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How to Use and Choose a Tripod
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How to Use and Choose a Tripod

Solid advice for supporting your still and video cameras

Whether you're a pro who needs a rock-solid support to eliminate shake, or a family memory-keeper looking to get better results in low light and more consistent framing, choosing the right tripod for your needs is key. Here are some tips.


 

Wanna take a picture like this? You'll need a tripod to get it to be this sharp! Read on to learn what kind of tripod is best for you!


A few weeks ago, I ran into a group of photographers who were taking a class in wildlife photography. The person teaching the class is one of the “big time” professionals in my area, and greeted me with a grin and asked if I was too old now to hold my camera up, pointing to the rather large Bogen tripod that I was lugging around with the considerable amount of photo gear that I was using that day.  I simply smiled back and joked that I liked making good photos.

A typical tripod has three legs and can support several pounds of equipment. Shooting with a tripod will yield much higher quality in the images you make.

 


Also see: Tripod Specifications Reference Chart


In thinking back on this encounter, I realized that there’s more truth in that reply than might meet the (photographer’s) eye. Excluding a good camera and lens combination, a tripod can be the single best investment for a photographer, and using one forces you to see more deliberately because of the adjustments you must make in composing the final image. The result, particularly for young and inexperienced photographers, is that your “good” shot count will go up considerably over hand-held images because the process of making that image becomes far more thoughtful. Technically, the focus is more exact, overall image sharpness will improve greatly and there tends to be fewer “ooops’s” in the composition.

 

Also see: Tripods for Photographers

 

A good tripod is also excellent for shooting images that have longer exposures, such as lightening shots, where the shutter may be open for 30 seconds or more.  High magnification levels that are typical with telephoto and macro/flower photography will also benefit greatly from using a tripod. The general guideline is that you shouldn’t hand-hold a camera for a shutter speed that is longer than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens you’re using. This simply means that if you’re using a 50mm lens, you shouldn’t hand-hold the camera for any exposure longer than 1/50th of a second. Remember, longer exposures mean lower numbers, so shooting at 1/30th or 1/15th of a second in this situation would be considered a “no-no” using this “rule”.

The head assembly of a tripod has many controls and allows you to level both the head and the tripod itself.



Much of this, though, depends on the skill of the photographer. Generally, if you have the option of using a tripod, it’s a good idea. Telephoto lenses magnify the objects within the image, and the shake produced by your breathing, muscle quiver, and even heartbeat is also amplified.

Another excellent reason to use a tripod in your shooting is for consistent image framing. Many photographers have discovered that shooting star trails and high dynamic range (HDR) images requires a highly consistent framing from image to image if the process is going to work correctly and a tripod is once again the optimal answer to this issue. Additionally, it allows you to be included in family photos with predictable results.


A typical camera and tripod head configuration. Although this tripod has only one control arm, having the appearance of a video tripod, it has controls for still cameras as well.


Now that you’ve decided you need a tripod, what should you look for in your purchase? Adorama has a plethora of tripods ranging from table-top mini-pods to full-blown professional-level tripods that are capable of holding over one hundred pounds firmly. The Flashpoint tripod, Adorama’s in-house brand, offers high-quality features while keeping the price-point economically friendly, with tripods starting as low as $8.99 and topping-out at around $400, the Flashpoint tripod can be as little as one-quarter the price of some comparably-featured tripods.

The attachment plate for a consumer-grade tripod. This screws into the bottom of the camera or lens and locks into the tripod head to hold the equipment securely.

 

A typical locking plate attached to a consumer camera. These plates screw into the bottom of the camera and lock into the head of the tripod.



The most important fact in choosing a tripod is knowing the limits of the model you want, and what you camera you'll be using with it. My rule of thumb: For each ounce of camera, you should have a full pound of supportable weight on the tripod. So, if you have a 5-ounce pocket video camera, purchase a tripod that will support at least five pounds. If you use a DSLR camera, you’ll more than likely want to spend some additional money to ensure that your investment is properly supported by the tripod. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to place an $1,800 lens/camera combination on a tripod that isn’t meant to support it.

 

Also read: Five Tripods for Travelers.

 

Fortunately, most manufacturers place the load information on the outside box of the tripod to assist you in making purchase decisions. If you're ordering online, check the posted specs.
Most Tripods are designed with three expandable sections and for a “full size” tripod, should reach a minimum height of at least 4.5 feet. A taller tripod will require more bulk/weight to keep the camera properly supported, so again, check the specifications of the tripod you’re interested in to ensure that it will supply adequate support for the equipment you intend to use with it.

 

TIP: Because of the telescoping of the legs, the upper legs are designed larger and therefore have more strength and support, so if you don’t need to expand the legs fully, expand the upper legs first to give your equipment the maximum amount of support.


Many tripods have a gear-driven crank that allows you to elevate the camera above level that the telescoping legs allow.

Tripods for still photography allow the orientation of the camera to be changed from landscape to portrait.


Another important consideration when purchasing and using your tripod is how the camera mounts to the tripod itself. Many tripods now use a quick release design, where a metal or plastic plate attaches to the bottom of the camera and then clips to the tripod itself. When making your purchase, ensure that the tripod you’re considering will hold the camera securely and without any play. Many lower-end tripods use plastic mounting plates that have a spring-loaded release that don’t lock. If the spring is loose or not strong enough to hold the camera, your precious gear could fall off the tripod. Locking heads on tripods will cost you a little more money, but ultimately they are cheaper than either repairing or replacing camera, lens or both.

The controls on a tripod are designed to allow quick adjustments that will allow the camera to remain steady, regardless of the angle or orientation.


Since the legs of a tripod telescope outward, another very important consideration in your purchase is the mechanisms that lock the legs at the height you’ve set it to. Again, lower-end tripods tend to have less robust locking mechanisms and will require close inspection to ensure they are working correctly and will hold the weight of your equipment. A well-designed tripod will allow adjusting the tension of the leg locks, or use a rotating collar that locks the legs in place.

 

The locking mechanism for a telescoping leg in the locked position. Ensuring the lock works correctly and consistently is vital to keeping your equipment safe while mounted on the tripod.


The same mechanism in the unlocked position.

The feet of a tripod should be adjustable as well, allowing it to settle onto a surface, regardless of the angle that the ground is at.


Better tripods will also allow you to change the head. The head is the section of the tripod that holds the camera and allows you to pan left/right (a full 360 degrees) and up/down and change the orientation of the camera from landscape to portrait. Within each of these controls is a locking mechanism as well, allowing you to keep the camera positioned exactly, regardless of angle.

Above and below: Many manufacturer’s boxes have labels that give the consumer needed information about the abilities of that tripod model.

 

Heads generally come in three different configurations:

  • a ball head, which allows smooth movement at any angle with one adjustment
  • a still camera head, which has three distinct controls for panning the camera left/right, up/down and orienting the camera in portrait or landscape configurations.
  • If your tripod head has only one arm that allows the camera to be panned up and down, you have a video tripod head.


More expensive heads, particularly video tripod heads, are fluid-filled and have a silky-smooth movement.

Keeping these points in mind, choose your tripod carefully. A well-constructed tripod that’s taken care of will last 20 years and more.  Shooting consistently and thoughtfully with your tripod will yield results that you won’t be able to achieve by hand-holding your camera. The end results will speak for themselves and will give you a lot of pride when you show your work to family and friends.

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