All a tripod actually does is to provide a stable platform for your camera allowing you to make long exposures without the risk of camera shake spoiling your picture. You could of course, just rest it somewhere but the tripod will allow you to lock your camera in virtually any position without the danger of it falling over.
So, how long is a long exposure? The governing factor here is camera shake. A long exposure is simply one that you can’t hand-hold steadily enough. If you are zoomed out to a wide angle, this can be around 1/30 – 1/60th of a second but, if you are zoomed right in on a long lens, this can be as short as 1/500th or even 1/1000th of a second. Not much of a long exposure you might think.
Perhaps a word for the tripod’s smaller cousin is required here. You have probably noticed that sports photographers doing long lens work usually have a monopod, rather than a tripod, attached to their cameras. This is not because a monopod is better (I’m sure they’d all rather be using a tripod), but because it’s convenience when changing locations quickly outweighs the advantages of a tripod. So, a monopod is only really useful if you need shots on a long lens quickly from different positions.
It’s using a long lens that requires the fastest shutter speed more than freezing any action. This is because the lens not only magnifies the image but equally, any camera movement. Even when using a tripod, it’s possible that the camera will move during the shot. This is because the very act of pressing the shutter may induce movement. Although this will be very slight, the magnifying effect of the lens will turn it into camera shake blur.
The best way to avoid this is to use a cable release or remote control when using a tripod. If you don’t have either of these, then you can use your camera’s self timer. Even if your camera moves when the shutter is pressed, it will have settled down long before the photograph is taken. Some cameras have a short self timer option for precisely this purpose.
The benefit of being able to use a longer shutter speed is that you can use a smaller aperture for greater depth of field or a lower ISO number for better image quality. However, this is minor in comparison to the psychological benefit that the tripod brings to the act of taking a photograph. Quite simply, using a tripod slows you down, and that’s a good thing.
How many times have you looked at one of your photos and thought: “that looks great, except for this one little mistake, I wish I’d noticed it at the time.” Well, that’s one thing that using a tripod can help with. The reason you notice the problem in the final result is that you spend more time carefully looking at it. If you do that with the image in your viewfinder you are much more likely to spot any problems.
I’m not suggesting that if you see something interesting, you shouldn’t take a quick snap of it. far from it. But, having done that, you might consider other ways of looking at your subject or specific photographic techniques that might better suit it. This is where a tripod really helps because it gives you much more flexibility as to the camera settings you can use.
Not only that, but it separates the two different things you have to do when taking a photograph, namely camera settings and composition. Using a camera hand held means you always have to think about both of these things at the same time, making it all to easy to get a great shot spoiled by being on the wrong setting. With a tripod, you can decide on the setting depending on the type of shot you want, then fully concentrate on the framing and composition.
The opposite is also true. If you want to try different photographic techniques, you frame up the shot first, then start to work out the different settings you need. This way, you guarantee never getting the best setting when the framing is not quite right. Also, if you have taken one shot and decided that it could do with a bit of say, exposure or colour compensation, you can do this in the sure and certain knowledge that the framing won’t have changed.
Some techniques can only be done using a tripod, for instance 360 degree panoramas. Another is when dealing with very high contrast situations. Sunsets are a good example. You usually have a choice of either a good sky and black ground or properly exposed foreground and a bleached out sky. The only cure is to take both these shots and blend them together in a photo editing program. This will only work properly if both shots are identical in every respect except exposure, hence the need for a tripod.
There is a wide range of tripods available and what you tend to get more of the more you pay is a greater maximum height and more weight and solidity. From experience, I would say that height is probably more important than weight. A lightweight model is not any more likely to move than a heavy one, except in a high wind. For your own comfort, you should choose one that allows the camera to at least reach your eye level when standing normally.
The weight of tripod you need is largely determined by the weight of your camera. If you use a Dslr and big lenses, you need a fairly sturdy one. Under normal circumstances, you won’t need a top of the range professional model because most of their strength is to protect them from harsh treatment. They are much more sturdy than need to be just to hold the camera steady.
If you do use a heavy camera then even more important than the weight of the tripod is the strength of the pan and tilt head locks. With a long heavy lens fitted, they can be put under quite a strain. The strength of these locks is always the first thing you should check when getting a new tripod. Fit the camera and tighten all the locks. Gently try to move the camera to check for any play (like you would with a steering wheel). If there is any, check all the locks on the head, legs and column. It’s easy to forget the lock that fixes the column in place and the camera will not be secure unless this is done up.
In practice, the only rule you need to follow is never to move your tripod any great distance with a camera attached. The locks are designed for the tripod at rest. When you move it you apply odd forces at weird angles that could easily overcome the locks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The best way to use a tripod is to start by finding the camera position you want, either by eye or with the camera hand held. You then set up the tripod and tighten up all the locks. fit the camera and check the composition. If you have to slightly move the position, it’s OK, as long as you hold on to both the camera and tripod when doing so. You then fine tune the framing by releasing and tightening only one lock at a time.
With cheaper tripods you sometimes find that tightening the lock actually moves the camera. This is something to watch out for. Once you are happy with the composition and framing, take a step back and think about your camera settings and how they will affect the shot. If you are not sure then try lots of different settings and find out later. It will be a very good learning experience.
I hope that, after having read the above, you will understand why I would say that a tripod is probably the most useful photographic accessory of all. The best piece of advice I could give anybody looking to improve their photographic skills would be to get a tripod and use it.
Colin Aiken is a professional photographer based in the United Kingdom. You can view his photographs and get more tips at: http://www.lovethepictures.co.uk