Although you can get by without one for a quick snapshot, using a tripod will ensure professional quality photos. You'll eliminate the issue of shake in low light situations and gain the ability to do things like set a timer and insert yourself into a family portrait. However, using a tripod correctly and effectively will take some practice.
General Tripod Setup
No matter what type of photo you are taking, there are some general tips to using a camera tripod that you'll need to learn. After all, there will be situations when you won't have much time to think through all the nuances of the specific shot, and will just need a steady surface on which to set your camera and take the photo.
A tripod is a fairly easy piece of camera equipment to use. The first thing to do is to read your instruction manual thoroughly. Then, start experimenting with different photos at varying heights and angles. Try these tricks when using your tripod:
- Before spreading the tripod's legs, adjust each leg's length. This ensures that the legs are the same length and your tripod will be level. However, if you are shooting on uneven ground, you will need to adjust each leg once the tripod is in the correct spot.
- Extend the thickest part of the tripod legs first, then the thinnest, for the most stability.
- Use the center post to ensure that the tripod is level. You can hang an inexpensive level from the center post and check to see if the bubble shows the tripod is level or not. The center post should be perpendicular with the ground. Once you are sure the three legs are level, it is better to not use the center post in most situations as it can add vibration.
- Make sure the locking tab is pushed into position for all three legs of the tripod so they do not slip.
- No matter which type of camera plate you use, the process to attach your camera is fairly simple. Remove the cover from the plate and then screw the camera onto the plate. If you move the tripod's location, it is best to detach the camera to avoid a mishap that risks your expensive equipment.
Tips and Tricks for Using a Tripod
Using a tripod might sound simple: extend the legs, attach your camera, and point in the right direction. There's a little bit more to it than that. To get the most out of your tripod, there are some tips and tricks you can use in general, as well as in specific situations that, when combined with the right SLR camera, will help you take professional quality snapshots.
Half the battle with a group portrait is figuring out where everyone will stand so you can capture all figures without anyone being hidden. You may be in the portrait or not, but the steps to setting up your tripod for this shot include:
- Frame your photograph. Set everyone in the position you would like them to stand in before you adjust the tripod. This will save you time as you won't have to continually adjust your tripod as you move people around.
- Face a single tripod leg toward the focal point of the composition. Since you'll be working from the back of the camera to adjust settings or release the shutter, having two legs on the back side will create more stability.
- Use a standard plate for landscape orientation. If the group is small enough for you to use portrait orientation, then place it on an L bracket for stability and to keep the camera centered on the tripod.
If you plan to capture wild animals, you'll need to do so from a distance with a telephoto lens. These are difficult to keep steady because of their length, so a tripod is vital.
- Choose a carbon fiber tripod for stability and also for its lightness, because it will be easier to transport to remote locations.
- For low-to-the-ground creatures or plants, use a tripod with a short center post and adjust the legs, pushing them out until they are almost flat to the ground.
- Set up the tripod in an inconspicuous location that is downwind of the animal you plan to photograph. You don't want to startle your photo subject and have it run away.
- Set the camera on a three-way ball head. This will provide some additional counterbalance and friction controls that you can adjust according to the angle of the lens. Since a telescopic lens is front-heavy, this added balance will be essential to keep the tripod from wobbling over.
If you are taking a close-up portrait of one or two subjects and using portrait orientation, you will want to set the tripod up in this way:
- Point the front leg toward the subject.
- Use an L bracket to keep the camera centered.
- Adjust the height of the tripod legs so the camera is slightly above the subject's face and not under her face. Shooting from under the subject can create unflattering extra chins and nostril shots.
Taking a photo of an inanimate object is likely one of the easiest types of photography for beginners. You don't have to worry about motion blur or a subject dropping the pose. There are still some tips to using a tripod for this type of shot to get the best photo possible.
- Choose your focal point. For example, if you are taking a photo of a bowl of apples on a table, the apples would be your focal point.
- Angle the tripod with one leg pointing toward the focal point.
- Adjust the legs so that the camera is even with the item of interest.
- Once you've created the settings (blurred background, etc.), auto focus your camera on the apples, but do not completely engage the shutter (the button will be pushed halfway). Now, move the tripod slightly off center, pause, and then push the shutter the rest of the way down. The result should be a photo with good composition as you don't want your focal point smack in the middle of the photograph.
There are some conditions that require special adjustments to the tripod. Fortunately, these are easy to implement and can make the difference between a mediocre photo and an award-worthy one.
- Windy Conditions: Hang a small bag with rocks or even a small camera bag with rocks from the center post to add weight in windy conditions. This will give you more stability and allow you to capture the moment with less disturbance from your surroundings.
- Slippery When Wet: Although it is rare, if you are taking photographs in rainy weather (with a water resistant camera), you may have to deal with slippery conditions. Adding rubber grips to the legs of the tripod can help prevent a mishap and allow you to capture the moment before everyone gets soaked through.
- Long Heavy Lenses: If you are taking a photograph that requires a long, heavy lens, then add a tripod collar. The length and weight of the lens can really throw off the center of gravity and cause your tripod to topple over, camera, lens and all. Even if it doesn't topple over, it may shift downward and cause you to lose your focal point. A tripod collar is a strap that helps distribute the weight evenly between the lens and the camera.
The Added Stability Is Worth the Prep Time
By learning some tips and tricks for using a camera tripod, your skills will move beyond those used by beginners. Try taking some photos with and without the tripod to see the difference. Setting up the tripod may take some extra prep time, but the results are worth the effort. You'll also have to slow down and really think through how you want to set up a photograph or what angle would work best with your subjects. With just a little practice, you may find that using a tripod is easier than you think.