wouldn't recommend you do either. But there are more subtle ways to find yourself without a tripod too. Who hasn't parked at some destination and set out on foot to explore the area before burdening themselves with a loaded camera pack and tripod? Just to see what there was to be seen of course. I don't advocate starting to fire away on the shutter too prematurely, but it can be worth being prepared when you do come across something of interest. If you think you can run and get your gear when the time comes, you may be in for a surprise. Not everything will wait for you, and lighting conditions do change. Yes, I have gone on hikes with my tripod only to return without using it, but I still think that's the better option than needing it when I left it back in the car.
Using a tripod that is too short
Hikers and others looking to save some weight often compromise by carrying a tripod that is too short. If you have to stoop to see through the viewfinder, you will find it difficult to tell when the camera is level. If your head is crooked, your horizons will be too. Yes, you should own and use a bubble level to double check, but just imagine how much time you can save if things look level to begin with when then are. Your tripod should at least be able to get to eye level. And if you sometimes find yourself shooting on a hillside, buy a tripod with even longer legs to account for the slope.
Extending the legs in the wrong order
Tripod legs are typically constructed of nesting tubular segments, with the thinnest segment forming the bottom portion of each and the thickest joined at the top to form the tripod with the other two legs. I've seen a few models over the years with the legs the other way around with the thinnest at the top, but whatever the design of your tripod, be sure you are getting the most stability you can out of it. Don't pull out the bottom leg segment first just because its at the end of the leg if that bottom segment is the skinniest. Extend thicker leg segments before thinner ones.
Don't overuse the center column
Speaking about what order to extend things, if your tripod has a center column, extend it last. That single center column segment stretched way out above everything is sure to be less stable than the combined rigidity of the three leg segments that form the tripod no matter which ones you pull out first. The center column should be reserved for minor fine tuning of position, or for desperate situations when you realize you should have believed me that a taller tripod is the way to go. A center column is not a substitute for an adequate height tripod.
Not keeping it clean
Most photographers tend to be fastidious when it comes to keeping their lenses clean. Far less so when it comes to their tripods. To an extent, this makes sense. Hopefully no one will see my tripod in a shot no matter how covered in mud it may be. Hopefully no one will see my lens in a shot either, but they almost certainly will notice if the front element is at all dirty. But while tripods are indeed built for some degree of abuse, there's no need to press to find exactly how much. A good tripod is a quality product built with fine tolerances in order to function smoothly and lock solidly. Especially if you take it the beach or where it could be exposed to harsh elements, you need to know how to thoroughly clean your tripod. Or at least don't subject it to saltwater and sand one weekend and then expect it to work smoothly when you go hiking with it the next. Eventually, the legs will start to stick, and you'll grow frustrated and stop using it. You don't need to obsess over tripod cleanliness but do show your tripod a bit of kindness now and then. It will reward you with years of faithful service.
Feeling awkward using it
An awkward photographer trying to adjust their tripod legs can resemble an amateur bagpipe player upon picking up their chosen instrument for the first time. That is to say, very awkward. Lengths of pipe sticking out all over the place. You change the height of one tripod leg and now the whole thing lists precariously to that side as you desperately attempt to compensate with the other two before disaster strikes. There are no easy answers, but you can work out most of your embarrassment at home while no one's watching rather than waiting until you're on site trying to shoot in the fading light of sunset. The more comfortable you are with using your tripod the more it will be able to help you get good images. Make friends with your tripod. Really. Don't fight with it.