The Tripod

Using a tripod is a discipline often shunned even by very experienced photographers.  "It slows me down, I have to lug it with me, and I have an image stabilized lens, so why do I even need it?"

Okay, I'm going to admit it.  For some types of photography, I've said the same thing.  My recent passion is bird photography, and I'm hand holding a 400mm lens most of the time, especially after the sun is up.  Using a tripod is a great way to miss photographs of birds.  They just don't stick around long enough for me to get my tripod set. And for birds in flight, a tripod is often useless unless I already have it set when I see the bird flying.  So there are legitimate reasons not to use a tripod.  There, I said it.

But for much of outdoor photography, it's better to use a tripod, even if you're using great, image stabilized (IS) lenses.  There are a number of very important advantages:

  1. It slows you down.  Yes, that's an advantage.  By slowing down, you are forced to take more time to think about your composition.  Before you move your tripod, you're going to think to yourself, "Did I miss something here?  Should I try something else before I move?"  If you answer yes to either of these questions, you just made the tripod worth it.  It's very common, especially for beginning photographers, to take one photograph of a subject and move on. A tripod will help you learn the discipline of taking lots of photographs in lots of different ways of the same subject.
  2. It frees your hands.  With a tripod, both hands will be free to change settings on  your camera, get that filter out of your camera bag, and set your composition just the way you want it.
  3. Your pictures will be sharper.  There's two reasons for this.  Since your camera is completely immobile, you can shoot with a 30 sec shutter speed and be fine.  But many pictures are blurry because the photographer accidentally focused on the background when taking the picture.  A tripod will slow you down enough to check which focus points are being used--are they on the subject or background?  Then you can fix problems before you take your picture.
  4. You can get different compositions.  With a good tripod, you can set your tripod very low to the ground to give you an angle of view on your subject not commonly used.  Most every photograph you see is taken from 5-6 ft off the ground.  A tripod lets you mix it up a bit.
The above image was taken at Swallow Falls State Park in Western MD.  It's one of my favorite places to visit.  I saw these two fallen trees "pointing" to the standing ones, and I thought there ought to be a composition here.  This image was probably the 8th composition I tried.  By using a tripod, I could change settings without changing my composition, and it slowed me down enough to consider other places to put my camera.  I would walk around the scene and look for places to shoot from until this composition presented itself.

Now there are three things you should watch out for when using a tripod.  First, especially on sunny days, if you are not looking through the viewfinder when you take the picture, cover the viewfinder.  Sunlight can actually enter the viewfinder and mess up your exposure.  Second, you should turn IS off on your lens when using a tripod.  On many lenses, if IS is on, it will cause your pictures to to be blurry.  For some reason, stabilizing an already immobile lens will confuse it and cause movement in the lens.  Third, make sure you have your tripod legs firmly placed before walking away from your camera.  Grown men cry when tripods fall over on to hard rock while holding $2500 of camera equipment.

And one other bit of advice.  You spent good money on your camera.  Don't go cheap on your tripod.  The plastic tripods you get at Wal-Mart are really bad.  A good tripod is light but sturdy and has no braces going from the legs to the center column.  You want to be able to set your tripod low to the ground.  I use a Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod ($150)  with a 488RC2 ball head ($110).  There are smaller tripods that are cheaper (I'm relatively tall) and smaller ball heads that are cheaper too.  So you don't need to spend $250 on your tripod gear, but unless you're using very large lenses, you probably do not need to spend more.  So if you go to a camera store and ask their advice, don't let him talk you into a $500 tripod unless you just have to have the latest and greatest of everything.