The very first post I wrote here at Earthbound Light back in 2001 dealt with using a tripod. I like tripods. Over the years, I've figured out a few tips on how to use one, and I've also figured out a few things not to do.
First off, if you're thinking this is going to be one of those "use your tripod!" articles, exhorting you to do something you already know you should be doing but often don't (like a dentist telling you to do a better job flossing), you'd only be partly correct. Yes, I do strongly recommend the use of a tripod, and no, I probably don't floss well enough either. You see, the problem is, there isn't always time to (the flossing I mean). But a lot of photographers seem to feel the same way about using a tripod. It does seem like a lot of work just to snap the shutter for a brief fraction of a second, now doesn't it. Lots of stuff is like this. Get used to it.
Let's start with the easy stuff. Obviously, the slower the shutter speed, the easier it is to justify the use of a tripod. Not only will the longer exposure time help to offset your investment in effort to get the darned tripod out of your car and set it up, the resulting improvement in stability will more than reward you with sharper images. Beyond a certain point, it becomes almost impossible to hand hold a decent photo that requires a long exposure. Slowly exhaling or holding your breath when pressing the shutter release can only get you so far.
Some of the best images are the ones made at the edges of light, those times at the cusp of sunrise and sunset when everything turns such amazing colors. Low light levels mean longer exposure times. Don't think you can compensate by simply raising the ISO. That can only get you so far too. And if you want to blur water or other motion for creative reasons, ISO won't help at all. To record the motion of flowing water, you have to leave the shutter open long enough for the water to move. Trust me, you need a tripod to get some shots. Even a simple polarizer can cost you enough stops of light to warrant a tripod, depending on ambient light levels.
But the physical act of snapping the shutter isn't the only part of taking pictures that can benefit from stabilizing your camera. What you will end up in an image depends on which direction the lens is pointed and where the edges of the frame fall when the shutter release is fired. That makes sense, but the process only works reliably if you can hold your camera perfectly still while you compose. There's a rule of thumb that says you can safely hand-hold up to exposure times of one over your focal length. Any longer and shutter movement might lead to blur from camera movement. The difficulty of holding a camera stationary doesn't change depending on whether your finger is on the button. So, it stands to reason that hand-holding for composition can be at least a tad iffy.
Suppose there's a tree branch, just out of the frame on one side. You zoom your lens until you are satisfied the branch won't show in the image you are working on. Pay attention as you now look over at the other side of the frame, and you may catch your hands shifting in the opposite direction, perhaps sufficiently for that pesky branch to come into view. When you're carefully looking through the viewfinder, it's not easy to see if your hands move slightly. And if you change your perspective to pay more attention to your hands, and you just might find there are elements of your image that now go unnoticed. Only by locking your camera down on a tripod can you free your hands and your attention up to focus fully on the task at hand of composing that image. It's a simple fact that using a tripod can help improve your composition. Get used to it. This is actually a good thing.
The trick is to develop a habit (like flossing). When you grab your gear and set out to photograph, grab your tripod too. When you find something of interest and start to zero in on a particular viewpoint, set your tripod up and fine tune that composition. Make tripod use a part of your regular process of being a photographer. And remember to bring it with you. I once left mine at hope by accident and nearly ruined my weekend driving back to get it. I'll never live that down, but at least I haven't repeated it.
When buying a tripod, consider it an investment. Everything these days revolves around the Arca-Swiss tripod clamp. If you later upgrade to a new camera, it can be made compatible with the Arca-Swiss mount as well, preserving your investment in that tripod. It would take me a while to count up the number of tripods I've owned over the years versus the number of cameras, but I'm certain the camera count would be greater. Buy your tripod for the long haul. Get a good one. A cheap tripod won't really save you money anyway if it means you can't get your money's worth out of your camera. A wobbly tripod can easily be the weak link in the chain, inevitably resulting in a wobbly camera. If you try using a cheap tripod until you convince yourself of the merits of getting a good one, you're fooling yourself. All that will do is convince you tripods are overrated. All it actually meant was that cheap, wobbly tripods are overrated.
Look for tripods that have three leg segments rather than four. Tripods with four segments may collapse more, making them easier to carry around, but because each of those segments has to be thinner than those it slides into, the bottom section can be quite skinny. If you try to avoid that by getting one with really fat outer leg segments, the inner ones won't need to be so spindly, but now the whole thing will be heavier. Fatter legs mean heavier legs. Shop around, but check out all the leg sections before falling for the convenience of being more collapsible. For outdoor photography, look for a tripod with long legs too. You want a tripod with legs that extend a few feet more than your eyelevel so you can set it up on a hillside. If the uphill leg positions the tripod head at eye level, the downhill leg will need to be long enough to keep things level. When extending legs, pull out the skinniest leg (the inner one) last. You want the strongest and most stable legs doing the work.
Speaking of level, it isn't always necessary to level your tripod head so long as you level the camera itself. If you expect to pan the camera at all, level the base too to avoid frustration. When in doubt, level it.
When shooting with any form of multi-shot technique, you need a tripod. Multi-shot panoramas are much easier to merge when images line up properly. Focus stacking and HDR can be nearly impossible unless you lock things down to ensure the exact same shooting position for each frame. Folks who shoot video have their own special reasons to prefer tripods.
In most cases, switch off camera and lens stabilization (vibration reduction) when using a tripod. Some newer models do support VR use on a tripod, so check your documentation to find our how it works.
And use a cable release or remote control to fire the shutter. No matter how solidly your camera may be locked down, you can add blur if you nudge things when pressing a button atop the whole thing. In a pinch, use the timer release to delay opening the shutter for a couple seconds. Doing so saved me once when the battery in my remote died in the field. I lost a few shots due to a gust of wind or other unpredictable event popping up after I started the timer, but the rest came out great. Look ma, no blur.
So, as someone once said, "use your tripod!"