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Using a Tripod

No doubt you've heard that using a tripod can help improve your photography. But actually doing so isn't always easy.

My first tripod, many years ago now, was terrible. Even then, I knew I should buy a better one, but after spending all I could afford on a new camera and a couple of lenses to go with it, money was a bit tight. I justified buying a cheap one though by saying that I hadn't had the time yet to study tripods enough to buy one just yet. As soon as I tried using my cheap excuse for a tripod, I knew I had to bite the bullet and buy a real tripod sooner rather than later. A bad tripod serves no other purpose than to fool people into believing that tripods are a waste of time. Bad tripods are a waste of time. But I would consider a good one to be the single most important investment you can make to improve your photography.

Tripods come in all sizes, but only one shape. To qualify as a tripod, a camera support needs to have three legs. Any fewer and no matter how solidly a camera may be mounted on top, the entire support system will have room to move, and thus the camera could also. Monopods may seem similar to tripods, but having only one leg, they just aren't in the same league. To truly benefit from the added support, you need something that will hold your camera rock solid, not just for the duration of the exposure, but for as long as it may take you to compose that image. And not just a single image either. Assuming your subject is kind enough to oblige, keeping your camera in exactly in the same place even after the shutter release has fired can help you with your next shot. And the one after that. In my experience, it's not at all uncommon to realize a good shot can be made even better after seeing the results on the camera LCD back. This sort of "iterative composition" is simply not possible without a good, solid tripod.

Make sure your tripod is tall enough not to need a center column. If you extend the center column, you effectively create monopod atop your tripod. And even if you never extend it, a center column can still be problematic since it limits how low to the ground you can go. You're better off without one. Ideally, the legs should be long enough to go above eye level so that when you set up for a shot on a hillside you have sufficient length for one or two legs to land below where you are standing.

In order to use a tripod, you have to want to use one. You need to come to terms with the fact that carrying one around can be a pain in the neck. Literally, on some hikes. Carrying a tripod can require a commitment to deal with the inconvenience in order to benefit from the advantages.
I have a tendency to carry to much camera gear when I go somewhere so I won't risk not having what I need in case I encounter the unexpected. Regardless of how much you carry, the decision to add a tripod is not one to be taken lightly. And yes, the weighty pun here was intentional. Tripods tend not only to be inconveniently heavy, they are also generally rather bulky. The only reason I carry one is because I've seen the results in my own work and that of others. And I like it.

Using one effectively though can take some practice. Just when you'd rather focus on your subject-to-be, you are forced to contend with setting up your tripod. Most new tripod users tend to extend all three legs to their full height before even considering what they are going to be shooting. But that's exactly the wrong way to go about things. Not all good images can be shot from eye level. As such, you can only raise your tripod to the correct height and set it in the right place after you've found your subject and considered how best to shoot it. Set your tripod aside for a bit and explore your subject from all sides and from all angles. Look at it through your camera's viewfinder. Once you are pretty sure where you need to be, grab your tripod and make it happen.

It can be a good idea to practice with your tripod at home before you go on a trip. You should be comfortable adjusting the leg locks by feel. What direction do they turn to tighten versus loosen? There's no more awkward feeling than realizing you've been turning one the wrong way when the light is changing, and every moment counts. My standard approach is to flip the tripod upside down with the legs collapsed. This places the leg locks at chest level, while the tripod head hangs near my ankles. I often do this even with a camera attached, so long as I'm careful not to let it hang too low. All the more reason to practice at home first. Extend the inside (skinnier) leg segments last. You want to use the thicker leg segments to create a more stable platform.

If you are shooting with a longer telephoto lens, placing one of the tripod legs directly below the center of mass can help stabilize it. If shooting with a sufficiently wide angle lens though, reverse things such that the lens points halfway between two legs to lessen the chance of a leg protruding into the frame.

Make sure your support is placed on solid ground. You don't want a leg placed in loose soil to slip at an inopportune time. You also don't want a leg joint to slip, so make sure you've tightened everything down properly. For obvious reasons, make sure the clamp on top of the head is well secured too. Be sure your tripod legs are splayed out sufficiently to support the weight of your rig too. In awkward situations it can be tempting to squeeze into tight places, but be careful. A tipsy tripod is an accident waiting to happen.

If your lens has a tripod collar, use it to fasten it to your tripod. This will keep the weight of the camera and lens more centered atop the legs. Tripod collars also have the clear benefit of allowing you to rotate from landscape to portrait mode without significantly altering your composition. An L-bracket provides a similar benefit when using shorter lenses without a collar. These wonderful inventions allow you to remount your camera on the bottom and along the side so you can switch orientation without flopping the head itself to horizontal.

You should use a cable release of infrared remote to fire the shutter release. You don't want to touch the camera and risk jostling things at just the wrong moment.

With newer cameras featuring good high-ISO performance, it can be tempting to rely on hand holding and not even mess with a tripod. Don't fall into this trap. A good tripod is amazingly useful to improve composition. With everything locked down, you can study your composition through the viewfinder as long as time permits, tweaking things as needed to make everything as good as possible. As mentioned earlier, this benefit can extend to an entire series of shots as you work the subject, making only the adjustments you want without having to start over for each shot.

Once you get into rhythm of using a tripod, it can help focus your thoughts on the task at hand. And once you see the benefits first hand, you'll be hooked.

Date posted: November 12, 2017


Copyright © 2017 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Tripod Leg Wraps and Padding Solutions
Three Leg Sections or Four: Choosing a Tripod
The Fine Art of Carrying a Tripod
More on Using a Tripod to Help With Composition
How Not to Use a Tripod
The Worst Tripod You Can Buy

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